By Sara Winegardner

NTIA Head Alan Davidson was on the floor of CES this weekend for the first time since ascending to his current role, and he had a lot to talk about besides the highly-anticipated $42 billion BEAD program.

Returning to the massive conference reminded him of the days when he and his father would attend trade shows to sell business management software and pitch the need for PCs to those on the show floor. But it also offered a glimpse into the realities of the many supply chain, AI, spectrum and privacy issues Davidson and his agency have been tasked with examining.

During a panel introduction Saturday, he told the Las Vegas crowd that the United States is in desperate need of a federal privacy law and NTIA has some recommendations as for what should be included in such a framework.

“It is a problem that today far too many Americans lack baseline protections for their sensitive personal information, and a national standard is a much better way to operate than a patchwork of state laws,” Davidson said. “We have some ideas about what those protection might entail. High on our list… is thinking about how we can increase and enhance our vigilance at the intersection of privacy and civil rights.” The agency has already begun researching how privacy and security harms are felt by marginalized communities and will soon be kicking off a request for comment on related issues. The eventual goal is to release a report examining these problems and offering recommendations on solutions.

It is also charting a path forward for the $1.5 billion Wireless Innovation Fund, a grant program designed to drive wireless innovation, foster competition and strengthen U.S. supply chain resilience. Davidson said the plan now is to start awarding grants from the fund to help spur the growth of Open RAN networks in 2023 and the wheels are already in motion to make that happen. NTIA released a request for comment in December with asks like how NTIA can ensure the funding complements public and private sector initiatives and what are the chief challenges to the adoption and deployment of Open RAN networks. Those are due Jan. 27, and the agency has scheduled a listening session for Jan. 24 at 10am ET on the issue.

Over time, NTIA will release a series of funding notices looking at different areas of the wireless supply chain and ways to promote U.S. leadership and innovation in the space to give operators and providers more options for where to shop domestically when they need equipment.

“We want there to be people at CES in the future selling open interoperable wireless network equipment because we know that’s one of the strengths here in the United States and in other countries,” NTIA Senior Advisor Philip Murphy said. “If we can find ways to make spectrum more accessible, if we can find ways to make this equipment, these markets more competitive… I think we see a huge amount of potential, particularly here in the United States, to unlock all of the skills that we have.”

The conversation around strengthening the domestic supply chain isn’t a new one, but has grown with the impacts of the pandemic and the introduction of programs like the FCC’s rip and replace initiative, which is centered on removing equipment from untrusted providers from U.S. communications networks and subsidizing the replacement of it for network operators. The delay in a successful vote for a House Speaker disrupted the CES schedule, leading to the cancellation of a Saturday panel with Reps. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) and Jay Obernolte (R-FL) that would have given attendees a glimpse into legislative priorities for the 118th Congress. Had they been able to make it, they surely would have fielded questions about the rip and replace program’s future. Congress has already appropriated $1.9 billion to the Commission for the effort and the agency has begun awarding funds, but the applications submitted indicate a need of as much as $5.6 billion in reimbursements.

While providers wait to see if the funds will come, they’ll need to start looking ahead to the future of their WiFi networks. There’s still runway with WiFi 6 (Netgear had three products—a router, access point and mesh system—on the show floor that won CES Innovation Awards), but it is officially the time to start talking about WiFi 7. TP-LINK was awarded two CES Innovation Awards for its WiFi 7 offerings, a gaming router and a whole home mesh system, and software companies are also gearing up for the next step forward in home networking.

Qualcomm Senior Director Leslie Barnes described WiFi 7 as faster and more adaptive than previous generations, setting itself further apart by permitting 320 MHz-wide channels. That allows for a much higher throughput and more efficient use of spectrum. Qualcomm’s latest product is a WiFi 7 immersive home platform, and it promises peak speeds of up to 20.7 Gbps as well as low latency.

“This will enable current and future use cases potentially in all different areas including real-time gaming, high resolution video, extended reality and the next generation of broadband access. This massive throughput is also going to support the proliferation of the Internet of Things,” Barnes said.

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