There is a growing controversy brewing about the NTIA’s decision to declare that fixed wireless technology using only unlicensed spectrum is unreliable and not worthy of funding for the BEAD grants. WISPA, the lobbying arm for the fixed wireless industry, released a press release that says that the NTIA has made a big mistake in excluding WISPs that use only unlicensed spectrum.
I’m not a wireless engineer, so before I wrote this blog, I consulted with several engineers and several technicians who work with rural wireless networks. The one consistent message I got from all of them is that interference can be a serious issue for WISPs deploying only unlicensed spectrum. I’m just speculating, but I have to think that was part of the reason for the NTIA decision – interference can mean that the delivered speeds are not reliably predictable.
A lot of the interference comes from the way that many WISPs operate. The biggest practical problem with unlicensed spectrum is that it is unregulated, meaning there is no agency that can force order in a chaotic wireless situation. I’ve heard numerous horror stories about some of the practices in rural areas where there are multiple WISPs. There are WISPs that grab all of the available channels of spectrum in a market to block out competitors. WISPs complain about competitors that cheat by rigging radios to operate above the legal power limit, which swamps their competitors. And bad behavior begets bad behavior in a vicious cycle where WISPs try to outmaneuver each other for enough spectrum to operate. The reality is that the WISP market using unlicensed spectrum is a free-for-all – it’s the Wild West. Customers bear the brunt of this as customer performance varies day by day as WISPs rearrange their networks. Unless there is only a single WISP in a market, the performance of the networks using unlicensed spectrum is unreliable, almost by definition.
There are other issues that nobody, including WISPA, wants to address. There are many WISPs that provide terrible broadband because they deploy wireless technology in ways that exceed the physics of the wireless signals. Many of these same criticisms apply to cellular carriers as well, particularly with the new cellular FWA broadband. Wireless broadband can be high-quality when done well and can be almost unusable if deployed poorly.
There are a number of reasons for poor fixed wireless speeds. Some WISPs are still deploying lower quality and/or older radios that are not capable of the best speeds – this same complaint has been leveled for years against DSL providers. ISPs often pile too many customers into a radio sector and overload it, which greatly dilutes the quality of the broadband that can reach any one customer. Another common issue is WISPs that deploy networks with inadequate backhaul. They will string together multiple wireless backhaul links to the point where each wireless transmitter is starved for bandwidth. But the biggest issue that I see in real practice is that some WISPs won’t say no to customers even when the connection is poor. They will gladly install customers who live far past the reasonable range of the radios or who have restricted line-of-sight. These practices are okay if customers willingly accept the degraded broadband – but typically, customers are often given poor broadband for a full price with no explanation.
Don’t take this to mean that I am against WISPs. I was served by a WISP for a decade that did a great job. I know high-quality WISPS that don’t engage in shoddy practices and who are great ISPs. But I’ve worked in many rural counties where residents lump WISPs in with rural DSL as something they will only purchase if there is no alternative.
Unfortunately, some of these same criticisms can be leveled against some WISPs that use licensed spectrum. Having licensed spectrum doesn’t overcome issues of oversubscribed transmitters, poor backhaul, or serving customers with poor line-of-sight or out of range of the radios. I’m not a big fan of giving grant funding to WISPs who put profits above signal quality and customer performance – but I’m not sure how a grant office would know this.
I have to think that the real genesis for the NTIA’s decision is the real-life practices of WISPs that do a poor job. It’s something that is rarely talked about – but it’s something that any high-quality WISP will bend your ear about.
By contrast, it’s practically impossible to deploy a poor-quality fiber network – it either works, or it doesn’t. I have no insight into the discussions that went on behind the scenes at the NTIA, but I have to think that a big part of the NTIA’s decision was based upon the many WISPs that are already unreliable. The NTIA decision means unlicensed-spectrum WISPs aren’t eligible for grants – but they are free to compete for broadband customers. WISPs that offer a high-quality product at a good price will still be around for many years to come.