A Game of Monopoly: Mobility Fund II & Infrastructure
By Tim Donovan and Rebecca Murphy Thompson
February 24, 2017 – In a game of Monopoly, whatever the dice roll, eventually someone picks up that fateful card: “Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.” Although some carriers treat the United States like the Monopoly game board – seeking to control as many properties as possible to “win” the game – the mobile ecosystem works best when there are many players competing within one “square.” Competitive carriers often must contend with some element of chance in the broadband marketplace but ultimately look to the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC” or “Commission”) to provide certainty. Yesterday, at the FCC’s Open Meeting, the Commission provided opportunity to advance their tokens across the board. Thanks to a Mobility Fund II item adopted during the Open Meeting, we are hopeful that competitive carriers are able to continue deploying, maintaining and improving networks throughout the United States. Dominant carriers may have already scooped up Park Place and Boardwalk, but competitive carriers have made investments to build innovative, far-reaching networks serving Indiana Avenue, Kentucky Avenue, Tennessee Avenue, and Pennsylvania Railroad. With the help of Universal Service funding and smart infrastructure policies, carriers can continue to expand to areas where the business case for doing so is absent, either because private investment does not suffice or a dominant carrier has asserted their market power to lock other players in “jail.”
Now, rural America is one-step closer to passing “Go.” CCA is pleased that the adopted Mobility Fund II item is significantly improved from our understanding of previous drafts. The FCC has rightly chosen to implement a program that will offer predictable support for the preservation and deployment of wireless networks. Wireless carriers, and more importantly their consumers, depend on USF in addition to carriers’ own capital resources to provide comparable mobile broadband service in rural areas. If the FCC got it right, the Mobility Fund II program will provide carriers the certainty needed to make future business decisions, including budgeting for operations, upgrades, and expansion of the latest mobile technologies for consumers over the next several years.
CCA congratulates Chairman Pai on completing the first initiative to promote his Digital Empowerment Agenda. CCA likewise thanks Commissioner Clyburn for continuing to champion issues that affect competitive carriers, and Commissioner O’Rielly for the important work on Universal Service policy. Specifically, CCA applauds the FCC’s plan to revise its Mobility Fund II program to account for overstated coverage data, which will determine the areas where support is most needed and ultimately benefit the consumers for which these funds are intended. Even more laudable, the FCC has recognized that rural areas are some of the most difficult to serve, and has adopted what we hope is an equitable and predictable phase-down for legacy funds.
CCA likewise recognizes Congress’ efforts, including Senators Roger Wicker (R-MS), Joe Manchin (D-WV), and their colleagues, for encouraging the Commission to adopt a Mobility Fund II program that provides sufficient and predictable support for carriers. Yesterday’s vote supports Chairman Blackburn’s (R-TN) focus on expanding rural broadband. CCA also thanks Congress for providing certainty of USF support for wireless carriers through language in the current FCC Appropriations, which prevents a phase-out of legacy support until there is an operational Mobility Fund II program in place, and applauds the FCC’s work to align the current item with this mandate. While all parties involved should be pleased with yesterday’s actions, consumers are the real winners, as the FCC has aided competitive carriers’ abilities to expand their service portfolios across myriad areas of the United States. This means economic growth, new jobs and better educational opportunities for rural areas and economically challenged consumers.
But work to bridge the digital divide is not over. After all, you can’t play the game without the board, just as carriers can’t make promises about 5G and next-generation services – even with the best spectrum – without streamlined infrastructure processes and procedures. While critical to our 5G future, these challenges also impact carriers working to provide today’s mobile services. Deploying broadband infrastructure is a necessary, yet resource-heavy endeavor: the fruitful cross-section of engineering expertise, capital investment and strategic spectrum acquisition. Unfortunately, the siting process is mummified in red tape. Competitive carriers, whether siting the smallest antenna or the tallest tower, must secure permission from:
- state and local government authorities;
- the FCC, which is responsible for implementing the National Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act;
- State Historic Preservation Offices or Tribal Historic Preservation Offices; and
- Federally-recognized Tribes.
Not to mention, if the siting project is on federally-owned land or property, additional federal agency permissions are needed. It takes an infinite amount of time and resources to complete, and much like the game of Monopoly, it involves risks, many of which are unnecessary.
To check all these boxes, competitive carriers must navigate kaleidoscopic federal, state, and local law and policy as well as informal practices that can vary dramatically from county to county, and state to state. Uncertainty regarding timing and cost reigns. For example, under current practices, there is no limit on what Tribes can charge a carrier for a given siting project, even outside Tribal lands, and no limit on the areas within which a Tribe can assert an historic or cultural interest. If the carrier pays those fees, a Tribe is still empowered to stall a project without justification. And Tribal fees have dramatically increased in recent years. One CCA member reports that rooftop macrocell collocations in Chicago have generated between $11,000 -12,000 per site in Tribal fees, and that does not even account for the necessary expenses to collocate on a site. While we have a duty to protect Tribal ancestral lands and properties, we must work collaboratively with Tribes to more clearly define the pre-consultation process and cost. Local governments and federal agencies, too, can delay projects for years without penalty, and charge exorbitant fees rendering siting projects uneconomic. With these types of unreasonable policies in place, it will be a long, hard road to 5G, and the digital divide will become an even wider chasm across America’s heartland.
The FCC and Congress can and should introduce commonsense solutions to these problems. The MOBILE NOW Act, currently under consideration in the Senate, contains several provisions that will improve the siting process if enacted, and Congress should move forward on MOBILE NOW and similar legislation as part of continued work to streamline these processes with reasonable solutions. Project delays will decrease if the Commission or Congress shortens application review “shot clocks,” and musters the regulatory or legal grit to create a “deemed granted” provision where state and local authorities fail to timely complete review. By clarifying the definition of practices that “prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting” broadband service, the Commission can ensure major siting roadblocks – like endless moratorium, or arbitrarily costly application requirements – are preempted from the start. As the Commission has acknowledged, it’s impossible to ignore the astronomical uptick in consumer demand for mobile data services, and that future 4G and 5G services will require “significant densification of small wireless facilities, including small cells and DAS.” It makes sense, then, to revisit overarching federally-sponsored siting agreements to more roundly exclude small wireless facilities from the rigors and expenses of federal statutory review. The Commission or Congress also could explore redefining a “federal undertaking” to exclude small wireless facilities entirely. Some of these ideas appear in Chairman Pai’s Digital Empowerment Agenda and are discussed in a recent Public Notice, signaling to competitive carriers that the Commission is ready to tackle these infrastructure problems. CCA urges the Commission to act sooner rather than later.
The Mobility Fund II item is not a “Get Out of Jail Free” card by any means. Rather, it’s an important federal program ensuring hard-to-reach consumers have the ability to participate in modern-day, constantly-connected life with advanced mobile services. While yesterday’s actions move competitive carriers one step closer to passing “Go,” the FCC must continue to revise its strategy for administering the rules when it comes to allocation and contribution of funds and infrastructure deployment. Scarce USF dollars go further when costs associated with unnecessary regulatory burdens to deploy are minimized. At the end of the day, the FCC has done its job correctly if consumers win the game. And consumers win when they have a choice between competing wireless providers offering next-generation service, no matter where they reside.