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Did wireless win the battle over broadband symmetry?

With around $65 billion on the line, the wireless industry has been desperate to convince policymakers to settle on a definition of broadband that wireless technologies would be able to meet. And, according to one financial analyst firm, the industry appears to have done just that. "Wireless can compete," proclaimed the analysts at New Street Research in a note to investors.

The analysts cited their copy of a new, 157-page draft of the bipartisan broadband bill that's currently wending through Congress. That legislation promises to allocate up to $65 billion – an eye-watering sum – to broadband providers and customers around the country.

Importantly, according to the New Street analysts, the newest version of the legislation defines "broadband" as providing at least 100 Mbit/s downloads and 20 Mbit/s uploads – instead of symmetrical 100 Mbit/s down and up.

"In a win for the wireless industry, and particularly the wireless equipment industry, the draft says that networks are eligible for funding if they offer 100/20 service, rather than the 100/100 that was in earlier versions of Democratic proposals. This makes certain kinds of wireless offerings eligible," the analysts wrote in a note to investors Monday.

They added though that "we are skeptical that it will result in large wins for wireless interests." That's because the current version of the legislation would allocate funds on a state or local basis, and "most governors would rather, for example, attend ribbon cuttings for fiber projects than wireless networks."

Nonetheless, the draft represents a win for wireless lobbyists who loudly fought against calls for symmetrical broadband because most wireless technologies simply do not have the capacity to handle symmetrical 100 Mbit/s speeds on a widespread basis.

The troubles of symmetry

"Symmetrical broadband speeds are not necessary," argued the Wireless Internet Service Provider Association (WISPA) in a recent filing to the FCC. The association represents hundreds of fixed wireless Internet providers around the country hoping to be eligible for government money. "Consumers typically use at least eight times more download bandwidth than upload bandwidth. Therefore, data about consumer broadband usage does not support a subsidy policy that would mandate subsidizing 100/100Mbit/s speeds at the exclusion of asymmetrical speeds that better reflect consumer usage. That consumer data also does not support policies that would foreclose certain competitive alternatives such as fixed wireless broadband services that may currently not offer 100/100Mbit/s speeds. Moreover, fixed wireless broadband can be deployed much more quickly than wireline technologies and can be upgraded to provide faster download and upload speeds over time as equipment evolves."

Others agree with WISPA.

"By supporting 'future proof' networks with symmetrical speeds, it is likely Biden's [broadband] plan is calling for fiber-only networks which could present a myriad of issues," wrote Will Yepez with the National Taxpayers Union (NTU). He said such a requirement would "make reaching rural areas even more difficult and could close the door on innovative solutions."

But others have strongly urged lawmakers to embrace broadband symmetry.

A future-proofed network

"Congress should require ... networks that will be scalable over time to meet the online needs of their communities. ... The minimum speed for eligible projects to receive funds should be 100/100 Mbit/s," wrote trade groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Fiber Broadband Association, Public Knowledge and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association NTCA in a recent release to Congress.

Tom Wheeler, the former head of the FCC under President Obama, has also come out as a strong advocate for fast, symmetrical broadband. Wheeler, now a fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote last month that 90% of Americans expect to pay for 100Mbit/s services by 2025, according to a recent survey.

"If at least 100 Mbit/s is what the market is demanding, why would the federal government spend billions to build less than that in unserved areas?" Wheeler wrote. "If almost a quarter of consumers are asking their providers for faster service, why should the government support something slow?"

Interestingly, Wheeler cited recent comments from AT&T CFO Pascal Desroches about the value of symmetrical broadband to bolster his argument.

"We believe that the demand for symmetrical speed is going to increase significantly," Desroches said at an investor event in June. "In a world where you're going to have increased demand from gaming, increased demand from online education, increased demand from telehealth services, remote work, I'm just not sure that the fixed wireless is going to satisfy consumers."

However, AT&T's policy chief, Joan Marsh, has warned against government regulations for symmetrical speeds. "A definition built on symmetrical speeds could dramatically expand the locations deemed 'unserved,' leading to some areas being unnecessarily overbuilt while leaving fewer dollars to support areas in greater need, which tend to be rural," she wrote in March.

AT&T's seemingly incongruous attitude toward fiber and fixed wireless has tripped up other executives from the operator too.

Ensuring eligibility

But the issue of broadband symmetry is particularly important to operators like Verizon and T-Mobile that are planning widespread fixed wireless network buildouts. They've also hinted they may seek government money for their efforts, if they're able to. For example, T-Mobile CFO Peter Osvaldik said recently that T-Mobile's fixed wireless offerings ought to be "very well aligned" with government efforts to cross the digital divide.

T-Mobile officials have said the operator's fixed wireless service will be able to support "average" speeds of 100 Mbit/s. However, T-Mobile notes on its website that "customers will see average download speeds in excess of 100 Mbit/s, and all eligible households will see average download speeds of 25 Mbit/s or more."

It's also worth noting that the cable industry too may cheer a government shift toward slower upstream requirements, considering most standard hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) allocate more capacity to downstream traffic compared with upstream traffic. Indeed, Altice USA recently confirmed reports that it plans to cut upstream speeds on its broadband tiers for new subscribers by as much as 86%.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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