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Frontier quietly looks to expand CBRS fixed wireless biz

Frontier Communications continues to make plenty of noise about its big fiber buildout plans, but the company also appears to have a small but noteworthy interest in fixed wireless Internet technologies.

Specifically, during 2020 the company built a fixed wireless LTE network in 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum with equipment from vendor BLiNQ across fully 500 cell towers, and today counts roughly 8,500 customers. "With a growth rate of 20 daily subscribers, Frontier has the largest LTE CBRS fixed wireless network in the United States today," BLiNQ boasted in a new case study on the deployment.

"Frontier expects to continue utilizing BLiNQ solutions to provide this connectivity and is looking to expand their wireless networks with new innovations from BLiNQ in 2022," the vendor continued.

Frontier installs BLiNQ's equipment onto customers' homes. (Source: BLiNQ)
Frontier installs BLiNQ's equipment onto customers' homes.
(Source: BLiNQ)

Indeed, Frontier Communications has agreed to be the first big customer of Federated Wireless' new Spectrum Exchange. The product will allow Frontier to potentially purchase 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum leases – that's noteworthy considering the company bid on CBRS licenses during the FCC's auction last year but didn't win anything.

A 'small portion' of interest

However, in its recent communications with investors, Frontier has made little mention of its dabblings in fixed wireless. For example, during the company's most recent quarterly conference call, executives discussed at length the company's ambitious fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) buildout plan – to expand to a total of 10 million fiber locations by the end of 2025 – but made no mention of fixed wireless.

"Frontier is a fiber-first company, and our focus remains on building fiber to 10 million locations by 2025," the company said in response to questions from Light Reading. "In some cases, we use fixed wireless technology to deliver broadband to a small portion of our customer base in rural communities."

Frontier officials did not provide any more details.

Frontier, though, is no stranger to fixed wireless technologies. In 2017, Frontier officials said they were conducting fixed wireless tests to see how the company might use the technology for its rural buildout efforts. In 2015, Frontier accepted $283 million in CAF-II support from the FCC to construct Internet connections across 650,000 rural locations.

According to BLiNQ, Frontier, after successful tests in 2019, eventually settled on the vendor's LTE equipment to meet its FCC CAF-II buildout obligations.

"The aggressive rollout which began in October 2020 right through to May 2021 was an ambitious and urgent response to the pandemic," BLiNQ wrote, noting that Frontier was able to deliver speeds up to 45 Mbit/s with the offering. "With the use of CAF-II funding deadlines looming, BLiNQ shipments were expedited to meet deployment targets and field technicians were rigorously trained over this period, to bring wireless CBRS connectivity to the deep, rural regions of the United States."

That timeline is of interest because Frontier exited bankruptcy in April, and recently raised $1 billion for its fiber buildout plan.

Fits and starts in fixed wireless

Frontier isn't the only provider that used fixed wireless technologies to meet its CAF-II obligations. AT&T covers more than 1 million locations with fixed wireless for its own CAF-II coverage efforts. But AT&T continues to view fixed wireless as a small part of its overall strategy.

And some companies are pivoting away from fixed wireless technologies altogether. Shentel, for example, cancelled its plans to offer fixed wireless Internet services to tens of thousands of Americans and instead plans to drastically extend the reach of its Glo-branded fiber network. The company said it will do so in part to obtain government funding for fiber connections.

Meanwhile, both T-Mobile and Verizon are expanding their own fixed wireless Internet services, partly with an eye toward obtaining government funding for buildouts in rural areas. Verizon officials have described fixed wireless as a "killer app" for 5G.

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

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