Working Together, We Can Keep Country People off the Internet (Just Kidding; Jumpstart 5G This Way)


A buddy of mine living in Charlottesville was wishing for more subsidized rail to travel to Washington.

I told him it was cheaper for me if he takes the bus.

But maybe now I’ll change my tune: we need Internet out at the Crews farm in southside Virginia; it’s a dead zone, and I’d like y’all to pay for it.

What’s that you say? “Subsidized 5G rural broadband? Cheaper for me if you move to town, Crews. Or get a satellite dish, newspaper subsciption and a library card.”

Jokes aside, expansion of fifth generation (5G) technologies has become a major policy issue of the day. 5G will magnify download speeds and capacity of fixed and mobile wireless. It will boost Internet of Things (IoT) applications like augmented and virtual reality, autonomous vehicles and their controls, smart homes and smart cities, education, remote medical treatment—and of course rural broadband and mobile service.

I’m out at Las Vegas for the Consumer Technology Association’s (CTA) Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which features major public-policy tracks in addition to the robots, artificial intelligence (AI), drones, smart home/medical/sport devices, concept cars, and semi-“creepy” stuff like even kitchen appliances that collect dataabout you.

5G is a mix of still-evolving technologies as CTA’s own “5G–The Future is Now” descriptor shows. This l’il cartoon tutorial video from the IEEE Spectrum is a good burst about 5G.

Deployment is both a great opportunity and challenge. Last year, Federal Communications Commissioner (FCC) Brendan Carr told CES of agency plans to “reduce the regulatory costs of small cell deployment by 80%, cut months off of deployment timelines, and incentivize thousands of new wireless deployments.”

Stopping local franchising authorities from blocking installation of non-invasive 5G equipment with laws, zoning and fees is imperative. A recent filing to FCC from NCTA (the Internet and Television Association) in the agency’s proceeding on local franchisingcontained economic analysis by Jonathan Orszag and Allan Shampine on the reduction of investment incentives from local overreach. Buildout is a national and federal problem, as Common Good Chair Philip K. Howard’s “Two Years, Not Ten Years,” found that red tape delays for other kinds of infrastructure can more than double the cost of large projects.

One big downside of rural mobile service out in the sticks is never again can we have the horror movies with panicked teenagers holding phones aloft shrieking, “I can’t get a signal! Anybody got a signal!?”

It’s funny, though, how normal offerings of the market become public policy flash points. Why is it the financial liability of people who do not live in the country to pay for the Internet of people who do? Subsidizing 5G in rural areas is unfair to the rest of the nation, many citizens of which were also once rural and will not be getting a rebate; and subsidies prolong deprivation indirectly with distortions of what tomorrow’s markets bring.

Last year’s Public Law 115-141 gave to the Rural Utilities Service $600 million for broadband. Hasn’t meant much to me. At our farm in Southside Virginia, I can’t get AT&T phone call or web service; I don’t even have 2G, but can get the occasional random 3G spurt of texts or emails. I have to drive to the McDonalds in Gretna to get online.

Then again, we didn’t even have an indoor toilet at the old house until the 80s; here’s Grandpa Crews, also Clyde like me, in front of it. And no tub; you took a pan of water with a rag and bar of soap into the bedroom to “wipe off.”

One doesn’t reorient society so holdouts (like us) who are going to get the service in a few years anyway can watch videos faster. If markets can’t do something as painless as installing some sub-tabletop-sized 5G cells in the easiest-to-build areas, we’ve got problems way bigger than 5G. Poverty vouchers for subscriptions to the technology or a substitute for it (like satellite service), not subsidies and national regulation, are the more sound course. These problems have been recognized before but now seem hushed for some reason; many on the free market side warned in earlier years that subsidized municipal broadband would crowd out or private initiatives. And Internet stimulus was tried back in the “shovel ready” era. Such enthusiasms encapsulate why it’s so hard to sustain limited government.

The path to abundance for broadband is not government subsidies with strings attached, but instead liberalization encompassing network and large-scale industry sectors well beyond telecom. Electricity, water, transportation, mobile and others are regulated in different silos when they could be working together to expand infrastructure at giga-scales. That’s a hurdle in an environment in which politicians think the solution to California’s periodic water crises is some combination of magic, desalination and strict environmental mandates rather than pricing and grid liberalization.

Expanding the list of free-market must-do’s to enable the thousands of small cells and the trillions in wealth they will generate in the coming decades is imperative. Several federal level doings seem to recognize that.

One example is the Commerce Department’s Permit Streamlining Action Plan in response to Trump’s January 2017 executive memorandum on reducing Regulatory Burdens in Domestic Manufacturing. There was also Executive Order 13807 on Establishing Discipline and Accountability in Environmental Review and Permitting of infrastructure.

Even more directly related to 5G has been FCC’s own 5G FAST agenda; 2018’s executive order on Streamlining and Expediting Requests To Locate Broadband Facilities in Rural America; and a presidential memorandum on Supporting Broadband Tower Facilities in Rural America on Federal Properties Managed by the Department of the Interior. Most recent is  October 2018’s “Sustainable Spectrum Strategy.” In assorted ways these deal with matters like simultaneous rather than sequential permitting, penalties for lollygagging agencies that miss deadlines, and one-stop online project tracking.

While there were worthwhile elements in the administration’s 2018 infrastructure proposal in 2018, that sweeping topic is also a prime candidate for a Trump deal with Democrats. If such a deal means big spending and gold-plating and overbuilding in the wrong spots, things could go pear-shaped quickly.

Another concern is the Trump administrations’ flirtation in 2018 with a nationalized 5G network, which got pushback from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). So far, FCC commissioners, too, have rejected idea, proclaiming the superiority of private sector creation and ownership of infrastructure. Past infrastructures did succumb to decades-long heavy utility-style regulation, even after market failure justifications fell aside or were demonstrated to have been faulty. That keeps these industries sub-competitive and vulnerable to political predation and, sadly for today, “unavailable” in 5G expansion as they remain cordoned off from telecom.

Indeed, legacy policy might have kept 5G or some technological equivalent from emerging long ago. Tom Hazlett’s new book Political Spectrum: The Tumultuous Liberation of Wireless Technology, from Herbert Hoover to the Smartphone argues that the Federal Communications Commission slowed FM, cable TV, and cellular phone service for decades.

More generally, while there is much concern over rural access, the emphasis on 5G in cities paired with other technologies like drones and driverless cars underscores issues of heavy government involvement, communications protocols, surveillance and cybersecurity.

Hence my “bias.” Rather than being fret over, rural areas can be the best test beds one could wish for. For example, at the same time 5G needs to be expanded, recharging stations for the drone networks need to be created, but I haven’t heard the two parallel, synergistic tasks mentioned in the same breath even once. Are negotiations taking place with newfangled battery vendors to power 5G cells not supplied by power networks? The Model T emerged 110 years ago, with little infrastructure; yet the private sector created filling stationswithout it being primarily a public policy issue. In today’s world, we need and have incentives for more than just the filling stations.

The policy emphasis is dealing with resistant local barons, when private property owners might be a better emphasis. I haven’t been approached once about leasing a spot for installing anybody’s 5G equipment; but I and probably many other property owners are willing. Serve rurals and peripheries, like new self-contained shopping, residential and industrial districts, and the townfolk may get jealous enough to solve the Burgermeister Meisterburgerproblem.

Colonial Americans sailed up the James and other rivers until they hit the rocks, hopped out and built Richmond there. Now, the cities, and apparently some annoying smaller localities, are themselves the rocks. Out in the rural and less populated areas, there are only pebbles; and not just for 5G cells but airspace and road testing for AVs.

Plus, any talk about rural broadband needs to be immersed in the study of changing migration patterns and how one could affect the other. One could imagine new digital “cities” emerging because of protectionism in the big cities.

The most important point again is that the the 5G opportunity underscores how there must be an overarching, sustained agenda for rolling back barriers and advancing markets and property rights in all complicated network and large-scales, so they can all bolster one another. Often the shiny object is what (large) companies are doing in partnership with governments. But that can mean coerced investments in part detached from consumers’ demands, and distorted trajectories for technologies, firms and market growth. In addition, innovation in modes of ownership (see the work of Douglas Houston on user ownership in networks, for example) need exploration because networks are treated too much in isolation thanks to air-gapped regulatory empires.

Access and pricing to to piggyback 5G on electric power companies’ poles can be a point of contention, magnifying problems with local authorities. While transitional, rifle-shot administered access is an important part of the mix, there are alternatives to “net neutrality” for poles that over time can result in more robust and extensive infrastructure. It is important to create an environment wherein it is in all parties’ interest to seek further liberalization; to remove regulatory silos; to envision joint ventures easing addition of new poles, equipment, conduits; and to experiment with rewards to property owners to reduce NIMBY (“Not in my back yard”). A lesson for 5G purveyors with respect to the latter is that, when one increases value of land for others, one can negotiate rights of way to it: Rural farmers used to willingly grant land to streetcar companies that agreed to stop nearby. (See Getting There: The Epic Struggle between Road and Rail in the American Century by Stephen Goddard)

Potential partnerships abound and will be different for different locales. Vendors can offer to pay for reinforcement, replacement, construction and maintenance in exchange for access to existing right-of-way infrastructure (of whatever type). Poles in rural America are aging (some look like dead trees, tapering at the top). All parties need to bring something to table besides an appetite, and unite to make grids, roads, bridges, buildings and other infrastructure smarter and transactive, to embed new sophisticated fiber, sensors and chips that detect stress, traffic and usage and the like—all in ways that enhance rather than diminish complex/network property rights. There are promising new proposals for wired 10G that are highly synergistic with wireless 5G, for example. In a way, we need 5G to be the easy part, because we’re not even running wires, and there are far bigger fish to fry in integrating drones, autonomous cars (and even low-earth orbit and commercial space ventures) into rights of way, airspaces and transportation networks that are now largely government controlled. And speaking of airspace, we don’t merely need blimps, drones and other airborne vehicles delivering hi-speed wi-fi in the developing world, we need that here. Perhaps someday sporting solar-powered 5G cells, the machines might fill the sky—but give me (and others) a call out in the country anyway.

Network regulation has been a problematic for capitalism for over a century. In large part, if a resource hadn’t been integrated into broader property rights institutions of capitalism by the dawn of the Progressive era—from airsheds, to watersheds to spectrum—it remains there., often stunted in relation to human needs. That is a legacy peril for 5G, and the root of the joke of my title above; collective action has and does impede rural access rather than boost it; and our predecessors often knew better. We can learn from lessons of the past and realize the cornucopia of 5G and beyond sooner rather than later.

Originally published at Forbes.