We have all heard the promises and potential of the future of 5G. The advance marketing is promising five times faster response and 100 times faster loading time. 5G promises to change the world through virtual and augmented reality applications, connect the “Internet of Things” and allow communication to driverless vehicles. Gov. Ned Lamont has stated that 5G is “a matter of equity and workforce development.”
The marketing hype does not mention the probable lack of universal service, cost, or the true danger of broadening the digital divide separating the haves from the have nots. But Connecticut can set an example of how 5G should be deployed. We have an opportunity, even within restrictive Federal Communication Commission guidelines, to ensure that Connecticut residents, regardless of income or zip code, have the availability of 5G service at a cost-competitive level using a shared infrastructure with strong efforts to bridge the current digital divide.
Failure to take action will deprive less densely-populated areas of service and lower-income neighborhoods of 5G benefits, and will produce an unaffordable product for many.
It appears that this issue has the attention of Lamont. One of his first actions was to urge Connecticut to be “First in New England with access to 5G.” To this end, the State adopted Public Act 19-163 “An Act Accelerating the Deployment of 5G Wireless Facilities.” This Act created the “Council on 5G Technologies” which was charged with preparing a model telecommunication License Agreement on or before Nov. 1, 2019 for use on State property. Section 2 of the Act also required the Council to “… work with municipalities and representatives of the wireless industry to encourage the establishment of streamlined processes for siting small wireless facilities on municipalities, in accordance with any applicable Federal Communication Commission rules, regulations or orders.” This specifically includes municipal rights of way.
The Act requires the state Office of Policy and Management to make recommendations on this municipal streamlined processes for siting small wireless facilities on municipal property to the legislative committee having cognizance of matters relating to energy and technology no later than Jan. 30, 2020. Towns are looking forward to this.
Upon signing the bill, Lamont stated, “Access to ultra-fast internet speed is critical to our economic future. I want Connecticut to be ahead of the curve.”
I suggest that the state and municipalities adopt five goals in order to ensure the successful deployment of 5G in Connecticut:
1.) Require a high level of universal coverage throughout the state. When cable television franchises were awarded in Connecticut they were required to provide close to universal services. This ensured that both rural and lower-income areas received service.
This has not happened in cellphone or broadband service, as shown by the lack of adequate cellphone services in Northwestern Connecticut and fast broadband in the North End of Hartford and other urban areas. In Connecticut, existing broadband providers are fighting towns and groups of towns regarding the provision of municipal service to our residents. All are awaiting an appeal of a decision by the state Public Utility Regulatory Authority (PURA) which prevents towns from doing so.
The law and regulations concerning 5G service should be so clear that similar obstacles to effective universal coverage are not erected.
2.) Require use of existing fiber networks for 5G and require shared co-location of pole-mounted microwave antennas.
In a recent presentation at the State Commission of Educational Technology, Verizon stated it plans on utilizing proprietary microwave antennas to relay signals to its phones. Industry experts estimate that these antennas will be required every 500 feet and each of these antennas will require a fiber connection. So if we have three major carriers, each with their own microwave antennas, we will have 66 percent more antennas than if they shared use at greater construction and operational cost. The antennas also will produce a lot more high-frequency radiation – a health concern to many.
Section 1(d) (2) (c) of the new Act recognizes the concern of facilities location by stating “the Council (on 5G Technology) shall give preference to the requests that include the co-location of personal wireless service facilities or small wireless facilities with other wireless carriers …”
We need to properly enforce this position to avoid unnecessary costs and possible incompatibility issues between phones. Remember VHS and Beta issues?
There is a precedent in this co-location approach in state law and practice. Cellphone towers were ordered to share space — otherwise there would probably be three times more towers in the state. The sharing of space saved the carriers a lot of money.
Beyond the antennas and tower sharing, the carriers should also be required to share fiber instead of digging up roads and hanging more fiber on poles.
The state runs a robust fiber network called the Connecticut Education Network (CEN) with 2,500 miles of fiber. It is one of only 33 regional connections nationwide which links high-speed, lower-cost Internet 2 service providers to cloud storage, and research and education networks. This use by carriers is available as a result of a condition of a 2009 federal grant (Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program) that required that CEN allow use by non-governmental customers of the network. Currently, 38 business users do, in fact, use CEN fiber.
As the map below shows, using the CEN network as the backbone of a 5G network could save money and greatly speed the construction, as well as assist getting coverage in more rural areas.
3.) Incumbent carriers and PURA should allow towns to run their own fiber to fill in the current fiber gaps for Fiber to the Premises (FTP).
This would allow the phone carriers to use the new town fiber networks for 5G instead of installing their own fiber. Vermont adopted laws to allow Communication Union Districts to run broadband and serve residents and businesses. One prominent example is ECFiber (the East Central Vermont Telecommunications District) which is a consortium of 22 towns with over 3,500 connections and growing. This group was formed to step in where the private sector chose not to. It harkens back to the rural electric cooperatives set up to provide electric service in rural areas, which are now also adding broadband across the country.
Bottom line: a cooperative of municipal broadband to the premises would allow competition and allow a sharing of resources to reduce the price of 5G coverage.
4.) To address the growing digital divide, PURA should use the authority empowered in CGS 16-247-e to “…ensure the universal availability of affordable high quality telecommunication services to all residents, regardless of income, disability or location…” Section (1) of the law defines a basic telecommunication service as “… necessary to achieve universal service and meet customer needs.” Subsection (b) makes it even clearer that PURA “may, if necessary, establish a universal service program, funded by all telecommunications companies or users on an equitable basis…” to ensure the universal availability of affordable, high-quality basic telecommunications to all residents and businesses throughout the State regardless of location.”
To be clear, PURA already has the authority to push for universal service. The question is: Will 5G service be considered a “basic” telecommunication service? I believe the answer is unequivocally yes.
According to a National Regulatory Research Institute article published in April 2019, “State Universal Service Funds 2018” Updating the Numbers,” 42 states including Connecticut utilize State Universal Services Funds (SUSF). Connecticut limits these funds to provide only lifeline services for the disabled. It could join 22 other states in providing services under the “High Cost/Connect America (CAF) provision to ensure 5G coverage in rural areas. Broadband access is now the focus of the FCC, spending $4.6 billion in 2017. States also are now focusing on broadband funding, with $81.9 million spent by states from their SUSF. Wisconsin just broadened their program to include broadband.
Currently, Connecticut only assesses SUSF charges on landline and wireless phones. We could start charging interstate voice-over internet protocol (VOIP) phones to make up for the declining landline revenue. Twenty-eight states impose these fees. Expanding broadband could make 5G more financially viable in rural areas since each microwave antenna needs this fiber connection and the 5G carriers could use this public fiber.
5.) The State should also consider a fee of 1 percent or some similarly low charge per mile for using the Public Right of Way. This is common in most states.
Under state law, the utilities are using Town and State land without compensation. These new revenues could be used to expand public access to neighborhood centers, public parks, or even willing restaurants and coffee shops to address the digital divide issue. These hot spots could be created under an Eduroam concept, which currently allows college students to use their student Wi-Fi authorization at these hot spots to instantly and securely join the network without fees.
The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM) proposed franchise fees for use of municipal rights of way in their recent report, “This Report is Different.” According to the report, Connecticut is one of only seven states that do not charge these fees, which average 2.2 percent of total tax revenue nationally. While federal regulations may not allow these fees to be charged for fiber or internet service, it could be charged for current service and produce funding for towns to provide universal service at the local level or to expand local fiber to schools and public buildings, parks, civic buildings or public access in privately-owned but publicly available locations.
When Lamont signed the bill creating the new 5G Council, he stated, “Access to ultra-fast internet speed is critical to our economic future.” High-speed broadband is essential for students, home businesses, and all industry. It has been described as a condition of work. If we fail to act promptly, the digital divide will grow in areas without 5G service, creating educational deserts, and reducing rural property values in areas that do not have 5G.
By working together on refining and putting these five goals into action, Connecticut can grow its economy, train tomorrow’s workforce, and prepare for a new world of the internet.
John A. Elsesser is Town Manager of the Town of Coventry. He is a member of the Commission of Educational Technology which oversees CEN, is Chairman of the E-911 Commission and the PSDN Committee. He is a member of the board of directors of the Council of Small Towns and the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of any of the organizations he belongs to.