An interview with Brendan Carr, commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission

The first deployments of 5G technology are starting to take place. The defining characteristics of 5G include faster speed, greater capacity and lower latency compared to existing 4G LTE technology. 5G is a key requirement to fully enable emerging technologies like self-driving cars and smart cities. It also has the potential to revolutionize residential broadband and close the digital divide. Jennifer Taylor, vice president of U.S. Jobs at CTA, recently sat down with Brendan Carr, a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, to discuss the impact of 5G on the future of America’s workforce.

We are seeing China and countries in Europe taking strategic steps to advance in 5G. Why is it so important for America to win the 5G race?

We’re very excited at the FCC about this transition to 5G. Essentially, 5G is the upgrade to the wired and wireless network that will enable all the tech we’re seeing today on the show floor at CES — everything from autonomous vehicles to telehealth applications. The Wall Street Journal has called this transition to 5G transformative, not just from a technological perspective, but from an economic perspective. The U.S. has been dominant in the tech space — particularly in the past 10 years — because we won the race to 4G. The challenge now is that there are countries around the world that view 5G as a chance to potentially flip the script and exert economic dominance for the next decade. This 5G race is going to be something that requires about $275 billion in private sector investment, but ultimately, if we win, it’s going to create about three million new jobs. To accomplish this, we have work to do from a regulatory perspective, but also from a workforce development perspective.

What are countries like China or countries in Europe doing differently from America?

For 5G to succeed, there are two things to consider. One is spectrum. The U.S. is in pretty good shape in regard to spectrum; we’ve freed up more spectrum than any other country in the world. The second piece is the infrastructure challenge. We need hundreds of thousands of new cell sites to support 5G, in addition to many miles of new fiber. This is something the U.S. has been heavily focusing on, but since 2015, China has deployed around 375,000 new cell sites. In the U.S., we’ve done about 30,000 in that time. And China right now is deploying about 460 new cell sites a day, 12 times our pace in the U.S. So, the FCC has been focusing on some regulatory reforms and cutting some red tape, so we can free up the private sector for the massive ramp up in construction and deployment work we need to make sure we’re also on the leading edge of 5G.

What are the opportunities you see regarding broadband, and what is the FCC doing to close the digital divide, especially in rural areas of our country?

That’s a challenge. I’ve spent a lot of time outside of D.C., and in my frst year on this job I’ve had the chance to visit and do events in 23 states. I was in a small town, Blue River Township in Indiana, at a small family farm owned by a woman named Linda Muegge. She told us how she recently got a fiber optic broadband connection to her home and it drastically changed the economic profile of her family. Her son, Chris, who recently graduated from college at Purdue, got an advanced degree in cattle nutrition.

Normally someone in Chris’ position, leaving Blue River Township, would have to go to a big city to find a job where he could put those skill sets to good use. But instead, with the fiber connection at the farm, he moved back home so he could help at the farm while also launching an online consulting business, where he consults with dairy farms around the world. That’s just one example of what broadband means economically for a family in a small community in rural America.

I had a similar experience two weeks ago. One of our member companies, Eldor, supplies ignition coils to Ford and other automotive manufacturers. They just opened a beautiful factory outside of Roanoke, Virginia. When I spoke with their building engineers, they explained they had difficulty accessing cloud computing, because the broadband access was not fast enough. Instead of paying to have fiber directed right to the plant, they worked with local community leaders to access a Wi-Fi tower nearby. This plant will employ 350 people. 5G is critical to help factories operate and enable employees to both live and work in these communities.

I’m happy you brought up the manufacturing side. That’s another reason we’re really interested in 5G — because it will enable a new economy. We’ve had the chance to visit manufacturing facilities across the country, from Sioux City, Iowa to Yankton, South Dakota — where we visited a facility that’s manufacturing the new small-cell towers and macro-towers that we need for 5G.

When you think about jobs of the future, it’s important we talk about the whole spectrum of jobs. We need to ramp up to essentially 60,000 new cell sites a year in this country. Right now, we don’t have the workforce in place to deploy at that type of pace. So, this is where reforms come in, whether it’s in the infrastructure construction side or in community colleges, where instead of earning a four-year degree you could — potentially as quickly as in an eight-week program — get the skill sets needed to go right into tower climbing. These are good paying jobs that are going to be in high demand, particularly over the next couple of years.

Also, once we have that platform deployed, we need to make sure everyone can take advantage of that platform. A lot of times we see coding schools that can help make a difference there. But we must rethink the whole spectrum of our workforce, from those who are deploying the platform to those who are operating it.

One of my roles at CTA is leading the 21st Century Workforce Council that we created. We have 70 companies on the Council, and we’re encouraging companies to create new educational pathways, because a four-year college degree is not always necessary, and these degrees often do not yield enough workers with skill sets in high demand. Only 33 percent of Americans have a four-year degree, so it is critical that we see greater adoption of new educational pathways — such as apprenticeships, or train-to-hire programs, or stackable certificates and credentials in coding. We also know that the private sector can play a huge role in getting those programs off the ground.

That’s right. In conjunction with the Department of Labor, we are thinking about ways we can reform our apprenticeships. For instance, we can move people through the programs and give them the skill sets they need, but then can we get them into the workforce as well? In Silicon Valley, for example, we need to make sure we have the engineers and the coders who can enable that autonomous vehicle to finally get across the finish line. There are tremendous opportunities for job creation, but we must make sure we look at all potential jobs across this new economy.

How do you envision the technology and broadband industries, and the government — including the FCC — working together to address the creation of a highly-skilled 21st century workforce?

I’m very excited about what the future holds, from a broadband perspective. We’re at a point in time where we’re getting the regulatory framework and regulatory environment right, at the government level, to support and incentivize deployment, and we’re also working to make sure we have the workforce in place. We’re partnering with the Department of Labor to make sure we have the right apprenticeship approaches, and we’re also coming up with ideas regarding community colleges, to see how we can get people quickly into this space and take advantage of the opportunities that are out there. We’re optimistic about where we’re going from a broadband/employment perspective, and from the perspective of making sure people have the skills to take advantage of it.

Source: CTA Staff