Ahead of 5G, U.S. Cellular, CCA press for better FCC data to improve broadband

horses tower
In written testimony, U.S. Cellular Chairman LeRoy Carlson Jr. included photographs showing cell sites so remote they needed to use work horses to transport equipment. (U.S. Cellular)

With an eye toward 5G, wireless industry leaders told members of a Subcommittee on Communications and Technology about the barriers they face, especially on federal lands but elsewhere as well, in getting telecom infrastructure sited and the need to improve practices nationwide in order to serve rural areas.

LeRoy T. Carlson Jr., CEO at Telephone and Data Systems and chairman of U.S. Cellular, said students in rural areas, for example, shouldn’t be forced to go to a library in order to get a signal to do their homework because they don’t have access to broadband at home.

Asked about backhaul challenges specifically, Carlson said affordable backhaul remains a big challenge. U.S. Cellular sometimes has to supply its own backhaul to towers in remote areas, even going as far in one case as to use a team of horses to pull a fiber-optic cable into an area where there were no roads.

“It’s a cost element but it’s also an access element,” and the proposed "dig once" draft is an excellent solution to allowing fiber-optic cable to run under highways that are being built so that kind of backhaul can be used. “We need all the help we can get,” he said, noting that U.S. Cellular connects a lot of its cell sites with microwave.

Carlson and his fellow witnesses, including Steve Berry, president and CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA), and Thomas Murray, founder of Community Wireless Structures and chairman of the Wireless Infrastructure Association board, testified before a mostly like-minded group of representatives who also want to see communities gain better access to broadband.

Carlson urged lawmakers to continue to encourage the FCC to improve the 477 data collection process before committing $4.5 billion in universal service funding. Berry also said the data collection process needs improving and that it’s imperative that Congress, the FCC and consumers have an accurate view of where robust services are available based on standardized, actionable data.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai recently drove home the point when he described his experience of insufficient mobile broadband coverage while driving from Wichita, Kansas, to Des Moines, Iowa—despite the FCC’s Form 477 data showing the entire route blanketed in 4G LTE coverage, Berry noted in written testimony.

Several panelists emphasized that 5G will be built on top of LTE, so having that LTE layer first is key.

If the nation wants to deploy broadband networks that will support 5G, “we cannot wait to address broadband infrastructure challenges until 2020 or later,” Berry said.

Chaired by Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., the Washington, D.C., hearing, entitled “Broadband: Deploying America’s 21st Century Infrastructure,” was called to examine ways to eliminate barriers to broadband infrastructure development. Members are considering draft legislation to streamline the permitting and siting process at the federal level to spur private sector investment and bring more efficient broadband across the country.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., said the hearing Tuesday was maybe not equal in importance to the nomination hearing for Supreme Court justice nominee Neil Gorsuch but comes in as a close second because broadband is essential for the country and for participating in modern life.

“I really think that we need a package for the 21st century,” she said, adding that it’s shameful that parents have to drive to find a signal so their kids can get their homework done. She pledged to work on getting a full package together, rather than trying to tackle it in separate parts.

Carlson also said if cities or others want to know what’s going on, they should invite the vendors, such as Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung, to share their insights. They’d probably be happy to do so, and “they all want to get into the smart city business,” he said.

As a small business owner, Murray said he sees every day the challenges posed by unreasonable deployment barriers at federal, state and local levels. Such barriers include cumbersome siting procedures, inconsistent fees, complicated review processes and obstacles to deploying infrastructure on federal property.

He agreed that it doesn’t make sense to use rules based on macro cells. The networks today are a combination of solutions, including distributed antenna systems and 199-foot monopoles, which still have a long life ahead.

But the future will be a Swiss army knife of solutions, and while there’s an entity out there claiming a small cell is 120 feet, “to us, you take a utility pole, you add 10 feet, you add some antennas, that is roughly 50 feet,” and that’s a good definition of a small cell.