WISPs concerned about how FCC may define 'reliable broadband'

A rule-making proceeding on the Alternative Connect America Cost Model (A-CAM) program at the FCC has fixed wireless advocates concerned the program could lose its tech neutrality.

Nicole Ferraro, Editor, host of 'The Divide' podcast

June 27, 2023

5 Min Read
WISPs concerned about how FCC may define 'reliable broadband'
Will unlicensed FWA be included in the next iteration of A-CAM?(Source: Wirestock, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo)

A recently proposed rule change to the FCC's Alternative Connect America Cost Model (A-CAM) program has fixed wireless advocates concerned that the high-cost program could kick out ISPs delivering service over unlicensed spectrum.

A-CAM – a program under the Universal Service Fund (USF) that helps subsidize high-cost rural broadband deployments – was first established in 2016, requiring speeds of 10/1 Mbit/s, and was revised in 2018 to increase speed minimums to 25/3 Mbit/s.

Now, as per an order circulated this month, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel is looking to increase the program's minimum speeds to 100/20 Mbit/s. That order, which will require a Commission vote, followed a notice of proposed rulemaking released last year that sought public comment on an Enhanced A-CAM proposal that would raise speed requirements and increase maximum support per location for participating providers from $200 to $300.

"If adopted, the order would require that participating carriers serve all locations in their service areas at 100/20 Mbps or greater in return for an extension of the A-CAM program and an incremental increase in support for expensive-to-serve areas," said the FCC in a press release this month.

However, the language used in that order, as well as comments from the NTIA on the proceeding, has created concern among fixed wireless access (FWA) advocates that the A-CAM program may go the way of the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) program and other federal funds that prioritize fiber deployments.

Specifically, last year, the NTIA filed comments in response to the FCC's notice of proposed rulemaking on A-CAM in which it recommends the program align its rules with BEAD's definition of "reliable broadband service."

"After coordination with the Commission, NTIA determined that a 'reliable broadband service' is one that utilizes: (1) fiber-optic technology; (2) cable modem/hybrid fiber-coaxial technology; (3) digital subscriber line (DSL) technology; or (4) terrestrial fixed wireless technology utilizing entirely licensed spectrum or a combination of licensed and unlicensed spectrum," reads the NTIA filing.

It goes on to add: "NTIA urges the Commission to require providers to deploy networks that meet the BEAD Program's definition of 'qualifying broadband' to 100% of eligible locations and to make a binding commitment to deploy such networks."

In response to those comments last year, the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) filed an ex-parte asserting that the NTIA is "at least implicitly" urging the FCC to abandon the program's tech neutrality.

"In urging the Commission 'to require providers to deploy networks that meet the BEAD Program's definition of 'qualifying broadband' to 100% of eligible locations and to make a binding commitment to deploy such networks,' NTIA is at least implicitly asking that A-CAM recipients not be permitted to deploy broadband using entirely unlicensed spectrum to meet their obligations, even at the 100/20 Mbps speed (or higher) proposed for 90% of locations. This is because the definition of 'qualifying broadband' includes the term 'reliable broadband service,' which, according to the Notice of Funding Opportunity ('NOFO') for the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment ('BEAD') Program, does not include service accessible to a location via entirely unlicensed spectrum," wrote WISPA.

"Thus, if the Commission were to adopt NTIA's position for the A-CAM program at this time, recipients would not be able to utilize unlicensed spectrum to meet their performance and buildout obligations. In so requesting, NTIA seeks to force the Commission to change its technology-neutral approach to the A-CAM program."

Now, in a new filing this week, WISPA is reiterating that concern, summarizing a recent meeting with FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr's office in which WISPA urged the FCC to retain tech neutral rules for A-CAM.

"We explained that maintaining a technology neutral approach for 100/20 Mbps deployment would be consistent with Commission decisions allowing recipients of high-cost support to use whatever technologies they deem best to meet their deployment and performance obligations, including unlicensed spectrum," said WISPA.

"The Commission therefore should reject the suggestion from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration ('NTIA') that asks the Commission to apply NTIA's definition of 'qualifying broadband' to any new rules the Commission may adopt for the A-CAM program," WISPA added.

Federal fiber frenzy

As WISPA notes in its filings, the FCC currently takes a tech-neutral approach to high-cost and rural deployment programs, including the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) and the Connect America Fund (CAF).

But the Biden administration's focus on fiber in programs such as BEAD and the Treasury Department's Capital Projects Fund has kept FWA advocates on edge about losing access to grant opportunities and gaining federally funded fiber competitors in their existing service areas.

In an email to Light Reading, a spokesperson for WISPA pointed to the FCC's use of the phrase "reliable broadband" in the press release about the proposed rules change (entitled: "Rosenworcel Shares Plan to Bring Reliable Broadband to Remote Areas") as a reason for renewed concern.

"The effect of the NTIA's 'reliable broadband' definition – which they have urged the FCC to follow suit (noted in an excerpt from a WISPA FCC ex parte last year) – is to remove unlicensed wireless from the acceptable range of solutions when government A-CAM funding is involved," said the spokesperson. (Notably, WISPA has not taken a position on the order to bump Enhanced A-CAM minimum speeds to 100/20 Mbit/s.)

The press release about Rosenworcel's circulated order also specifically references BEAD, stating: "The Enhanced A-CAM program would complement existing federal, state, and local funding programs, including the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, authorized by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law." BEAD defines an unserved location as one without access to 25/3 Mbit/s and an underserved location one without access to 100/20 Mbit/s. All BEAD recipients must build out to at least 100/20 Mbit/s. The White House on Monday announced state allocations for the $42.5 billion BEAD program, which are expected to start rolling out next year.

Light Reading reached out to the FCC with a request for comment on whether it's reconsidering the use of unlicensed spectrum for A-CAM but did not receive a response as of this writing. According to the FCC, A-CAM is providing $1.1 billion per year to participating ISPs through roughly 2028.

Related posts:

Nicole Ferraro, editor, Light Reading, and host of "The Divide" on the Light Reading Podcast.

About the Author(s)

Nicole Ferraro

Editor, host of 'The Divide' podcast, Light Reading

Nicole covers broadband, policy and the digital divide. She hosts The Divide on the Light Reading Podcast and tracks broadband builds in The Buildout column. Some* call her the Broadband Broad (*nobody).

Subscribe and receive the latest news from the industry.
Join 62,000+ members. Yes it's completely free.

You May Also Like