Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee accused the Federal Communications Commission of not doing enough to stop mobile carriers from selling consumers’ location data and not enough to advance 5G in an oversight hearing last week.
Even some commissioners think the FCC isn’t doing enough, despite recent moves by the FCC to address these issues.
In her testimony, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the fact that mobile carriers like AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile sell their customers’ location data to third party advertisers is “an issue of personal and national security. It is an issue of privacy. It is a matter that is crying out for clarity from the FCC. But to date, the agency has been silent.”
Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Penn.), chairman of the committee, began the May 15 hearing by asking FCC Chairman Ajit Pai a series of questions about the investigation into mobile carriers selling location data, but Pai said he is unable to comment on the ongoing investigation.
“I cannot comment on a pending law enforcement investigation, except to say in this particular investigation, we are mindful of the statute of limitations,” Pai said.
Doyle continued to press Pai, who repeated that he cannot comment on the investigation. Commissioners Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks — the two Democrats on the FCC — told Motherboard they’re bothered by the fact that they don’t know much about the investigation, even though it’s standard procedure for those involved not to comment on any ongoing law enforcement investigation at any agency.
“I find your answers to this wholly insufficient,” Doyle said. “This committee expects you to do more than just sit on your hands.”
Doyle, who introduced the Save the Internet Act a few months ago to restore the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order and reinstate net neutrality rules, routinely takes shots at the Republican-led FCC. The telecom industry is also Doyle’s top funder, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In letters to Rosenworcel dated May 15, the Big Four telecom companies (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon) said they phased out their sale of location data programs and that they no longer sell users’ location data.
The House also asked why the FCC won’t move faster to make low- and midband spectrum available for 5G deployment. The Big Four currently focus on “highband spectrum,” or millimeter wave, for 5G deployment, because more millimeter wave is available.
Radio waves get shorter when they have a shorter transmission distance, and at a certain point, they reach millimeter wave-length, resulting in super-fast transmission over short distances, like in an densely populated, urban area. 5G naturally works best on millimeter wave, which is why the Big Four plan to deploy 5G to cities first.
Rural areas don’t have as many points of connection as cities do, which means radio waves travel longer distances via low- and midband spectrum, which means wireless connections in rural areas are weaker than the wireless connections in cities. In order for rural areas to get 5G, eventually telecom companies will need to use low- and midband spectrum.
“The rest of the world is running to 5G using midband spectrum,” Rosenworcel told committee members at the hearing. “We’re not doing that here in the U.S. and we are going to be left behind. Midband spectrum propagates far which means it will be available to rural areas. The U.S. has concentrated all its energies on highband spectrum last year and this month. We’re going to have to pivot and make midband a priority if we want to catch up the rest of the world and provide 5G to rural communities.”
The reason telecom companies won’t use low- to midband spectrum is twofold: 1) there isn’t much of it available to use, and 2) what spectrum is available requires more fiber optic cable investment in order for 5G to become a reality in rural areas. Telecom companies need more available spectrum and more broadband investment, and the FCC says it is trying to help.
According to the CTIA, other countries will make four times more midband spectrum available for 5G than the U.S. by the end of 2020.
“I am disappointed that the FCC has failed to show the leadership I believe is necessary to take on these big challenges,” Rosenworcel said. “Because on top of these, so many others lie ahead: our national leadership in 5G wireless, the extraordinary cybersecurity challenges facing our networks, and the need for a bolder national broadband goal of 100 megabits — with gigabit speeds in sight — everywhere.”
Satellite operators and the GPS industry currently use much of the midband spectrum, which is why satellite communications company Ligado (formerly LightSquared, which went bankrupt in 2012) wants to share midband spectrum with other industries in order to bring 5G to the U.S. more quickly.
Just last week, the FCC proposed freeing up some midband spectrum for “shared use between incumbent federal users and new, non-federal flexible-use wireless operations.” All five commissioners approve of the proposal, which could encourage more telecom use of midband spectrum and advance 5G deployment across the whole country. In a press release, Ligado applauded the proposal as well.