Infrastructure Bill’s Broadband Piece Will Help ‘Hasten’ Move to Symmetrical Networks

This piece was authored by Ahmad Hathout, Assistant Editor for Broadband Breakfast. Originally appearing at broadbandbreakfast.com on August 25, 2021, the piece is republished with permission.

The House’s decision to delay passage of the $65 billion spending on broadband included in the infrastructure bill means that final action will wait until Congress returns from its summer break and comes back again for scheduled votes beginning September 20.

Fiber and wireless providers remain optimistic about infrastructure investments in future networks, even as a top lawmaker on Wednesday voiced lingering concerns about spectrum-related provisions in the Senate-passed bill.

On Tuesday, the House passed a budget resolution on a separate $3.5 trillion spending package that is only supported by Democrats. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put on hold – until September 27 – a commitment to vote on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, which enjoys bipartisan support.

The particulars of the broadband segment of the infrastructure measure that passed the Senate on August 10 have been reported, but not yet fully digested. The bill include grants for service providers that provide broadband at 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 20 Mbps upload.

Upload Speeds a Center of Discussion

That in itself would be a significant bump up from the current federal definition of “broadband” as being 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up.

But some broadband enthusiasts wanted Congress to push for the symmetrical speeds that some Democratic lawmakers have asked for. Symmetrical speeds, in which the up speed is equal to the down speed, are generally seen to favor fiber deployment.

Still, the final measure that passed the Senate decreed that anything under 100 Mbps down would be categorized as “underserved.”

Fiber Broadband Association CEO Gary Bolton put a positive spin on the 100 Mbps x 20 Mbps standard in the Senate-passed infrastructure measure – even as he had originally argued for 100 Mbps x 100 Mbps.

“The bill acknowledges today’s definition of broadband is outdated,” Bolton told Broadband Breakfast. “This bill plus what is happening in the market will hasten the move to symmetrical networks at 100 Mbps and higher.”

Bolton made similar comments more than a year ago in an Expert Opinion piece in Broadband Breakfast in which he stressed the importance of fiber for resilient symmetrical networks.

Symmetrical speeds have become au curant in recent Washington committee hearings. Officials with the Rural Broadband Association NTCA said at a May Senate hearing that higher speeds, and symmetrical speeds, are synonymous with networks built to last.

Others have said that symmetrical service has been attracting businesses to some municipalities.

Previously overlooked upload speeds have now taken center stage during the pandemic. That’s because significantly higher upload speeds are required for users to display themselves for remote work, school and health care.

And that’s not even including the spur in demand for additional web sites and services that require high-speed video uploads.

The 100 Mbps Speed Threshold Isn’t Without Controversy

Former Federal Communications Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said in March that setting an upload speed of 100 Mbps, “does not reflect reality,” and would lead to more companies building higher-capacity networks in places where there were already lower-capacity networks.

He called that kind of broadband construction wasteful.

Some who represent different segments of the broadband industry also support a more gradual approach to building out broadband in rural areas. These industry players take the attitude that connectivity now at a lower speed is better than no connectivity at all.

Jonathan Adelstein, CEO of the Wireless Infrastructure Association and the former administrator of the Rural Utilities Service, told Broadband Breakfast that his organization worked closely with “key members of Congress to ensure that wireless was included.

“Initial proposals for 100 x 100 symmetrical speeds were actually intended to cut out wireless,” Adelstein wrote. “So we were pleased that Congress ultimately agreed to speeds that wireless can meet.”

Adelstein, who headed the Agriculture Department’s RUS under the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in the Obama administration, previously said that “all broadband technologies are needed.”

“We will work with Congress, the Administration, and the states on successfully implementing this program to make sure wireless plays a key role,” he said.

Fiber Industry Officials Also Touting Lower Latency

The $1.2-trillion infrastructure bill, H.R.3684, also includes a requirement to lower latency – the time for a device to communicate with the network – to “allow reasonably foreseeable, real-time, interactive applications,” the text says.

Those applications can include remote conferencing and surveillance, in the case of critical infrastructure.

“We believe that the bill includes the right incentives to build out future proof networks that are scalable, reliable, and with sufficient capacity to last a generation,” said Bolton of the Fiber Broadband Association.

There are “good arguments to take the bipartisan Senate bill and also arguments for strengthening the bill with improved build out requirements” when the House reviews it in September.

“What is most important is to get this bill across the goal line as advancing broadband is a national imperative for jobs, remote healthcare, online education and digital equity,” Bolton said.

Sticking Points for House Lawmakers on Spectrum and Other Topics

Putting aside the debates over fiber and wireless and broadband speeds, some members of Congress this week voiced concerns with the decisions made by the other body in the Senate-passed infrastructure measure.

Michael Doyle, D-Pennsylvania, and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, told Broadband Breakfast in an email that, “While bipartisan packages are rarely perfect, this bill prioritizes the build-out of future-proof networks and puts us on the path to connecting all Americans to broadband.”

“I plan on supporting these provisions,” he said. “Of concern, however, are provisions relating to spectrum that depart from the traditional process, and we plan to take a look at that.”

Among the spectrum rules outlined in the bill is a requirement that the Office of Management and Budget transfer $50 million from the Spectrum Relocation Fund to the Defense Department for the “purpose of research and development, engineering studies, economic analysis, activities with respect to systems, or other planning activities.”

The affected spectrum in this case would be the 3.1 to 3.45 GigaHertz (GHz) band, a key mid-band series of radio frequencies that includes some federal users.

The bill includes a stipulation that the Commerce Secretary identify other frequencies for federal use.

At a House Rules Committee meeting this week, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington, who serves as the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce committee and who previously said the committee is among the most bipartisan on issues including telecom, said: “Regarding the bill before us today, while there are some aspects I can agree with, it unfortunately falls woefully short in lifting the major barriers that have made major infrastructure projects expensive and, in many cases, impossible.”

She noted that the bill generally does not provision investments in a “more targeted way,” which she said could see “much of the funds authorized and appropriated by this bill…go to waste.”

She specified that “burdensome federal regulations and unnecessary permitting requirements” for closing the digital divide, for example, make it “expensive, slow, and difficult to deploy and upgrade broadband.”

Rodgers also said the bill “does not target funds for deployment to fully unserved parts of America based off the Congressionally-mandated FCC broadband maps. This bill risks wasting billions of dollars in taxpayer money without truly closing the digital divide, leaving rural Americans further behind in the digital economy.”

General Support From Most in Industry and Government

When the bill passed the Senate earlier this month, it drew supporters who said it moved the ball forward for much-needed funding to close the digital divide and represented a breakthrough in a divided environment.

“The bipartisan infrastructure legislation demonstrates that policymakers can find common ground on issues that are important for America’s future, including the need to get all Americans connected to robust and reliable broadband service, said Michael Powell, president of the cable industry group NCTA, the Internet and Television Association.

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said, after the Senate’s passing of the bill, that “[a]mong the historic investments included in the bill is more than $48 billion in funding for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to fund state and local investments to help reach 100% access to affordable, high-speed broadband service.”

The Commerce Department will have a significant purse for a grant program that will provide funding to states to expand broadband in unserved and underserved areas.

Additional Broadband Components

The bill also requires fund recipients to provide no less than one low-cost broadband service option, a proposal which would be submitted for approval.

The grants must also be used to build out the networks no later than four years after the entity is given the grant, with some exceptions, and the recipient must submit a final report about the funds’ use after it’s been expended.

The bill includes other provisions that focus on access to information for consumers so they can see eligibility for federal and state broadband subsidies and low-income plans, including the creation of a federal website for that purpose.

The FCC will also be required to submit a report on the future of the Universal Service Fund, the program that supports broadband buildouts using telecoms’ voice revenues. The program has been called unsustainable because voice revenues have been declining over time and critics have proposed different funding avenues, including general broadband revenues.

In a May op-ed published in Newsweek, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr proposed big technology companies contribute to the fund because they benefit from the ecosystem.

Workforce Needed for Implementation

Among other minor provisions, Adelstein referenced something that Congress should look into regarding future 5G networks: The need for a trained workforce for broadband and wireless buildouts.

“Congress should look to invest in workforce training and apprenticeship in the next reconciliation bill,” said Adelstein.

The $3.5-tillion budget that the House passed Tuesday will initiate a reconciliation plan that might address some of these issues.

“With a historic amount of money to be distributed soon for broadband deployment, we need to make sure we have a large enough and properly trained workforce to build out broadband networks and 5G networks,” Adelstein said. “Building a 5G ready workforce is crucial to efficiently spending taxpayer money and to winning the race to 5G.”