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Debate About Fiber Versus Wireless for Rural Broadband Deployments Continues to Percolate

Tim White



March 4, 2021 – Amid claims that the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund chose winners that may not be able to fulfill their broadband commitments, Vantage Point CEO Larry Thompson said his whitepaper contributing to the discussion wasn’t intended to be critical but to figure out what’s best for quick deployment.

During Fiber Broadband Association’s event on Wednesday, Thompson clarified his whitepaper, which this publication covered in a story on Wednesday, wasn’t intended to be criticize what does or doesn’t work, but to examine what is the “right tool for the job.” He noted that part of the consideration is how much bandwidth consumers will need years down the road, not just now.

The paper effectively doubted the claim that fixed-wireless technologies can deliver gigabit speeds in rural areas. The prevailing and predominant thought in the industry is that a direct fiber line is indispensable for the fastest speeds. Fixed-wireless instead uses radio frequency technologies to deliver broadband to the home for the last mile.

“There are significant technical (and related economic) questions that must be confronted in delivering Gigabit broadband using fixed wireless technologies in the predominantly rural areas covered by RDOF,” the paper read.

“Fixed wireless networks will face difficult, if not insurmountable, challenges to provide RDOF Gigabit services in very select circumstances when attempting to service distant, non‐town rural subscribers that were primarily the subject of the RDOF auction,” the paper reads.

Those claims have spilled-over into a full-blown public event, with the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association responding to critics of the FCC’s choice for recipients of the $9.2 billion RDOF fund, which was determined based on a lowest-bidder reverse auction model.

Thompson’s clarification came on the same day that Broadband Breakfast’s Live Online debate considered RDOF and the opportunities and challenges with both fiber and fixed-wireless technologies.

The criticism of the wireless beneficiaries of RDOF was met with resistance.

Brian Regan, vice president of legal, policy and strategy at Starry Inc., an RDOF winner, said there will always be criticism of the process after the fact.

He also expressed faith in the FCC’s ability to manage the front end of the auction and reward the money to the right bidders.

FiberSmith’s CEO Donny Smith agreed with Regan, saying that the RDOF auction was controversial because there was so much money involved. At the end of the day, RDOF will bring more broadband to more Americans, which is a good thing, he said.

Regan said Starry is focused on expanding broadband to as many people as possible, and sees the new funding as an “effective solution to bring service to places where it doesn’t exist.”

Fixed-wireless can achieve gigabit connections with the latest tests from 5G providers, he said.

Winning an FCC auction is just the first step, and the panelists discussed the design and development of expanding broadband into rural areas.

Wireless broadband is not a permanent solution, Smith said, but can be much more cost effective.

But mapping data needs to be accurate, Smith and Regan said. Before networks can be built, Regan said there needs to be accurate broadband mapping data so we know where they’re needed and what can be built.

Good geographic information system data vital to planning and executing networks

Having good geographic information system data is vital to building a broadband network, agreed Sandeep Dhingra, chief technology officer of network services at Sterlite Technologies Limited, which has years of experience building broadband infrastructure outside the United States.

Dhingra also highlighted the importance of digitizing and automating the GIS to keep accurate data. Companies need to do it right the first time so that they are not redoing things over and over, he said.

He also said that every network is ultimately a hybrid of both wired and wireless infrastructure, because fiber or cable must be laid to reach the towers that send out wireless signals.

Smith raised a potential issue with materials and labor, which are in limited supply, especially right now with COVID-19. If companies haven’t planned ahead for these logistics, they’re going to have problems down the road, he said.

The FCC stipulated that RDOF winners are required to have service up and running for at least 40 percent of their winning coverage area within three years, and 20 percent additional coverage each subsequent year, reaching full service within six years.

Some inefficiencies can be mitigated with effective design and planning, Dhingra said. He mentioned using drones for surveying and utilizing local manpower as two examples.

Another challenge can be dealing with state and local municipalities, Smith said. While some local authorities will bend over backwards to help you out because they see the value of getting better broadband to their residents, other authorities will do everything in their power to make your work more difficult, he said.

As tensions rise between local governments and telecom companies about attached to poles, companies need to build relationships with local municipalities as much as possible so that they both understand their shared goals, Dhingra added.

Universal Service

Experts Concerned About Connectivity After Emergency Broadband Benefit Fund Runs Dry

Derek Shumway



Screenshot taken from CCA event

April 1, 2021 – Experts are concerns about the long-term implications of the $3.2-billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program (EBB) running out of money without a plan for what happens after.

The fund, created by Congress in December, provides up to $50 in a monthly internet discount for families and $75 for tribal lands to access broadband internet. The fund will cease when all the money is used up or within six months, whichever happens sooner.

Clare Liedquist Andonov, principal at Herman and Whiteaker, LLC, said Wednesday during the CCA mobile carriers show that if all people on Lifeline — an older FCC program that provides monthly discounts for eligible low-income subscribers for internet and telephone services – subscribe to the fund, the money will “be exhausted within about four months.”

John Nakahata, partner at Harris, Wiltshire and Grannis LLP, said both the EBB and Emergency Connectivity programs are simply short-term stimulus plans that are not designed to last long.

Andonov said she is concerned about what happens after such funding ceases to exist. “What happens after four months?” she asked. “Do you disconnect those people?” She said the infrastructure built to connect people online in the first place would go to waste if the EBB program ceased operations in a matter of months, alongside the administrative costs to run the program.

To combat the expenditure of EBB funding in the mere four months projected by Andonov, Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-MN), co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, and House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-SC, introduced comprehensive bicameral broadband infrastructure legislation on March 12 to expand access to affordable high-speed internet for all Americans.

“In 2021, we should be able to bring high-speed internet to every family in America — regardless of their zip code,” said a press release from Klobuchar’s office. “This legislation will help bridge the digital divide once and for all.” If passed, Cole said it would allow the EBB program to last for an entire year; but even then, one year is not enough, they say, as broadband should be accessible for people indefinitely.

To address this challenge, there is some $100 billion set for recently-introduced broadband infrastructure bills being considered in Congress. That money is spread between three bills that would change the nation’s definition of served and unserved people with broadband by dramatically upping the threshold for broadband speeds.

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Invest In Local Communities, Center on Rural Innovation Urges Telecom Companies

Derek Shumway



Photo of Matt Dunne from the webinar

March 11, 2021 – The Center on Rural Innovation is recommending telecom companies engage with local communities and invest in hyper-local programs.

Speaking at the second general session of the National Rural Broadband Association last month, Matt Dunne, executive director at the Center on Rural Innovation, said broadband players can power digital economies by investing in shared office spaces and accelerator programs like that of Springfield, Vermont’s.

He said providing in-kind bandwidth and Wi-Fi routers would go to supporting the local community.

He advocated for promoting tech culture initiatives for customers and encouraged broadband players to have a bigger role in being involved in the community as a friendly player.

Springfield has partnered with Black River Innovation Campus to build a digital entrepreneurship program and campus powered by 10 gigabit per second (Gbps) speed broadband.

Catered to the Vermont lifestyle, Black River offers programs and certificates that teach about remote work, local workforce development, and youth coding clubs and camps.

In addition to promoting digital workforce resources and culture building, Black River has produced two startups which the Center on Rural Innovation Fund has made investments in since its beginning.

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WISPA Responds To Claims Wireless Providers Have Not Demonstrated Gigabit Capabilities

Benjamin Kahn



Photocollage of Larry Thompson of VantagePoint and Fred Goldstein of WISPA by Broadband Breakfast

March 3, 2021—Vantage Point Solutions is questioning whether wireless providers can deliver on their contractual obligations following the announcement of $9 billion in federal award for the first phase of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

The concerns, outlined by CEO Larry Thompson in a white paper, relate to the winners’ ability to meet the build requirements.

Since the winners were announced in December, some have claimed that the reverse auction process – which rewards those who can build with the least amount of federal money — has allowed unqualified bidders to win projects they can’t complete in the first place.

The allegation has spawned an array of contretemps in the broadband community. In response, the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association has publicly lobbied  the FCC on behalf of WISPA members.

Fred Goldstein, who serves as a technical consultant to WISPA and penned the technical statement that was attached to the document, argued that many of Thompson’s technical assertions were inaccurate.

Hear both sides of the debate at “Broadband Breakfast Live Online on Wednesday, March 3, 2021 — Design, Product and Execution: 3 Essential Steps for Every RDOF Award Winner.” You can also PARTICIPATE in the current Broadband Breakfast Live Online event. REGISTER HERE.

As part of the RDOF process, the FCC divided prospective bidders into performance tiers, ranging from the “minimum” tier of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload speed, up to the “gigabit” tier delivering speeds at 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) download and 500 Mbps upload. The 1000 Mbps download speeds of the gigabit tier should theoretically be 40 times faster than the 25/3 minimum tier.

Vantage Point says wireless providers cannot maintain claimed speeds

Thompson’s primary contention is that consumers should be able to simultaneously utilize 1 Gbps download and 500 Mbps upload—a feat he asserts many wireless providers have not demonstrated can be reliably achieved. This is due to the ever-increasing number of connected devices consumers use on a daily basis.

“You’re not going to be able to sit and coordinate which [devices] are downloading and which ones are uploading at any given time—those things happen simultaneously,” Thompson stated. “I believe the FCC’s intention was that when they say that we have a broadband pipe of one [Gbps] down and 500 [Mbps] up—that means you should be able to do those simultaneously.”

Thompson insisted that he is not shifting the goal posts. As he understood the FCC’s requirements, simultaneous 1 Gbps/500 Mbps was always the goal. “It seems to me to be common sense,” Thompson said.

If he were ordering symmetrical service from a broadband provider, the expectation would not be that he would have to wait for a download to complete before he could begin uploading.

Another new group also complaining about wireless entrants

A new organization known as Ensuring RDOF Integrity Coalition, or ERIC, has now appeared and claims to share Vantage Point’s concerns.

Out the top 10 RDOF contract recipients, four are believed to have plans to use fixed wireless technology to deliver their services to consumers; LTD Broadband, Nextlink, Resound Networks, and Starry represent the first, sixth, eighth, and ninth largest recipients, respectively.

Additionally, SpaceX was the fourth largest recipient, and plans to deliver its services via a constellation of low Earth orbit satellites. Even though the technology is in its infancy, SpaceX received more than $885 million out of the total $9.2 billion allocated for RDOF.

As reported by Telecompetitor, ERIC would see that “interested stakeholders” have an opportunity to go over sensitive and proprietary data collected regarding RDOF recipients and the status of the services they provide.

WISPA claims fiber zealots are ‘sowing fear, uncertainty, and doubt’

In an interview with Broadband Breakfast, Fred Goldstein dismissed the concerns raised by Vantage Point and others. He said they were sowing fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

“They did this by making some incorrect technical assumptions and incorrect assumptions about the way people use the internet traffic levels and a lot of other details,” he added. “They basically put together something that if you really don’t know all that much, it sounds credible.”

Goldstein said wireless providers must live up to their promised broadband speeds. “If they’re offering gigabit service,” he said, “they are committed to it and there are penalties and clawbacks if they do not deliver.”

Goldstein said wireless providers were required to thoroughly explain exactly how they intended to deliver the speeds advertised. If Vantage Point has an issue with the explanations of the FCC or any particular wireless provider, they should have raised these concerns prior to the conclusion of the first phase.

WISPA says gigabit speeds may be overvalued

While Goldstein disagreed with many of the technical evaluations made by Vantage Point, his primary issue rests in the interpretation of RDOF guidelines.

For example, where Thompson believed that 1 Gbps/500 Mbps speeds must be achievable simultaneously, Goldstein states that while gigabit download speeds are the goal, it is not necessary for every consumer to be able to access gigabit speeds all the time.

“In reality, the average subscriber is running about 3 Mbps,” Goldstein said. He explained that there are diminishing returns once a consumer starts to reach speeds above 25 megabits per second. “It’s nice to have 100 megabits—it’s nicer to have 500 megabits or a gigabit—but it’s very rare you actually get to use it.”

“So nice, but I think people overemphasize the value of the gigabit, even as we are prepared to deliver it,” Goldstein stated. “We know how much we need—we can burst it at a gigabit, but the average is the average—it applies to their fiber, and it applies to our wireless—and everybody does it that way when you buy the backbone.”

But Thompson said that while WISPA is very focused on the backbone component of the service, Vantage Point is more concerned with the user experience and the wireless service on the customers’ end.

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