The bipartisan infrastructure bill addresses a wide range of important issues, from climate to clean water to education. But when President Biden signed it into law, he chose to focus on broadband, taking to Twitter to explain the legislation would “make high speed internet affordable and available everywhere in America — urban, suburban, and rural.”
That is welcome progress. Despite years of effort, a costly digital divide persists in our country. According to research by Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors, one third of Hispanic families still do not have regular access to the internet. A recent FCC study found that 17 million school children cannot go online at home. In a world where basic activities like medical visits, parent teacher conferences, and job interviews have gone online, we must do better.
That means leveraging existing technologies and innovating new ones in an “all hands-on deck” effort to expand access to affordable high-speed internet, building high-capacity backbone pipes that drive speeds up while bringing costs down, and boosting mobile data networks to reach rural areas and underserved communities. With the new resources provided by the infrastructure bill and the President’s personal commitment to expanding affordable broadband, it is time to close the digital divide once and for all.
But a potential obstacle to this progress has emerged in recent weeks – a possible delay in deploying new spectrum for 5G mobile networks in response to questions raised by the Federal Aviation Administration about possible interference between mobile broadband and aircraft altimeters. If those questions result in lengthy or indefinite delays to 5G, they could set back efforts to close the digital divide. That is because communities of color and low income Americans often rely heavily on mobile access to broadband. According to one recent study, Hispanic Americans are 17% more likely to rely on smartphones for internet access than non-Hispanic peers. Expanding mobile data through 5G should be an essential component of our national strategy to close the digital divide.
Fortunately, most experts expect the delays prompted by the FAA to be short lived. The FCC has previously examined these questions and acted to address them by expanding the “guard buffer” of unused spectrum between 5G and aviation uses. FCC engineers have a great deal of experience with spectrum management, and they know how high the stakes are. There is no reason to believe they would proceed with the deployment of spectrum that posed a safety threat.
The FCC’s conclusion is bolstered by experience around the world, where 40 other countries currently use this same technology and spectrum to boost mobile networks without any harm to airline operations.
Those facts likely explain why aviation experts and pilots have said 5G can proceed without threatening aircraft safety. A comprehensive review of the debate recently published determined there is “no proof of harm to aviation” that would support additional delays. And just last week, FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel assured the public she is “confident” these issues can quickly be resolved.
The FCC should act decisively to address the FAA’s questions and get 5G deployment moving forward once again. Underserved communities and lower income Americans cannot wait indefinitely for expanded affordable broadband and progress on the digital divide.