National Spectrum Strategy Vague About Rural Wireless Coverage

Randy Sukow


The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has released a National Spectrum Strategy, which it describes as “a roadmap of strategic objectives that will set a course for prolonged U.S. leadership in advanced wireless technologies and service.” The 26-page document describes the need for modernized wireless policies to ensure development of technologies for national security, emergency response, economic development and other priorities.

But the strategy only touches parenthetically on a priority of past policy statements: wireless coverage in unserved rural areas to support precision agriculture and broadband connectivity.

“A national spectrum policy that maximizes flexible use of spectrum will foster U.S. technological innovation and global leadership, reduce barriers to expanding spectrum access [especially for historically underrepresented rural communities] … and allow Federal agencies to pivot when new mission requirements are contemplated,” the report says.

NTIA released the report as demand for spectrum increases on crowded bands throughout the nation. The report mentions several bands for possible use commercial use in 5G but plans for further study of them rather than recommending reallocation. “While America is standing still, our global competitors and adversaries are passing us by. They are executing on actual spectrum plans that are putting actual spectrum to use in their countries,” said FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr in a statement criticizing the overall report.

But Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel praised the strategy document. “The next chapter in our wireless leadership is once again going to require us to think anew—and the National Spectrum Strategy is a start. It acknowledges the wide range of wireless technologies that exist today and the even broader array we could see in the future,” she said.

Concurrent with the National Spectrum Strategy, the White House issued a Memorandum on Modernizing United States Spectrum Policy to reinforce many of the report’s main themes. President Biden said his goal is “to accelerate United States leadership in wireless communications and other spectrum-based technologies and to unlock innovations that benefit the American people, while ensuring necessary access to spectrum for agencies and private-sector users.”

The FCC assisted NTIA in putting the strategy together. While the FCC regulates commercial airwaves, NTIA takes the lead in managing spectrum for the federal government. NTIA is also the President’s lead advisory agency on telecommunications policy. The strategy document is somewhat reminiscent of the National Broadband Plan the FCC crafted in 2010 which dramatically influenced broadband policy for the next decade. However, the broadband plan included several specific actions the Commission planned to take on a detailed timeline. The National Spectrum Strategy has little of that.

The new strategy statement comes as the FCC is attempting to restart its 5G Fund program as a way to improve rural connectivity. The Commission recently accepted comments on proposals to clarify the rules for distributing $9 billion for wireless networks in rural areas.

NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association (NTCA), in its comments, urged the FCC to require providers offer speeds of 35 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream to qualify for funding. “These speeds are necessary to realize the promise of 5G capabilities and to deliver speeds that will be sustainable for the future,” the association said.

In addition, NTCA asked the FCC to clearly define the areas that would be eligible for support prior to holding a 5G Fund reverse auction.  Participants need clarity to determine whether to enter the auction, and a clear description of target areas would ensure that the most in-need areas get served. “Without this clarity, a number of entities would likely be deterred from participating in the 5G Fund while requiring those that do nevertheless choose to participate to undergo an expensive and time-consuming effort to ‘clean up’ the areas ‘awarded’ to them,” NTCA said in an apparent allusion to past FCC reverse auctions.

CTIA, the leading association for commercial wireless carriers, called on the FCC to use Broadband Data Collection (BDC) data “and draw on the outdoor stationary maps that provide the most stable and consistent coverage data” to define eligible areas. “It is clear that the new maps are more granular and accurate, enabling the Commission to identify, with greater precision and confidence, which parts of the country should be eligible for funding,” CTIA said.

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