The FCC Drops the Ball on RDOF

My Twitter feed is full of self-congratulations from FCC and other federal officials about the success of the recently completed RDOF grant. But I look at the results and I just see another big FCC failure. I see a grant where billions of federal dollars were misallocated due to another giant gaffe by the FCC.

How did the FCC fail? They allowed fixed wireless technology to bid as a gigabit technology. This means the FCC believes that fixed wireless technology is the functional equivalent of fiber. This is such an easily disprovable concept that it would be laughable if the FCC hadn’t just awarded billions of dollars to an imaginary gigabit wireless technology.

I don’t dislike fixed wireless technology, and in fact, I spent most of a decade as a customer of a WISP that did a great job bringing broadband to a place that otherwise would have had no broadband. Fixed wireless is a decent technology. When serving large areas there are many places today where it’s routinely being used today to deliver 50 Mbps to 75 Mbps broadband. In unique cases where a customer is near to a tower, I’ve seen speeds approaching 150 Mbps and I wouldn’t be surprised if WISPs can point out customers getting 200 Mbps. But as nice as that is, that’s not gigabit speeds and fixed wireless is not a gigabit technology, nor is it a functional equivalent to fiber.

This technology can be deployed in two ways – in a point-to-point configuration or as point-to-multipoint. Point-to-point wireless shoots bandwidth from a transmitter on a tower to reach a single endpoint. This is the technology used to beam backhaul between towers or is used in urban areas to reach between high-rise buildings. This is the technology that we’ve always referred to in the industry as microwave backhaul. This technology can deliver gigabit speeds, but is not a practical technology to use for residential broadband because there is only room for a small number of transmitters on any given tower or rooftop.

The technology used to provide WISP broadband is point-to-multipoint technology. A single antenna on a tower can connect to multiple customers. This technology is aim at delivering modest broadband to lots of customers. It can’t be used to deliver giant bandwidth to more than a few customers – and it’s not really designed to deliver gigabit download, and certainly not a symmetrical gigabit.

By allowing WISPS to claim gigabit capabilities, the FCC cheated huge numbers of people out of getting fiber. There were numerous electric cooperatives, small telcos, CLECs, fiber overbuilders, and public/private partnerships in the auction hoping to bring fiber to entire rural counties. In looking at the footprints won due to this fiction, I’m guessing the FCC’s decision to allow fixed wireless to falsely bid as gigabit technology killed fiber construction to at least a few hundred rural counties.

Six of the top ten winners of the auction will be deploying wireless technology and together account for over $3.2 billion – more than a third of the entire auction award. That list includes four wireless companies along with Windstream and Frontier.

Interestingly, WISPs that didn’t exaggerate the capability of the technology got clobbered in this grant. For example, Midcontinent won grant money in the CAF II reverse auction bidding fixed wireless as capable of 100 Mbps. They did the same in this auction and got steamrolled by the WISPs that won by bidding with the identical technology but falsely claiming gigabit capability.

I’m sure the people that get the networks built from this auction will be glad to get better broadband. But a few million of them could have instead gotten fiber that would have future-proofed them for the rest of the century. And sadly, some of the people in these grant areas won’t get broadband because they’re located in a hollow or behind a hill, out of reach of the wireless towers.

I don’t understand why the FCC couldn’t get this right. The FCC could have talked to any one of a hundred telecom engineers I know who would have laughed at the idea that fixed wireless can deliver gigabit speeds across big tracts of extremely rural America. A huge portion of this auction was based upon this lie, and that never bodes well for the long run.

There is an easy fix for this going forward. If the FCC is going to let WISPs exaggerate the technical ability to deliver gigabit speeds, then fiber providers should be allowed to bid in a 10-gigabit tier. That’s something that any fiber winner could easily guarantee, and which wouldn’t be a false claim. I also hope for severe penalties, up to having to return all of the grant money, for any grant winners in this auction that claimed gigabit speeds but then deliver 50 Mbps networks.

9 thoughts on “The FCC Drops the Ball on RDOF

  1. I am 100% blow away by the results. Those funds should have gone to real companies providing real services. Instead, it will be another go round of CAF . . . where money is absolutely blown. The other thing is that this completely hand grenades both the FCC maps and any state initiatives that were in the works. Everyone and their brother will now say, the FCC just spent all that $$ and now your area is covered. Awful. . . just awful!!

  2. RDOF money to satellite does not help to develop fiber infrastructure in the service area, does not go to industry (contractor, hotels, rooms, meals), and does not participate in property/use taxation. Every fiber network relies on a combination of residential/business/cellular/wholesale. SpaceX nabbing 1/9th of the funds just took that out of the market.

    • I don’t disagree with your premise. But the auction was not an economic improvement grant for labor, hotels, restaurants, etc., but instead it’s a targeted broadband access expansion grant. Starlink fulfills this quickly and without waiting 3-10 years for deployment of infrastructure. From the moment a Starlink terminal box is opened, it takes about 20 minutes to get 100Mbps/30Mbps service in the home without any installer. For those tired of waiting for permitting, trenching, pole attach issues, scheduling home installers, and service turn up all of which can take years, I argue Starlink is a meaningful alternative to low latency (~30ms) broadband. Today it’s only 100Mbps, but they have already publicly stated that when they enable additional constellation mesh, we could ultimately see gigabit in 18-24 months. I prefer fiber, but as someone with fiber 1/4 mile from my house that they refuse to extend unless I pay for the 1/4 mi. extension while I struggle on 1998 DSL service, I would be happy to leap frog the fiber service and get Starlink for a tiny fraction of the price, and running on it the same week as I order it.

  3. Although I feel quite surprised by the result, I’m not too worry about the eligibility and capability of the winner yet. There is still the long form to submit by each winner to prove they can technically support gigabit broadband using their proposed solutions. And should any top winner fails to do so, its support would be forfeited and the block would return for the phase II auction. I don’t see many winners claim they’ll use fixed wireless primarily to provide gigabit services but it is entirely possible use P2P mmWave links.

    • The requirement under RDOF was to have the capability to deploy service to 100% of the structures in the census block group. PTP mmWave links do not present a very viable option to accomplish this, nor does PTMP mmWave in rural areas given the realistic range of the technology (even considering a service mesh using the Terragraph model).

      • The requirement is to provide service to a quantity of locations, as determined by a 10 year old model developed by the FCC.

        Not every structure.

  4. Pingback: I’m Still Confused by the RDOF Grants | POTs and PANs

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