IIJA: Good Start, Long Way to Go

Now that the massive Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) has passed the Senate the time has come to see what’s in it and what’s not. On the “not” side we note one major omission: mobile.

When IIJA mentions mobility, it’s generally in conjunction with smart city and smart manufacturing pilot projects. When it mentions wireless, it’s generally in connection with the ban on texting while driving.

Wireless data now exceeds purely wired data on the Internet, so the emphasis on wired infrastructure is sadly out of date. The communication needs of the American people cannot be satisfied by wires alone.

Even within the scope of providing broadband to US households, wireless has a role to play. Within the scope of providing broadband to all homes today, that role is enormous.

How We Got Here

The omission of wireless technology and mobile service from the IIJA reflects the blinkers many of the Hill’s broadband specialists have worn for the entire 21st century. When the advocacy for all-fiber broadband networks emerged in the late ’90s, wireless networks were all about phone calls and their deployment was taking care of itself.

FTTH advocates (I like to say “fiber bigots”) believed they’d discovered the one magic technology to rule them all. In the grip of this delusion, they never paid much attention to the things you can’t do with cable, even one as high capacity as optical fiber.

While this opinion is most common among Democrats, the party whose broadband policy ranks are dominated by lawyers  and professors of law, it’s bipartisan. Republicans, the party that relies on economists to fill its policy ranks, were led down the merry fiber path by George Gilder and friends.

Solving Today’s Problems Today

Without question, the top-down view of a nation’s broadband infrastructure is dominated by fiber. The major aggregation centers are interconnected by highway- and rail-side fiber links; the pathways to other countries are fiber pipes below the oceans; and major population centers are served by ISPs at switching centers where all of the data comes in and goes out over fiber.

All of the wires in the big picture carry information aggregated from thousands or tens of thousands of end users, so high-capacity cables are absolutely necessary. But things look very different when we analyze the universal service problem from the bottom up.

The challenge for the unconnected residence is how to reach existing infrastructure. The unconnected want to solve this problem today; solving it for the future doesn’t matter as much because there won’t be  a future if we don’t solve today’s problems today.

IIJA Isn’t All Bad

With respect to the part of the broadband infrastructure problem that IIJA does address, its solutions aren’t all bad. Contrary to the wishes of the four Senators who tried to force symmetrical networks on the country, the bill sets two asymmetric guidelines for eligible projects: the current 25/3 for unserved areas and 100/20 for underserved ones [Division F, Sec. 60102. Grants for Broadband Deployment]

The bill is also devoid of spin about “future-proof” networks, although some advocates continue to use this misleading terminology.

In place of standards and terminology intended to erase wireless from the picture, a new trope has emerged: “reliable networks”, to wit: “Access to affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband is essential to full participation in modern life in the United States.” [Sec. 60101. Findings]

Unreliable Views of Reliability

It’s unclear what this is supposed to mean. In one section, the IIJA declares an interest in smart transportation grids of: “Vehicles that send and receive information regarding vehicle movements in the network and use vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-everything communications to provide advanced and reliable connectivity.”

This is a mobile application. But in others it’s a throw-in modifier for “broadband.” The definition doesn’t help:

The term ‘‘reliable broadband service’’ means broadband service that meets performance criteria for service availability, adaptability to changing end-user requirements, length of serviceable life, or other criteria, other than upload and download speeds, as determined by the Assistant Secretary in coordination with the Commission.[Sec. 60102. Grants for Broadband Deployment]

Performance criteria for service availability are easy to define: percent uptime over some span of measurement time, such as hours of downtime per year, month, or week. But adaptability to changing end-user requirements sounds a lot like “future-proofness”. Like length of serviceable life it’s more subjective intuition than measurable reality.

And other criteria is an invitation to make arbitrary exclusions, like the exclusion of everything that’s not a government-owned fiber to the home network. I hope I’m wrong.

Lawmaker Bias v. Technical Reality

Washington has failed pretty miserably in its attempts to design broadband networks: net neutrality remains a turgid attempt to prevent self-dealing by banning legitimate engineering practices instead of by identifying offenders and prosecuting them.

Similarly, we’re still not a “future-proof” nation with respect to the visions of the future common at the turn of the 21st century. That future was eclipsed by the mobile reality in which we live.

Lawmakers admire laws that stand the test of time, but technologists seek to overturn ancient regimes in favor of new ones. When this happens, the old laws run out of serviceable life and need to be replaced by new ones.

Insisting that dynamic technology markets behave like stone tablets does us all a disservice. The realms of law and technology can hardly be more different.

Stay in Your Lane, Congress

Diverse voices are speaking out on the shortcomings of IIJA’s biased approach and incomplete solution. In an op-ed, former Democratic FCC commissioner and chair Mignon Clyburn and highly respected Republican commissioner Rob McDowell touted the efficiency of fixed wireless networks.

Fixed wireless offers a competitive option for many consumers, particularly in underserved markets where competition is lacking and fiber deployment is lagging. A comprehensive fiber network connecting every home can take years to deploy. In these situations, fixed wireless technology fortunately can provide a high-quality, lower-cost solution that can be deployed more rapidly than fiber. The capital cost per subscriber for fixed wireless is nearly 10 times less than fiber and deployment is measured in months not years, making it an effective and speedy method to connect rural, unserved and underserved communities. Furthermore, fixed wireless broadband puts downward pressure on consumer prices by bringing more competition to underserved markets.

And a recent news article expresses the desire of rural America to get better mobile service:

Mike Bucy, a fire chief based in Loon Lake, Wash., said the lack of cell service has been frustrating this summer as firefighters battle some of the worst blazes in years. They can’t always send the latest information to the public, call in extra resources, or exchange updates with neighboring firefighting forces, he said.

Better communications for first-responders is an issue in rural Idaho, too, says Chip D’Amato, executive vice president of Inland Cellular, a wireless telecom company in Lewiston, Idaho, about 140 miles south of Loon Lake. First-responders usually direct their pleas for better communications to his company “because it’s our community,” he said.
The 1998 law professor’s or stock market tout’s vision of arbitrarily fast, symmetric FTTH for urban couch potatoes falls short of today’s needs for mobile broadband and adds unnecessary delay to achieving universal broadband service.
Congress should re-prioritize broadband subsidies to meet the needs of urban poor, forgotten rural areas, and mobile services. We live in 2021, let’s start acting like it.