Broadband: With Jessica Rosenworcel
27 minutes

In one week, 193 countries from around the globe will gather in Egypt for the World Radio Communications Conference. On this episode of Broadband Conversations, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel speaks to the woman leading the United States' delegation: Ambassador Grace Koh. She is a dedicated public servant and a spectrum policy expert. She most recently served as Special Assistant to the President for Technology, Telecom and Cyber-Security Policy at the national Economic Council.


MS. ROSENWORCEL: Hello, and welcome to Broadband Conversations, the podcast where I get to talk to leading women from across the technology, innovation, and media industries. You get to hear what their working on, what's on their minds, and what they think is the next big thing.

My name is Jessica Rosenworcel, and I am a Commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission. One hundred and ninety-three countries are going to gather in Egypt to decide the future of wireless communications, and Grace Koh is my guest today. And she is going to lead the United States delegation to this international treaty-writing conference which most of us know as the World Radio Communications Conference. And the decisions that are made here at this conference are going to impact so many important things in wireless communications from rural broadband to satellite orbits to the future of 5G. So, Grace, I know you are busy preparing and I am so thrilled that you could take a little time out from your very busy schedule and chat with me today. So, thank you for being here.

MS. KOH: Not at all. Thanks so much for inviting me. I really appreciate the opportunity.


MS. KOH: And I just want to add what a cool idea this podcast is.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, fantastic. Look, a fan on the line already. I'm excited.

MS. KOH: That's right.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: But you know what I want to start with -- before we get to the World Radio Communication Conference, I want to have a little bit of an origin story. I want to know how Grace got to the State Department, and tell us how you got started in communications and how you're in this diplomatic role today.

MS. KOH: It's really funny. Gosh, Jessica, I wish I could say that my career was fairly directed, and I'm sure there's a way I can tell it where I do look like I actually know what I was doing as I sort of made the career choices that I did. But I want to say its more sort of a set of opportunities that opened up, and I think a willingness to take risks because of good friends, and a willingness to try something that perhaps I wasn't sure I could do.

So just to be a little more specific about that, I got into, I think, technology generally when I left college. And I was -- I left college about the time when everybody was leaving to work at the startups, and I joined up with one company, with the American National Standards Institute to develop their publishing shop, which was going digital. And then I joined up with a startup which I thought was exciting and different and new, and then the bubble burst and ended up sort of seeking out the law path, because I figured that I was -- at that point, I had started to get an interest how regulation actually impacted startups, because of the things that I encountered when I was working at, which was a startup I joined, was the implementation of COPPA.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: The Child Online Privacy Protection Act?

MS. KOH: That's right -- that's right. With that in mind, I think I went to law school thinking I was interested in tech and policy and sort of followed my path from there. DC was the natural place to end up after law school and, you know, worked in the private sector for about 9-10 years and had an opportunity to join the staff at the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and I jumped at that even though I thought I had had no experience in the Congressional world. But I thought it was interesting. I thought it was exciting and I wanted to take that risk and jumped on board. And from there, I sort of kept doing, I think, in public service, so about three to four years at the House and then a year at the National Economic Council under Gary Cohn at the White House. And then a short stint in private sector and then back to the government with the State Department.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Wow. So you have worked both in the private sector and the public sector, so to anyone out there who is considering a life in government, I think it would be great if you could say why do you think public service is important?

MS. KOH: If you want to be involved in public policy, that's usually a bug that hits you sort of before you actually go to government, right? If you're involved -- if you're interested in how people should structure their communications, their lives, their other, you know, tax policies, economic policies, whatever else, the government is really the place where you can learn the most and do the most. If you want to be effective on the outside as a private sector member influencing policy, there is no substitute really for actually working in the government to really understand how the levers work and what considerations are being sort of brought in -- brought to bear when policy-makers are making decisions.


MS. KOH: So, it's good for -- it's good to understand sort of how those decisions get made, and I don't think you can really learn that until you've actually been in the government. So that's, you know, sort of the selfish career-building side of things. And then there is sort of just plain the excitement and the awe of working for the United States as your client, right?

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right -- right.

MS. KOH: That is really amazing. I took this job because I wanted to be able to say I -- I had negotiated a treaty for the United States. I mean if that doesn't give you some pause --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: It's a little chilling, right?

MS. KOH: Yes, exactly -- exactly. You know, I know that you worked in the Senate also, Jessica.


MS. KOH: But if -- when -- do you remember walking through the halls of the Senate and thinking to yourself "my God, I work here," right?

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes -- no, I mean service is an incredible honor, and if you feel like --

MS. KOH: Yes.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: You've been fortunate --

MS. KOH: Yes -- yes.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- there are opportunities to give back, and I think --

MS. KOH: Yes.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- public service in any environment is one of them.

MS. KOH: I do think it's an incredible honor and an incredible privilege.

MS. KOH: Well, it's good to know your heart skips a beat. You've got a lot of responsibilities, and so let's talk a little bit about those, and let's start with 5G, because everyone in Washington is talking about 5G and the next generation of wireless services. But all the time, I get asked, "What's it all about and what does it mean? Is it just about our videos loading faster and what does lower latency even have to do with how I use online services?" So, it's so much more than that. It's a rethinking of our wireless environment and the entire world around us as we connect more people and more things. So, I'd love it if you give me your elevator pitch for why 5G is so important?

MS. KOH: Absolutely. So, I think the way that many people have explained this, have explained sort of the revolution to 5G is that it actually possibly turns these telecommunication services, these wireless telecommunication services into a general-purpose technology, which basically means it's sort of like the printing press. It's sort of like electricity and that suddenly it can be the platform on which many, many, many new services can be built.

So, I think when people talk generally about 5G, they talk less about the actual technology behind it and more about the specific use cases. And the three specific use cases they usually speak of are massive IOT, so high, tons and tons of little optics that just take little sips of data and provide data throughout -- and provide feedback.

And then the other one is mission critical systems like driverless cars, transportation systems, industrial control systems, utility metering, monitoring, and agricultural systems, things like that. So, there are, I think -- I mean the mission critical systems are sort of a variant on the IOT systems, but the difference is that the low latency afforded by 5G systems are -- is sort of -- the low latency afforded by 5G systems allows these mission critical systems to operate and to be successful actually.

Then of course, the third use case is enhanced broadband, which is sort of the VR/AR applications, the ability to get gigabyte speeds to your phone.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Really, virtual reality and augmented the reality of the next stage of what we can do with video and communications?

MS. KOH: Exactly -- exactly and to have that sort of wirelessly as you're walking around to have information in real time as you're making decisions is pretty phenomenal.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes. Okay. So how --

MS. KOH: (Simultaneous speaking) --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- does all of that relate to this coming meeting in Egypt and the World Radio Communications Conference?

MS. KOH: 5G definitely is -- 5G is a big, I think, presence in this conference, and I think that WORC '19, W-O-R-C '19, will be the conference that breaks millimeter wave spectrum to 5G. So many people don't know exactly how the IT works, but --


MS. KOH: -- the IT --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- many people. It's own complex system. Every time I'm given a flow chart, I feel like it's infinite. So I'd love it if you could talk a little bit more about, you know, the lay of the land, who attends, how this entire conference works, and why it matters?

MS. KOH: Sure. The International Telecommunications Union administers several treaties, and one is obviously the constitution and the makeup of the ITU itself. And then one particular treaty, the one that we're talking about here, are the radio regulations. And it essentially governs how countries use spectrum, particularly with respect to each other. So, as you know, Jessica, spectrum doesn't stop at the border, and so there are lots of coordination issues that we face with our neighbors, Canada and Mexico. And the U.S. is relatively lucky in that we only really have two borders to think of. Of course, if you look in Europe, there are certainly a larger number of borders, and international harmonization of spectrum becomes much more, I think, pressing issue in order to be able to, I think, ensure that interference doesn't undermine the deployment of new services.

So, this conference updates essentially the radio regulations, which all countries sign onto and agree to abide by as well. So, it is a treaty conference, and the U.S. is bound to abide by it.

The agenda for what updates that this conference will make is set at the last conference, which was in 2015. So, 2015 essentially established that we would be looking at harmonizing millimeter wave 5G spectrum. Now that is a big deal. 5G, I think, deployment is going to be different from pretty much every other deployment of wireless services, correct? It's just a lot more density in terms of what we're putting up as equipment, as you've probably heard. I know that the FCC has done quite a bit of work on small cells and making it easier to deploy. But what happens here with the harmonization of spectrum, especially in the millimeter wave, is that all countries will be deploying within this spectrum, so it makes the equipment much more interoperable, and it also makes it easier for operators to deploy because of the economies of scale that the manufacturers are able to get.

If we can all agree on what kinds of spectrum, we want for 5G instead of, you know, piecemeal selecting two gigs here, one gig there, you have the ability to lower the cost of 5G deployment immensely.


MS. KOH: So that's one of the benefits that will come out of this particular conference specifically with respect to 5G.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So international coordination means economies of scale and lower cost deployment across borders --

MS. KOH: (Simultaneous speaking) --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: - and worldwide? So that's why it's --

MS. KOH: That is correct.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- really, really key. And this year maybe you can tell me what you hope to come out of this big world-class event or better put, what would you describe as the United States priorities for this event?

MS. KOH: That's a great question and we are certainly -- we've been preparing for this conference for the past three to four years developing what the U.S. positions need to be on -- in response to, I think, the agenda items that we've teed up here. Certainly, millimeter wave spectrum for 5G is incredibly important, and the FCC has been working tirelessly, actually, to ensure that there is millimeter wave spectrum made available to, I think, to carriers. And general speaking, the U.S. is looking to make sure that its millimeters wave spectrum plans align and sometimes even lead what the world is going to do on millimeter wave spectrum.

So take the case, for example, of the 24-gigahertz band which was just auctioned off. That is one of the key bands I think that most countries have identified for 5G across the world. Now the rules have not been set just yet. They are waiting for the World Radio Conference to actually establish the roles and ensure that there is a specific parameter set around how that spectrum gets used. But in the travels that I've had, and there have been many, it's clear that every region of the globe is interested in identifying that spectrum for 5G millimeter wave use.

Now this is the spectrum that is going to be bringing us the streaming fast broadband speeds to the phone. This is not the spectrum that's going to necessarily be the low latency spectrum that gets used for tiny sips of data in rural North Dakota, but this is the spectrum that will be deployed in cities in many instances and used to, I think, really boost, I think -- bring the next generation of technology apps that write across really fast, I think, wireless platforms. The U.S. has been very forward-leaning in what it's chosen to do on 5G, and I think the U.S. is perhaps leading -- if that's not too arrogant a term -- it has been leading the way on this, but it is very clear that the world also agrees that this is where 5G should be deployed.

Now we don't yet agree on exactly how, but that's part of what we're going to try to work out at the conference.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So outside of millimeter wave, are there going to be discussions about lower bands in spectrum that have more capacity and also, are there going to be specific discussions about satellite services or other things that you think are priorities at this gathering?

MS. KOH: Absolutely. There is actually somewhere around 47, I think, agenda items. So the millimeter wave spectrum is really a few of those items. So, we've identified a number of gigahertz bands for the -- for millimeter wave deployment, but quite a few of the items that go before the ITU for revisions to the radio regulation are satellite-oriented, because satellites really are required global regulation. You can't just send up a satellite without expecting to make sure that you've cleared with other countries that your satellite is not going to bump into somebody else's --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Absolutely.

MS. KOH: -- so that's fairly key. But one of the exciting things about this conference or that I think personally is quite interesting is that we are going to be looking for ways to coordinate NGSOs and GSOs. So that's non-GS stationary orbited satellites and GS stationary orbit satellites. Now that doesn't sound exciting just on the face of but --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I think it sounds exciting.

MS. KOH: -- we --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I got to vote for you there.

MS. KOH: -- that's because -- that's great -- there's nothing like talking to another fellow tech nerdess. I mean it is -- you're speaking my language, Jessica.


MS. KOH: But --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Tell me more.

MS. KOH: -- (simultaneous speaking) -- right. No. The idea of actually seeing how we can actually manage to get these plans for these thousands of satellites have charted as the next answer to really bringing ubiquitous broadband, how to get those constellations, those mega constellations up and running across the globe, or this ITU Conference, the WORK '19, will be actually very key to actually setting up the regulations for allowing them to do that. Without those regulations, it will be very difficult and will be difficult to understand how they impact current satellites that do actually already provide critical services. And it will be difficult to figure out how to make sure that we get them up there in a safe and practical manner.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So is it fair to say that it's also challenging to balance all of these interests, your terrestrial new wireless interests that often involve 5G existing satellite systems, that there are all sorts of world actors who depend on, and also all these new and exciting constellations that we read about every day when it comes to new satellites that we can see in our skies?

MS. KOH: Yes. It is incredibly challenging but U.S. Commissioners knows that this is what we signed up for, right, and I think, you know, it really -- I am always glad when I see people like yourself and a number of other folks at the Commission, obviously, who are interested in making measured, thoughtful, and well-informed choices when we come to make these -- when we have to make calls one way or the other.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes. And then do you also play a role at this conference in identifying what the agenda will be for the next conference after this one?

MS. KOH: Absolutely. So just as the agenda for WORC '19 was set by WORC '15, WORC '19 will set the agenda for WORC '23.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. So look into your --

MS. KOH: There are a lot of ideas --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- crystal ball, tell me what you think that will involved?

MS. KOH: That is actually a topic of hot debate right now among the regions. Now the Agenda will basically set off studies for the next three to four years at the ITU, and these studies are staffed by folks from the FCC, from NTIA, from a variety of other agencies who have spectrum interest. And they will provide the inputs into the decisions that are made at WORC '23. The topics so far that have been raised range from inner-satellite links, several little vehicles; essentially -- I love saying this -- "space plane," which is so neat. These are planes that would go back and forth between the United -- between the earth and a floating space station.

There is obviously continued interest in figuring out how to use -- how to bring earth stations to motion, so the services that serve you when you're on a flight, on the United flight back and forth from D.C. to Geneva, for example. So there's continued interest there.

And there is still interest in figuring out new band for 5G. I think there's quite a bit of question as to how we identify bands that might be ripe for study, to identify them for 5G, for harmonized 5G deployment. That in itself is particularly difficult, I'm sure you know, because I think the (Inaudible) is already quite clouded with incumbents.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Sure, but it's also, of course, a place where you can get a lot of capacity --

MS. KOH: Yes.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- it can be dramatically effective when it comes to deploying and reaching large numbers of people and things for 5G.

MS. KOH: Yes -- yes, absolutely.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Anything else you're really looking forward to when you head to Egypt?

MS. KOH: It's -- you know, it's fun. The whole experience is so interesting, just -- I'm definitely interested in seeing how this all plays out and how the negotiations go. And I'm really excited about the closing ceremony where you actually get to sign a finished document where we've actually all come to an agreement on how we want to use this spectrum and how we can actually ensure that we have accommodated the issues and objections of, you know, of different regions or different countries and, you know, how we've actually managed to make things work for everyone.


MS. KOH: It's so tough, I mean spectrum allocation and policy, and I'd love to get your take on this as well, but it's -- I mean it's just harder and harder to figure out how we are going to use this very scarce resource given the requirements for protection or for limiting, I think -- or for limiting interference. And it becomes -- and spectrum obviously has increasingly become not just the lifeblood of communications but the economy as well if you think --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's right.

MS. KOH: -- when you get to the point where we're actually charging wirelessly as well, so it's not just communications, but we're also transferring energy across the airwaves.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So is there anything --

MS. KOH: How we --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- you think that's going to be especially contentious?

MS. KOH: Oh --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Or all of it you mean?

MS. KOH: -- I mean it's -- I just think that spectrum allocation has just become much more, I think, heated and more difficult as we -- you know, the choices just become more difficult, because it's all important and we all need to use spectrum. So, I think the efficiencies that we can derive through improved technology are going to be more and more key. Our mitigation techniques have to get better, and our ability to, I think, tolerate, negotiate more co-existence is going to be important as well. So, it is becoming just a very interesting area where the resource allocation is just becoming just thinner and thinner and thinner I think, if that makes sense.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes -- no, listen, I mean this is not a discreet sector of the economy anymore. It's an input to everything we do.

MS. KOH: Yes.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: And so the choices we make have a lot to do with how we'll communicate in every way in the future.

MS. KOH: Oh, yes, absolutely. And I think that -- you know, we hope that we make the right choices at the WORC, and we hope we also plan to study the right things for WORC '23.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: That sounds so --

MS. KOH: There's no guarantee --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- far away.

MS. KOH: -- (simultaneous speaking) --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: That sounds so far away.

MS. KOH: -- but it isn't far away.


MS. KOH: But it's amazing. I mean there are people at the FCC itself, right, who are planning for 2023 and what their inputs are going to be.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I know. I so appreciate the work they're doing and the work you're doing, too. But I want to bring our conversation to and end, and we always do it by asking folks some of the same questions. So --

MS. KOH: Sure.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- let me go ahead and say do you remember what's the first thing you did online or on the internet?

MS. KOH: Oh, you're going to laugh at me, and maybe you remember this, too, but do you remember PINE, the email client that was a command line interface, I think, back when -- I guess that was one of the first things I did was to set up my email using PINE on a Unix box.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Ah, that sounds --

MS. KOH: Yes.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- like an appropriately tech nerdy response, you know, bonus points for that one.

MS. KOH: Very super nerdy.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes. Okay. So now let's go mundane. What's the last thing you did online or with the internet?

MS. KOH: Oh, just now I actually just, I think, I looked up -- I need to throw a party. I just looked up somebody's -- a restaurant's phone number, so I just looked that up and that was just the most recent thing I did on the internet.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, okay, that sounds good.

MS. KOH: But I -- yes.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: And I definitely think when the World Radio Communication Conference is over, you'll need to be throwing yourself one as well, so keep those numbers handy.

MS. KOH: Oh, will do.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Now here's a big one and I want you to think a little bit about it. What do you think the future of the internet and digital life looks like?

MS. KOH: That is such an interesting question. When I think about the ubiquities I think 5G is going to bring, as in ubiquity of connection, I can't imagine that we aren't going to have these -- and forgive me for using a really mundane sort of analogy here -- but I can't imagine that we're not going to have these sort of Ironman-style existences. You know, you're walking down a street, and you're -- you know, you're just given the information that you need. There is going to be, I think, the ability -- you're going to, for example, walk up to a friend and you're going to know immediately sort of what the last interaction you had with that person was, or that sort of assisted thinking that occurs when you have sort of information at your fingertips fed directly to you, not pulled in the way that we do it today.

Today if you -- you know, the term "Google it" will be kind of, I guess, sort of obsolete because you won't have to pull the information anymore. It will just be pushed to you. And that's a sort of mildly terrifying combination of AI becoming as useful as it needs to, because you will have to be -- you won't have to sift through all sorts of unwanted information to get what you're looking for, but AI will be pushing the information that's relevant to you and in a combination of care ubiquity. And I think that that's what our personal lives are going to look like, and I think this will be incredibly useful for -- obviously, for our professional lives as well. But I think it applies to our personal lives also.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's extraordinary.

MS. KOH: I don't know if I'm frightened by that.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes. I mean there's a huge amount of efficiency and benefit in that --

MS. KOH: Yes.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- and possibilities for connection and also extraordinary challenges for security associated with --

MS. KOH: Yes.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- that kind of information as well.

MS. KOH: Yes.


MS. KOH: Exactly.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- lots of work to do ahead for policy makers.

MS. KOH: Yes, right.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. That wraps up this episode of Broadband Conversations. Thank you so much, Grace, for being here and good luck at the World Radio Communication Conference. Thank you to everyone for listening. Take care.