FCC on 1 Gbit/s in rural areas using 5G: Good luck with that

The FCC this week changed course and said it will allow fixed wireless providers to bid for government money designed to finance the construction of high-speed Internet services in rural areas.

But the agency is clearly doubtful that's going to happen.

"We expect it will be ... challenging for a fixed wireless provider to make a case that it can offer a mass market service meeting the Gigabit performance tier," the agency wrote in a new filing this week.

In fact, the FCC warned companies interested in the topic that they better be sure they can provide 1Gbit/s services. Or else.

"We remind potential applicants that they are certifying under penalty of perjury in their ... applications that they are technically qualified to meet the public interest obligations for each performance tier and latency combination they select," the agency wrote. "The Commission may initiate enforcement proceedings against applicants that submit threadbare or wholly unrealistic technical showings while selecting the Gigabit or other higher performance tiers."

At issue is the FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) that will distribute up to $20.4 billion to telecom operators around the country to fund the construction of fixed telecom networks in rural areas. The RDOF is designed to support a number of different levels of service, including a "minimum" tier that would require operators to provide 25Mbit/s downloads and a "baseline" tier that would require 50Mbit/s speeds. The fund's top speed tier, the "Gigabit" tier, would require RDOF winners to provide speeds of 1Gbit/s.

In the FCC's first set of RDOF rules, the agency said it would prevent fixed wireless Internet providers, including those using 5G, from bidding on the "Gigabit" tier. The agency's goal was to finance proven technologies rather than what would amount to a government-funded technology trial.

"It appears unreasonable to expect that an applicant choosing to use either fixed wireless or DSL would be able to offer Gigabit speeds ... unless it has a reported history of offering such speeds," the agency argued then.

That position drew complaints from a range of players in the fixed wireless and 5G space. "Modern fixed wireless technologies operating across a wide variety of spectrum bands are capable of providing gigabit services," argued wireless Internet provider Starry in its filing to the FCC.

"With 5G providing up to 100 times more capacity than 4G networks, a 5G FWA [fixed wireless access] network eliminates the need for costly deployment of fiber-based access infrastructure and offers peak rates that few other fixed technologies can match," echoed Ericsson in its comments to the FCC. "5G FWA can reduce the initial cost of last mile connectivity by as much as 40 percent compared to fiber."

Indeed, both T-Mobile and Verizon have extensive plans to deploy fixed wireless networks using 5G.

In response to those complaints, the FCC this week issued revised RDOF rules that will allow fixed wireless providers to compete in the Gigabit tier on a case-by-case basis. In throwing down the gauntlet, the FCC basically said: Go ahead and try it.

"Commission staff will consider ... applicants that intend to use fixed wireless or DSL technologies for bidding in the Gigabit performance tier on a case-by-case basis," the agency said> But it warned that "given distance limitations, spectrum and infrastructure constraints, tower siting requirements, required upstream speeds, and required minimum monthly usage allowances, we expect it will be ... challenging for a fixed wireless provider to make a case that it can offer a mass market service meeting the Gigabit performance tier."

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

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