Better broadband maps and more cooperation between government agencies to streamline deployment are two must-haves for industry and consumers, witnesses told lawmakers Wednesday. The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a hearing on 12 bills, with topics centering on spectrum needs and ways to strengthen communications networks.
Many of the measures under consideration are related to broadband efforts, even as the infrastructure and spending bills are at an impasse in Congress. One noteworthy bill is the Spectrum Innovation Act (H.R. 5378), which would tackle the increasing demand for spectrum. The measure, introduced by Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D-PA) and Doris Matsui (D-CA), requires making at least 200 MHz of new, mid-band spectrum available for auction in the lower 3 GHz band, as well as requiring the opportunistic use of those licenses. Matsui said the bill calls for “opportunistic and flexible access, to ensure the U.S. has a healthy amount of spectrum in the pipeline” for job creation in the telecom industry.
Another bill of note is the bipartisan Data Mapping to Save Moms’ Lives Act (H.R. 1218), which would require the FCC to incorporate maternal health outcome data into its broadband health maps. It comes as the agency is working to develop more granular and accurate maps to better target its broadband funding programs.
Competitive Carriers Association SVP of Legislative Affairs Tim Donovan noted the FCC auction of licenses in the 3.45 – 3.55 GHz band began this week. That portion of the band is being reallocated from government to commercial use, with restrictions in some markets. Donovan said CCA supports considering adjacent spectrum in the 3.1 – 3.45 GHz band for potential reallocation for commercial wireless use.
Additional spectrum, Donovan said, would help carriers expand their networks. “There is no replacement for the reallocation of additional spectrum bands for exclusive use by commercial licensees,” he said, referencing the Spectrum Innovation Act that lawmakers have proposed to reallocate military-use spectrum for commercial use.
Donovan and other witnesses also supported more coordination between government agencies to speed siting permitting decisions. “Unfortunately, the coordination between the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the agency responsible for Executive Branch spectrum management, needs improvement. As this Committee’s leadership noted in a bipartisan letter to NTIA earlier this year, and Representative Matsui recognized in her letter to then President-elect Biden, the NTIA/FCC coordination process is broken,” Donovan testified.
“This has led to disputes where individual executive branch agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Transportation have presented potential interference outside of the NTIA process and contrary to science-based studies,” he continued. “Such efforts distract from important policy goals and potentially undercut bidder confidence in FCC service rules and eventually auctions.”
John Fogle, a city council member in Loveland, CO, who sits on the National League of Cities’ IT and communications committee, stressed the need for Congress to prioritize partnerships with municipal governments as it seeks to strengthen broadband networks nationwide. Local leaders have the most direct contact with broadband users, he said, and lawmakers should make it easier for municipalities to set up their own broadband programs. “Federal solutions should support and empower this leadership, rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all edict, when considering what further improvements should be made,” said Fogle.
Broadband, he said, “is deployed at the street level. Many communities would benefit from increased funding to assist them in planning” for distribution of potentially billions of dollars’ worth of deployment grants. In about one-third of the state, the state has the right to pre-empt localities’ on siting, Fogle noted. “Until those [rules] are removed, we will continue to fight to end the digital divide with one hand tied behind our back.”
Todd Brandenburg, President of regional Internet Service Provider PocketiNet in Washington State testified that anything Congress can do to smooth the site permitting process is welcome: “In one tower application with the local county development services agency, it took PocketiNet almost a year to have a construction permit in hand.
This amount of time for due processing along with other permitting is simply not acceptable when we have customers that need these services for their job or school. It’s one of our biggest challenges that we face is timely permitting for towers as well as right-of-way applications for fiber optics and pole permitting,” he said. “We seek to have a single point of contact and a shot clock to timely review and prioritization of broadband infrastructure applications.”
PocketiNet, a member of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, supports Doyle’s recognition that allocating a portion of the 3.1 to 3.45 GHz band for unlicensed use is as important as auctioning a portion of that band. Brandenburg testified that key among the important broadband deployment issues is meaningful and expeditious access to infrastructure, fair and open auctions for limited government funding, processes that incentivize broadband deployment by those in the marketplace, and more unlicensed and licensed spectrum for small entrepreneurs.
By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief