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Policy experts debate the role of wireless in universal broadband

Should wireless technologies such as 5G be used to help cross the digital divide and deliver universal broadband?

That's the question up for debate among lawmakers and others. The answer is definitely consequential considering there could be more than $100 billion up for grabs to companies on the winning side of the issue.

As the Biden administration begins leaning toward legislative mechanisms for major action on the topic, the battle lines are slowly but surely beginning to harden.

"I know that many believe in the future of wireless gigabit throughput. I have long been an advocate for wireless connectivity, but the consequence of the finite nature of radio spectrum is that it is not a full-fledged substitute for wired broadband," Tom Wheeler, the former chairman of the FCC under President Obama, wrote in testimony to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Monday. He suggested that 1Gbit/s speeds should be prioritized in any government effort to supply universal broadband.

"There may exist in the lab, and in limited installations, gigabit wireless delivery, but it is not widely applicable for broadband point-to-multipoint deployment," he argued. "Even the major wireless carriers that invested heavily in FCC-run auctions of millimeter wave spectrum as a high-speed delivery pathway have cut back both their expectations and promises for widespread, point-to-multipoint wireless delivery at gigabit speeds. Wireless may be a last resort option in the most isolated areas, but it should not be a first resort for most of America."

Data demands overloading wireless

Wheeler cited information from AT&T – one of the nation's three big 5G providers – to back up his argument. The company recently said it expects mid-level home Internet users to consume up to 1.5 terabytes per month by 2025 – up from an estimated 500GB today.

That, according to AT&T officials, is part of the reason why the company is not following Verizon and T-Mobile more broadly into the fixed wireless Internet industry. Fixed wireless technologies – based on 5G or other transmission standards – promise to beam Internet connections from a cell tower to nearby houses and offices. Such a setup eliminates the expensive need to route wires to those locations – but then customers' connections are also at the mercy of wireless technologies that can potentially be affected by issues ranging from spectrum scarcity to the type of trees that are in the way.

Others are siding with Wheeler. "Though theoretically possible, it is highly questionable how a responsible design could deliver financially viable gigabit wireless service in rural areas, using current technologies (whether at midband or mmWave frequencies)," wrote trade association NRTC in a lengthy filing with the FCC.

"In RDOF, we don't believe fixed wireless was the right technology," added Windstream CEO Tony Thomas in comments to FierceTelecom. The company won $523 million in the RDOF auction, and plans to rely on fiber to meet its obligations. "We're not confident, given the topography, that fixed wireless would have been a good solution. And there are also technical limitations in fixed wireless on the upload speed."

Not surprisingly, wireless proponents are pushing against these notions.

"We have been able to reach many rural communities with broadband by leveraging our extensive fiber backbone through our Midco Edge Out strategy," wrote Justin Forde, an executive with cable company Midco that operates in the Upper Midwest, in testimony to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. "We 'edge out' our high-speed Internet from our fiber backbone in urban areas to rural areas using fixed wireless technology. We use the initial fixed wireless expansion from our wired plant to meet consumers' immediate needs, and then leverage that expansion to justify a wired network buildout in the future."

Wireless gets personal

Forde said Midco employed exactly that strategy in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He said the company initially reached customers in the area with fixed wireless technologies and later constructed a fiber network there. Then the company repurposed its fixed wireless equipment into other rural markets.

"I can personally speak to the benefits of the fixed wireless approach, as I am a Midco fixed wireless customer. I have been a fixed wireless customer for more than ten years and Midco recently updated my service to our LTE, 5G-ready platform," Forde said. "I get my Internet from the top of a commercial tower in Grandin, North Dakota to my small farmstead six miles west of Argusville. During the pandemic, my three kids went to school online, my wife used the internet to run a small business, and I worked for Midco remotely. Midco's fixed wireless allowed us to continue educating our children and working during the pandemic."

"We know that fixed wireless technology is a viable solution for rural America," Forde added.

Others agree. For example, top executives from Nextlink recently met with the FCC to urge the agency to support wireless technologies in programs such as its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which are designed to provide federal money to telecom operators that agree to construct networks in rural areas.

"Nextlink is deploying Gigabit speeds today utilizing both fiber and fixed wireless technologies," the company told the FCC, noting it counts 70,000 customers across portions of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois.

Finally, some current and former members of the FCC are simply uninterested in the debate.

Forget the technology

"While I appreciate the interests of some to 'future-proof' networks through extensive technical mandates and aggressive and aspirational definitions, I strongly disagree with this approach, since in practice, it means ignoring the most neglected communities and delaying their ability to access very good and functional broadband today," argued Michael O'Rielly of MPORielly Consulting, a former FCC commissioner, in his own House testimony. "For instance, the push for symmetrical speeds at exorbitant levels – such as 100Mbit/s – makes little sense. For the vast majority of Americans, unless they are performing remote tele-surgery at home, upload speeds do not need to be symmetrical to download speeds, and that's even taking into account the more extensive video uses seen during the pandemic."

Continued O'Rielly: "Setting arbitrary and out of touch speed levels far in excess of expected growth or current usage undermines innovation, since it would effectively eliminate all broadband technologies, except for fiber."

And Jessica Rosenworcel, the acting chief of the FCC, suggested in comments to the Wall Street Journal that a mix of technologies – including 5G specifically – could help bridge the digital divide.

She called universal broadband "a national priority" and said that it "might sound like a big, audacious task, but remember, a century ago we did it with electrification."

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

An earlier version of this story was published on Broadband World News.

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