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The FCC Four: The Top Special Interests Lobbying the FCC

March was a big month for lobbyists visiting the Federal Communications Commission, which opened the doors to wireless special interest groups for “ex parte” meetings with agency staffers that, in turn, brief the three Republicans and two Democrats that serve as FCC commissioners.

Last month’s ex parte filings reveal strong evidence of a coordinated, well-financed campaign by America’s wireless operators and cable companies to get the FCC to ease off regulations governing forthcoming 5G networks, particularly with respect to where tens of thousands of “small cell” antennas will be installed to deliver the service.

Four industry trade groups and companies are part of the concerted campaign to scale back third party control over where 5G infrastructure will end up. Some want to strip local governments of their power to oversee where 5G infrastructure will be placed, while others seek the elimination of laws and regulations that give everyone from historical societies to Native American tribes a say where next generation wireless infrastructure will go. The one point all four interests agree on — favoring pro-industry policies that give wireless companies the power to flood local communities with wireless infrastructure applications that come with automatic approval unless denied for “good cause” within a short window of time, regardless of how overwhelmed local governments are by the blizzard of paperwork.

Here are the big players:

The Competitive Carriers Association (CCA)

The CCA is primarily comprised of rural, independent, and smaller wireless companies. In short, a large percentage of wireless companies not named AT&T or Verizon Wireless are members of CCA. The CCA’s chief goal is to protect the interests of their members, who lack the finances and political pull of the top two wireless companies in the U.S. CCA lobbyists met ex parte with the FCC multiple times, submitting seven filings about their March meetings.

CCA’s top priority is to get rid of what they consider burdensome regulations about where members can place cell towers and antennas. They also want a big reduction in costly environmental, tribal, and historic reviews that are often required as part of a wireless buildout application. CCA lobbyists argue that multiple interests have their hands on CCA member applications, and fees can become “exorbitant” even before some basic reviews are completed. The CCA claims there have been standoffs between competing interests creating delays and confusion.

Costs are a relevant factor for most CCA members, which operate regional or local wireless networks often in rural areas. Getting a return on capital investment in rural wireless infrastructure can be challenging, and CCA claims unnecessary costs are curtailing additional rural expansion.

NCTA – The Internet & Television Association

The large cable industry lobbyist managed to submit eight ex parte filings with the FCC in March alone, making the NCTA one of the most prolific frequent visitors to the FCC’s headquarters in Washington.

The NCTA was there to discuss the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band, which is of particular interest to cable companies like Charter Communications, which wants to get into the wireless business on its own terms. Cable lobbyists, under the pretext of trying to avoid harmful interference, want to secure a large percentage of the CBRS band for their licensed use, at the expense of unlicensed consumers and their wireless industry competitors.

The cable industry wants CBRS spectrum to be wide, spacious, and contiguous for its cable industry members, which should open the door to faster speeds. The lobbyists want to make life difficult for unlicensed use of the band, potentially requiring cumbersome use regulations or costly equipment to verify a lack of interference to licensed users. They also want their traffic protected from other licensed users’ interference.

CTIA – The Wireless Association

The wireless industry’s largest lobbying group made multiple visits to the FCC in March and filed 10 ex parte communications looking for a dramatic reduction in local zoning and placement laws for the next generation of small cells and 5G networks.

The CTIA has been arguing with tribal interests recently. Tribes want the right to review cell tower placement and the environmental impacts of new equipment and construction. The CTIA wants a sped-up process for reviewing cell tower and site applications with a strict 30-day time limit, preferably with automatic approval for any unconsidered applications after the clock runs out. Although not explicitly stated, there have been grumblings in the past that tribal interests are inserting themselves into the review process in hopes of collecting application and review fees as a new revenue source. Wireless companies frequently question whether tribal review is even appropriate for some applications.

Sprint has had frequent run-ins with tribal interests demanding several thousand dollars for each application’s review under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), which is supposed to protect heritage and historical sites.

In Houston, Sprint deployed small cells around the NRG Stadium, but found itself paying fees to at least a dozen Indian Tribal Nations as part of the NHPA. The NHPA opens the door to a lot of Native Americans interests because of how the law is written. Any Tribal Nation can express an interest in a project, even when it is to be placed on public or private property that is not considered to be tribal land. In Houston, Sprint found itself paying $6,850 per small cell site, not including processing fees, which raised the cost to $7,535 per antenna location. Those fees only covered tribal reviews, not the cost of installation or equipment. Some tribes offered better deals than others. The Tonkawa Tribe has 611 remaining members, mostly in Oklahoma. But they sought and got $200 in review fees for the 23 small cell sites deployed around the stadium. The Kiowa Indian Tribe of Oklahoma, not Texas, charged $1,500 for the 23 applications it reviewed.

Sprint complains it has paid millions in such fees over the last 13 years and no tribe to date has ever asked to meet with Sprint or suggest one of its towers or cell sites would intrude on historic or tribal property.

“Tribal Nations are continuing to demand higher fees and designate larger and larger areas of interest,” says Sprint. “At present, there are no constraints on the amount of fees a Tribal Nation may require or the geographic areas for which it can require payment for review. The tribal historic review process remains in place even in situations—such as utility rights-of-way—where the Commission has exempted state historic review.”

The CTIA wants major changes to the NHPA and other regulations regarding cell tower and antenna placement before the stampede of 5G construction begins.

Verizon

Verizon has been extremely busy visiting with the FCC during the month of March, filing 10 ex parte communications, also complaining about the tribal reviews of wireless infrastructure.

Verizon argues it wants to expand wireless service, not effectively subsidize Native American tribes.

“The draft order’s provisions to streamline tribal reviews for larger wireless broadband facilities will likewise speed broadband deployment and eliminate costs, thus freeing up resources that can, in turn, be used to deploy more facilities,” Verizon argued in one filing.

Verizon has also been carefully protecting its most recent very high frequency spectrum buyouts. It wants the FCC to force existing satellite services to share the 29.1-29.25 GHz band for 5G wireless internet. Verizon has a huge 150 MHz swath of spectrum in this band, allowing for potentially extremely high-speed wireless service, even in somewhat marginal reception areas.

“Verizon assured the commission that even when sharing with other services, we would be able to make use of the 150 MHz of spectrum in this block to provide high-speed broadband service to American consumers,” said one filing.

Charter Sues El Centro, Calif. for Interfering With Its Blackout of Local TV Stations in Contract Dispute

Charter Communications is taking the city of El Centro, Calif., to federal court for interfering in a dispute between Spectrum and a local TV station owner that has resulted in two stations being blacked out on the local cable system for nearly three months.

Northwest Broadcasting, Inc., has been in a contract extension dispute with Charter Communications over multiple stations, including its two El Centro-area affiliates KYMA (NBC) and KWST (CBS). Charter accuses Northwest of gouging, claiming “Northwest demanded an 80 percent increase in carriage fees, more than double the rate Charter pays any other broadcaster anywhere else in the entire country.”

On March 7, 2018, the City of El Centro got involved and cited the cable operator, alleging Charter violated five provisions of Article X of the City Code, and began fining the cable company $100 a day for each violation, assessed each day the dispute continues.

El Centro accuses Charter of:

  • Discriminating against subscribers based on specific protected classes;
  • Failure to notify the city and subscribers 30 days in advance of any changes to cable service or rates;
  • Failure to establish a time frame to respond to service interruptions;
  • Failure to refund customers for service interruptions exceeding a stated period;
  • Failure to notify the city and subscribers 30 days in advance of any changes to the cable television channel lineup.

El Centro Mayor Sheryl Viegas Walker: “I’m taking it to the streets. I’m so fed up with [Spectrum’s] disregard for this community,” KYMA in El Centro reports. (3:02)

Northwest Broadcasting CEO Brian W. Brady strongly disputes Charter’s claims, dismissing them as “lies,” particularly surrounding the removal of two El Centro stations from Charter’s lineup after the cable company claimed Northwest refused permission to continue carrying the stations while renewal talks continued.

“Charter accepted the first two extensions which were offered to them, however, they refused the third extension and took our stations off with 10 minutes notice,” Brady said.

Charter’s lawsuit argues El Centro officials have no right to intervene in the dispute, force Spectrum to put the stations back on the lineup, or require Charter to issue refunds to customers for channels that are no longer available to them.

“Northwest’s pulling its authorization for Charter to carry its broadcast signals is not a ‘service interruption’ within the meaning of the City Code provisions in question,” Charter argued in its lawsuit. “Even if it were, while El Centro demands that Charter ‘cure’ its alleged violations, the only means for Charter to do so is to finalize a retransmission agreement with Northwest. The City’s citations are thus intended to pressure Charter to accept Northwest’s unreasonable terms by imposing fines and intentionally damaging Charter’s reputation and harming its goodwill and relationships with its existing and prospective customers.”

Charter argued giving refunds to customers over the lost channels was “contrary to Charter’s terms of service, and in so doing improperly interfere [sic] with Charter’s contractual relationship with its customers.”

Charter is relying heavily on California’s statewide video franchise law — the 2006 Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act (DIVCA), heavily pushed by telecom lobbyists a decade ago, which stripped most local authority over cable systems and transferred it to the state government. Charter is using DIVCA’s light touch regulations to support its assertion El Centro officials cannot interfere in programming disputes and that their actions during the dispute have only made things worse.

“The effect of the City’s actions has been to harden Northwest’s negotiating position and make a deal on reasonable terms even more difficult,” the complaint says.

“I have never seen a corporate entity act with such disregard for our community,” said El Centro Mayor Sheryl Viegas Walker. “We have a contract with them that spells out certain steps that they’re required to take if those kinds of changes are going to be made. They didn’t do that. We wake up one morning and we’re suddenly without two major channels.”

“Rather than negotiating in good faith like all other parties would do and what the law requires, Charter has taken a ‘take it or leave it’ approach,” added Brady. “In an effort this week to get this back on track, Northwest submitted a new proposal to Spectrum. Spectrum’s representative communicated that they really wanted to get this resolved, but would not counter Northwest’s proposal and would not respond at all in writing. Odd behavior for a company that claims to be negotiating in good faith. It appears that Charter would rather bully a small municipality than to engage in a good faith negotiation.”

It appears other small cities are joining Brady’s cause, complaining to the Federal Communications Commission that Charter was unfairly profiting from station blackouts. In Crescent City, Calif., city officials accused Charter of charging a Broadcast TV surcharge of $7.50-8.85/month, but didn’t change or adjust rates after the Northwest Broadcasting blackout began.

“Despite the fact the fee is itemized and justified as a pass-through, Charter did not eliminate or reduce that fee, even though it was no longer incurring costs associated with carriage of … at least two network affiliates,” Crescent City officials told the FCC.

The two California cities have also been joined by officials in Yuma, Ariz. and Jackson, Wyo., where Charter has removed Northwest Broadcasting stations as well.

“We have learned that it is no different for numerous municipalities which have been forced to sue Charter to collect the fees that are contractually owed to them,” Brady said. “Most disputes are settled because Charter uses their army of lawyers to outspend the municipalities forcing the municipality to settle on Charter’s terms, regardless of their contractual obligations. It’s no different for their customers who have told us that Charter recently raised the broadcast surcharge fee in spite of the fact that the programs they want to watch are unavailable because Charter removed the programming. Many have asked for refunds only to be told no. What is the customer to do, sue Charter?”

Northwest Broadcasting Owned and/or Operated Television Stations

City of license / Market Station Channel
TV (RF)
Owned since Affiliation
Yuma, Arizona – El Centro, California KYMA-DT 11 (11) 2014 NBC
KSWT 13 (13) 2014 CBS
Estrella TV (DT3)
Eureka, California KJRW 17 (17) 2016 CBS
Pocatello – Idaho Falls, Idaho KPVI-DT 6 (23) 2016 NBC
Decades (DT2)
Movies! (DT3)
Greenville – Greenwood, Mississippi WABG-TV 6 (32) 2016 ABC
Fox (DT2)
WFXW 15 (15) 2016 Silent/Unused
WNBD-LD 33 (33) 2016 NBC
WXVT-LD 17 (17) 2017 CBS
Binghamton, New York WICZ-TV 40 (8) 1997 Fox
WBPN-LP 10 (40.2) 2000 MyNetworkTV
Syracuse, New York WSYT 68 (19) 2013 Fox
Cozi TV (DT2)
WNYS-TV 43 (44) 2013 MyNetworkTV
GetTV (DT2)
Medford, Oregon KMVU-DT 26 (26) 1995 Fox
MeTV (DT2)
KMCW-LD 14 2013 Sonlife
KFBI-LD 48 (48) 2013 MyNetworkTV
Telemundo (DT2)
Spokane, Washington KAYU-TV 28 (28) 1995 Fox
Antenna TV (DT2)
Tri-Cities – Yakima, Washington KFFX-TV 11 (11) 1999 Fox
Telemundo (DT2)
KCYU-LD
(Semi-satellite of KFFX-TV)
41 (41) 1995 Fox
Telemundo (DT2)

KPVI-TV in Pocatello, Ida. was widely seen in parts of Wyoming over Charter Communications until the station was blacked out in a contract dispute. Now viewers want to see Charter fined. (1:11)

Charter officials claim there was insufficient time to notify subscribers about the loss of Northwest Broadcasting stations from the TV lineup, but Jackson, Wyo., officials noted Charter bought a new domain name reflecting the contract dispute at least two weeks before stations like KPVI were blacked out. (1:02)

Jackson city officials question a Charter representative about refunds for customers paying surcharges for broadcast TV stations no longer on Charter’s lineup. (0:57)

How to File a Petition on this Issue with the Federal Communications Commission:

This petition allows for public comment until April 16, but the FCC requires some special steps for individuals wishing to file comment. Below is a list of the requirements to file a public comment with the FCC regarding Charter Communications:

  • Members of the public who wish to comment should do so on or before April 16, 2018.
  • Filing should be submitted to the FCC via the electronic comment filing system (ECFS).
    • That system is accessible at https://www.fcc.gov/ecfs/filings.
    • A member of the public should type his or her comments and save them.
    • At the top of the ECFS page, select standard filing and in the “proceedings” box, type 18-91 (the proceeding is MB Docket No. 18-91).
    • Fill out the remainder of the boxes with information that is required (some information is optional).
    • At the end of the form, there is a box where saved comments can be uploaded.
  • Comments that contain statements of fact (for example, “Here is what happened to me”) should be supported by an affidavit.
  • “Comments or oppositions shall be served on the petitioner and on all persons listed in petitioner’s certificate of service…” The petitioners here are the Cities, and the certificate of service is at the end of the communities’ filing, which can be downloaded from https://www.fcc.gov/ecfs/filing/1032236683943.

FCC Looks to Press More Spectrum Into Service for 5G Wireless

The Federal Communications Commission is pushing hard to free up additional spectrum in some unlikely extremely high frequency ranges — some at 95 GHz or higher, for the next generation of wireless services.

Just a year ago in 2017, the FCC wrapped up its latest spectrum auction for the higher end of the UHF TV band, to be repurposed for mobile service use. But now the agency is seeking to find and reassign underused spectrum in much higher frequency bands that could be used for services like 5G wireless, machine-to-machine communications, intelligent road and vehicle networks, and other uses yet to be invented or envisioned.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel made it clear that smart spectrum allocation was critical for next generation wireless services.

“The point is the list is long — and we are looking at midband and millimeter wave to power the 5G future,” Rosenworcel said. “The propagation challenges are real, but so is the potential for capacity with network densification. Of course, what we need to do next is get these airwaves to market and unconditionally hold an auction this year.”

The FCC is contemplating auctions covering these frequencies in 2018:

3.5 GHz

Widely expected to draw the most interest, the Citizens Broadband Radio Service band was originally intended primarily for unlicensed users, but the wireless industry has lobbied heavily to get much of this spectrum reassigned for traditional long-term licensed use. Although very high frequency, the 3550-3700 MHz “innovation band” will have plenty of wide range of frequencies open for wireless data and mobile services. The wireless industry wants to deploy LTE service on this band, but they will likely compete with cable operators that are seeking their own stake of frequencies to launch their own wireless services.

This band will likely support last mile wireless connections at gigabit speed, fixed wireless broadband, and even in-home Wi-Fi that is significantly better than what you have now.

Because the band is so attractive, several different users are competing over who will be portioned what spectrum. The cable and phone companies want more for themselves, but other users, including consumers, want to reserve enough spectrum for unlicensed applications. The concern is deep pocketed companies may crowd out innovators and start-ups.

3.7 to 4.2 GHz

Some consumers may have accessed services on these frequencies without ever realizing it. This is the home of the “C-Band,” recognizable to any home satellite dishowner of the 1980s and 1990s. This range of frequencies is set aside for line-of-sight, very low powered satellite television — the kind that used to require a 10-12 foot wide satellite dish in the backyard to receive. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wants to open the band up to be shared with 5G wireless broadband, which has caused considerable controversy among satellite users who fear devastating interference.

There are proposals and counter proposals from the satellite industry and wireless companies over how to manage sharing this band. Most are coalescing around the idea of sequestering 100 MHz of spectrum at the low-end of the band and using 3700-3800 MHz for high-speed wireless broadband. Some want satellite operators to clear out of this section of frequencies voluntarily, others propose compensation similar to what was given to television stations to relocate their channel positions. Google is pushing for a plan that would offer mobile 5G service in large urban areas and 25 Mbps – 1 Gbps fixed wireless broadband in rural and residential areas.

But satellite companies and many satellite users are fearful of the impact of interference. Because satellite signals use very low power transponders on the satellite, ground based wireless broadband interference could wipe out satellite reception.

Tom Taggart, who owns several radio stations in West Virginia, says sharing spectrum was tried before and did not work well.

“This band, years ago, was shared with AT&T and other telcos for point-to-point long-distance links. Fixed, licensed paths that could be plotted and protected against for satellite installations,” Taggart told Radio World. “Our studios are 1,500 feet from an old MCI tower, at one time we had a metal screen behind our satellite dish to protect against ‘back-scatter’ from a path aimed away from us. Still, we had to convince MCI to shut down one channel so we could pick up a program from Premiere [a radio network distributing programming on satellite].”

Some industry plans propose registering C-Band satellite dishes, at a cost of $600-$1,600 per site, which would allegedly protect them from interference by requiring wireless broadband services to steer clear of the area.

“But I am not even sure what kind of broadband services are proposed,” Taggart said. “One might assume these would be omnidirectional sites, like a typical cell site. Even with some clever computer-engineered directional patterns, reflections off hillsides, billboards, buildings would be enough to overwhelm the tiny satellite signal. However, other articles described these services as ‘mobile.’ Even if my dish is registered, how can I resolve interference problems from a mobile device?”

The debate rages on because the frequencies involved, next to the even more popular CBRS band, are highly coveted.

4.9 GHz

After the events of 9/11 in 2001, the FCC has prioritized public safety communications, in hopes of improving the interoperability of different first responders’ portable radios. At that time, fire agencies could not easily talk to police, ambulance crews, or in some cases other fire crews arriving from different departments miles away.

Many agencies contemplating use of this band discovered equipment that supported 4.9 GHz was hard to find and extremely expensive. Most public safety agencies seeking grants or other funding to improve their communications equipment opted to transition to digital P25 networks that operate on much lower frequencies and use equipment that is now widely available and, in comparison, much cheaper. Many agencies are conservative about using new technology as well, concerned a communications failure could cost the life of a fire or police responder. As a result, of the 90,000 organizations certified for licenses in this band, only 3,174 have been granted. That represents a take rate of just 3.5%. The band, as one might expect, is effectively dead in most areas, underutilized in others.

“As the demand for wireless services continues to grow, it is imperative that the FCC takes steps to ensure underutilized spectrum bands are used efficiently,” said FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. “This is as true for spectrum allocated to public safety as it is for the bands used to support commercial wireless broadband services.”

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly is convinced wireless companies like AT&T and Verizon could use the frequencies more efficiently.

“It has been 16 years since the 4.9 GHz band was allocated to the public safety community, and it is still woefully underutilized,” said O’Rielly. “That is not sustainable in an environment in which every megahertz of spectrum, especially below 6 GHz, needs to be fully scrutinized and maximized in quick order. While the Commission’s original allocation was more than likely well-intentioned, it is way past time to take a fresh look at this 50 megahertz of spectrum.”

Although higher than 3.5 GHz, engineers believe there is a very credible case to be made to use the available spectrum for 5G fixed wireless services, delivering broadband at speeds up to 1 GHz from a small cell located nearby. It would have to be. At these frequencies, virtually anything blocking the line-of-sight between the antenna and the user will block the signal as well. With almost no constituency defending the 4.9 GHz turf, it is expected it will be repurposed for wireless broadband in areas where it isn’t in use for public safety communications.

24/28 GHz

Although the 28 GHz band has many licensed users already, the 24 GHz band does not, and the wireless industry is interested in grabbing vast swaths of spectrum in this band for 5G home broadband. Known as “millimeter wave spectrum,” these two bands are expected to be a big part of the 5G fixed wireless services being planned by some carriers. Verizon acquired Straight Path late in 2017, which had collected a large number of licenses for this frequency range. Today, Verizon holds almost 30% of all currently licensed millimeter wave spectrum, an untenable situation if you are AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint. T-Mobile has been the most aggressive seeking more spectrum to compete with Verizon in this frequency range, and has purchased almost 1,150 MHz covering Ohio for use with a 5G project the company is working on.

39 GHz

FiberTower, now owned by AT&T

This band might as well be called “the controversial band” because AT&T made moves on these frequencies even before the FCC got around to discussing an auction for this band, likely also to be used for 5G fixed wireless. FiberTower originally held hundreds of licenses for wireless spectrum for several years, but did little with them, leading to suggestions the company was either hoarding the spectrum to resell to someone else or was incapable of deploying a network that used the frequencies. The company declared bankruptcy in 2012, eventually emerging in the spring of 2014 just in time to watch the FCC uphold the decision of its Telecommunications Bureau to cancel 689 of FiberTower’s licenses for failure to use them.

In February 2018, AT&T completed its acquisition of FiberTower for $207 million. According to AllNet Insights & Analytics, AT&T acquired more than 475 of FiberTower’s 39 GHz spectrum licenses, raising eyebrows among shareholders who lost their investments in FiberTower after it declared bankruptcy. Hundreds of the spectrum licenses that came with the AT&T deal were given a value of $0.00, allowing AT&T a sweetheart deal and shareholders hoping to recover more money from the bankruptcy liquidation extremely upset. In fact, had FiberTower remained in bankruptcy, it would eventually have surrendered all of its licenses, which would then be put up for auction by the FCC and would likely command much higher value among bidders. Verizon effectively paid triple the price for what AT&T got for a song in the FiberTower acquisition. Even more remarkable, the FCC approved the acquisition by AT&T despite the obvious fire sale price, and has ignored the consequences of what could come from an AT&T/Verizon duopoly across large swaths of 5G frequencies.

Eshoo

That brought a rebuke from Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) who accused both Verizon and AT&T of flipping public property for private gain.

“The FCC’s policies unambiguously required Straight Path and FiberTower to forfeit their unbuilt spectrum licenses,” Eshoo wrote. “But rather than auction the reclaimed spectrum and promote timely deployment, the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau reached ‘resolutions’ with Straight Path and FiberTower than allowed them to profit handsomely from their wrongdoing. Following the ‘resolution,’ Straight Path sold its assets to Verizon for nearly $3.1 billion, and FiberTower is estimated to have sold its assets to AT&T for roughly $2 billion.”

In reality, AT&T acquired FiberTower for $207 million — a fraction of the amount of the estimated value of the spectrum Eshoo used in her estimate.

“The Bureau’s decisions also further concentrated critical input resources in the hands of the two dominant wireless incumbents,” Eshoo continued. “The purchasers of the public assets that Straight Path and FiberTower once held, Verizon and AT&T, already control a disproportionate amount of other critical spectrum available for immediate deployment. Up until recently, the industry had an imbalance in favor of these companies in low-band spectrum that lasted for decades. The FCC now risks going down the same wrong path with high-band spectrum should the Commission continue down this course. Allowing Straight Path and FiberTower to ‘flip’ public assets for private gain does nothing for taxpayers, but does much to further entrench the dominant incumbents’ longstanding spectrum advantage over their rivals.”

95+ GHz

The FCC has not regulated frequencies above 95 GHz, but as technology advances, there is growing interest in utilizing spectrum that many believed would be essentially unusable for communications services. Right now, most frequencies in this range are used by environmental satellites and radio astronomy. At these frequencies, signals would be absorbed by the skin and attenuated significantly by things like high humidity’s haze or fog. Still, there are proposals under consideration to open up a small portion of spectrum for unlicensed home users for things like indoor wireless routers.

The key policy priority here will be to protect existing users from any hint of interference. But with vast amounts of unused frequencies in this range, it shouldn’t be difficult to keep competing users apart.

Senators Blast FCC’s Inaccurate Wireless Broadband Coverage Map

A bipartisan group of senators from some of America’s most rural and broadband-challenged states blasted the mapping skills of the Federal Communications Commission in a hearing Tuesday.

The senators were upset because the FCC’s Universal Service Fund will pay subsidies to extend wireless connectivity only in areas deemed to have inadequate or non-existent coverage. The FCC’s latest wireless coverage map is the determining factor whether communities get subsidies to expand service or not, and many in attendance at the Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet subcommittee hearing quickly called it worthless.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said the map’s “value is nil,” quickly followed by the Subcommittee chair Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) who added, “we might as well say it, Mr. Moran, that map is utterly worthless of giving us good information.”

“The simple answer is: it’s garbage in, garbage out,” said Steve Berry, CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association, which counts several small, rural cell phone companies as members.

This FCC map shows (in blue) areas identified as eligible to receive wireless subsidies to expand service where little or none exists today. (click map to expand)

The latest version of the map was heralded by the FCC as a significant improvement over the 2012 map used during the first round of funding. But critics like Berry claimed the map still relies entirely on carrier-provided data, much of it based on network capacity, and there is an incentive for existing wireless carriers to overestimate coverage because it assures funds won’t be given to potential competitors to strengthen their cellular networks.

The FCC claimed it gave carriers new benchmarks to meet in its latest map, including a request to only identify an area as covered if it achieves 80% certainty of coverage at 4G LTE speeds of 5 Mbps or more. To identify underserved zones, the FCC asked carriers not to identify areas that passed the first test as served if cell towers in that zone exceeded 30% of capacity. But Berry noted the FCC did not include a signal strength component, which means a carrier could report a significant area as getting adequate coverage based on the capacity of their network in a strong reception zone, even if customers nearby reported ‘no bars’ of signal strength or coverage that dropped completely once indoors.

Sen. Wicker

Senators from Kansas, New Hampshire and Mississippi were astonished to see maps that claimed virtually 100% of all three states were fully covered with mobile broadband service. The senators rejected that assertion.

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) has devoted a section on her website to collecting reports from New Hampshire residents getting poor cell phone reception, and she has been a frequent critic of the FCC’s coverage maps which she has repeatedly called inaccurate.

In northern Mississippi, wireless coverage is so poor the Mississippi Public Service Commission launched an initiative to collect real-world data about reception through its “Zap the Gap” initiative. But the FCC’s latest map suggests the problem is solved in the most signal-challenged areas in the northern part of the state, with the exception of small pockets in the Holly Springs National Forest, the Enid Lake area, areas east of Coffeeville, parts of Belmont, and areas east of Smithville.

The four major national wireless carriers suggest there is no problem with wireless coverage in Mississippi either. AT&T claims to reach 98% of the state, Verizon Wireless 96.43%, T-Mobile 66.36%, and Sprint 30.92%. Regional carrier C Spire claims 4G LTE coverage that falls somewhere between T-Mobile and AT&T in reach.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) told the subcommittee in his state, the FCC’s maps have little resemblance to reality, showing 4G LTE speeds in areas where no cellular reception exists at all.

“The FCC is wrong, they screwed up, we’re getting screwed because they screwed up, so how do we fix it?” Tester asked. “There has got to be a way to get the FCC’s attention on this issue. We’ve got to do better, folks, it’s not working.”

Mississippi’s program to report cellular coverage gaps.

Independent cell phone companies that specialize in serving areas the larger carriers ignore are hamstrung by the FCC and its maps, according to Mike Romano, senior vice president for policy for NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association — a trade group and lobbyist for smaller rural providers. Romano told the subcommittee if any cellular company reports coverage to even one household in a census block (which can cover a large geographic area in rural states), that entire block is ineligible for Connect America Fund subsidies.

The FCC, rural carriers complain, is relying on small wireless companies to serve as the map’s fact checkers and forces them to start a costly challenge procedure if they want to present evidence showing the map is wrong. Such proceedings are expensive and time-consuming, they argue. Even if successfully challenged, that does not win the companies a subsidy. It only opens the door to a competitive bidding process where challengers could face competing bids from larger companies that made no effort to challenge the map data.

A group of senators signed a joint letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai complaining about the accuracy issues surrounding the FCC’s wireless map:

Dear Chairman Pai:

We write this letter to express our serious concerns that the map released by the Federal Communications Commission last week showing presumptive eligible areas for Mobility Fund Phase II (MF II) support may not be an accurate depiction of areas in need of universal service support.  We understand that the map was developed based on a preliminary assessment from a one-time data collection effort that will be verified through a challenge process. However, we are concerned that the map misrepresents the existence of 4G LTE services in many areas.  As a result, the Commission’s proposed challenge process may not be robust enough to adequately address the shortcomings in the Commission’s assessment of geographic areas in need of support for this proceeding.

MF II is intended to provide $4.53 billion in support over 10 years to preserve and expand mobile coverage to rural areas. These resources will be made available to provide 4G LTE service where it is not economically viable today to deploy services through private sector means alone.  Having consistently traveled throughout rural areas in our states, it appears that there are significant gaps in mobile coverage beyond what is represented by the map’s initial presentation of “eligible areas.” To accurately target support to communities truly in need of broadband service, it is critical we collect standardized and accurate data.

For too long, millions of rural Americans have been living without consistent and reliable mobile broadband service.  Identifying rural areas as not eligible for support will exacerbate the digital divide, denying fundamental economic opportunities to these rural communities.  We strongly urge the Commission to accurately and consistently identify areas that do not have unsubsidized 4G LTE service and provide Congress with an update on final eligible areas before auctioning $4.53 billion of MF II support.

In addition to Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the letter was signed by Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Angus King (I-Maine), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee held a hearing on broadband infrastructure needs. The FCC’s wireless broadband coverage map was a main issue in contention. (Note, the hearing begins at the 30:00 mark.) (2:05:00)

Wireless Industry Claims Removing Regulatory Hurdles Will Save $1.6 Billion on 5G Deployment

Accenture’s six-page analysis.

CTIA, America’s largest wireless industry trade group and lobbyist, commissioned a research consultant to produce a six-page analysis that unsurprisingly concludes stripping some oversight responsibilities regarding cell tower placement would reduce the cost to deploy 5G wireless small cells by as much as $1.6 billion over the next nine years.

The Federal Communications Commission is currently considering industry-friendly proposals that would “streamline” and “modernize” the historic and environmental regulatory requirements for wireless deployments, exclude small cells from certain federal regulatory reviews, and put a strict limit on completing environmental impact reviews on new tower and antenna installations or else they will be automatically approved.

The Accenture analysis, produced at the request of CTIA, claims that it will cost an average of $9,730 for each 5G small cell regulatory review. But the report also states only 28-29% of installations will face this type of review. The CTIA implies it is much worse than that in its new 30-second ad complaining about regulatory burdens. That ad suggests 5G small cell “approval can take a couple of years.”

As the FCC ponders further deregulation of cell tower and antenna placement, wireless industry players are sharing their horror stories with the FCC to strengthen the agency’s likely  view that installation rules and oversight should be relaxed.

In January, Sprint complained it faced a demand to pay a $90,000 “tribal review fee” for six tower upgrades in the Chicago area. The company claims the towers were located in historic preservation areas, but not in areas of tribal significance. Sprint added in its letter to the FCC it only planned to install additional antenna equipment at those tower sites to increase capacity, not erect new towers.

The wireless industry is also lobbying to get cut-rate access to public infrastructure like street lights, on which it eventually plans to place 5G network equipment.

In states like California, AT&T has pushed hard for new legislation that would mandate cities and counties to give the company open access to public infrastructure in public rights-of-way or utility easements. In a 2017 bill before the California Senate, companies like AT&T would face a fee limit of $100-850 per small cell per year, indexed for inflation,

With multiple wireless companies prepared to enter the 5G marketplace, utility poles could get crowded.

Cities and counties may also find their right to object to what eventually ends up on their poles curtailed as a result of the deregulation effort.

CTIA’s new 30-second advertisement claims 5G small cells can be installed in about 90 minutes, but only after waiting years for a sluggish review process. (30 seconds)

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