When cities and states in the United States first began lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a big concern initially was whether the Internet and other communications networks would hold up under the strain. Thankfully, aside from some minor hiccups and latency problems, the Internet’s infrastructure seems to be doing just fine.
It’s one thing to know that our current communications infrastructure is up to the task, but what about future networks? After all, plenty of networks were under construction when social distancing and shelter-in-place measures were instituted across the U.S.
The gist is that lockdowns have made it difficult, though not impossible, for companies to complete their network buildouts on schedule. For a wireless network operator, that can mean more than just deadlines—it could mean the loss of its license to operate a network over the frequencies it has been assigned.
Here’s how network buildout typically works in the U.S.: When a company wants to build and operate a wireless network, it must receive a license from the Federal Communications Commission to operate over a specific set of frequencies in a given area. That license also includes a deadline: By a specific date, the company must have finished its network buildout and started sending signals. Otherwise, the frequencies are up for grabs.
But now, companies are struggling to meet their deadlines. “It’s not like these guys are trying to skirt the rules,” says Mark Crosby, CEO of the Enterprise Wireless Alliance, an industry trade association. “It’s not that they don’t want to finish their construction, it’s just that things are difficult right now.”
Crosby says he’s heard plenty of stories from wireless companies that are members of EWA. Some can’t get cranes out to sites for tower construction, while others have had delays in getting technicians and utility workers on site. Crosby’s favorite story, so far, is a company that had a sheriff come out to a site to tell the workers that they could finish their work, but because of the risk that some of them might be carrying COVID-19, they shouldn’t plan on coming back into town, but to leave as soon as they were done. “It’s like it’s straight out of the movies, the sheriff saying ‘I thought I told you to get out of town,’” says Crosby.
Because of these problems, the EWA petitioned the FCC for a waiver of buildout deadlines until 31 August 2020. The FCC responded by giving all companies with a deadline between 15 March and 15 May an additional 60 days to complete their buildouts [PDF]. Although it’s not as much as the EWA initially asked for, Crosby believes companies will be okay, and says that the EWA will continue to monitor the situation, should more time be needed.
Prior to the FCC’s decision, the agency was granting deadline waivers on a case-by-case basis. Although companies are traditionally able to apply for deadline extensions—and Crosby notes that such extensions are almost always granted, provided the company is actually working on their buildout—the EWA’s position was that case-by-case was too cumbersome during the pandemic. “The FCC is all working from home,” Crosby says. “It’s just as difficult for them.” To avoid headaches and paperwork, it makes more sense to grant a blanket extension.
The FCC did not respond to a request for comment on the current state of buildout delays and why its response was not the same as the EWA’s original request.
While the pandemic is undoubtedly disrupting network buildouts, Crosby for one is equally certain it won’t cause lingering problems. He’s confident that when state and local governments begin lifting lockdown measures, companies will have no trouble wrapping up their delayed buildouts and getting new construction done on schedule. “The EWA wouldn’t support [taking undue advantage of the situation],” he says. “If everything’s normal, don’t roll deadlines. We do not want people sitting on the spectrum.”