Money is piling up in the US 24 GHz auction

Over 30 companies have put more than $560 million in bid money on the table at FCC’s auction for the 24 GHz frequency. And this is only the beginning.

Following the underwhelming auction of the 28 GHz (dubbed Auction 101) spectrum, which only returned $703 million, the new auction of the 24 GHz (dubbed Auction 102) is heating up quickly. The auction started last Thursday and has gone through 11 rounds of the first phase of the auction, or the “clock phase”, when participants bid on a Partial Economic Area (PEA) blocks. By the end of round 11, the gross proceeds have reached a total amount of $563,427,235. There are still two days, or six more rounds to go, before the winners can move to the next phase of the process.

The “assignment phase” will allow the winners from the first phase to bid for specific frequency licence assignments. The total bid value for the 24 GHz frequencies could go up to between $2.4 billion and $5.6 billion, according to the estimate by Brian Goemmer, founder of the spectrum-tracking company AllNet Insights & Analytics, when he spoke to our sister publication Light Reading.

The key difference the has driven up the interest from the bidders for Auction 102 is the locations where the frequencies are made available. While major metropolises like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, were absent from 28 GHz auction, they are all on the current 24 GHz auction together with other major cities that would be the candidates for the 5G services to roll out in the first wave.

Bidders have included AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and more than 30 other companies. The FCC will announce the winners including those from Auction 101 only after both phases of Auction 102 are completed.

In addition to bidding for mmWave frequencies, operators like AT&T are also actively refarming the lower frequency bands in their possession that are used to provide 3G services. AT&T sent a notice to its customers in February that it will stop 3G only SIM activation, urging customers to move to LTE. The company said “we currently plan to end service on our 3G wireless networks in February 2022.” Specifically the company is planning to refarm the 850 MHz and 1900 MHz frequency bands, saying “it may be necessary for us to turn down one band of our owned and operated 3G network, such as 1900 MHz or 850 MHz service”.

Considering the AT&T only switched its 2G networks off at the beginning of 2017, this is a clear sign that the generational transition of mobile telecom services is accelerating. Earlier in the middle of last year, Verizon confirmed that it will shut down its 3G CDMA networks by the end of 2019. Even earlier at the MWC in 2017, T-Mobile’s CTO Neville Ray said the company was looking to sunset both GSM and WCDMA.

FCC casts an eye north of 95 GHz

The FCC has unveiled plans to create a new regulatory framework for spectrum above 95 GHz.

While these bands have largely been considered outside the realms of usable spectrum, progress in radio tech has made the prospects much more realistic. And, dare we say it, such a regulatory framework could begin to set the foundations for 6G…

“Today, we take big steps towards making productive use of this spectrum,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “We allocate a massive 21 gigahertz for unlicensed use and we create a new category of experimental licenses. This will give innovators strong incentives to develop new technologies using these airwaves while also protecting existing uses.”

The Spectrum Horizons First Report and Order creates a new category of experimental licenses for use of frequencies between 95 GHz and 3 THz, valid for 10 years. 21.2 GHz of spectrum will also be made available for use by unlicensed devices. The team envision usecases such as data-intensive, high bandwidth applications as well as imaging and sensing operations.

With this spectrum now on the table, the line between science fiction and reality could begin to blur. Data throughput rates will become almost unimaginably fast, meaning computational power in the wireless world could start to replicate the kind of performance only seen in human brains.

“One reason the US leads the world in wireless is that we’ve moved quickly to open-up new spectrum bands for innovative uses,” said Commissioner Brendan Carr. “We don’t wait around for technologies to develop fully before unlocking spectrum so that entrepreneurs have the incentives to invest and experiment.”

While such a statement suggests the FCC is doing a wonderful job, flooded with foresight, the industry tends to disagree.

In 2017, the mmWave Coalition was born. Although this is a relatively small lobby group for the moment, it does have some notable members already including Nokia and Keysight Technologies. This group has been calling for a regulatory framework above 95 GHz for 18 months, pointing to developments around the world and stating the US risks falling behind without amendments.

A good example of other initiatives is over in Europe, where the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ESTI) has created the ISG mWT working group which is looking at how to make the 50 GHz – 300 GHz band work. This group has already been running trials with a broad range of members including BT, Deutsche Telekom, Intel, InterDigital and Qualcomm.

While the US is certainly taking a step in the right direction, it would be worth noting it is by no-means the first to get moving beyond the 95 GHz milestone. Europe is leading the charge at the moment.

However, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel believes the FCC is being too conservative in its approach.

“I believe that with these way-up-there frequencies, where the potential for interference is so low, we should flip the script,” said Rosenworcel. “The burden should be on those seeking exclusive licenses to demonstrate the interference case and justify why we should carve up an otherwise open space for innovation and experimentation.”

Rosenworcel points to the incredibly short-distance this spectrum will offer, as well as the creation of new antenna designs, like quasi-optical antennas, to ensure efficiency. With the shorter distance and better control of the direction of signals, interference does not pose a threat and therefore an unlicensed approach to spectrum should be prioritised.

Commissioner Michael O’Reilly is another who also supports this position.

“While I strenuously advocate for both licensed and unlicensed spectrum opportunities, I understand that it may be a bit premature to establish exclusive-use licenses above 95 GHz when there is great uncertainty about what technologies will be introduced, what spectrum would be ideal, or what size channel blocks are needed,” said O’Reilly.

Both of these messages effectively make the same point; don’t make assumptions. Taking the same approach to spectrum allocation will not work. The traditional approach of licensed spectrum allocation is perhaps unnecessarily rigid. It might be necessary in the future but granting innovators freedom in the first instance would provide more insight. Perhaps it would be better to react to future developments than to try and guess.

“Better that than being forced to undo a mess later,” said O’Reilly.

While it is of course encouraging the FCC is taking such a long-term view on industry developments, the team needs to ensure it does not over-complicate the landscape right now with unnecessary red-tape. Future regulation needs to protect innovation and grant the freedoms to experiment; a light-touch regulatory environment needs to blossom.

FCC and Oval Office locking horns over 5G

The FCC originally looked like a diligent foot-soldier for the President, but with the nationalised 5G infrastructure argument seemingly emerging again, heads are set to butt.

Reports have been emerging in various corners that the White House is revisiting plans to develop a nationalised 5G network, a plan originally raised in January 2018 to keep the US at the front of the technology arms race. The plan was shot-down back then, and the FCC has already raised set the tone of resistance through social media over the last week or so.

Following the President’s twitter rant last month, which saw the Commander-in-Chief bemoan progress being made by the telcos, FCC chiefs set their position out quite firmly.

In the case of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a retweeted message from 2018 reiterates a point which was made when the plans were first suggested; hands-off from the government is the best stance. This seems to be one of the only positions the Democrat and Republican representatives on the board of the FCC seem to agree on; the telcos should build the US 5G network, not the government.

Although the White House has not released any official statement confirming its favour of a nationalised 5G infrastructure, the defensive position entrenched by Pai and Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel suggest there have been conversations which neither like. These tweets could be viewed as in-direct opposition, with the pair attempting to get ahead of the game.

According to Politico, this isn’t the only conflict which is emerging either. The Trump 2020 re-election campaign team have been pushing the benefits of a government-owned, wholesale infrastructure, while the current Trump political administration are keen to avoid the topic. While the disagreement is hearsay and reports for the moment, it would not surprise us if the Trump campaign led with such a promise.

This sort of political manoeuvre fits perfectly into the Trump playbook from his first election campaign. It hits pain-points for US citizens in the politically less-attractive states, the very people Trump was able to mobilise in 2016. However, attacking the digital divide in rural communities is not a new trick, Hilary Clinton used this tactic in 2016 also, but a nationalised 5G infrastructure will appeal to those who feel ignored by corporates. Trump has shown he can communicate effectively to those who believe they are under-represented by mainstream politics, and this angle could prove to be an effective tool.

The idea which seems to have been raised here is to create a wholesale network in partnership with a private third-party. The government would fund the deployment of the network, while the third-party would manage the operations and wholesale business, creating a system which would operate like the electricity market, with parties ‘purchasing connectivity’ on a rolling basis.

Theoretically, this position sounds wonderful. The arguments for nationalisation are often very compelling, and it could be justified as an effective way to spend tax-payers money. However, nationalised businesses and infrastructure have been shown to be ineffective time and time again. The government is not equipped to manage such projects in the long-run and not savvy enough to compete against private entities when they emerge. It might sound very appealing to voters who are stuck in the chasm of the digital divide, but it will not help the US in the global technology arms race.

As Brenden Carr, a Republican FCC Commissioner, notes above, private industry is the best way to secure a leadership position in 5G. This is a lesson which has been learned numerous times over the years in the US; when you leave private industry alone, simply creating a legislative and regulatory framework to encourage growth, much can be gained. In the technology world, this is perfectly evident with the success of Silicon Valley.

The dominance of the US on the technology stage is being widely challenged, though it seems the ego of the Trump party is getting in the way of logic. First to market does not necessarily mean the best, but this seems to be the angle which the President’s team is taking.

The big question is what impact this will have on the future for the Republican party. Should these rumours of a nationalised network evolve into reality, a split may well appear in the rank and file. The Republican FCC representatives are clearly not happy about this position, and neither are the science and technology advisors in the White House. However, you can’t argue that such a campaign promise would be very attractive to those who currently reside on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Here is what the Trump 2020 electoral campaign team will have to assess; is the long-term detriment of communications infrastructure a fair trade-off for the lure of ‘Middle America’ votes in the 2020 election? We suspect they won’t be looking much further beyond 2024.

Potential Presidential candidates line up to oppose T-Mobile/Sprint merger

Leading opponents of President Trump have signed a letter to the FCC condemning the proposed T-Mobile US and Sprint merger, suggesting the threat of regionalised monopolies and sky-high bills.

Signed by the likes of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, all of whom are potential opponents of Trump in the 2020 race to the White House, the 19-page document offers a broad and deep range of reasons for the FCC to block the merger. Whether the Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai elects to read the letter is anybody’s guess, such is the state of US politics today.

“The two companies have proposed a four-to-three merger that is likely to raise prices for consumers, harm workers, reduce competition, exacerbate the digital divide and undermine innovation,” the letter states.

“Blocking this proposed combination is necessary to send a strong signal that our enforcement officials are vigorously protection Americans from harmful anticompetitive behaviour.”

Which way this decision will go is still very unclear, but the paperwork arguing against the merger is starting to stack up. These nine politicians are firmly standing in opposition of the transaction, while on the other side of the line, T-Mobile US and Sprint are struggling to muster support. It seems few people are pro-merger, though when has politics ever followed the glories of logic.

As many these transactions, the main crux of the argument seems to be focused around competition. The Senators not only fear there will be nefarious conversations behind closed doors to carve the US into regionalised monopolies between the three remaining players, but they also question this suggests the telcos don’t really care about poorer families and those who are living in the chasm of the digital divide.

One point which might strike a chord for those considering the proposed merger is the focus of the telcos on low- and medium-income families. The letter suggests the two parties has aggressively competed against each other for these demographics, while there is also evidence of a high diversion ratio between offerings. Combining the two would remove this market dynamic, as well as the driver to offer competitive tariffs for lower-income individuals.

Another factor to consider here would be the impact on competitiveness of the wholesale market, and the subsequent ability for MVNOs to remain competitive, another option for low income individuals.

“The proposed merger would permit the new T-Mobile to steadily racket up wholesale prices on MVNOs and block them out of the market,” the letter claims.

While screwing the poor is often considered a political no-no irrelevant as to where you are in the world, Pai is seemingly not built from the same clay. A few months back, the FCC Chairman attempted to rid the ‘Lifeline’ initiative from the books, a programme which was designed to help poorer families and communities bridge the digital divide. This is one of the reasons the House Committee on Energy and Commerce has promised to exercise more oversight on the FCC, suggesting in a letter last week, some of Pai’s actions are not in the ‘public interest’.

Another damning point to the proposed merger is that is being sold on false pretences. The T-Mobile and Sprint management teams have together been promising a newly merged business would allow scale and efficiencies to effectively deliver 5G, though the Senators argue that these are two businesses which have deployment plans which would work on a standalone basis also.

This should not be surprising, as any good business will have created a standalone 5G strategy should the merger be blocked, this is just common sense, though the Senators argue the merger would not necessarily speed up deployment or create a challenge to the leading pair of AT&T and Verizon. Back in 2011, AT&T argued it should be allowed to acquire T-Mobile as there was no feasible way the company could compete in the 4G market but fast-forward a couple of years and look at the result. The T-Mobile success might count against it from a precedent perspective.

On the investment side of things, the argument for the merger also falls apart a little. The merged business has promised to spend $40 billion over the next three years (or three years after the green light) to make 5G a reality. However, both telcos have said they spent $10 billion in CAPEX across 2018 separately. Doing basic maths, the $40 billion of the combined business would not exceed the CAPEX of the standalone business. Economics of scale and a larger network footprint would of course impact this number, but it is a point well made by the Senators.

While we are sure there are Senators who genuinely object to this merger, it is tough to look past the fact so many of these signatories are potential Presidential candidates. For T-Mobile and Sprint, this could quickly evolve into a nightmare.

The positions have been perfectly pitched here. These are Senators who are protecting the interests of the poor, fighting to for the benefits of those in rural communities and of course, battling to make life better for families. These are all political hot buttons and excellent rhetoric to win the favour of potential voters in the run up to the next election. These are arguably the demographics which pushed Trump over the line in 2016.

T-Mobile and Sprint might now be caught between a rock and a hard place. With such politically motivated opposition and few friendlies fighting their case for the greenlight, the path forward is becoming increasingly bumpy.

Committee Democrats tell Pai to stop being so horrid

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has received a scalding letter from House Committee on Energy and Commerce effectively telling him to play nicer with poor people and Democrats.

Signed by Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (Democrat representative of New Jersey) and Communications and Technology subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (Democratic representative of Pennsylvania), the letter accuses Pai of representing the interest of corporations over consumers, ignoring questions from Democrat politicians and inadequately representing the objectives of the FCC.

“Under your leadership, the FCC has failed repeatedly to act in the public interest and placed the interest of corporations over consumers,” the letter states.

“The FCC should be working to advance the goals of public safety, consumer protection, affordable access and connectivity across the United States. To that end, it is incumbent upon the Committee’s leadership and its members to oversee the activities of the FCC.”

While under the protection of a Republican majority across US politics, Pai has been freely swinging the machete to cut public programmes and reduce the influence of the FCC. The destruction of net neutrality is of course what has grabbed the headlines, but Pai has also overseen the deregulation of broadcasters and gutted the Lifeline subsidies which so many families rely on to bridge the digital divide.

These are only a few of the accusations pointed towards Pai by the Democrat politicians, but they are not wrong. The influence and footprint of the FCC has been diluted under Pai, though only time will tell whether it has created too much of a light-touch regulatory landscape. The Democrats clearly believe Pai is impacting the US negatively, but they were never going to be nice after the November elections win.

“Not only have you have failed on numerous occasions to provide Democratic members of this Committee with responses to their inquiries, you have also repeatedly denied or delayed responding to legitimate information requests from the public about agency operations,” the letter states.

“These actions have denied the public of a full and fair understanding of how the FCC under your leadership has arrived at public policy decisions that impact Americans every day in communities across the country.”

One thing which is clear is the relationship with between Pai and the two Democrats is hardly on the friendliest of terms. That would be putting it politely, but Pallone and Doyle have painted a target on Pai.

Moving forward, Pai will no-longer be able to frolic freely through the offices of the FCC. Pallone and Doyle have promised ‘oversight time’, with the Committee reassuming its traditional role of oversight to ensure the agency is acting in the best interest of the public and consistent with its legislative authority. In short, Pallone and Doyle will be breathing down Pai’s collar at every corner.

Pai might have enjoyed freedom over the last two years, but that is all about to change.

Options are running out for net neutrality supporters

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has released a gloating statement after Democrats failed to invalidate the pompously named ‘Restoring Internet Freedom’ order, making the path for net neutrality much rockier.

In June last year, net neutrality was officially struck from the FCC rulebook as the ink dried on the aforementioned order. There has been much protest and opposition to the rules, and while there are still routes to restore the Tom Wheeler-era rules, the number of options are getting smaller. With a new Session of Congress now in play, the path of invalidation is now closed.

As the rules were passed during the previous Session, the Democrats had a limited amount of time to try and invalidate the ‘Restoring Internet Freedom’ order passed by Pai and his Republican Commissioner cronies. Unfortunately for the net neutrality supporters, the 218 votes required in the Senate was a step too far. By close of play on January 2, only 182 votes, the majority of whom where Democrat, were mustered.

“I’m pleased that a strong bipartisan majority of the US House of Representatives declined to reinstate heavy-handed Internet regulation,” said Pai. “They did the right thing – especially considering the positive results for American consumers since the adoption of the Restoring Internet Freedom Order. Over the past year, the Internet has remained free and open.

“In short, the FCC’s light-touch approach is working. In 2019, we’ll continue to pursue our forward-looking agenda to bring digital opportunity to all Americans.”

What does this mean for net neutrality? There is still a route back for the rules, though it is becoming increasingly difficult.

Invalidating the rules was the simplest option, though the Democrats only had one shot at this. A new Session sets the rules in play, though there are other routes, both legal and regulatory.

On the legal side of things, there are still challenges being made to the ‘Restoring Internet Freedom’ order by numerous companies, consumer groups and Attorney Generals throughout the US. While many of the lawsuits are fundamentally arguing the same point, albeit with various different nuances, the courts will be asked to rule on one area in particular; whether the individual States can enforce their own localised legislation on net neutrality.

Central to this conundrum is California. Having agreed to delay the implementation of its own net neutrality rules in the State, judges will have to ponder the age-old debate of Federal vs. State. This is where it gets very complicated; as the internet is not a localised ‘service’, can California guarantee it will only impose the rules on traffic which is restricted to its borders? Should traffic traverse the cables elsewhere, the State has no right to implement net neutrality rules. This is a concept which is stated in the US Constitution.

On the regulatory front, the Democrats could attempt to force through new legislation which would supersede the ‘Restoring Internet Freedom’ order, in the same was this order did to net neutrality. This would be complicated as you have to suspect the Democrats to not have enough bodies in the room to drive through a majority.

All of the options remaining for the net neutrality supporters are time coming however, which is a factor which will certainly work against them. Pai can take his time and attempt to prolong the issue, as the longer it takes to resolve the less interest the general public and other politicians will have. We are fickle people, we get bored easily, and politicians are as shallow as we are fickle. If net neutrality is no longer getting the necessary amount of attention in the press, less enthused politicians will find a new cause to champion in pursuit of PR points.

The net neutrality battle is not over, but, unfortunately, Pai is winning.

Google wins FCC approval for gesture control tests

Google has finally won regulatory approval from the FCC to start testing the more advanced features of Project Soli, a radar-based motion sensor to allow the user to control devices through gestures.

The approval document, which you can read here, will allow Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects unit greater freedoms in testing the technology, which might look familiar if you are a fan of Tom Cruise’s Minority Report. Just when innovation is grinding to a halt in the smartphone segment, Google’s whacky scientists are working on something which could completely revolutionise the smartphone.

Project Soli initially came to be in 2015, though due to concerns the radar system would interfere with other spectrum users, power levels were limited. However, the waiver now allows Google to play with higher power levels while users can also operate the devices when on airplanes.

The idea is of course very simple. Radar sensors are in a small chip which features in the device, which detect hand and finger movements with high accuracy. Various different movements could be used to operate different features of a smart device, perhaps making the touch-screen redundant in the future. Check out the video at the bottom of the page for more details.

Interestingly enough, the FCC has not only decided Google is allowed to pursue this technology as there are no technical reasons not to do so, but also believes this project could be in the public interest.

“We further find that grant of the waiver will serve the public interest by providing for innovative device control features using touchless hand gesture technology,” the document states.

The last few years have been a bit of a baron time for smartphone innovation. Apple’s recent financial bombshell perfectly demonstrates this; not even Apple can rise above the mediocrity of innovation and grow revenues. This sort of innovation might just be what the smartphone segment needs.

And perhaps this is a sign of things to come; who knows what a smartphone or smart communications device will look like in the future. Maybe users will revert back to having two separate devices; one specialised for entertainment and the other for communications. With gesture control and voice recognition technologies, is there any need for a screen if communications is the purpose? And if you don’t need a screen, do you need such a big battery? Devices could become significantly smaller and much more power efficient.

Over the last 20 years, mobile communications devices have changed significantly. From big to small and back to big, foldable, slidable and closable, through colourful, sleek and offensive, the concept of the mobile device has always been changing. Who knows what it will actually look like in ten years’ time…

FCC readies ‘Out-of-Office’ emails as budget looms

With President Donald Trump and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi going toe-to-toe over funding for a controversial wall, the FCC has warned it will run out of money on Thursday afternoon.

The inability for the Republicans and Democrats to come to an agreement on federal funding has meant numerous agencies throughout the country are facing closure, the FCC being one of them. Considering FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has been doing his best to lighten the regulatory influence of the agency during his tenure, perhaps colleagues will be able to hear a joyous tap-dance echoing from his office.

“In the event of a continued partial lapse in federal government funding, the Federal Communications Commission will suspend most operations in the middle of the day on Thursday, January 3,” the FCC has said in a statement. “At that time, employees will have up to four hours to complete an orderly shutdown of operations.”

For those who work for the FCC, the political stance being made by the two leaders will mean very little as they sit quietly at home with no pay-cheque. However, work required for the protection of life and property will continue, as will work relating to spectrum auctions, which is funded by auction proceeds. The Office of the Inspector General will also remain open, though most of the FCC function will temporarily cease. More details are expected over the next couple of hours.

What remains to be seen is how long the office will be closed for. After it initially appeared Trump would sign the proposed budget, critics suggested he was going back on his word as there was little funding to create the physical border between the US and Mexico. The wave of criticism from usually friendly media titles forced the hand of the President, and it appears there will be little concession made by either side right now.

Such is the world of politics an agreement will probably be made in the near future. Both sides will suggest they gained the advantage, though (again), this will come as little comfort for those whose bank accounts are getting slimmer as we speak.

FCC sets the rules for third mmWave auction

The FCC has unveiled the rules for the next mmWave auction, set to take place in second half of 2019, for airwaves in the 37 GHz, 39 GHz and 47 GHz spectrum bands.

This will be the third mmWave auction to take place in the US, with the scrap for 28 GHz band spectrum currently underway, and the 24 GHz band auction to follow. While there are numerous different rules which will inevitably lead to squabbling, this is also the second incentive-based auction from the FCC, as the agency looks to promote contiguous blocks of spectrum.

To ensure this is a smooth process the block size will be increased to 100 megahertz across all three spectrum bands, while existing license holders will be afforded the opportunity to ‘rationalise’ their existing holdings. Whether anyone actually chooses to relinquish their assets during this process remains to be seen, though budget has been made available for compensation.

As with most other auctions, this one will take place over two phases. The first will be the pay-to-play section, before moving onto the allocation of specific spectrum.

“Pushing more spectrum into the commercial marketplace is a key component of our 5G FAST plan to maintain American leadership in the next generation of wireless connectivity,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

“Currently, we’re conducting an auction of 28 GHz band spectrum, to be followed by a 24 GHz band auction. And today, we are taking a critical step towards holding an auction of the Upper 37, 39, and 47 GHz bands in 2019. These and other steps will help us stay ahead of the spectrum curve and allow wireless innovation to thrive on our shores.”

While mmWave has been a very consistent buzzword for the telco industry over the last couple of years, industry lobby group GSMA feels there is a very good reason for this.

In its latest report, the GSMA suggests unlocking the right spectrum for to deliver innovative 5G services across different industry verticals could add $565 billion to global GDP and $152 billion in tax revenue from 2020 to 2034. For the GSMA, it’s not just about faster, bigger and better, but delivering services which the telcos are not able to today. mmWave is of course crucial to ensuring the 5G jigsaw all fits together appropriately.

“The global mobile ecosystem knows how to make spectrum work to deliver a better future,” said Brett Tarnutzer, Head of Spectrum at the GSMA.

“Mobile operators have a history of maximising the impact of our spectrum resources and no one else has done more to transform spectrum allocations into services that are changing people’s lives. Planning spectrum is essential to enable the highest 5G performance and government backing for mmWave mobile spectrum at WRC-19 will unlock the greatest value from 5G deployments for their citizens.”

Microsoft suggests FCC is telling Porky Pai’s

New Microsoft research suggests the digital divide in the US is much more prominent than any of the politicians, who are supposedly fixing the problem, would let you believe.

The digital divide is one of the most active political ping-pong balls in recent years, with US politicians seemingly using the desirability of bufferless cat videos to gain support in some of the country’s poorest communities. If you believe what the FCC has been telling the media, this disparity has been getting smaller, though it is still large.

The Microsoft research suggests very little or no progress is being made and the FCC is misleading US citizens.

Looking at the statistics, the FCC claims the digital divide currently stands at 22 million across the US. The threshold seems to be what many would consider basic broadband speeds. With so much of the world become digitized it is critical every person is not only granted access to new opportunities, but also allowed to continue using basic services (such as banking) which are increasingly moving into the digital world.

Looking at the Microsoft research, the team is suggesting around half of US citizens, 162 million, are not using the internet at broadband speeds. The difference between the two numbers is quite staggering, and while it does question to competence at the FCC, the answer might be a bit simpler; it’s all a game of politics.

When looking at the figures it is important to understand the FCC estimates on the digital divide are based on those individuals who can theoretically access the internet. There might be various other reasons why they do not, price for example, but these factors do not seem to be considered. Why you might ask? We suspect it is not politically convenient.

If you look at the last US election campaign trail, the idea of the digital divide was a hot topic. Both President Trump and the Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton suggested tackling the issue would be a high priority for their administrations, buying favour in communities which could (and eventually did) turn the tide in the election.

The FCC is a body which is funded via the pockets of the tax payer, therefore it does have to demonstrate it is fulfilling the objectives set out before it. Holding telcos accountable to theoretically offering broadband access is a much simpler job than ensuring these business price it at a cost which would be deemed accessible.

The Microsoft research is based on those who are using the internet at speeds which would be deemed relevant to broadband. Slow broadband could be deemed as bad a no broadband in some cases, with websites timing out or taking so long to load little could be achieved. With this in mind, stories about kids making use of McDonalds wifi to do homework start to make sense.

As you can see from the graph below, wired technologies do generally take a lot longer to reach 100%, especially in a country which is as vast and varied as the US, though broadband has been sluggish in recent years.

Broadband Adoption

But before you start to congratulate Microsoft too much, you must take into account its position is also political, or perhaps PR-drowned is more accurate. One of Microsoft’s more prominent CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) initiatives is closing the digital divide. If the problem is much worse than people originally imagined, the corporation coming in to help looks much more glorious.

On both side of the coin you have to take the claims with a pinch of salt. The FCC will continue to make bold statements on progress to ensure favourable light is shed on the Trump administration at a time where the White House will be starting to consider the next election, while Microsoft has a lot to gain commercially through the Airband Initiative, a five-year commitment to bring broadband access to two million unserved US citizens living in rural communities.

Microsoft is not wrong, and we suspect the way it is judging the digital divide is more accurate (usage vs. theoretical accessibility), but it always worth remembering there is always something to gain.