What Does the FCC’s $20 Billion, 5G Plan for Rural America Really Mean?

Rural Tennessee, connected via fiber optic cables. Source: USDA, CC licensed    Flickr    image

Rural Tennessee, connected via fiber optic cables. Source: USDA, CC licensed Flickr image

It’s been about three weeks since the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced its $20.4 billion plan to bring high-speed, mobile access to rural communities in the United States. Dubbed the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the plan will award $2 billion in subsidies per year, over ten years, to build a physical infrastructure for broadband throughout rural America. The goal is to connect up to 4 million rural homes and businesses.

This high-speed broadband network, better known as 5G, launches internet connectivity into a whole new sphere. At its peak speed, 5G is 20 times faster than 4G, with a minimum peak download speed of 20 Gb/s, as compared to 4G’s 1 Gb/s. That means 5G users can access infinitely more information, much faster--also helping advance other technologies, such as autonomous vehicles.

It is especially revolutionary because over 20 million Americans, many of whom live in rural areas, lack access to current broadband speeds. It’s an infrastructure issue; because of physical barriers, like mountains or rivers, and high implementation expenses, the wireline technology needed for broadband access isn’t always the best choice.

That’s where the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund comes in. Ajit Pai, FCC chairman, envisions the resulting infrastructure as a combination of both wired and wireless technology. The $2 billion annual subsidy allows companies to install fiber optic cable throughout rural areas, and install devices on tall structures, such as towers, that will disseminate the signal.

The Fund will succeed the 2015 Connect America Fund, which provided $9 billion in subsidies for technologies like cable and DSL. The FCC’s newest plan more than doubles past federal funding.

According to New Food Economy, Rural and Agriculture Council of America Vice President Chris Skorupa said the current plan was the “best path forward to stimulating local economies and bridging the digital divide in rural communities across America.” He also described it as [creating the] “largest commercial spectrum auction in FCC history.”

The auction, run by the FCC, sells the rights to transmit signals over wireless spectrum bands, the radio frequencies over which wireless signals travel. Mobile phone companies, like Verizon or T-Mobile, compete for use, helping both to expand America’s 5G network and stimulate the economy.

The FCC’s third auction of the 5G spectrum is scheduled for early December, 2019. It will sell 3,400 megahertz in three spectrum bands which, according to Pai, “is a lot of spectrum.” It will be the largest auction yet, in terms of total spectrum to be auctioned.

By some accounts, the FCC’s $20 billion plan is just one more step forward into the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). In his keynote at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, Hans Verstberg, CEO and executive chairman of the board of Verizon Communications, outlined how 5G is paving the way for 4IR:

“Everything we're going to see in the future [will be] transformed by 5G. We're going to see a technology change that is going to transform people, businesses, and society.” he said. “It’s the next era of technology advancement.”

Which makes the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund a catalyst for change not just for rural America, but for the country as a whole.

Interested in learning more about government innovation and emerging tech trends? Sign up for Innovation Insights, Corner Alliance’s monthly newsletter on the latest government innovation trends, news and perspectives.

"The Most Difficult Job I Ever Loved."

Jen Meyers, hard at work.

Jen Meyers, hard at work.

Staff Spotlight: Jen Meyers, former 9-1-1 Dispatcher

For Jen Meyers, senior consultant at Corner Alliance, emergency response isn’t just a passion --it’s a purpose. Meyers has spent a majority of her 20+ years career as a 9-1-1 dispatcher, also serving as a public information officer and a watch officer. And, as a Certified Emergency Medical Dispatcher, Communications Training Officer, and Public Safety Answering Point Supervisor, she continues to help the field advance.

In honor of National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, we’re sharing Jen’s story and her insights--on what major challenges and trends the field is facing, and how the federal government can address them.

What sets 911 dispatchers apart from other public safety telecommunicators?

Jen Meyers: They are all generally the same, except for how the job(s) are structured at different agencies. Some have dedicated dispatchers and/or call takers, meaning some only dispatch and some only call take. In certain places, this may also be separated for police versus fire/EMS.

For example, Arlington County, Virginia, where I used to work, is known as a “combined” agency and require their personnel to be trained in all facets of the job: taking calls (non-emergency and emergency) and dispatching for both police and fire/EMS.  

What are the major issues you’d say 911 dispatchers are currently facing?

  • Staffing/retention. This is currently one of the biggest challenges. People, in general, do not stay in a position long-term anymore.

  • Classification. Rather than being seen as first responders or even as public safety, public safety communications professionals (dispatchers and call takers) are classified as administrative/clerical positions. My answer to that has always been to go sit with one for a shift, then see if you agree. There are multiple ramifications to this and it has to change!

  • Technology. It is changing rapidly and we have not been able to prepare personnel for this due to budget constraints. Creating and obtaining the technology is fantastic, but if you don’t have the “people power” and aren’t able to train them adequately, it isn’t helpful. For example, a future capability is the public sending photos or videos to the dispatcher. We have yet to consider how this will impact the call-taker.

  • Well-being. More and more, dispatchers are being diagnosed with PTSD or other mental health challenges. They don’t get “debriefed” after a major incident in quite the same way, if at all, as do police officers and firefighters. They are expected to move on to the next call, and a majority of the time it is without the closure of knowing what the outcome was.

What are some ways the federal government can start to, or continue to, address these problems?

JM: We have to obtain the official classification as other first responders/public safety professionals.  There is currently a nationwide movement to persuade the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to change the classification from Administrative Support Occupations to Protective Service Occupations (same as police officers, firefighters, etc.) This would equate helping with salaries, training, and benefits – all of which are factors that must be addressed.  

What major public safety communications trends should the government be following right now?

JM: The top three are technology, alerts and warnings and interoperability. Within this, I’d tune into FirstNet, NG 911, Text-to-911, Land Mobile Radio (LMR), CAD2GIS and LTE to IoT.

You now work as a federal government consultant. What motivated this move?

JM: I can tell you that I was and am motivated by seeing how much of an impact I can make in the public safety field as a consultant. Growth and learning new things have always kept me engaged and motivated to do more.  

Corner Alliance believes in fostering an environment where your mission matters--for clients and employees alike. What does “where your mission matters” mean to you?

JM: That I have the support and encouragement to foster my thirst to do more, challenge me to hone my skills, and strive to make an impact.

Anything else you’d like to add?

JM:  Please always remember the unsung “heroes” in the world of public safety – the dispatchers and call takers – the first of the first responders.  They are there 24/7, 365 days/nights a year listening and caring for people, getting them the help they need and often their only reward is intrinsic.  I know, for me, it will always be the most difficult job that I ever loved.

Prior to joining Corner Alliance, Inc., Jen was Chief Watch Officer for the Arlington County (VA) Department of Public Safety and Emergency Management’s Watch Desk-Situational Awareness Unit and also served as the Department’s Public Information Officer.  She supervised the staff and daily operations as well as served as administrator of the county’s alerts and warnings mass notification system. She began her career in 1991 as a 9-1-1 Call Taker and Dispatcher and remained in the profession for over 20 years. She is certified by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials Institute as an Emergency Medical Dispatcher, Communications Training Officer, and Public Safety Answering Point Supervisor.

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