The Gigabit Wireless Controversy

One of the big controversies in the RDOF auction was that the FCC allowed three of the top ten grant winners to bid using gigabit wireless technology. This was Starry (Connect Everyone), Resound Networks, and Nextlink (AMG Technology). By bidding in the gigabit tier these technologies were given the same technology and dollar weighting as somebody bidding to build fiber-to-the-premise. There was a big outcry from fiber providers that claim that these bidders gained an unfair advantage because the wireless technology will be unable to deliver gigabit speeds in rural areas.

Fiber providers say that the bidding with gigabit wireless violates the intent of the grants. Bidding in the gigabit tier should mean that an ISP can deliver a gigabit product to every customer in an RDOF grant area. Customers don’t have to buy a gigabit product, but the capability to provide that speed to every customer must be there. This is something that comes baked-in with fiber technology – a fiber network can deliver gigabit speeds (or 10-gigabit speeds these days) to any one customer, or easily give it to all customers.

There is no denying that there is wireless technology that can deliver gigabit speeds. For example, there are point-point radios using millimeter-wave spectrum that can deliver a gigabit path for up to two miles or a multi-gigabit path for perhaps a mile. But this technology delivers the bandwidth to only a single point. This is the technology that Starry and others use in downtown areas to beam a signal from rooftop to rooftop to serve apartment buildings, with the bandwidth shared with all of the tenants in the building. This technology delivers up to a gigabit to a building, but something less to tenants. We have a good idea of what this means in real life because Starry publishes the average speed of its customers. In March 2021, the Starry website said that its average customer received 232 Mbps download and 289 Mbps up. That’s a good bandwidth product, but it is not gigabit broadband.

There is a newer technology that is more suited for areas outside of downtown metropolitan areas. Siklu has a wireless product that uses unlicensed spectrum in the V-band at 60 GHz and around 70 GHz. This uses a Qualcomm chip that was developed for the Facebook Terragraph technology. A wireless base station that is fiber-fed can serve up to 64 customers – but the catch is that the millimeter-wave spectrum used in this application travels only about a quarter of a mile. Further, this spectrum requires a nearly perfect line-of-sight.

The interesting feature of this technology is that each customer receiver can also retransmit broadband to make an additional connection. Siklu envisions a network where four or five hops are made from each customer to extend broadband around the base transmitter. Siklu advertises this product as being ideal for small-town business districts where a single fiber-fed transmitter can reach the whole downtown area through the use of the secondary beams. With a handful of customers on a system, this could deliver a gigabit wireless product. But as you start adding secondary customers, this starts acting a lot like a big urban apartment building, and the shared speeds likely start looking like what Starry delivers in urban areas – fast broadband, but that doesn’t meet the definition that every customer can receive a gigabit.

The real catch for this technology comes in the deployment. The broadband strength is pretty decent if every base transmitter is on fiber. But ISPs using the technology are likely going to cut costs by feeding additional base stations with wireless backhaul. That’s when the bandwidth starts to get chopped down. An RDOF winner would likely have to build a lot of fiber and have transmitters every mile to get the best broadband speeds – but if they dilute the backhaul by using wireless connections between transmitters, or spacing base station further apart, then speeds will drop significantly.

The other major issue with this technology is that it’s great for the small-town business district, but how will it overlay in the extremely rural RDOF areas? The RDOF grants cover some of the most sparsely populated areas in the country. The Siklu technology will be quickly neutered by the quarter-mile transmission distance when customers live more than a quarter-mile apart. Couple this with line-of-sight issues and it seems extremely challenging to reach a lot of the households in most RDOF areas with this technology.

I come down on the side of the fiber providers in this controversy. In my mind, an ISP doesn’t meet the grant requirements if they can’t reach every customer in an RDOF area. An ISP also doesn’t meet the gigabit grant requirements if only some customers can receive the gigabit speeds. That’s the kind of bait-and-switch we’ve had for years, thanks to the FCC that has allowed an ISP to bring fast broadband to one customer in a Census block and declare that everybody has access to fast speeds.

It’s a shame that I feel obligated to come to this conclusion because deployed well, these wireless technologies can probably bring decent broadband to a lot of homes. But if these technologies can’t deliver a gigabit to everybody, then the ISPs gained an unfair advantage in the RDOF grant bidding. When I look at the widely spaced home in many RDOF areas I can’t picture a wireless network that can reach everybody while also delivering gigabit capabilities. The only way to make this work would be to build fiber close to every customer in an RDOF area – and at that point, the wireless technology would be nearly as costly as FTTH and a lot more complicated to maintain. I think the FCC bought the proverbial pig-in-a-poke when they approved rural gigabit wireless.

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