The FCC is preparing to release up to $20.4 billion to telecom companies to finance the construction of networks in rural areas. But the commission doesn't want to give any of that money to wireless companies seeking to provide 1Gbit/s services.
Not surprisingly, some 5G players are throwing a bit of a fit about that.
"5G is not just for mobile broadband, it is applicable to fixed wireless access as well – in fact some of the first use cases for 5G are fixed wireless access ("FWA") applications, such as wireless fiber solutions and connecting unserved areas," wrote 5G equipment provider Ericsson in recent comments to the FCC. "With 5G providing up to 100 times more capacity than 4G networks, a 5G FWA network eliminates the need for costly deployment of fiber-based access infrastructure and offers peak rates that few other fixed technologies can match. 5G FWA can reduce the initial cost of last mile connectivity by as much as 40 percent compared to fiber."
"Modern fixed wireless technologies operating across a wide variety of spectrum bands are capable of providing gigabit services," fixed wireless Internet provider Starry wrote in its own filing to the FCC. Starry explained that it currently uses a Wi-Fi transmission technology in millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum to provide up to 6.9Gbit/s per transmission sector in its own fixed wireless service.
"Microsoft respectfully requests the Commission not to adopt its proposal to exclude any applicant that intends to use fixed wireless," the software giant wrote to the FCC. Microsoft, for its part, continues to push its Airband fixed wireless service as a way to cross the digital divide.
Already Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile have either hinted at using 5G for fixed wireless services or have unveiled major fixed wireless deployment plans. And Verizon, for example, recently boasted of 5G speeds exceeding 4Gbit/s.
Billions in the balance
At issue is a major new proposal from the FCC called the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) that would distribute up to $20.4 billion to operators around the country to fund the construction of fixed telecom networks in rural areas. The effort is essentially a bigger version of the agency's Connect America Fund Phase II (CAF II) auction that ended in 2018, generating a significant amount of interest from fixed wireless providers.
In its proposal to distribute the RDOF funds, the FCC wants to finance several different tiers of speed, including a "minimum" tier that would require operators to provide 25Mbit/s downloads and a "baseline" tier that would require 50Mbit/s speeds. The agency's top speed tier, the "Gigabit" tier, would require RDOF winners to provide speeds of 1Gbit/s.
But the agency said that DSL and fixed wireless providers, including those using 5G, could not apply for that 1Gbit/s speed tier. "We propose precluding any applicant that intends to use fixed wireless or DSL technologies from bidding in the Gigabit tier if the applicant has not reported offering Gigabit broadband service in its FCC Form 477 data," the agency wrote. Internet providers use the FCC's Form 477 to tell the agency where and what kind of service they provide. "Based on FCC Form 477 data as of December 31, 2018, 98% of fixed wireless and DSL providers have not reported offering Gigabit speeds, and only 17% have reported offering speeds of 100Mbit/s or above. By contrast, 82% of optical carrier/fiber-to-the-end-user providers report offering broadband at 100Mbit/s speeds."
Concluded the FCC: "Given the continued lack of widespread reported deployment at higher speeds, it appears unreasonable to expect that an applicant choosing to use either fixed wireless or DSL would be able to offer Gigabit speeds by the first service milestone unless it has a reported history of offering such speeds."
Starting in October, the FCC will begin distributing its RDOF money through a reverse auction where the lowest bidder in a particular area wins – winners are then on the hook to actually build services with that funding.
Wired providers cheer
Some companies are defending the FCC's decision to exclude 5G and fixed wireless in general from the Gigabit funding tier.
"Until fixed wireless providers can demonstrate they have operational networks actually providing Gigabit services, these theoretical claims of what fixed wireless technology might or could do at some point in the future are mere speculation that do not warrant revising the Commission's proposed Gigabit tier bidding preclusion for fixed wireless services," wrote the Fiber Broadband Association in its FCC filing on the matter. The association represents companies that sell fiber-based telecom networks.
"As it determines how to invest limited ratepayer funds, the Commission's mantra here should be 'do it right the first time' by investing in networks that are known to be capable of meeting consumer demands as they evolve," wrote the NTCA in its filing. The association represents some rural cable providers. "A gamble on networks that are not providing service at a certain level today – and indeed if deployed tomorrow may not even be able to keep up with escalating consumer demands of the kind we are witnessing now – could leave millions of rural Americans lacking sufficient service. With respect to the RDOF, the Commission's distribution of funds for the benefit of consumers that have long lacked access should therefore be done right from the start."
The FCC's exclusion of fixed wireless from its RDOF program sits in contrast to its efforts to foster wireless services in general and 5G in particular. For example, the FCC has cited the "race to 5G" between the US and China as a reason for a number of its major policy initiatives, including its hotly contested move to supersede local jurisdiction in the deployment of small cells for 5G. The agency has also auctioned a wide range of mmWave spectrum for 5G, spectrum that supports super-fast download speeds, and has set up a separate $9 billion 5G Fund to finance the construction of 5G in rural areas.