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The FCC Is About to Raise Billions. Congress Should Invest it in Fiber Infrastructure

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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has announced his plans to begin freeing up valuable airwaves within the C-Band, a part of the spectrum—the radio frequencies that our cell carriers, television stations, and others use to transmit services—historically used for satellite television. Once freed, the spectrum would be auctioned and used for 5G and other advanced wireless services. The FCC is making the right call here. This announcement puts the public interest ahead of the desires of the few private actors currently occupying the spectrum, who sought to leverage the hype around 5G to enrich themselves at the public’s expense.

Their proposal, known as the C-Band Alliance proposal, attempted to argue that the nation’s 5G coverage would benefit if they engaged in a private sale of public property, because it would be faster than the FCC conducting a public auction. But limited spectrum is not the main bottleneck to 5G deployment right now. What national 5G coverage lacks right now is dense fiber networks across the country to support high-speed wireless.

The FCC’s actions are a crucial first step. Congress should now take the potentially $60 billion the government is about to raise and invest it in an infrastructure that will last for generations, and propel millions of American households into the 21st century of broadband access. 

There Is No 5G Everywhere Without Fiber Everywhere

The fundamental challenge facing nationwide coverage of 5G is the lack of ubiquitous dense fiber infrastructure, which 5G relies on. Fiber deployment is why South Korea hit 2 million 5G users in just four months, while U.S. carriers struggle to cover a single football stadium. South Korea already built its national fiber network. We have not. In fact, dense fiber barely exists for anyone in America, according to the government’s own data measuring network access deployment. Meanwhile, countries like China have a clear goal of universal fiber access with 5G riding on top, because the two go hand in hand.

Why hasn’t the U.S. made fiber a priority in the same way? Part of the problem is we’ve allowed the hype around 5G to blind us to the $80+ billion challenge of building out dense fiber networks to support national 5G. There is little doubt that the carriers will first serve wealthy neighborhoods and business sectors, because that kind of cherry-picking already exists with broadband today. Nothing about 5G on its own changes carriers’ economic motivations. That cherry-picking dynamic is likely why Cisco estimates only 10 percent of users will have 5G access by 2022 in the United States.

But that prediction doesn’t have to become reality. If government policy and public investments focused on rapidly expanding fiber networks—particularly with an emphasis on fiber-to-the home—the economics change dramatically for any wireless 5G play. That’s because building out fiber-to-the-home helps with the build out 5G networks. One study estimates that if you have a market where fiber is run to every home and business, it would dramatically reduce the cost to deploy 5G in that same market because it can leverage the existence of currently available fiber.

Universally Deployed Fiber is Essential to Remaining Competitive Internationally

EFF’s own research into the upper potential of different last mile technologies has found that fiber is the undisputed champion for what the future holds. Fiber holds more than 10,000 times the bandwidth of any wireless or cable play—which means once you build it, you won’t have to replace it to keep up with consumption and demand in the coming decades. China, recognizing this, intends to connect nearly 200 million households to gigabit wireline fiber connections in a short number of years. They have recognized the advantages that kind of infrastructure holds for future Internet activity and later generations of wireless technology. This is also why every major economy’s government, expect for the United States, has adopted a universal fiber plan with explicit goals of connectivity over a specific number of years. But these type of plans require public investments at a massive scale, which is why it is so important for Congress to do the right thing with the billions the FCC is poised to raise.

If we don’t invest this money into building fiber, then it will result in more of the same. Broadband access today is concentrated in a minority of communities connected by the large ISPs with isolated progress made by local governments and small private ISPs. Meanwhile, the rest of the country—particularly rural markets and low income communities—are left with a cable monopoly (or nothing at all) for high-speed access that underperforms fiber. Letting this opportunity pass will also mean that the next generation of applications and services that depend on extremely high-speeds and low latency will likely be unavailable to most Americans. In fact, if most of our local markets are not even able to access the future, we should not be surprised when Internet innovations happen overseas rather than in our backyard.

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About The Author

Ernesto Falcon

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is the leading nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world. Founded in 1990, EFF champions user privacy, free expression, and innovation through impact litigation, policy analysis, grassroots activism, and technology development. We work to ensure that rights and freedoms are enhanced and protected as our use of technology grows. Visit https://www.eff.org

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