Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Backhaul and the National Broadband Plan

by Joseph M. Sandri, Jr., Senior Vice President, Regulatory and Government, FiberTower
Reprinted from Converge! Network Digest

On March 16, 2010, the Federal Communications Commission released the nation’s first ever National Broadband Plan (NBP). One of the key elements addressed in the NBP is backhaul which is generally considered as the transport of voice, video and data traffic from a wireless carrier’s or public safety network’s base station (or cell site) to its mobile switching center (MSC). Backhaul is present in the NBP in some obvious and also subtle ways.

What is the National Broadband Plan (NBP)?

In early 2009, Congress directed the FCC to develop a NBP to restore the U.S. to a global leadership position in telecommunications and to utilize the broadband sector to drive economic development. It includes 198 formal recommendations. Half of the recommendations are offered to the FCC and the remaining half are offered to the Executive Branch, Congress, and state and local governments. The next 2-to-24 months will see a vigorous attempt to implement the recommendations. There are no guarantees that the recommendations will all be implemented.

The FCC will soon publish a timeline of proceedings to implement the plan recommendations within its authority, and related hearings before Congress will include recommended schedules for pursuing the recommendations with the other arms of government.

The 198 NBP recommendations seek specific steps to implement the elements and goals mentioned above, some of which directly address backhaul and middle mile issues. Other recommendations (such as making 500 MHz of spectrum available for mobile networks) create more demand for backhaul. The entire plan can be located at .

Backhaul Rides In

The NBP represents a sizeable “shift” toward supporting competition and making day-to-day broadband deployment tasks easier. The FCC repeatedly recognized that an effective NBP must recognize and support the role that backhaul plays in supporting end-user networks.

During the comment period leading to the NBP release, the FCC reviewed thousands of comments, held numerous workshops, and conducted its own hearings and also reported progress to Congress. Pro-backhaul advocacy centered around the following points:

  • Re-enforce existing federal preemptions and “shot clocks” to reduce burdensome zoning and permitting restrictions for fixed wireless antenna placements,

  • Establish an enforceable, national policy whose net effect is to remove delays and expense from the fiber deployment and wireless siting process,

  • Make available data or maps about the structures, ducts and conduits available to broadband carriers in order to deploy multiple-use shared access systems that support last mile commercial and government networks,

  • Set aside spectrum specifically designated for wireless backhaul,

  • Reform the Universal Service Fund (USF) funding eligibility policy to shift the emphasis from bringing voice services to rural America, to bringing broadband (including funding eligibility for middle mile deployments), and

  • Put in place the conditions to allow for building a physically-diverse National Emergency Backhaul Network (NEBN) to support multiple public safety, government, carrier-class commercial, and other mission-critical broadband services throughout the United States.

The NBP recommendations support the following policy positions:

1. Re-enforce existing tools to speed wireless deployments

The FCC noted that even prior to the NBP it started moving to “reduce costs by expediting processes and decreasing the risks and complexities that companies face as they deploy broadband network infrastructure.” The FCC “shot clock” ruling offers a prime example for how the FCC plans to use its considerable discretionary powers to “speed the deployment of wireless equipment on towers.” [NBP at page 110.]

2. Build an enforceable, national policy that removes delays and expense from the wireless siting and fiber deployment process

The NBP makes clear that the FCC possesses and will use its statutory authority (§224) over access to conduits, ducts, rights-of-way and poles to improve both the wireless and fiber deployment process. This includes:

Set uniformly low access rates to conduits, ducts, rights-of-way and poles (as regulated by §224 of the Communications Act). [Recommendations 6.1, 6.2.]

Establish a comprehensive timeline for resolving disputes regarding the §224 infrastructure access process. [Recommendation 6.3].
  • Currently access disputes can “drag on for months if not years.” The FCC should establish a federal timeline for all forms of communications attachments and for certifying wireless equipment for attachment.
  • Awarding compensation that dates from denial of access could encourage swifter dispute resolution.
The NBP notes that due to exemptions written into the current §224, an FCC-created “national policy” would apply to just over one-third of the nation’s poles, ducts, conduits and rights-of-way, since 19 states (including highly populated states) adopted their own systems. Thus the NBP asks Congress to amend or replace §224 to provide the FCC with a truly national set of criteria that includes FCC-set timelines and FCC authority to award damages for non-compliance. [Recommendation 6.5]

3. Make available data or maps about the structures, ducts and conduits available to backhaul carriers

The NBP seeks a Congressional amendment to §224 to provide the FCC authority to “compile and update a comprehensive database of physical infrastructure assets” and to set rules, rates and timelines for their access. [Recommendation 6.5]

4. Specifically designate spectrum for wireless backhaul

The NBP devotes a whole section to “Increasing the Flexibility, Capacity and Cost-Effectiveness of Spectrum for Point-to-Point Wireless Backhaul Services.” Supporting recommendations exist in other areas of the NBP. The FCC is asked to revise its rules to allow for reducing backhaul costs and for increased spectrum sharing among compatible point-to-point microwave services. The NBP notes this could include:

Opening TV “white spaces” spectrum for backhaul in very rural areas.
  • Recommendation 5.17 also requests that the FCC proceed with higher powered fixed use for white spaces in tribal lands.
Permitting wider channels in the 6 GHz bands.

Providing faster link activation on additional channels in the 23 GHz band.

Greater special reuse of microwave frequencies, particularly in urban areas.

Modifying minimum throughput rules, particularly in rural areas.

Ease restrictions on antenna size where the economic benefits are clear.

Continue to promote use of higher frequencies where technological innovations make it attractive.

The FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) are also asked to develop a joint roadmap to identify additional federal and non-federal spectrum that can be made accessible for both mobile and fixed wireless broadband use.

5. Shift Universal Service Fund (USF) availability from voice services to high-capacity broadband networks (including middle mile)

The NBP notes that FY2010 USF disbursements, which exist in four funds, are projected to reach $8.7 Billion and that those funds should be redirected from legacy telephone systems to high-capacity broadband networks.[1] Recommendation 8.2 asks the FCC to create the Connect America Fund (CAF) with funds from the currently $4.6 Billion per year High-Cost program, and that CAF funds should be spent on building and maintaining (i.e., Capex and Opex), “including middle mile,” in areas where no private sector business case provides the needed service.

See also Recommendation 8.8 (p. 148) which asks the FCC to examine middle mile costs and pricing in concert with the comprehensive USF/ICC reform program.

6. Set the conditions for National Emergency Backhaul Network (NEBN)

Recommendation 12.1 seeks for the FCC to establish a rulemaking for network redundancy and resiliency standards for commercial broadband networks (p. 251). Recommendation 16.1 asks Congress for $12-16 billion for the creation of a national public safety broadband network that promotes “sharing federal infrastructure, working with utilities, or use of state and local tower sites” (p.319).

Federal agencies are asked to act as broadband anchor tenants for multiple use networks in unserved or underserved communities. [Recommendation 14.1]. State and local governments expressed a strong desire to share broadband infrastructure with federal agencies. “In response to Section 414 of the Transportation, Treasury, Independent Agencies and General Government Appropriations Act of 2005, the President directed the federal departments and agencies to deploy redundant communications links for all facilities.” P. 284.

7. Expand the GSA Networx contract to allow state and local governments to order backhaul and other services

Recommendation 14.2 asks Congress to “consider allowing state and local government to take advantage of [GSA] Networx and other [federal] communications contracts to enable cost savings and encourage broadband deployment.”

Are there areas of concern in the NBP?

Yes. The FCC was clear that the NBP is always in “beta”, and thus will be constantly tinkered with and its priorities may shift. Also, the NBP may create too much optimism and key recommendations may never be implemented. The pro-backhaul and other related recommendations generally need to be defended and promoted to make them a reality. Other recommendations may cause concern, if implemented improperly.

Overall though, Congress should be commended for requesting the NBP and the FCC deserves substantial credit for putting together this significant, detailed and cohesive plan, and for recognizing the central role that backhaul plays.

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