FCC chair Pai makes the case for rural 5G and basic broadband infrastructure subsidies

23 October 2019 by Steve Blum
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Pai mwc la 2019 22oct2019

Ajit Pai was at his geeky best yesterday as he played the big room at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Los Angeles. The Federal Communications Commission chair focused on topics he knows well – spectrum, network security, infrastructure deployment, service access – and mostly steered clear of weaknesses that have rightly drawn down a deluge of criticism on him: local government operations, common carrier/net neutrality policy and a taste for industry cheerleading.

Pai touted the FCC’s “5G Fast Plan”, which includes opening up more spectrum for mobile broadband use, building fiber backhaul and, more controversially, preempting local and state control over public right of ways and the assets they install, and own, there. He said his highest priority is closing the digital divide, particularly in rural areas, a job he compared to the federal rural electrification program that began 80 years ago…

I didn’t underestimate, by the way, the impact that 5G could have in some of these rural areas. This often one of the questions I get – ‘well, isn’t it just simply a densely populated urban use case?’ That is not the case at all…When you think about what farms and ranches are, it’s not simply the tangible things you can see, like corn, and soybean and wheat growing. These are essentially huge amounts of data that need to be uploaded into the cloud, analysed quickly and then the services that you need, to be deployed at scale. Similarly, I visited a farm recently in North Dakota…where we visited a corn farm that’s using connected combines to analyse virtually every single square yard…to analyse everything from the fertiliser that needs to be deployed on that square yard, the yield that they got this year compared to last year. All of that is going to require high bandwidth, symmetric service. I think that’s a particular 5G use case that’s going to be really compelling.

Pai said that the “$20 billion” Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which the FCC is spinning up to replace the Connect America Fund program, will “create some of the hard infrastructure” to support 5G development in rural areas, such as “the fiber infrastructure that’s needed for backhaul”.

He’s right about all of that. 5G-class wireless connectivity can have huge benefits for agriculture and rural communities. The question remains, though, will it even happen? To date, the FCC’s rural broadband subsidies have mostly been spent on slow, outdated DSL technology, and not on modern broadband infrastructure. That needs to change.