On October 12, 2018, the Brookings Institution hosted a conversation with David J. Redl, an NTIA administrator, to discuss the growth and governance of the digital economy. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), an agency within the Department of Commerce, advises the president on telecommunications and information policy issues. Among its stated goals are to expand broadband internet access and adoption in the U.S., manage the federal use of the broadband spectrum and free it up for commercial use, and drive public policy stances on the Internet to encourage innovation and economic growth. Redl discussed the NTIA’s relationship to the White House, its allocation of the broadband spectrum, the international race to 5G, the digital economy, and privacy.

Deploying Broadband to Rural Areas

Redl underlined that the current administration is focused on investing in infrastructure, and is committed to bringing broadband to American rural areas where it’s not an attractive commercial investment. Broadband refers to high-speed internet access that is faster than traditional dial-up access, with download speeds of at least 25 Mbps and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps. The need is critical in rural areas; in 2018, the Pew Research Center found that only 58% of rural Americans have broadband access at home, compared to 92% living in urban areas. The challenges of ubiquitous deployment are that broadband technology is constantly changing: speeds are accelerating and latency is being minimized. Non-traditional players like the satellite industry have stepped up in order to help the NTIA meet these goals.

Reallocating the Broadband Spectrum

The broadband spectrum is the range of electromagnetic frequencies available for use in telecommunications. It has many properties of a finite natural resource, and if activities on the spectrum are not coordinated, uses may conflict and cause interference which would spoil its utility. The federal government retains some portions of the radio spectrum for exclusive use in military, first responder, law enforcement, and aviation communication. The NTIA has half of its employees working to free up and consolidate the federal use of broadband frequencies in order to make more space for commercial companies on the spectrum. The NTIA works on radio frequency allocations for federal bands, while the FCC allocates nonfederal bands of the spectrum through auctions. Redl says that the era of easy spectrum decisions is over, as systems become more densely packed and more difficult to move. The NTIA is looking into the concept of leasing certain frequencies as opposed to a straight auction; because of the high government investment in physical systems already in place, it would not be cost effective to permanently re-allocate some spectrums to the private sector.

The International Race to 5G

5G is expected to be 100 times faster than current wireless networks. China has been aggressive in its race to implement 5G technology before the U.S., but Redl isn’t concerned—the U.S. remains the leader in 4G technology. The U.S. made the strategic decision to invest heavily in 4G and the innovation that has flowed from its connectivity, including the growth of social media, ride sharing services, and home assistant devices. The U.S. isn’t far behind China in implementing 5G— Redl says that AT&T and Verizon should have their first implementations of 5G services turned on in the first half of next year.  Part of the NTIA’s role is helping U.S. telecom companies create good standards; the current standards body is called 3GPP and represents a successful partnership between the government and industry. He hopes to see the same thing happen with new 5G technology.

Creating a Robust Digital Economy

The revolution currently taking place in the digital economy is likely to impact jobs and commerce on the same level of the industrial revolution. The NTIA hopes to influence the future of workforce and apprenticeships in this space, and would like to use broadband deployment as a stimulus for digital inclusion. The agency has a pilot project in North Carolina to build digital literacy in communities around historically Black Colleges and Universities and to encourage those communities to adopt broadband. The NTIA has also been working to address the “digital divide” in part by creating a map identifying which parts of the country are in the greatest need of broadband service, so that the federal government can appropriately deploy its resources. The NTIA has also been building a state “broadband leaders network,” which is comprised of individuals across the country tasked with bringing broadband access to their state. The network discusses best practices, providing invaluable insight into ensuring that every individual in every state eventually has broadband access.

Privacy

A requirement for digital advancement in the U.S. is trust in the digital economy. The NTIA has been working to build that trust by bringing transparency to cybersecurity and the Internet of Things (IoT). While the NTIA is not a regulator and can’t require private industry to act through a rulemaking, the organization tries to build community consensus around policy points. The NTIA wants companies to help people accurately understand the risks of technology. Redl notes that the growing IoT presents a particular challenge—while everyone thinks of their cell phone and computer as full of cyber risks, some may not necessarily realize that their thermostat or light switch could be security threats as well. The NTIA was tasked by the White House with creating a modern, “American” approach to privacy. NTIA has currently issued a request for comments, which ends on November 9, 2018. Redl hopes the process will help lead to a framework for how the Administration should approach consumer privacy issues. While he doesn’t believe that high standards of privacy in the U.S. will hamper growth and innovation, Redl notes that California’s privacy law will likely be implemented before any federal laws—meaning that the U.S. will need harmonizing legislation at the federal level on privacy.