The Earth is Flat?
By Steven K. Berry & Rebecca Murphy Thompson | April 20, 2015
The Flat Earth Society insists the earth is not a sphere, but a flat disc. It writes passionately and at length to convince remaining skeptics that the “round Earth doctrine is little more than an elaborate hoax.” Mobile Future may not believe our planet is flat, but one should certainly question its knowledge on the laws of physics and economics. According to Mobile Future, the travel distance of different radiofrequency signals has no influence on the economics of deploying wireless services in less populated areas.
The reality is that rural and regional wireless carriers face unique challenges in providing coverage in remote, rural and regional areas because the population density is often insufficient to allow for economically sustainable deployment. It requires as many as three to thirteen times the number of base stations to construct a network with higher band spectrum as compared to deploying on low-band spectrum. Constructing all those additional towers gets very expensive, and there are simply too few potential users in many areas to cover the substantial cost of building so much additional infrastructure. Rural and regional carriers are keenly aware of this, as many of them have constructed USF-enabled, cost-efficient networks over low-band spectrum, providing rural consumers access to broadband that they would not otherwise have.
Low-band spectrum, such as the 600 megahertz band that the FCC will auction in early 2016, is therefore critical to allowing wireless carriers to build-out in rural areas. The FCC, the U.S. Department of Justice, noted engineers, and even Verizon and AT&T, have recognized that low-band frequencies travel longer distances and penetrate buildings and other obstacles far more readily than higher-band spectrum. The FCC and DoJ, in particular, also have found that expanding access to low-band spectrum can promote wireless broadband competition by helping to ensure more wireless operators have the resources necessary to offer reliable, cost-effective broadband service.
“[O]ne of the beauties” of low-band spectrum, AT&T’s Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson said, is that “it propagates like a bandit,” and “takes fewer cell sites to get a good quality signal, both voice and data to [customers].”
“We refer to [low-band spectrum] as ‘beachfront property,’” AT&T’s CEO added.
Low-band spectrum, in other words, is one of the essential components of building out competitive wireless broadband networks. Competitive carriers do not lack the will to build in rural areas; on the contrary, many smaller carriers are doing more than the largest two carriers for these hard to reach areas and have a vested interest in serving their local communities because it is their home too. But if competitive carriers do not have access to low-band spectrum and access to sufficient universal service funds in low population density areas, they cannot serve enough people to cover the costs of deploying service.
While it is easy to poke fun at the Flat Earth Society, even flat-Earthers are sometimes right. Mobile Future, for example, is correct in recognizing that universal service funding represents an extremely important component of deploying mobile broadband in rural areas. The FCC’s Mobility Fund, which provides financial support for the expansion of mobile broadband networks, is a strong, sensible policy approach to promoting wireless deployment in rural areas. Without a much-needed expansion of the Mobility Fund and access to low-band spectrum, the FCC will fail to promote broadband deployment in rural areas – an outcome no one wants.
Mobile Future also is correct that access to low-band spectrum is not always, in and of itself, an adequate incentive to attract investment capital to build-out high-speed, mobile broadband services in the most difficult to reach rural areas. A case in point is the network infrastructure of AT&T and Verizon; after all, they already hold 73% of all low-band spectrum and have not deployed in all rural areas. Mobile Future refuses to recognize that access to low-band spectrum is not just about the four largest carriers. Access to low-band spectrum helps the smallest carriers, new entrants, and the creation of an ecosystem that welcomes competitors with economical roaming agreements, devices and partnering relationships, and that allows new and innovative services in rural areas to flourish.
The challenge of rural broadband deployment has long defied easy solutions. But implementing a robust spectrum reserve in the incentive auction that has no less than 40 megahertz of lightly impaired spectrum and expanding the Mobility Fund offers competitors an opportunity to start making rural broadband deployment a sensible economic proposition.
The FCC must protect and promote the mechanisms that today provide critical support to our nation’s rural areas, schools, libraries, healthcare providers and low-income individuals. Allowing competitors greater access to low-band spectrum that is part of an interchangeable ecosystem with infrastructure and device availability, while improving mobile universal service support offers the best hope for expanded consumer choice, greater innovation and increased broadband investment in rural America. That prescription for success may not appeal to Mobile Future and its two largest mobile carrier members, but it is the flat out truth.