Could Trump’s request for less NIST funding be turned into another political football?

Overview

This morning the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Technology held a hearing to consider the Fiscal Year 2020 budget request of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. NIST’s published mission is “to promote U.S. innovation and competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.”  The agency provides measurements, standards, and reference materials for the technology behind a range of products and services, including computers, GPS systems, cellphones, and automobiles.

Leading Democrats Didn’t Share Too Much Concern About Artificial Intelligence 

Based on the opening statement of the chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Eddie Bernice Johnson, Democrat of Texas, the primary concern of the Democrats appears to be the impact last year’s shutdown had on NIST research and staffing and how the proposed reductions would compound the problem of reduced research output combined with a reduction in staff.

House Subcommittee on Research and Technology chairman Haley Stevens appeared to emphasize the defunding of programs that support the manufacturing sector and also expressed her concerns about the potential of 400 staffers being let go from the agency.

Both Chairman Johnson and Chairman Stevens provided more of a passing reference to artificial intelligence and advanced communication, observations that don’t appear commensurate with the proposed reductions the areas of advanced communications, networks, and data systems.

The Administration’s proposed cuts in advanced communications, networks, and data systems are severe.  The Administration wants to reduce spending in this area by 41.4%, from $68.6 million in FY 2018 and FY 2019 to $40.2 million in FY 2020.  While NIST director, Dr. Walter Copan, explained that there would be a $8 million increase in spending in the area artificial intelligence, he could not provide, during his testimony, the specific methodology leading to the Administration’s proposed overall reductions for artificial intelligence and advanced communications.

What Messages Are Being Sent?

From the Trump Administration’s end, the message appears to be the hope that NIST’s attempts to coordinate research initiatives between the private sector, public sector, and academia will make up for the reduced contribution by the federal government to research.

Congressional Democrats may see the Administration’s proposal as an opportunity to portray funding reductions as a threat to America’s economic growth. The President’s budget may give them the opportunity to make an argument that Mr Trump is continuing his shutdown of the government with this request and again risking the creation of a negative impact on the economy.

Congressional Republicans may have their bluff called on how dedicated they are to economic growth. Supporting the President’s proposed reductions may be seen as in direct conflict with their economic growth narrative. How can the Republicans support infrastructure development and investment while cutting of a conduit for development and investment?

On the other hand, Congressional Republicans could turn this into an opportunity to push back on their party’s leader, just enough to show a little independence from the White House.

In the end, Congress controls the purse strings and could present a budget in the fall that invests more in the NIST than the President is requesting.

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Capital. The true digital divide

A couple early morning thoughts on the digital divide.  So far the digital divide narrative has occupied two schools of thought that are not necessarily opposed to each other.

Race and the Digital Divide

The first school of thought revolves around race.  Given that within the black American community there is a higher level of poor households, affordability is keeping blacks from accessing the internet via high-speed broadband infrastructure.  If blacks do not have the income to sustain a broadband business model, then internet access providers are less likely to deploy facilities in poor neighborhoods.  Lack of deployment in these neighborhoods may result in a barrier to valuable information that may lead to greater economic opportunities, according to advocates seeking to close this gap.

Rural Communities and the Digital Divide

The second school of thought revolves around rural communities.  The argument is that lower population density as compared to urban areas makes deploying broadband access facilities in rural areas more expensive.  In addition, terrain, such as that faced by internet access providers in mountain states, has traditionally added to the problem of higher costs to provide broadband access facilities.

An Overlooked Divide

There is another divide, one that is often overlooked and it has to go to what is known as “first-mover advantage.” The real value generated by the internet is the ability to extract, analyze, package, and distribute information, and have that information be available digitally forever.  The focus on a gap between facilities deployed in black neighborhoods versus facilities deployed in white neighborhoods or the gap between rural community deployment versus urban community deployment goes to seeking out new suppliers of information.  The civil right veneer that has been placed over the broadband racial divide hides this supply-side characteristic from the policy debate.  It has also created the opportunity for the political left to craft an electoral package that can be sold to voters.

It is the other side of the equation, the production side, that, in my opinion holds more value.  When we look at the history of the internet, particularly the period when the internet was commercialized, its players included white venture capitalists; Web 1.0 internet service providers, i.e. AOL, CompuServ, Mindspring, etc.; and dial-up access providers such as BellSouth.

Black Americans could always access information from analog sources, i.e. television; print media; or word of mouth, but the efficient extraction, cataloging,  indexing, aggregation, and distribution of information via the internet were the domain of companies invested in and managed by whites.  As whites continued to level their first-mover advantage, this gap between producer/owner of capital and consumer continued to grow.

Capital not only seeks a vacuum, it also seeks a return.  Returns from investing in black or even rural communities were not going to be as high as returns invested in affluent neighborhoods, neighborhoods whose residents probably owned shares in the very companies that commercialized the internet in the first place.  Closing the “digital divide” means first closing the capital divide.

What will Government Do Next?

Government will do nothing from a capital perspective to close the digital divide. The Federal Communications Commission has a number of universal service funding initiatives designed to encourage mobile and fixed broadband deployment in rural areas; to facilitate the delivery of health care via broadband; and to reduce the costs incurred by low-income consumers for accessing and maintaining high-speed broadband service.  By subsidizing the consumer demand for broadband services, the Commission hopes to encourage the delivery of broadband services.  But again, the focus is on consumer demand, not bridging the capital gap.

The philosophical underpinnings of the American economy, where capital is to flow freely to its best use may prohibit government from taking any concrete action for closing a capital gap.  If blacks or rural residents had sufficient capital to purchase, construct, or maintain broadband access facilities, using their intimate knowledge of their communities to distribute services, we might see a decrease in the gap.  We should expect that government will stay on a path of incentivizing capital investment in infrastructure development versus trying to repair capital discrepancies via a capital transfer.

FCC to vote on a 5G order designed to deploy more broadband

On 26 September 2018, the Federal Communications Commission will vote on an order that members of the Commission believe will help pave the way for deployment of the small cell technology that supports 5G technology.

5G refers to a next generation wireless technology that promises to deliver wireless communications at faster speeds with increased data capacity.  Writing for TechTarget.com, Margaret Rouse describes 5G as a technology that could provide data traffic speeds of 20 gigabits per second while enabling increases in the amount of data transmitted due to more available bandwidth and advanced antenna technology.

“In addition to improvements in speed, capacity and latency, 5G offers network management features, among them network slicing, which allows mobile operators to create multiple virtual networks within a single physical 5G network. This capability will enable wireless network connections to support specific uses or business cases and could be sold on an as-a-service basis.” — Margaret Rouse

Unlike current 4G Long Term Evolution wireless technology that relies on the deployment of large cell towers, 5G depends on the deployment of small cell antenna sites that are placed on utility poles or rooftops.  5G is designed to operate in frequencies between 30 GHz and 300 GHz allowing for greater data capacity but over shorter distances.

Commissioner Brendan Carr has been given credit for driving the development and release of this order.  Mr. Carr has been traveling the United States advocating for streamlined regulations that in turn would facilitate deployment of 5G technology.  Mr. Carr sees local and state regulations for cell tower and other facility siting as an issue and is making the argument that Sections 253 and 332(c)(7) of the Communications Act of 1934 can be leveraged to make local and state regulations less adverse to 5G deployment.

Under Section 253 of the Communications Act, the Commission may preempt any local or state statute or regulation that prohibits an entity from providing intrastate or interstate telecommunications services. States and localities can regulate telecom companies in order to preserve universal service, protect the public safety and welfare, and manage public rights-of-way.  Section 332(c)(7) maintains a state or local government’s authority over decisions regarding placement, construction, and modification of personal wireless facilities.

Mr. Carr argues that the order will generate $2 billion in cost savings for the wireless industry while generating an additional $2.4 billion in wireless investment.  Actual deployment is still nascent with expectations as to what 5G can do versus what it is actually doing.  Phones using 5G standards, according to Ms. Rouse’s article, are expected in 2019.  Cities are still constructing their blueprints for reconciling their smart city concepts and the “internet of things” with 5G expectations.  It may not be until 2030 that 5G becomes commonplace.