Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What Does the American Experience with Roads Tell Us about Broadband?

Broadband infrastructure, sometimes called the “Internet highway,” has long been analogized to the nation’s highways. Yesterday, Art Brodsky said in the Public Knowledge Blog that not being “allowed to play favorites” has been part of transportation for 100 years. And in the Commission’s recent report on rural broadband, the National Highway System (“NHS”) was used as an example of America’s ability to overcome its infrastructure challenges. But favorites are played on the nation’s roadways, and the NHS includes only 4% of the nation’s roads.

So what does America’s experience with building the nation’s roads tell us about broadband, especially mobile broadband? (I note that Anna-Maria Kovacs at Regulatory Source Associates did a similar piece yesterday, but I explore different aspects of the analogy below.)

Guaranteed Speed. Like mobile wireless systems, the roadways are a shared infrastructure. Although a highway may be designed to handle traffic “up to” 55 mph, during rush hour traffic often slows considerably – and in many cities slows to a standstill. The available speed of travel on a typical highway changes throughout the day depending on the level of demand at any given point in time. It also changes throughout the week – holiday weekends are often busier than non-holiday weekends. This is the nature of inherently shared networks, which may explain why transportation engineers don’t provide “guaranteed” speeds.

Traffic Management. That doesn’t mean that transportation engineers stand idly by when traffic congestion threatens the usability of a particular road. Transportation engineers have devised numerous ways of dealing with traffic congestion.

A common method is to limit use of certain lanes or even the entire road at certain times to certain vehicles – i.e., “high occupancy vehicles” or “HOV”, which often includes motorcycles or vehicles using hybrid technology. Thus, a driver’s choice of vehicle may dictate whether, when, and how that driver may use certain roadways. In other words, a driver of a “gas hog” may be excluded from a particular roadway, even if that driver has excellent reasons for using that type of vehicle (e.g., an accessible van driven by a person with disabilities or a low-income driver that cannot afford a more modern alternative that would qualify for HOV privileges).

Traffic engineers are also increasingly using “congestion pricing” to reduce traffic congestion during peak demand. In some instances, a fee is charged for using HOV lanes, which are known as “high occupancy toll” or “HOT” lanes. Another form of congestion pricing is to reduce existing toll rates outside the hours of peak demand.

Some oppose government traffic management methodologies on the grounds of discrimination. The National Motorists Association (“NMA”) argues that drivers should have “[c]omplete access to all public streets, roads, and highways, free of arbitrary restrictions, exorbitant fees, or governmental attempts to dictate personal travel choices.” For example, according to the NMA, HOV rules that allow certain vehicle types inherently discriminate among drivers based on their choice of vehicle. But such opposition has not eliminated the use of HOV restrictions by government officials, who recognize the very real challenges of traffic management.

Financing Construction. Transportation engineers also use various methods to fund new construction. Although tax dollars are the most common method of funding roadway construction and maintenance, some roads (especially highways) are built and maintained using a form of metered pricing – i.e., tolls. Tolls may vary according to the distance traveled, the building and maintenance costs of the roadway, and the type of vehicle.

When building its roadway system, the United States also took into account differences between sparsely populated rural areas and more densely populated urban areas. The United States does not offer the same types of roads to both urban and rural areas. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, approximately 35 percent of the roads in the United States are still unpaved. When balancing the costs and benefits of building paved roads to every house in America, the United States has decided that the benefits of paved roads are outweighed by their cost in many rural areas.

Fees for Heavy Users. Due to the additional congestion and impact on road surfaces caused by the trucking industry, it is not surprising that the trucking industry pays additional taxes and tolls for use of the nation’s roadways. All federal trucking industry taxes are earmarked for the Federal Highway Trust Fund (“HTF”). The HTF was designed as a user-supported fund, and it is the primary source of revenue for the interstate highway system and various other federal-aid highway programs. Although all users pay into the fund through fuel taxes, diesel fuel used by the commercial trucking industry is taxed at a higher rate than gasoline (diesel is 24.4 cents per gallon compared to gasoline’s 18.4 cents per gallon). Commercial tires are similarly taxed at a higher rate than non-commercial tires. Perhaps most relevant to the broadband analogy is the Federal Heavy Vehicle Use Tax, which is imposed on all vehicles with a gross weight of more than 55,000 pounds, and federal excise taxes, which are imposed on all new tractor and trailer purchases. Thus, where our highways are concerned, the federal government has expressly embraced the idea that heavy users of a shared resource should pay more for that use.

Mobile Wireless. Mobile wireless network engineers face many of the same challenges that confront transportation officials. Like America’s roadways, mobile wireless networks are shared infrastructure subject to congestion that must be managed through various techniques, including through limitations on certain types of applications (wireless “HOV” restrictions) and congestion pricing. Also like roadways, broadband networks are costly to build, especially in rural areas. Just as rural America has been connected largely with unpaved roads, mobile wireless technologies are a more cost-effective solution for rural areas than fiber to the home. And, like the Federal government does with the commercial trucking industry, it makes sense to charge particularly heavy users of mobile networks more than typical users.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

WCAI Honors Jim Schlichting, Lee Sparkman, Kelley Dunne at Symposium

WCAI honored three industry visionaries with its annual awards at the Wireless Operator Dinner Sept. 15 held as part of the WCAI’s Annual International Symposium at 4G World. Jim Schlichting, Senior Deputy Chief of the FCC’s Wireless Bureau, was presented with the Government Leadership Award; Lee Sparkman, President of Enforta (Russia) with the Industry Service Award; and Kelley Dunne, CEO of DigitalBridge, with the Innovation Achievement Award. “We at WCAI are delighted to recognize the achievements of Jim Schlichting, Lee Sparkman and Kelley Dunne,” said WCAI President & CEO Fred Campbell. “Throughout their distinguished careers, they contributed to the growth and prosperity of the wireless broadband industry. On behalf of the WCAI, I want to thank them for their hard work and congratulate on winning the WCAI’s annual awards.”

FCC Official Urges WCAI Conference Attendees to Weigh In on Issues

Bruce Gottlieb, chief counsel and senior legal adviser to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, was the opening keynote speaker at the WCAI’s Annual International Symposium at 4G World Sept. 15 in Chicago. Addressing WCAI members and others in the wireless broadband industry, he said in the converged communications landscape, the FCC needs input from a wide variety of parties in order to make the best decisions on wireless issues, according to TR Daily coverage. “The bottom line is simple: The FCC is not hearing from the growing universe of companies in wireless, and as the wireless world expands, so must the FCC’s thinking about wireless.” He compared WCAI conference participants with parties that filed comments in last year’s wireless competition proceeding, noting that most of the latter were carriers and trade organizations. He urged input from a variety of stakeholders, as the FCC works to craft a national broadband plan by a statutory deadline of next February, as well as in its wireless innovation, wireless competition, and consumer disclosure proceedings. He said “one focus of the Commission’s attention will be looking at spectrum availability, and considering ways to ensure that all spectrum bands are being put to their highest and best use.”

Clearwire’s Barry West Keynotes WCAI’s International Operator Breakfast at Symposium

Barry West, President, International at WCAI member Clearwire kicked off the WCAI’s International Operator Breakfast as part of the WCAI’s International Symposium at 4G World last week. Organized by the WCAI’s Global Development Committee (GDC), the breakfast brought together wireless broadband service providers from around the world to discuss the future global expansion of 4G and the ways new and emerging technologies will transform our lives going forward. Addressing the operators, Mr. West delivered a spirited talk about WiMAX technology and said he was optimistic the company would be able to raise more money to complete the construction of a national network, according to TR Daily coverage. “I know there’s a lot of speculation about where WiMAX is and will it survive. Is it the Betamax of mobile broadband? I am telling you - we are past the tipping point,” Mr. West said. “Will LTE come along? Of course it will, but it’s not a case of, ‘Will it come along and crush WiMAX?’ WiMAX is here to stay.” Later, he predicted that WiMAX would grab “the lion’s share” of the 4G market.

Funding Scarce for Next-Generation 911

The future of next-generation, IP-enabled E911 is hampered by a lack of funding and momentum from both the public and private sectors, according to panel on the subject at the WCAI’s International Symposium last week covered by Wireless Week. David Furth of the FCC emphasized the importance of extending connectivity to unserved and underserved rural areas. “There are two regulatory issues that we’re going to be looking at. The first is to get basic connectivity out to the country because it affects 911 centers and first responders as much as it affects everyone else,” Furth said, adding that the FCC is examining how to configure rural broadband to that it will support the features needed for next-generation 911, both on the consumer side and the public safety side. Details.

WCAI Symposium Panelists Discuss Universal Broadband Services, Spectrum Allocations

WCAI International Symposiumpanelists last week urged the federal government to inventory the way government and commercial frequencies are being used before deciding how much additional spectrum needs to be reallocated for 4G wireless services, according to TR Daily. Although most panelists did not want to suggest how much additional spectrum carriers would need, Mohammad Shakouri, corporate VP-innovation and marketing for WCAI member Alvarion, suggested each would need an additional 80 MHz to 100 MHz, and he said they will also need wide channels for “real broadband.” Jim Schlichting, senior deputy chief of the FCC’s Wireless Bureau, urged various parties to weigh in at workshops and elsewhere at the agency. “Up until this point, we’ve had a lot of folks saying we need more spectrum, but it’s been sorely lacking in specifics,” he said, including where to get the spectrum and what the demand will be. Mr. Schlichting said the FCC was becoming prepared to conduct an inventory of spectrum under its jurisdiction if congressional legislation passes, while Danny Weitzner, associate administrator-policy for the NTIA, said his agency, other executive branch agencies, and Capitol Hill were discussing the best way to conduct an inventory of government bands. He also cited the need to provide incentives for efficient spectrum use and for users to vacate spectrum.

4G Wireless Network Roaming Challenges Cited at WCAI Symposium

Industry representatives participating in the WCAI’s International Symposium panel on roaming last week cited the challenges carriers will face in inking roaming agreements on 4G networks and suggested that the FCC leave data roaming up to the market instead of imposing rules, according to TR Daily coverage. Joan Marsh, vice president-federal regulatory for AT&T, and other panelists cited the difficulty of knowing exactly at this point how roaming agreements for 4G services will work in light of the absence of a standard for LTE technology, as well as uncertainty about the exact applications over networks. Speakers also noted that standards for VoIP offerings over a 4G platform haven’t been adopted. Jim Schlichting, senior deputy chief of the FCC’s Wireless Bureau, suggested that one of the factors the FCC will consider when mulling whether to change its roaming rules is the expectation of consumers when using the mobile Internet. He noted the agency also must consider whether it has the jurisdiction to regulate data roaming.

Friday, September 4, 2009

FCC Chief Counsel Bruce Gottlieb to Keynote WCAI Symposium

It’s with great pleasure that we announced today that Bruce Gottlieb, FCC Chief Counsel and Senior Legal Advisor to Chairman Julius Genachowski, will kick off the WCAI’s Annual International Symposium with an opening keynote address on September 15, 2009 at McCormick Place in Chicago, IL.

I had the privilege of working with Bruce at the FCC for many years. (If I were still a Bureau Chief at the FCC, I’d be working for him.) Bruce now manages the Commission’s overall agenda and has responsibility for policy coordination among all of the FCC’s Bureaus, with particular responsibility for wireless, engineering and technology, and public safety issues.

FCC Chairman Genachowski has demonstrated a commitment to wireless broadband very early in his tenure through new initiatives addressing wireless innovation and competition issues. In this keynote presentation, Bruce, the Chairman’s Chief Counsel, will discuss the Chairman’s priorities for wireless broadband in the coming year and the role of wireless broadband in the National Broadband Plan.

We at WCAI look forward to Bruce’s presentation and invite everyone in the industry to join us for this important regulatory update.