The digital revolution is not just about inventing new-age technologies; it is as much about the work crews who do the hard work of climbing towers, installing antennas and building the networks of tomorrow. To this end, policymakers, in both India and the US, are attempting to develop a robust technology ecosystem while protecting the security and integrity of participants in the communications supply chain. The governments of both countries are taking steps to connect the millions of unconnected people who live in rural areas where there is currently no business case for private players to build broadband networks on their own. Since his visit to India as part of a US delegation in February 2020, Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has addressed various industry events in India, the most recent one being the annual general meeting of the Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association (TAIPA). Pai spoke on a range of industry subjects, including the evolving global technology landscape, the network requirements for 5G, the role of Wi-Fi in broadband proliferation, and FCC’s commitment to ensure that technology benefits one and all. Edited excerpts from his speeches…
Building 5G networks
When it comes to 5G, we all understand that spectrum is very critical. But infrastructure is equally important, as 5G requires more densified networks. For instance, in the US alone we would need to install hundreds of thousands of small cells. The FCC has taken a number of actions to streamline our goals and make it easier for the infrastructure industry to build, maintain and expand America’s wireless networks. For example, to make it easier to install wireless infrastructure such as small cells, we have set a reasonable deadline for cities to decide on applications. We have set reasonable limits on fees to allow cities to recover their costs. We have also issued clarifications for wireless companies that want to upgrade the equipment on existing structures, such as replacing antennas on macro towers or adding antennas to a building. These clarifications will accelerate the build-out of 5G infrastructure by avoiding misunderstandings and reducing the number of disputes between the local governments and wireless infrastructure builders.
Regulatory support to increase broadband proliferation
We have convened a panel of experts from the industry, local governments and the non-profit community. We call this panel, the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee. A key focus of this committee is to work on easing the access to utility poles for deploying infrastructure. In the US and in many parts of the world, street poles already have electric utility and telephone/cable lines attached to them. Instead of having multiple parties sequentially prepare the poles for new attachments, as was the practice before, the committee proposed a faster process wherein a single construction crew does all the work to make the pole ready for the attachment. We call this the one-touch make-ready policy. It is now significantly cheaper and easier for broadband providers to attach fibre to utility poles. This not only speeds up the network build-out but also opens the doors for new players to participate in the ecosystem.
We have also revised our rules to make it easier for carriers to transition from maintaining the traditional copper networks to building tomorrow’s fibre networks. It is, of course, an economic war since every dollar spent on maintaining the old copper network is, by definition, every dollar that could have been spent on investing in fibre. In a major move, we have scrapped the utility broadband regulation that was inspired by the rules from the 1930s for the old telephone network.
The aforementioned reforms have helped us bring record-breaking capital investment in infrastructure essential for 5G, including fibre objects, cables and small cells. For example, in the four years before I became FCC chairman, the number of cell sites in the US increased by fewer than 7,000, but in my three years in this role, the US has gained 87,000 cell sites with about 46,000 added last year alone. So we are seeing a dramatic uptick in the number of small cells owing to these reforms.
Internet connectivity in the spotlight
Think about the countless ways we rely on high speed broadband connectivity today. Even before the world was struck by Covid-19, Wi-Fi was carrying more than half of internet traffic. Offloading mobile data traffic to Wi-Fi was vital to keep cellular networks from becoming congested. In a very real sense, Wi-Fi is the fabric that binds together all our digital devices. And Wi-Fi will be even more important in the years to come. By one estimate, the economic value created by Wi-Fi in the US is projected to double by 2023, reaching nearly $1 trillion. The FCC is keen to harness the power of Wi-Fi to bridge the digital divide. Looking into the future, the commission is keen to promote the development and deployment of Wi-Fi services in the 6 GHz band.
With our growing reliance on Wi-Fi, we are going to need faster and stronger Wi-Fi networks. The good news is that Wi-Fi 6, the next generation of Wi-Fi, has already started rolling out. Wi-Fi 6 will be over two-and-a-half times faster than the current standard, and it will offer better performance for connected devices. But in order to fully take advantage of the benefits of Wi-Fi 6, we need to make more mid-band spectrum available for unlicensed use. To this end, the commission decided to make the entire 6 GHz band available for unlicensed use. By doing this, we are creating a massive 1,200 MHz testbed for innovators. We are effectively increasing the amount of mid-band spectrum available for Wi-Fi by almost a factor of five. All 1,200 MHz of this spectrum will be available for indoor-only low-power use, without the added complexity of database coordination. We are also making the two largest sub-band segments, totalling 850 MHz, available for use indoors and outdoors at a higher standard power. We will use an automated frequency coordination system to prevent interference with incumbent services.
Ultimately, I expect that 6 GHz unlicensed devices will become a part of consumers’ everyday lives. And I predict the rules we adopted in April 2020 will play a major role in the growth of the internet of things. At the same time, our approach will ensure that incumbents in the 6 GHz band are protected from harmful interference. The point-to-point microwave services that already use this band are critical to the operations of utilities, public safety and wireless backhaul. And we are ensuring that those incumbents are protected through the use of automated frequency coordination systems – which will only allow new standard-power operations in such areas – as well as through placing conservative power limits on low-power indoor operations.
Further, we are exploring the possibilities of very-low-power devices in the 6 GHz band. Very-low-power devices could enable a new and innovative generation of personal area network technologies with low latency, high capacity and all-day battery life. These very-low-power devices could include accessibility technology for Americans with disabilities, virtual reality gaming, augmented reality glasses, in-vehicle systems, and other emerging technologies.
I know that India too is interested in exploring the possibilities of unlicensed use in the 6 GHz band.
Connecting the unconnected
In the US, we not only want to promote the deployment of cutting-edge networks, but also want to ensure that these are available to all. We recognise there will always be sparsely populated, difficult to serve areas where there is no good business case for deployment for private companies. In those areas, the government – the FCC in particular – has a credible role to play. We have started public-private partnerships in which we subsidise broadband providers to connect places where the economics would not otherwise work. Our newest and biggest initiative along these lines – to close the digital divide in our hardest to serve communities – is our $20.4 billion world digital opportunity fund. This fund will connect millions of unserved homes and businesses through a two-phase reverse auction. It encourages the deployment of the best performing networks for the lowest cost possible.
Now, obviously, connecting the unconnected is a huge challenge in the US as it is in India, given the vast population of both the countries. But I actually see this as a tremendous opportunity for TAIPA and for its members. I think all of us agree that everyone should have the opportunity to access the benefits of the digital age, no matter where they live. This is especially relevant in the current pandemic times.
I know that my peers in the Indian government share this commitment, as is apparent from the widespread deployment of next-generation broadband infrastructure.