Red Tape and Headaches Plague BEAD Rollout

Cite this Article
Eric Fruits, Red Tape and Headaches Plague BEAD Rollout, Truth on the Market (August 17, 2023),

While the dog days of August have sent many people to the pool to cool off, the Telecom Hootenanny dance floor is heating up. We’ve got hiccups in BEAD deployment, a former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) member urging the agency to free-up 12 GHz spectrum for fixed wireless, and another former FCC commissioner urging a rewrite of the rules governing low-Earth orbit satellites.

It’s been less than two months since the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced state funding under the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) program. Already, states are grumbling about implementation headaches.

Reporting from a summit hosted by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), Anthony Hennen recounts in The Center Square that several state officials are finding that federal red tape and labor shortages are standing in the way of successful deployment of BEAD-funded projects.

Tamarah Holmes—director of Virginia’s Office of Broadband, who spent some time at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development—remarked that: “This is probably the most burdensome federal program that I probably will administer in my career — and I come from a background of HUD.” 

According to Hennen’s piece, Holmes noted that BEAD’s preference for fiber-optic connections can be a handicap when expanding into mountainous areas that could benefit more from wireless connections. 

This is in line with the observations of Brandy Reitter, executive director of Colorado’s broadband office, who announced that fixed wireless is “absolutely part of the equation” for the state’s BEAD-funding plans, because fixed wireless would be especially useful in mountainous areas and box canyons, where fiber buildouts would be high-cost and difficult to execute.

Sally Doty, director of Mississippi’s Office of Broadband Expansion and Accessibility, beefed: “The feds have their foot on the gas and on the brake at the same time.” She noted that there “are a lot of hoops and things you have to jump through.”

In April, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and several other Republican senators penned a letter to NTIA identifying some of these “hoops and things”:

  • Labor requirements prioritizing certain segments of the workforce, such as “individuals with past criminal records” and “justice-impacted […] participants”;
  • Favorable treatment for government-owned networks over private investment;
  • “Fiber-above-all” rules that require a state that does not use fiber to submit a complex and burdensome waiver request;
  • De facto rate regulation that requires states to “ensure that high-quality broadband services are available to all middle-class families in the BEAD-funded network’s service area at reasonable prices.”

In addition to the red tape, many states are likely to have trouble finding enough workers to staff deployment projects, according to Nicole Ferraro, writing in Light Reading:

According to a Broadband Workforce Development Guidebook that FBA and Cartesian published this year, the Fiber Broadband Association estimates that “205,000 fiber optic technicians will be required across the nation over the next five years.” (Notably, the federal government estimates BEAD will create 150,000 telecom jobs.) “States are unlikely to have faced a labor shortage similar to that facing the BEAD program,” according to the guidebook.

If this is how the BEAD program is rolling out, we should be worried about how it will end up.

Former FCC Commissioner Really Cares About 12 GHz Spectrum, and You Should, Too

In Fierce Telecom, former FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly urges the FCC to issue new rules to enable the use of a sizable chunk of spectrum in the 12 GHz band for high-power fixed broadband. 

The 12 GHz band is a part of the radio spectrum that can be used to transmit wireless signals. Currently, the FCC limits how much power and interference the 12 GHz band can have, which prevents it from being used for high-speed and reliable internet access.

O’Reilly notes that the 12 GHz band is one of the few bands of scarce spectrum resources that is ready for immediate deployment. Analysis by RFK Group concludes terrestrial 5G services on the 12 GHz band can coexist with NGSO fixed-satellite service. The Brattle Group estimates that using the 12 GHz band for 5G could generate over $1 trillion in consumer welfare.

We said O’Reilly cares about 12 GHz, but why should you?

As we noted just a few paragraphs above, 5G fixed wireless can be an important alternative to fiber in many challenging areas and terrains. This can be a key technology to provide affordable Internet to the few remaining Americans who do not have access.

Former FCC Commissioner Really Cares About LEO Satellites, and You Should, Too

Hot off the presses of SSRN, former FCC Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth argues that the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) rules governing interference protection among non-geostationary satellite orbit (NGSO) systems are based on 25-year-old assumptions and standards that do not reflect the current state of the art. He proposes that these rules be updated to allow more efficient and effective use of NGSO systems, which would result in tens of billions of dollars of benefits to customers around the world.

Not all satellites are created equal. One crucial difference is how high they are above the Earth. Geostationary satellite orbit (GSO) systems stay in the same spot over the Earth, about 22,000 miles above the equator. They can cover a large area of the Earth, but they have some drawbacks. They are expensive to launch and maintain; they have a long delay in sending and receiving signals; and they can get crowded and interfere with each other.

NGSO systems move around the Earth at lower altitudes, ranging from 125 to 1,250 miles. They can provide faster and cheaper internet access than GSO systems, but they have some challenges, too. They need more satellites to cover the same area as GSO systems; they have to avoid collisions with other satellites and space debris; and they have to share the same frequency bands with other NGSO systems. LEO systems are a subset of NGSOs.

Furchtgott-Roth argues the ITU rules that govern how NGSO systems can operate are old and outdated. They were made 25 years ago, when NGSO technology was not as advanced as it is today. They limit how many NGSO systems can use the same frequency bands; how much interference they can cause to each other; and how long they can keep their licenses. He concludes:

As a result of advances in antenna technology, spot-beam utilization, and frequency reuse, today’s satellite systems are able to make more efficient use of the radio frequency spectrum, but current … rules prohibit those more efficient uses.

We said that Furchtgott-Roth cares about LEOs, but why should you? Consumer welfare. The answer is always consumer welfare:

Under a range of reasonable assumptions, updated … rules would result in welfare benefits to all customers ranging from $10 billion to $100 billion. The greatest benefit would likely accrue to many of the 2 billion people who are not connected to the Internet.