Companies such as Ehresmann Engineering of Yankton can play a major role in closing the "digital divide" so rural areas — even those considered "frontier" — can gain access to faster wireless technology, according to a federal official.
Federal Communication Commissioner (FCC) Brendan Carr visited the Yankton firm on Friday morning, part of his swing through the Dakotas and Minnesota. He concluded the day by testifying at a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee field hearing in Sioux Falls.
U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) chairs the committee.
The FCC has made rural access a priority, said Carr, one of five commissioners.
"We’re very focused on closing the digital divide and ensuring every community in the country has a fair shot at next-generation connectivity and the opportunity that comes when you have broad-based connectivity," he said.
Carr toured the Yankton facility to gain a firsthand look at the operation. Ehresmann Engineering and other companies play a key role in meeting the growing demand for more and faster telecommunications, he said.
The tri-state tour also provides input on regulatory reforms that can streamline the process for businesses such as Ehresmann Engineering and get their product into usage, he said
"I can go back to D.C. and take back these ideas about the regulatory reform and red tape we can cut and make their jobs at places like this easier," he said.
The United States needs to upgrade both its infrastructure and regulations to meet the growing demand for high-speed telecommunications such as 5G, short for "fifth generation," he said.
The United States currently has 200,000-300,000 cell sites but needs to ramp up production, Carr said. To meet demand, the nation needs an additional 70,000 towers annually, he said.
But the large 200-foot towers won’t fit all the needs of the changing technology, Carr said. The tall towers don’t work well for 5G, which calls for small box transmitters.
As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Thune has worked with legislation dealing with both the infrastructure and regulatory side, Carr said.
Cutting red tape in turn cuts expenses, but the sparsity of rural areas still makes them unprofitable for private companies, the commissioner said. In those cases, rural projects will require financial assistance from the Universal Service Fund, Carr added.
Urban areas such as New York and San Francisco will receive 5G and other high-speed technology, Carr said. The real test will come in serving the rural areas, he said.
"Our focus is seeing that every community like (Yankton) gets a fair shot at connectivity," he said. "It has to be the backbone for job innovation and economic activity."
Ehresmann Engineering business development manager Eric Taylor believes Carr learned more about the manufacturing process during Friday’s tour.
"We hope he takes away from here the hard work that all of us are putting into our structures," he said.
In turn, Carr can see from a ground-level view the industry that his agency regulates, Taylor said.
"He sees the different things we do on infrastructure and how their decisions affect us and everyone else in the industry," he said.
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