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Fixed Wireless Revival: 4G LTE for Broadband in Rural Communities

Berge Ayvazian, Senior Consultant with Wireless 20/20, explains why fixed wireless broadband is a key technology enabler in rural areas.

berge ayvazian

We have seen a significant uptick in interest and investment in fixed wireless broadband over the past few months.  Approximately 30% of US households in remote and rural communities still lack access to high speed  broadband, and availability of fixed terrestrial broadband services in rural America continues to lag behind urban and suburban areas at all speeds.  High speed internet access via DSL, cable and fiber is still cost prohibitive in rural and remote areas, and is available is only where providers can deploy these networks profitably.  Fixed wireless broadband is a key technology enabler in rural areas where communities are small and housing density is low

Approximately 2,000 WISPs currently fill this gap by providing fixed wireless broadband services to more than 4 million households in small towns and rural communities in all 50 US states.  Although the WISP industry is still highly fragmented, consolidation among WISP has been accelerating, as Rise Broadband acquired 100+ smaller operators since its founding in 2006.  Rise Broadband is the largest US WISP with approximately 200,000 subscribers in 16 western states.  SpeedConnect, the next largest WISP, serves 50,000 subscribers in 10 mid-west and southern states.  Although the majority of these subscribers are being served using proprietary technologies in unlicensed 5GHz spectrum, the use of LTE technologies in licensed spectrum is growing.

Until recently, the largest US telecom and wireless network operators had not shown much interest in using fixed wireless technology to deliver fixed broadband to rural communities.  But six of the leading telcos accepted more than $1.4 billion in funding in the second phase of the FCC Connect America Fund (CAF-II) to bring broadband to an estimated 3.5 million households and businesses in rural uncovered areas.  Verizon opted out of the high-cost broadband program, while CAF II funding was accepted by CenturyLink, AT&T, Frontier, Windstream, FairPoint and Consolidated.

Operator CAF II Population Coverage Geographic Coverage CAF II Funding
CenturyLink 1.174 millionrural HH 33 states $505.7 million
AT&T 1.1 million HH and businesses 18 States $427.7 million
Frontier 660,000 HH and businesses 28 states $283.4 million
Windstream 404,626 rural locations 17 states $174.9 million
Fairpoint 105,220 rural locations 14 states $37.4 million
Consolidated 24,700 rural locations 7 states $13.9 million
Total 3.469 million HH and businesses $1.443 billion

 

The FCC has deemed high speed broadband service as a necessity in today's technology environment, and has established a minimum standard of 10 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream.  That standard may be raised to 25/3 Mbps for the third wave of CAF funding in 2017.   Now that mobile broadband service is available to nearly the entire US population, some of the largest operators have begun to focus on fixed wireless as the most cost-effective technology to deliver broadband to rural and remote households.  A recent Wireless 20/20 study demonstrates that fixed wireless could reduce CAPEX by more than 50% for many low-density CAF II fundedHigh Cost Rural Broadband Deployments.

AT&T recently announced plans to use a fixed wireless network to reach these CAF households when the cost to serve with DSL is too high.  AT&T has a CAF II commitment to deliver high speed broadband service to more than 400,000 locations in 18 States by the end of 2017 and over 1.1 million households and businesses by 2020.

Wireless 20/20 has learned that AT&T will be using its licensed 2.3GHz WCS spectrum (Band 30) to deploy this rural fixed wireless service.  AT&T acquired WCS spectrum from NextWave and Sprint in a series of transactions beginning in 2012. After resolving interference with Sirius XM satellite radio the wireless carrier began deploying its 2.3 GHz WCS spectrum, initially as a "capacity layer" for LTE mobile broadband service on top of its nationwide 700 MHz in a handful of dense urban markets during 2015.

AT&T Spectrum Block Capacity Coverage Percent of Continental US Pops
WCS A and B 10-20 MHz 473 CMAs 70%
WCS C and D 5-10 MHz 344 CMAs 54%

 

AT&T’s Fixed Wireless Internet (FWI) will meet the FCC’s CAF-II requirement to deliver a home internet connection with download speeds of at least 10 Mbps and 1 Mbps upstream.  The fixed wireless connection comes from a tower to an antenna on customers’ homes or businesses.  Fixed Wireless Internet service will be provided using standard LTE base stations, but runs over a largely separate network from AT&T’s current Mobility infrastructure.  The use of separate base stations, tower antennas and spectrum will keep the fixed wireless service from interfering with mobility services.

AT&T has proven this hybrid of terrestrial and wireless broadband products newly combined to be a more cost-effective approach to delivering high-quality, high-speed internet to customers living in hard-to-reach rural and sparsely populated underserved areas.  AT&T recently completed a first wave of fixed wireless Internet availability for rural and underserved locations in Georgia, with plans to reach over 67,000 locations with fixed wireless technology across Georgia by 2020. The AT&T fixed wireless service will be priced at $60 per month for the broadband only service and this price rises to $70 with no contract.  AT&T also intends to offer fixed wireless broadband service bundled with DIRECTV, lowering the monthly cost to $50, with a one year contract. The fixed wireless service will have broadband usage caps of 160 GB per month, with additional 50 GB increments of data charged at $10 per month.

AT&T has not disclosed any vendors for either the fixed wireless LTE base stations, outdoor antenna, but will use the same AT&T Wi-Fi Gateways used for DSL service.   The dedicated outdoor antenna will be professionally installed on the chimney or roof, somewhat like a satellite dish today.  Instead of aiming at the satellite, the outdoor antenna will be aimed towards a cell tower.  An Ethernet cable will run from the outside antenna to an AT&T Wi-Fi Gateway inside the house which will supportup to 4 Ethernet-connected devices and multiple Wi-Fi enabled devices like laptops, smartphones and tablets, similar to how many wired home internet customers are connected today.  AT&T will charge a $99 installation fee for FWI when purchased either standalone or with a wireless plan, and this installation fee will be waived if bundled with DIRECTV.

AT&T plans to expand its fixed wireless deployment to 17 more states later in 2017, and Wireless 20/20 expects this to be of interest to other telcos that have accepted CAF-II funding and plan to apply for additional funds for rural broadband.   There has been a distinct shift in FCC policy, as Chairman Ajit Pai recently announced the formation of the Rural Broadband Auctions Task Force to oversee both the upcoming Connect America Fund Phase II (CAF-II) and the “reverse auctions” for Mobility Fund II.  The upcoming FCC CAF-II will auction will make nearly $2 billion available for bidders to connect unserved and underserved census blocks in 20 states over the next decade.  The FCC MF-II auction will make more than $4.5 billion in new funding available over ten years for expanding 4G LTE mobile broadband coverage across rural America and Tribal lands.

Berge Ayvazian will be speaking on 4G and 5G Fixed Wireless Broadband in North America, and chairing tracks on IoT Connect and 5G Core & Transport Evolution at 5G North America in Austin on May 16-17th, 2017.

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