Over the next five to ten years we will see an explosion of projects bringing high-speed connectivity to underserved communities in the United States. Although fiber infrastructure rightly gets most of the attention and funding, wireless networks should also be part of this planning process. Wireless networks can deploy faster, serve remote locations more economically, and provide some capabilities that fixed networks can’t. Failure to consider the comprehensive needs of the mobile broadband environment will hobble efforts in the next phase of this technology revolution.
How we got here
As federal broadband infrastructure funding is ramping up, state broadband offices are preparing to prove their need for a larger slice of the pie. This is detailed in the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program, which is a part of the infrastructure bill (the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act) passed into law in the fall of 2021. Although every state is guaranteed $100 million, that leaves about $37 billion yet to be divided up.
Assuredly, this pie won’t be sliced into equal portions across states, tribal areas, and U.S. territories. Differences in population, geographic area, household density, and income levels will impact the funding eligibility of individual jurisdictions. Preparedness to verify underserved areas will ensure that state and local governments can maximize their chances of securing adequate funding. The first step is to identify these communities and estimate the cost of covering each household. With a desire to help as many people as possible, there will be a tendency to prioritize areas with the lowest cost per connection.
State governments have been focused primarily on fiber access. However, as big a pot of money as the IIJA may be, it won’t be big enough to connect every household to fiber. Continued supply chain issues, inflation, and labor shortages (particularly with needed expertise) will expand the cost of projects in the coming years.
The race to compete for these billions of dollars has had a very uneven start. Some state broadband offices are fully staffed, have hired consultants, have obtained and collected network performance data, and already have mapping projects launched. Other states are just now funding their broadband offices and beginning to hire their first employees. States that cannot successfully challenge both the mapping fabric (think number of service addresses) and confidently identify unserved households will be disappointed with the size of their slice.
The recipe may require adjustment
Recently, Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel called for the commission to reset its definition of broadband from 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed to 100 down and 20 up. Many would agree that a reset is long overdue. The IIJA legislation is already requiring that new infrastructure builds meet this criteria. We should all recognize that this metric reset could make millions of additional households eligible for funding. Some policy organizations, including the Fiber Broadband Association, are voicing their opinions that those numbers are already dated and that the new target will not be enough for future needs such as the much-anticipated metaverse.
The specific benefits of wireless
Wireless connectivity can be broken down into three basic types of last-mile providers:
- Cellular service providers, offering traditional mobile and new fixed wireless access services
- Wireless internet service providers (WISPs), offering fixed point-to-point service
- Satellite companies (more on them later)
Wi-Fi is also wireless, but provides a final hop for only the last few feet of a network connection.
Wireless is essential because there is broad recognition that for truly remote properties, a physical connection may never be practical. As subsidies flow, that fact may be applicable to fewer locations, but there is certainly a point of diminishing return. As state and federal officials plan their networks to connect as many communities as they can, they should be factoring in where the wireless networks need bolstering as well. This is applicable for both mobile and WISP infrastructure.
Additional wireless investment could serve multiple needs. Poor wireless coverage is a common complaint even in densely populated areas. If you spend any significant time in rural areas, you know that there are locations where service is so spotty that the local population knows when to not risk initiating a call. Even if you get a signal, throughput can vary greatly. Just because you can receive a text in a particular location doesn’t mean you can download a video. These rural areas have weak wireless signals for the same reason that they lack good terrestrial broadband — the population density does not provide enough return on the investment.
Fiber is still a necessary ingredient
Today’s higher data usage demands the capacity that fiber provides. Mobile service providers are not going to build a new 5G tower without access to fiber backhaul. Sites that require long, dedicated fiber deployments can cost far more and lead to an unreasonable dent in the CapEx budget.
As new middle-mile networks are being designed, network planners should consider where wireless networks are weak and new towers are needed for improvement. Strategically adding splice points in poor service areas can significantly lower the barrier to attracting new wireless infrastructure. A lower cost of deployment will be a big incentive to wireless networks to bring improved service to rural communities.
We all depend on wireless services
Mobile connectivity has moved beyond a luxury and has become an expectation. Even if we could practically and affordably connect every house with fiber, there are many reasons to include wireless in your overall design plans.
- Public safety – If you have ever had a flat tire or an overheated radiator, you know how important wireless coverage can be. Just try calling a rescue service with no bars. FirstNet wants to improve coverage as well, and incentivising new towers can provide a big assist.
- Precision agriculture – Fiber-to-the-home can connect the farm house, the barn, and even the chicken houses, but it won’t connect the tractor or the combine. Livestock now wear devices that monitor animal well-being. Wireless is the only way to keep the whole farm connected and competitive in a global marketplace.
- Healthcare – Devices to monitor blood pressure, heart rate, glucose levels, and more are revolutionizing patient care. Many can now automatically notify a care facility when a patient is in distress. Mobile networks keep these devices connected if the patient’s residence lacks fixed broadband and when they are away from the home.
- Economic development – Picking the best location for a new factory, business park, or neighborhood is about more than adequate roads and water resources. Good connectivity for both wireless and fixed telecom services has become a standard amenity for site selection.
- 5G, part 1 – These new networks are quickly overlaying the 4G footprint. You don’t have to experience the lightning speeds of inner city millimeter wave service to see huge improvements in network performance. Wireless carriers are now introducing Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) to directly compete with traditional fixed providers. Competition means pressure in the market to keep services more affordable.
- 5G, part 2 – Just over the horizon is the Rural 5G Fund, established by the FCC in October 2020. Over $9 billion dollars will be made available to improve 5G coverage. However, the Competitive Carriers Association, which represents many rural mobile service providers, estimates the need at well over $30 billion. Without some advance planning and dialogue with the wireless providers in your state, you may see very little of those investments.
WISPs have brought first-time service to millions
According to WISPA (the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association), over 2,800 WISPs are now serving more than seven million customers in portions of all 50 states, bringing internet to many rural households that had previously relied on aging satellite services. Although some subscribers are seeing median speeds below the current 25/3 broadband definition, new technologies are improving user experiences as equipment is modernized. Of course, better access to fiber is also needed to increase capacity and link to internet backbones.
All radio signals degrade with distance. Some of the largest WISPs cover sparsely populated regions, often with rugged terrain, making physical household connections particularly expensive to build. Commonly, customers who experience slower than advertised speeds are living at the practical edge of these coverage areas. Providing fiber to just a handful of locations can attract new towers that could substantially expand network services. This would also save much of the cost compared to direct-to-home routes and reduce the time needed for these subscribers to see significant improvements.
The IIJA is written to be technology-neutral, but some broadband officials seem to be paying little attention to proven solutions that could have immediate impact. Even if the eventual goal is to offer direct-to-home fiber for everyone, we may go well beyond this decade without realizing that dream.
Aren’t satellites wireless, too?
Modern and improved satellite services are already fulfilling broadband needs for some households and businesses. Availability is limited to certain geographies but is expanding, and new competitors plan to enter the mix soon.
Throughput speeds and latency have improved dramatically, but waitlists are long, and initial equipment costs of more than $500 (that’s for do-it-yourself) and subscription fees of $100 or more per month will make this a difficult purchase decision for low-income households. There’s also limited capacity for any given geographic area, so even if there is satellite service available in your location, it may be that your neighbors have already maxed out the service and you will be waiting for additional capacity to be made available.
Without wireless, a broadband plan is just half-baked
We are many years away from realizing the full impact of the IIJA and the other recent funding sources that will deliver new fiber connections across the country. The FCC’s map is already delayed. There are early grumblings about uncertain challenge processes and many states are just now getting their planning efforts underway. The federal government has promised millions of Americans better broadband and they are expecting action soon, not in five to ten years.
Regulators and policymakers will ultimately be held accountable by voters and Congress for how the BEAD funds are spent. Two key metrics will matter most: the number of households gaining a new or improved connection and how quickly this progress is being made. Monitoring compliance will become more important as projects hit milestones and contractors get paid.
For some rural communities, wireless may be the best option right now and, perhaps, for the foreseeable future. Some households can already experience better service from their wireless provider than from DSL or satellite options. Reports are surfacing of DSL providers refusing to reconnect service to households where an interruption of service has occurred — whether for late payment or change of ownership — leaving families cut off from the digital economy.
Because satellite service is expensive and hard to acquire, wireless services are the only logical solution to get some rural households (particularly those in low-income brackets) connected before these communities wither past the point of no return. WISPs and mobile providers can fill some of this gap today and, if given the opportunity, will provide competitive options for families unhappy with their service. FWA from the traditional mobile operators is gaining public acceptance quickly in select markets and where signal levels are strong.
Think of anticipating wireless needs while planning fixed networks like an extension of a “dig once” policy. You don’t want to look back years from now and ask why wireless wasn’t considered in your planning process. Across the country, economic and community development departments spend millions of dollars every year to attract new citizens and businesses. Reliable mobile coverage is an amenity everyone – and every thing – wants.
Data from Ookla can highlight areas of need for both fixed and wireless networks. Leveraging coverage data to spotlight deficiencies can serve as an additional assessment in your middle-mile fiber planning, which can ultimately improve public safety, agricultural competitiveness, and overall quality of life.
Prepare for all the broadband needs ahead of you. It’s smart business. It’s smart government.
Bryan Darr is the Vice President of Smart Communities at Ookla. He coordinates Ookla’s outreach to local, state and federal governments and serves on CTIA’s Smart Cities Business & Technology Working Group. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.
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