FCC needs to be pragmatic regarding future of broadband wireless
This week I spoke with Mark Crosby, president and CEO of the Enterprise Wireless Alliance, about a response the organization recently filed with the FCC. The commission is seeking comments regarding what it should be doing to spark innovation and investment in the wireless sector. Crosby told me that the questions were too many and too complicated to provide answers to each of them, so the EWA crafted more of an overarching perspective on the topic. “There were about 400 questions, and for many, you needed to write a doctoral thesis to answer them properly,” Crosby said.
That didn’t surprise me. Bureaucracy is part of the deal when dealing with the commission, or any federal agency. But what Crosby said next did surprise me a bit. He said he fully understood why the FCC was being particularly diligent with this specific information-gathering effort.
“The new administration isn’t going to leave any stone unturned,” Crosby said. “No one is going to be able to accuse them of not doing everything in their power to get the right answers for the national broadband plan that they have to give to Congress on Feb. 10.”
Crosby added that the FCC generally has done a good job of fostering wireless innovation in the past, pointing to the growth of the cellular industry as an example. In fact, a lesson can be found in examining the history of that segment, he said — if the FCC indeed is serious about sparking future innovation in wireless technologies, its best play would be to ensure that it isn’t an obstacle, which essentially is what the commission did at the advent of the commercial-wireless sector.
“They conducted the auction, and then they said, ‘Don’t cause any problems, don’t interfere, go prosper, and we’ll get out of the way,’ and look what’s happened. … The FCC, on its own, can’t really influence investment and innovation — it will happen on its own,” Crosby said.
However, the commission is quite capable of actions that would severely retard innovation and investment, he said. “They need to work more quickly on regulatory matters. If you want to kill investment and innovation, have somebody tell you they have a great idea, and then sit on it for seven years.”
I asked Crosby what he thought of my contention that the time has come to reconsider the FCC’s purpose, that it has too much on its plate to stay on top of highly complex segments such as commercial broadcasting, telecommunications and public-safety communications, and to regulate each of them simultaneously in an effective and timely manner. My suggestion is to narrow the FCC’s focus to the commercial broadcasting sector, and then create sister entities that would oversee the telecommunications sector — which includes commercial wireless — and public- safety communications, respectively.
One only needs to look at the 800 MHz reconfiguration effort to understand the rationalization behind the suggestion. The effort was stagnant until the FCC created the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, which, as the name implies, focused solely on matters related to first-responder communications. Shortly after creation of the PSHSB, the reconfiguration effort significantly picked up steam.
Crosby agreed that a well-funded, well-equipped agency focused solely on public-safety communications would “get a hell of a lot done.” But he added that the bigger question concerns the scope of such an agency. According to Crosby, it might be time to consider placing all public-safety and homeland-security communications under the authority of a federal agency.
“Imagine having federal, state and local public-safety and homeland-security efforts all in one place. Would it be better than it is now? My instincts tell me, ‘Yes,” Crosby said.
In the next breath, however, he acknowledged that the prospects for such a maneuver are slim. “I may be wrong, but I suspect that the feds have enough to do and don’t have a huge appetite to aggressively collaborate with state and local agencies, and the state and locals I suspect fear that if they were in bed with the feds they would have a more difficult time attracting necessary attention, that they would become the red-headed stepchild,” he said.
The possibility of a wholesale revamping of the FCC’s authority is years away, if it ever comes to fruition. In the meantime, the commission will have to make some difficult choices as it creates the aforementioned national broadband plan. The ability to effectively do so will hinge on whether the FCC is willing to acknowledge that access to broadband telecommunications is not an inalienable right and in many cases, simply will be infeasible, according to Crosby.
To illustrate his point, Crosby told me of an application for broadband stimulus funding that is seeking grant money to provide residents of Alaska’s Aleutian islands broadband service through undersea fiber, where the per capita cost of doing so will be in the neighborhood of $100,000, he said.
“Did it ever occur to anyone that maybe those people are living in the Aleutians because they want to be left alone and they don’t want broadband? … Is everyone in the United States entitled to four ways to get their broadband? … Enough already — you do what you can. There are other more critical priorities,” Crosby said. “A national, interoperable, state and local broadband network would be great. But I’m worried right now, because the emphasis doesn’t seem to be on that but rather on the ability of every citizen to download music or watch a rerun of The Sopranos on their wireless devices.”
As much as I like The Sopranos, I couldn’t agree more. It is far more important for law-enforcement personnel to have devices and applications that would help them catch criminals than it is for me to be able to watch actors portray them on my mobile phone.
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