I’ve been thinking more about the NTIA’s definition of Reliable Broadband Service that was part of the recently issued Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) for the $42.5 billion BEAD grants. That definition says that any grant cannot be used to overbuild a reliable broadband technology that meets or exceeds the 100/20 Mbps speed threshold of the grants. The NOFO said that the grants can’t be used where speeds are adequate for the following technologies: (i) fiber-optic technology; (ii) Cable Modem/ Hybrid fiber-coaxial technology; (iii) digital subscriber line (DSL) technology; or (iv) terrestrial fixed wireless technology utilizing entirely licensed spectrum or using a hybrid of licensed and unlicensed spectrum.
The policy behind this makes sense – the NTIA doesn’t think that valuable federal grant dollars should be used where adequate broadband technology is already in use. That would make them a good shepherd of the federal dollars.
But this particular definition is going to cause some complications the NTIA might not have considered. I’ve been running into rural FWA cellular wireless broadband in rural markets. So far, I’ve only encountered the new technology from T-Mobile and Verizon. But this will also be introduced by Dish Network. AT&T says it also has plans to roll out the faster cellular home product.
The FWA technology is enabled when a cellular company beefs up cell sites to provide home broadband in addition to cell phone service. This is being enabled by the introduction of new spectrum bands. For marketing purposes, the carriers are labeling these new bands as 5G, although the technology is still 4G LTE.
The cell carriers have been offering a weak version of home broadband for years, marketed as a hotspot or jetpack. But that technology shared the same frequencies used for cell phone service, and the broadband has been slow, weak, erratic, and expensive. However, putting home broadband onto new cellular spectrum changes the product drastically.
Recently I heard from a farmer who is getting 200 Mbps download broadband from a rural T-Mobile FWA connection – this farmer sits right next to a large cell tower. According to the NTIA, this farm should not receive any grant subsidy to bring fiber broadband with a grant. But as is usual, real life is a lot more complicated than that. This same farmer says that his nearest neighbors, only a little over a mile away, are seeing speeds significantly below 50 Mbps.
This makes sense because that’s how cellular technology works. Most people don’t realize how quickly broadband signal strength weakens with distance from a cell site. In cities, practically everybody is within half a mile or a mile from a cell site, so we never notice. But in rural areas, most people live too far from a cell site to get decent bandwidth from this technology. Consider the following heatmap of a real cell site.
The fastest broadband speeds would be within a few thousand feet, like with the farmer. The area that might get 100 Mbps broadband is in the orange and yellow areas on the map. The speeds in the green areas are where speeds fall below 100 Mbps, and by the time the broadband signal reaches the light blue areas the speeds are almost non-existent. The purple areas show where a voice signal might carry, but only unreliably.
What does this mean for the BEAD grants? As T-Mobile and the other cell carriers start updating rural cell sites they are going to be putting heatmaps like the one above into the FCC mapping system. It’s worth noting that most cell sites don’t create a roughly symmetrical coverage pattern because the wireless signal gets disrupted by any obstacles in the environment, even small rolling hills. It’s also worth noting that cellular coverage is dynamic and changes with temperature, precipitation, and even wind.
Recognizing cellular broadband coverage (licensed) as reliable broadband will have several consequences. First, this disrupts grant coverage areas since there will be cellular areas in every county that won’t be eligible for grants. This will create a swiss cheese phenomenon where there are areas where grants are allowed next to rural areas that are not allowed. That will complicate the engineering of a broadband solution for the areas that are left. This is the same thing the FCC did with the RDOF awards – chopped up potential grant areas into incoherent, illogical, and costly swiss cheese.
This also might mean this farmer won’t get fiber. His neighbors who can’t get good speeds on T-Mobile might be covered by a BEAD grant, but an ISP might be unwilling to fund the cost to reach this farmer if the cost is not covered by a grant.
I doubt that the NTIA thought of the practical consequences of the new definition, just like I can’t imagine the FCC had the slightest idea of the absolute mess they made with RDOF coverage areas. The only way to justify building a new network in a rural area, even with grants, is to cover large areas with one coherent network – not by building a network that has to somehow avoid RDOF areas and cell towers.
ISPs interested in BEAD awards are now going to have to wait until the new broadband maps come out to know what this might do to their grant plans. I’m thinking that, at least in some cases, this will be the final straw that breaks the camel’s back and convinces an ISPs to walk away and not even try.