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How to make America's wireless networks more reliable

A businessman talks on his cell phone as he walks past an office on Oct. 11, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images)
A businessman talks on his cell phone as he walks past an office on Oct. 11, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images)

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T-Mobile had a major cell phone outage in February.

Last year, AT&T mobile customers in Minnesota lost service for four days. Why?

“As we’ve displaced the old deeply regulated reliable network with the best-effort internet network, we’ve now entered this sort of twilight where nothing is reliable anymore,” Harold Feld says.

Some of that’s because there’s limited space on the radio spectrum, and everyone – from private companies to the federal agencies – is fighting for more.

Today, On Point: Making America’s wireless networks more reliable.


Harold Feld, senior vice president for Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy organization working at the intersection of copyright, telecommunications and the Internet.

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Corey Chase, telecommunications infrastructure specialist for the State of Vermont’s Department of Public Service.

Interview Highlights

Can the United States have the dreamy, reliable, high speed total coverage that say, South Korea has?

Harold Feld: “Yes, we can. And in fact, back when we had just a wireline network, we did. What has happened is that when the cell phone network started up, the FCC and Congress were essentially, Well, this is a new technology. We don’t want to regulate it out of existence, let it grow. And we’ve got the regular telephone network for reliability. But as we’ve replaced the regular telephone network with the wireless network, we haven’t stopped and said, Well, okay, the wireless network is now the primary network. We need to go back to making sure that it’s reliable.”

On the owners of America’s mobile towers

Harold Feld: “There’s two pieces here, for a wireless network. There’s wireless and then the underlying network. So, the wireless piece, the piece from your phone to the tower, this industry has evolved a lot. We now have a lot of towers … owned by companies that specialize in just building and owning the towers. Folks like American Tower and a number of other companies. And the cell phone companies lease space on these towers.

“So, the cell phone companies then own the receiving antennas. You think of the kind of that big giant metal thing … like a giant antenna. It’s actually made of these very sophisticated, tiny antennas that are designed to share the capacity and catch the phone calls in ways that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, let alone 50 years ago.”

On mobile networks in this country compared to other nations

Harold Feld: “It depends on what dimension we’re talking about and also where you are. The fact is that if you look at international comparisons with other industrialized nations, we’re pretty expensive for the service that we get. Our reliability is good, but not super great.

“Now, sometimes those comparisons aren’t fair. South Korea is a much smaller, more compact country. But it also depends a lot on the policies you adopt. Europe adopted a number of policies that increased competition there enormously. So their mobile rates are just much, much lower than ours without suffering from web reliability problems.

“But it is certainly the case that the United States remains a leader in the functions that we put into the phone, the capacities that we put into it. And we are generally the first country to adopt a new generational world technology. With the first company that was actively deploying, switching from 3G to 4G and then 4G to 5G. And that has been our set of policy choices.”

On what we need to understand about spectrum access

Harold Feld: “I’m going to start by saying, you know, I do a little training on this every year for our incoming interns, and I’m going to say the same thing I say there. One, this is a gross oversimplification. So the other is, don’t worry about what these numbers mean. A lot of times they’re just sort of arbitrary, and you just have to know that, you know, certain frequency bands are better for certain things. And don’t worry about the, you know, what’s the difference between one gigahertz and three gigahertz and five gigahertz? And to just accept they’re going to be a little different from each other for different reasons. And, you know, it would take an hour to get into the physics.

“What cell phone companies do is they want exclusive rights to use a particular block of spectrum in a particular geographic area, that’s called a spectrum license. And you get it from the Federal Communications Commission. Wi-Fi is an example of where everybody gets to use the same block of spectrum, and it does what we call spectrum re-use, and you just accept what interference happens.

“We use exclusive licensing in order to try to avoid some of the interference issues. The consequence of that is, number one, it limits the number of providers you can have in a geographic area. Because in order to have decent capacity, you can only have a couple of these licenses on the same set of frequencies.

“And the other thing it does is mean that the customers for that company are only using the piece of the spectrum that is available to that company through its license. Otherwise, you have to do what’s called roaming. You may see that, you know, on your phone you’ve entered into roaming. Those are expensive agreements between cell phone companies. When I don’t have the capacity, I rent it from you essentially, and only where you have spare capacity, because your customers come first.

“Whenever we add new functions and new users, you need more of that wireless capacity. And not only that, it has to be the right kind of capacity. For a long time, what you wanted was what was called low band spectrum, which was between 500 megahertz and one gigahertz, and there wasn’t a lot of that. It was shared by a lot of other services like television.

“You may remember when we switched from traditional analog television to digital television. Part of the reason we did that was to squish the broadcasters down into a smaller amount of spectrum. And take back spectrum that they used to use and auction it off to the phone companies so that we could go to 4G. As the technology has changed, we’ve started to move up the scale and now we’re talking about spectrum that’s largely held by the federal government.”

On how to make America’s networks more reliable

Harold Feld: “Hold the companies responsible, tell them it is their ultimate responsibility to make sure that the networks are running properly, have real penalties for when they fail to do that. Because they’re contracting with these guys, they can put these clauses in contracts. That you’re going to have to indemnify us if the FCC fines us and it’s your fault. And you know, no more of this finger pointing and shrugging about how the networks so complicated. You’re selling the service to the customer, you’re in charge, you’re responsible, make sure it works. And if it breaks, fix it fast.”

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