A smart solution in Wise County for bridging broadband gaps – case study

How Tarana and Nextlink's public-private partnership in Wise County, Texas, is helping make the case for using next-generation fixed wireless technology to address the digital divide.

Ariella Brown, Contributing Writer

September 11, 2023

5 Min Read
FWA equipment on a tower in Wise County
FWA equipment on a tower in Wise County.(Source: Tarana)

Meeting consumer demand and the increased speed proposed for federal broadband standards calls for new connectivity solutions for the digital divide. One technological innovation making that possible is Tarana's Gigabit 1 (G1), a next-generation fixed wireless (ngFWA) platform designed to be a cost-effective solution for evolving connectivity demands for increased speeds, compatibility, scalability and reliability.

To bring high-speed Internet access to the residents of its underserved areas, Wise County, Texas, set up a public-private partnership with Nextlink Internet, a multi-state Internet service provider serving rural communities, in 2022.

The goal of this partnership was to give most of the 65,000 households in an 877-square-mile area access to high-quality broadband service. Leveraging Tarana's ngFWA enabled them to achieve it in seven months, at a price tag of $2.6 million.

The plan

At the time, coverage for the ten cities and towns that make up Wise County depended primarily on fixed wireless from several providers covering sections of the region. According to the latest FCC map, current as of December 2022, plus data from BestNeighborhood.org, those providers include T-Mobile (covering under half of the county with average speeds of 22 Mbit/s) and JAB Wireless, or Rise Broadband (covering most of the county with average speeds of 63 Mbit/s), among others.

The fractured nature of broadband service left many residents with inadequate speeds. This was highlighted in a 2020 study by the National Association of Counties that revealed average broadband download speeds in Wise County at the time fell below the FCC's minimum standard of 25 Mbit/s.

That led Wise County to contract with Nextlink Internet in 2022. The county and company divided the cost of the project evenly, each contributing $1.3 million. The county's share came out of the $13.5 million it received from the American Rescue Plan.

Nextlink's partnership with Tarana enabled it to use strategically positioned towers to provide broadband coverage to the area. That eliminated the extensive trenching required for laying fiber over great distances to connect with each structure individually in a low-density area, which makes deployment faster and more economical than one depending solely on fiber.

Claude Aiken, chief strategy officer/chief legal officer at Nextlink, highlighted the advantage of this approach by contrasting it with another public-private project to bring broadband to a low-density area for 950 households that insisted on fiber. In that case, the county contributed $4 million toward the $12 million cost of the project with an anticipated timeline of two years.

"While that is incredibly fast for a fiber project, it still is a much longer stretch than the seven months it took to get the fixed wireless connectivity in place," said Aiken.

Speed matters when it comes to addressing the digital divide, because access delayed is opportunity denied. As Tarana's CEO Basil Alwan pointed out, waiting five years for connectivity can deprive individuals of significant windows of progress, as that time frame exceeds a student's high school or college years.

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The Wise County deployment is built on what's called a "hybrid" network. Fiber connects the towers, and Tarana G1 serves as the bridge from tower to home. Nextlink currently has 45 total G1 base nodes on 15 towers and has connected 1624 G1 remote nodes – indicating Nextlink customers on the new ngFWA network – at varying distances up to ten miles from various tower sites set up throughout Wise County.

That it is now possible to measure the time of broadband deployment in months instead of years marks a major shift, made viable by rapid advances in fixed wireless capability over the past couple of years.

"This is still pretty new," Alwan said. "Five years ago, it would have been impossible to pull off this kind of project in just seven months."

Three fundamental advances in the state of the art for outdoor wireless networks define G1, Tarana's ngFWA platform, according to the company:

  • A distributed real-time computing architecture that helps deliver precise control over radio waves;

  • Interference cancellation technology to enable high performance in unlicensed spectrum;

  • Custom digital and analog signal processing chips that lower the cost of required processing power.

These advancements have helped transform fixed wireless from a stopgap measure to a robust, long-term solution for high-performance broadband that can rival fiber, says Tarana.

Maintaining momentum

To meet the goal of making broadband accessible in just over half a year, Nextlink had to overcome a number of challenges, including permitting obstacles, local regulatory hurdles, as well as a brief delay that resulted from water line ruptures within the county. Wise County, for its part, demonstrated its commitment to the goal of the public-private collaboration in helping manage the hurdles, according to the companies.

After seven months, 95% of Wise County households had access to broadband capable of downloads up to 500 Mbit/s. This achievement aligned with the county's goals, and the project received a 2023 National Association of Counties Achievement Award for its impact.

Future prospects

The success of the public-private partnership in Wise County is not only a win for the communities that now have access to high-quality broadband, but also for the larger goal of achieving universal broadband coverage.

"Wise County is a great example of what we've been doing on a much broader scale," Aiken noted. "It was a wonderful confluence of the availability of tech, funding, and partners who shared the will to get it done efficiently."

Likewise, Alwan observed, "There is a groundswell of solutions emerging to solve the digital divide problem one project at a time."

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