NASHVILLE, Tenn.–A combination of government spending on rural broadband deployment and new network build-outs are keeping the tower industry busy, and that momentum is only expected to build as dense 5G network begin to emerge.
At the National Association of Tower Erectors show this week, panelists discussed the implications of the Mobility Fund II program for rural LTE deployment, as well as other government infrastructure spending that could impact rural connectivity services. Mobility Fund II will provide about $4.5 billion in funds to support rural wireless service expansion over the next 10 years, while a recent budget deal that included $20 billion for rural infrastructure (including broadband) in the next two years, and there are other potential vehicles for more government funding, such as President Trump’s recently introduced plan for national infrastructure investment.
Mobile infrastructure providers and carriers are eagerly awaiting the release of coverage maps that will determine which areas of the country are considered eligible for funding under Mobility Fund II.
“The MF-II train has left the station, and we are on schedule,” said Michael Janson, assistant bureau chief in the FCC’s telecommunications bureau, who oversees the implementation of Mobility Fund II. He said during a panel on Mobility Fund II that the commission intends to soon release a preliminary map outlining which areas are eligible for MF-II funds as well as the framework for a challenge process by which carriers or other stakeholders can argue that coverage areas are overstated. Once a map is released, there will be 150 days allowed for challenges — which poses a dilemma for carriers who wish to collect data in order to post challenges, according to Grant Spellmeyer, VP of federal affairs and public policy at US Cellular.
“It’s impossible, physically, to go out and drive[test] every road in this country in 150 days,” said Spellmeyer, adding that US Cellular has already been in conversations with its vendors about strategies to deploy drive-testers to collect data on which to base its challenges and how to decide which areas to drive-test — but decisions can’t be made until the map is released.
At its open meeting this week, the FCC will be addressing an order on some of the final details of the Mobility Fund II framework, and consider a notice of proposed rulemaking seeking comment on potential licensing rules for spectrum above 95 GHz.
Meanwhile, the post-incentive-auction 600 MHz repack of spectrum — moving broadcasters to carve out contiguous spectrum for mobile service deployment — is also providing work for tower crews, and AT&T’s build-out of the First Responders Network Authority network for first responders (in conjunction with upgrades and improvements to its own network equipment) is also expected to boost demand for tower work. Angela Fisher, a project/structural engineer with Union Telephone, which serves several states in the rural mountain west, said that in some of the areas served by her company, the timelines for FirstNet build-outs will be challenging because of the limited construction season due to weather and because they involve public or tribal lands. She also noted that the challenge process for MF-II will overlap with FirstNet work, which makes for a time and logistical crunch. Fisher did add, though, that her company has learned lessons from Mobility Fund I work, such as changes to how it sends out crews, so that if a drive-tester needs to be rescued from a disabled vehicle there is someone relatively close by.
Bernard Borghei, co-founder and SVP of operators for tower company Vertical Bridge, noted that there are still many gaps in LTE coverage in rural areas even as the 5G standard advances — and although the goal of government funding for rural telecom infrastructure is to reduce the rural-urban digital divide and stimulate economic growth, rural areas could continue to fall behind when it comes to new 5G networks. While the president’s infrastructure package could represent more government funding for wireless and wired broadband, panelists were skeptical that the vehicle would be to add more funding to MF-II, but instead thought that the money was likely to be dispersed through programs of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration or the FCC, or possibly by grants to individual states.