FCC Chairman Ajit Pai recently addressed the NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association membership and said that he saw a bright future for 5G in rural America. He sees 5G as a fixed-wireless deployment that fits in well with the fiber deployment already made by NTCA members.
The members of NTCA are rural telcos and many of these companies have upgraded their networks to fiber-to-the-home. Some of these telcos tackled building fiber a decade or more ago and many more are building fiber today using money from the ACAM program – part of the Universal Service Fund.
Chairman Pai was talking to companies that largely have been able to deploy fiber, and since Pai is basically the national spokesman for 5G it makes sense that he would try to make a connection between 5G and rural fiber. However, I’ve thought through every business model for marrying 5G and rural fiber and none of them make sense to me.
Consider the use of millimeter wave spectrum in rural America. I can’t picture a viable business case for deploying millimeter wave spectrum where a telco has already deployed fiber drops to every home. No telco would spend money to create wireless drops where they have already paid for fiber drops. One of the biggest benefits from building fiber is that it simplifies operations for a telco – mixing two technologies across the same geographic footprint would add unneeded operational complications that nobody would tackle on purpose.
The other business plan I’ve heard suggested is to sell wholesale 5G connections to other carriers as a new source of income. I also can’t imagine that happening. Rural telcos are going to fight hard to keep out any competitor that wants to use 5G to compete with their existing broadband customers. I can’t imagine a rural telco agreeing to provide fiber connections to 5G transmitters that would sit outside homes and compete with their existing broadband customers, and a telco that lets in a 5G competitor would be committing economic suicide. Rural business plans are precarious, by definition, and most rural markets don’t generate enough profits to justify two competitors.
What about using 5G in a competitive venture where a rural telco is building fiber outside of their territory? There may come a day when wireless loops have a lower lifecycle cost than fiber loops. But for now, it’s hard to think that a wireless 5G connection with electronics that need to be replaced at least once a decade can really compete over the long-haul with a fiber drop that might last 50 or 75 years. If that math flips we’ll all be building wireless drops – but that’s not going to happen soon. It’s probably going to take tens of millions of installations of millimeter wave drops until telcos trust 5G as a substitute for fiber.
Chairman Pai also mentioned mid-range spectrum in his speech, specifically the upcoming auction for 3.5 GHz spectrum. How might mid-range spectrum create a rural 5G play that works with existing fiber? It might be a moot question since few rural telcos are going to have access to licensed spectrum.
But assuming that telcos could find mid-range licensed spectrum, how would that benefit from their fiber? As with millimeter wave spectrum, a telco is not going to deploy this technology to cover the same areas where they already have fiber connections to homes. The future use of mid-range spectrum will be the same as it is today – to provide wireless broadband to customers that don’t live close to fiber. The radios will be placed on towers, the taller the better. These towers will then make connections to homes using dishes that can communicate with the tower.
Many of the telcos in the NTCA are already deploying this fixed wireless technology today outside of their fiber footprint. This technology benefits from having towers fed by fiber, but this rarely the same fiber that a telco is using to serve customers. In most cases this business plan requires extending fiber outside of the existing service footprint – and Chairman Pai said specifically that he saw advantage for 5G from existing fiber.
Further, it’s a stretch to label mid-range spectrum point-to-multipoint radio systems as 5G. From what numerous engineers have told me, 5G is not going to make big improvements over the way that fixed wireless operates today. 5G will add flexibility for the operator to fine-tune the wireless connection to any given customer, but the 5G technology won’t inherently increase the speed of the wireless broadband connection.
I just can’t find any business plan that is going to deliver 5G in rural America that takes advantage of the fiber that the small telcos have already built. I would love to hear from readers who might see a possibility that I have missed. I’ve thought about this a lot and I struggle to find the benefits for 5G in rural markets that Chairman Pai has in mind. 5G clearly needs a fiber-rich environment – but companies who have already built rural fiber-to-the-home are not going to embrace a second overlay technology or openly allow competitors onto their networks.