Preparing for a 5G World
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Regulatory and Policy Goals for 5G
To provide a framework for recommendations for useful steps that government agencies and other key stakeholders could take, the Roundtable took a high-level look at goals for communications regulation that should help to shape regulators’ actions related to development of a 5G standard.
Harold Feld, Senior Vice President of Public Knowledge, identified five sets of policy goals, some of which overlap or are redundant with others: 1) the goals of policy makers generally; 2) the public interest goals spelled out in the Communications Act of 1934 that still provides the basis for current regulation; 3) specific goals for regulation of wireless communications as spelled out in Section 309(j) of the 1934 Act; 4) newer goals that have emerged at the FCC in recent years in response to new challenges and new opportunities; and 5) goals of the National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA) and other federal entities that contribute to determining the role that government should play.
Policy and Regulatory Goals that Could Inform Actions to Promote 5G
Some of these goals may, in fact, be inconsistent if not directly in conflict with others. For example, there is a potential for conflict between the desire to accelerate innovation with technology and efforts to provide for inclusiveness in the use of technology. Nicol Turner Lee, Vice President and Chief Research and Policy Officer of the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC), noted that as technology keeps evolving, members of minority communities often have difficulty keeping up and run the risk of being excluded from full participation in society. She asked whether, as we move toward 5G, there are uses that will be particularly critical economically and socially that may need to be subsidized.
At the same time, other groups maintain that policies should not impose obstacles or burdens on providers that could inhibit investment and slow the process of development and deployment of new technologies. According to Carl Povelites, AVP for Public Policy at AT&T Services, Inc., policymakers should be aware that strategies such as requiring spectrum to be shared could act as a disincentive for investment. It is also important not to create barriers that will discourage new participants from entering the market.
Avoiding playing favorites. Policymakers should avoid the temptation to create a single master plan for development of 5G. Michael Calabrese, Director of the Wireless Future Program at the New America Foundation, warned against trying to envision a “single integrated future” for 5G. Technology has evolved in unexpected ways and will continue to do so: no one foresaw the iPhone and the dominant role it would play in shaping the wireless environment, nor the way that cellular and Wi-Fi networks have played complementary roles for each other. Policy should create an environment that encourages innovation but should not try to anticipate the course that technology will take. Blair Levin, Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, added that spectrum will certainly remain the most valuable asset, and the best way of dealing with it is by encouraging a “diversified portfolio” of uses, including both licensed and unlicensed users. In essence, policymakers need to assure license holders that “they can win,” and assure users of unlicensed spectrum that they can win as well.
The value of incentives. One way for policymakers to encourage “good things” to happen is by providing incentives. Even though nothing in the Communications Act explicitly addresses this topic, incentives are one concrete way to operationalize public policy goals. In terms of 5G, the question is “Incentives for what?” It may make sense to provide incentives to expand access for underserved communities (as the FCC’s E-Rate does in subsidizing Internet access for schools and libraries), but policymakers should be wary of favoring specific technology applications over others. One of the most effective ways of supporting innovation is by supporting “general purpose networks.”
The tricky issue of physical access. There are currently approximately 300,000 cell sites in the U.S. But as 5G networks are deployed, and particularly those that make use of millimeter wave frequencies, sites will shrink in size and will grow exponentially in number of locations, perhaps to several million, with multiple sites within a single building.
A specific challenge to policymakers will be to ensure access for this vastly increased number of sites. Preston Marshall, Principal Wireless Architect at Google, argued for the importance of identifying and addressing existing institutional barriers that could interfere with deployment of the small cells that will be key to 5G’s ability to increase wireless broadband capacity. As 5G cell size shrinks, it may well be necessary to establish access points not just on towers and/or on the tops of buildings, but to provide access on every floor in a building or within a single room. Thus, it may be necessary to ensure access to building interiors, including individual apartments in multi-dwelling units (MDUs). According to Dale Hatfield, getting access to real estate may be “the biggest policy problem in making high frequency spectrum useful.” Michael Calabrese noted that some building owners may wish to maintain control over connectivity in their buildings and may not want to provide unrestricted access to their premises for commercial network providers. From a practical perspective, it may not be feasible to provide multiple access points in a single space. As Preston Marshall noted, “It is hard to imagine accommodating four different [5G] providers in each room.” A more practical solution may be to provide some sort of shared facilities or to have one dominant provider in each space.
Tom Hazlett, Professor of Economics at Clemson University, noted that there is a difference between barriers provided by local governments and by individual property owners. The latter generally want the best technology available to their tenants since having good cell phone service is important to tenants, while local governments generally do not necessarily experience any painful opportunity costs for supporting a monopoly in service provision. With 80,000 local jurisdictions, each of which has the power to complicate 5G access, some sort of pre-emptive policy may be needed to prevent the erection of barriers to timely deployment of 5G networks. One possible precedent for ensuring access is the FCC’s Over-the-Air Reception Devices (OTARD)–Rule, in effect since 1996, that pre-empts restrictions imposed by either landlords or zoning laws on the installation of antennas for satellite, broadband radio or broadcast TV service for personal use.
A related challenge is expanding backhaul capacity to keep pace with the growth of wireless connectivity. Beyond simply establishing 5G points of presence in multiple locations, backhaul requires pathways to link these POPs with the core network, which will require additional investment. (Part of the solution for providing sufficient backhaul capacity may be to use portions of lower frequency bands to provide fixed wireless “infill backhaul.”)
A final bottleneck that will need attention arises from the need to locate data near end users in order to reduce network latency—one of the key benefits of 5G networks. While this potential problem is “non-trivial,” it may not be one that can or should be addressed by policymakers.
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