The frontrunner to lead Biden's FCC has a plan for Silicon Valley to overtake China in 5G and AI innovation

  • Acting FCC head Jessica Rosenworcel believes software-led networks can help restore America's 5G lead.
  • Though she hasn't committed to them, her plans would be a boon to tech companies involved in 5G.
  • She also backs investing in software and chips, which helps Big Tech, instead of blacklisting Huawei.
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Jessica Rosenworcel, a former Federal Communications Commission commissioner and a Democrat, was named acting FCC chair by President Joe Biden last week.

In doing so, Biden has shone the spotlight on Rosenworcel, who has long advocated that the United States needs a plan to embrace emerging technology like 5G and artificial intelligence — or risk ceding technological leadership to China.

Rosenworcel is only leading the agency on an interim basis, but is considered a frontrunner to replace outgoing chair Ajit Pai. First appointed to the FCC by President Obama in 2012, she has been a strong advocate for net neutrality and expanding broadband access during her tenure.

If she does succeed Pai, however, she would also gain enough influence over national 5G strategy to push forward proposed initiatives that are deeply tied to Silicon Valley: investment in R&D, testing software-led virtualized networks, and production of cutting-edge chips.

Though she favors net neutrality and generally supports the concept of reining in big business, Rosenworcel's enthusiasm for software-based networks and virtualization are shared by tech companies, who are also betting that dominating software will give them a leadership opening in 5G.

Rosenworcel hasn't committed to following through on her suggested 5G initiatives, but her appointment is nevertheless a good sign for companies building on the new standard: Amazon, Microsoft, Google and other cloud providers have a major opportunity to partner with wireless carriers as they roll out their 5G networks — boosted by the FCC's mid-band auction efforts — and have already begun pushing for a cloud-based, open standards approach.

Rosenworcel's first meeting agenda gave an indication of her immediate priorities: expanding access to broadband and telehealth, which is Congressionally mandated, and removing "insecure foreign equipment" — such as from Huawei, the China-owned leader in telecom hardware — from national communications networks.

Auctioning wireless spectrum for carriers

The availability of wireless spectrum dictates how quickly carriers can roll out their 5G networks, giving the FCC — and its chair — a great deal of influence over 5G deployment.   

The agency kicked off a mid-band 5G spectrum auction last year that has already generated over $80.9 billion — the highest-grossing in FCC history. Mid-band spectrum is considered the "sweet spot" for wireless spectrum — in between high-band, which is powerful but doesn't go long distances, and low-band, which extends further but sacrifices speeds.

"It can leverage new advances and antennas, but then it also has pretty respectable coverage and can cover a pretty decent area without having to spend so much on the infrastructure," said Doug Brake, director of broadband and spectrum policy at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a technology think tank that has been funded by tech companies including Google and Cisco.

Rosenworcel has long supported the auction of mid-band spectrum, including in a press release released Tuesday. Writing in Wired in 2019, when mid-band was not yet up for auction, Rosenworcel called it "the most effective thing the United States can do in the short term to enhance the security of 5G equipment."

More jobs, leading with software, and incentivizing chip makers

In testimony to the Senate in January 2020, Rosenworcel laid out three steps for the US to regain 5G leadership and jumpstart innovation.

The first: deploy 5G to everyone by making mid-band spectrum available and creating a national plan for 5G service. "Right now, we don't have one. As a result, we risk falling behind our global peers in the next generation of wireless leadership," she said.

The second: investing in the jobs needed to roll out 5G — from the 20,000 tower climbers needed to install 5G equipment to workers who will be needed at "every layer of the ecosystem." The third: bolstering device and network security through standards setting for devices in the Internet of Things, and investing in Open Radio Access Networks (O-RAN), a software-based approach to networking that disrupts the traditional custom hardware approach.

In a speech at a FCC forum in September, Rosenworcel reiterated her support for the open, software-led approach in restoring American leadership that would play to US tech companies' strengths: software and semiconductors. 

"We must focus now on our competitiveness, on strengthening our alliances around the world, and on reasserting our values—by building a new market for 5G equipment. That is how we will restore American leadership and secure 5G," she said. 

She also outlined another three-step plan that directly involves the help of tech companies.

The first is investment in research and development from the government and the private sector. That includes the USA Telecommunications Act, a bill that passed the House in November and sets aside $750 million to "accelerate the development of open RAN" with the help of tech companies.

The second piece of the plan is launching O-RAN testbeds with the help of operators and tech companies at the government's current 5G testbeds in New York and Salt Lake City. The third is incentivizing the replacement of "insecure equipment" in American networks with O-RAN architectures, and the production of third-generation gallium nitride chips — more powerful and efficient than the ubiquitous silicon chips — and an area of hardware where China doesn't currently have the lead.

Brake described Rosenworcel's proposals as "quite wise" because they nudge the country toward its competitive levers: "We've historically led on software, generic server infrastructure, semiconductors, as well as a broad capability for entrepreneurship and ingenuity," he said.

An FCC friendly to Big Tech, at least in 5G

Rosenworcel picks up where her predecessor Chairman Pai left off. Pai was considered an ally of tech companies and wireless carriers, and organized the September FCC forum on open RAN. Inviting leaders from Intel, VMware, Qualcomm, IBM, Oracle, Dell, and other companies, Pai said at the time the FCC was taking "aggressive action" to promote American leadership in 5G. 

An early cheerleader of open networks, and one of the technology's strongest advocates on Capitol Hill, Rosenworcel said during the forum that she was the first FCC commissioner to "raise the power of open radio access networks" and has testified to four congressional committees about their importance.

Brake said Rosenworcel's appointment would be welcomed by tech companies because of her knowledge of the telecom industry, despite the potential for more regulation. "I could definitely see stronger regulation coming out of a Rosenworcel agency than that under Pai," he said. "There will be a vigorous debate over the appropriate role for regulation, but there aren't going to be proposals that are based on a false premise. She at least knows the industry, knows the dynamics, and isn't going to throw a big wrench into things."

The Open RAN Policy Coalition, an industry group of American 5G companies — cloud giants like AWS and Microsoft, hardware makers like Qualcomm, and wireless carriers like Verizon — banded together to lobby for government investment in open networks last year. Diane Rinaldo, the group's executive director, congratulated Rosenworcel and noted their alignment on recognizing "Open RAN is an important part of 5G deployment for both our economy and national security, and that we need private sector and government collaboration."

Still, O-RAN is early in its development, and shouldn't be viewed as a quick fix for winning against China, said Brake. "I worry that lawmakers who might not have a deep expertise in telecommunications supply chain hear that as a potential silver bullet for an ascendant Huawei potentially cornering the radio equipment market, and dump all the resources, pedal to the metal, for O-RAN," he said.

But Rosenworcel, despite her enthusiasm for O-RAN, likely won't take that approach."I think she's wise enough to see that it's not a silver bullet on these issues," Brake said. "She is kind of out in front on O-RAN, but I also don't see her as sort of an absolutist on that."

The FCC's efforts in 5G haven't always been smooth — Pai's 5G FAST Plan, which opened up wireless spectrum for auction, angered the agencies asked to share or give up control of airwaves, and ultimately hampered the Trump administration's 5G strategy, according to lawmakers. But some experts predict the Biden administration could encourage the inter-agency collaboration needed to push IT modernization and broadband bolstering initiatives forward, and do it quickly.

Changes to Trump's trade restrictions on Huawei and ZTE, China's telecom hardware manufacturers, would also bring much-needed "stability and predictability to the 5G ecosystem," said Brake.

Gina Raimondo, Biden's commerce secretary pick, stopped short of upholding Trump's Huawei blacklist during her Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, saying she would "review the policy, consult with you, consult with industry, consult with our allies and make an assessment about what's best for American national security and economic security."

Rosenworcel seems to agree. 

"So far our efforts have been limited to improving 5G supply chain security through discouraging the use of insecure Chinese network equipment. But this alone is shortsighted," she said in Senate testimony. "It's time to expand our approach and improve security by working on unlocking radio access networks through virtualization."

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