Today I want to take on the phrase ‘technology neutral’. This phrase is being used to justify building technologies that are clearly not as good as fiber. The argument has been used a lot in recent years to say that grants should be technology neutral so as not to favor only fiber. The phrase was used a lot to justify allowing Starlink into the RDOF reverse auction. The phrase has been used a lot to justify allowing fixed wireless technology to win grants, and lately, it’s being used more specifically to allow fixed wireless using unlicensed spectrum into the BEAD grants.
The argument justifies allowing technologies like satellite or fixed wireless using unlicensed spectrum to get grants since the technologies are ‘good enough’ when compared to the requirement of grant rules.
I have two arguments to counter that justification. The only reason the technology neutral argument can be raised is that politicians set the speed requirements for grants at ridiculously low levels. Consider all of the current grants that set the speed requirement for technology at 100/20 Mbps. The 100 Mbps speed requirement is an example of what I’ve recently called underbuilding – it allows for building a technology that is already too slow today. At least 80% of folks in the country today can buy broadband from a cable company or fiber company. Almost all of the cable companies offer download speeds as fast as a gigabit. Even in older cable systems, the maximum speeds are faster than 100 Mbps. Setting a grant speed requirement of only 100 Mbps download is saying to rural folks that they don’t deserve broadband as good as what is available to the large majority of people in the country.
The upload speed requirement of 20 Mbps was a total political sellout. This was set to appease the cable companies, many which struggle to beat that speed. Interestingly, the big cable companies all recognize that their biggest market weakness is slow upload speeds, and most of them are working on plans to implement a mid-split upgrade or else some early version of DOCSIS 4.0 to significantly improve upload speed. Within just a few years, the 20 Mbps upload speed limit is going to feel like ancient history.
The BEAD requirement of only needing to provide 20 Mbps upload is ironic for two reasons. First, in cities, the cable companies will have much faster upload speeds implemented by the time that anybody builds a BEAD network. Second, the cable companies that are pursuing grants are almost universally using fiber to satisfy those grants. Cable companies are rarely building coaxial copper plant for new construction. This means the 20 Mbps speed was set to protect cable companies against overbuilding – not set as a technology neutral speed that is forward looking.
The second argument against the technology neutral argument is that some technologies are clearly not good enough to justify receiving grant dollars. Consider Starlink satellite broadband. It’s a godsend to folks who have no alternatives, and many people rave about how it has solved their broadband problems. But the overall speeds are far slower than what was promised before the technology was launched. I’ve seen a huge number of speed tests for Starlink that don’t come close to the 100/20 Mbps speed required by the BEAD grants.
The same can be said for FWA wireless using cellular spectrum. It’s pretty decent broadband for folks who live within a mile or two of a tower, and I’ve talked to customers who are seeing speeds significantly in excess of 100/20 Mbps. But customers just a mile further away from a tower tell a different story, where download speeds are far under 100 Mbps download. A technology that has such a small coverage area does not meet the technology neutral test unless a cellular company promises to pepper an area with new cell towers.
Finally, and a comment that always gets pushback from WISPs, is that fixed wireless technology using unlicensed spectrum has plainly not been adequate in most places. Interference from the many users of unlicensed spectrum means the broadband speeds vary depending on whatever is happening with the spectrum at a given moment. Interference on the technology also means higher latency and much higher packet losses than landline technologies.
I’ve argued until I am blue in the face that grant speed requirements should be set for the speeds we expect a decade from now and not for the bare minimum that makes sense today. It’s ludicrous to allow award grant funding to a technology that barely meets the 100/20 Mbps grant requirement when that network probably won’t be built until 2025. The real test for the right technology for grant funding is what the average urban customer will be able to buy in 2032. It’s hard to think that speed won’t be something like 2 Gbps/200 Mbps. If that’s what will be available to a large majority of households in a decade it ought to be the technology neutral definition of speed to qualify for grants.