Wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) are sounding the alarm over federal guidelines that appear to specifically exclude the use of unlicensed spectrum for services crossing the digital divide. The issue is serious considering the US government is allocating more than $40 billion for such services, and the guidelines could prevent some of the nation's fixed wireless providers from accessing any of that funding.
"I don't think we should be taking tools out of the toolbox," Matt Larsen, CEO of Vistabeam, told Light Reading. The WISP, which has been in business for almost two decades, covers roughly 40,000 square miles of rural territory across parts of Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska, and currently counts around 7,000 customers. All of those customers are connected through systems running in unlicensed spectrum.
WeLink's service requires a visit from a technician who installs an antenna on a customer's roof.
"We have the data to back it up that our services are reliable," Larsen said, noting that the company's customer satisfaction rankings often surpass those of fiber providers. He added that fixed wireless access (FWA) services can sometimes be more reliable than fixed services considering they often use multiple backhaul routes and rely on generators in the case of power outages.
Hybrid FWA is OK
That's why the Biden administration's new guidelines – released in May by the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), for its $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program – are causing such a stir. The rules allow for "terrestrial fixed wireless technology utilizing entirely licensed spectrum or using a hybrid of licensed and unlicensed spectrum." But the guidelines make no mention of FWA services using only unlicensed spectrum.
Broadly, the guidelines indicate a preference for fiber networks. Fiber advocates argue the technology is speedy and reliable, and will keep pace with evolving user demands. However, fiber competitors have argued the technology is expensive and time consuming to deploy, a situation that may leave large swaths of the US unconnected for years.
So why are hybrid licensed-unlicensed FWA services supported by the NTIA's BEAD guidelines? "That's in there for the mobile guys," Larsen, of Vistabeam, suggested. Verizon and T-Mobile are both embarking on massive FWA deployment efforts, and their services sometimes rely on a mixture of licensed and unlicensed spectrum.
Larsen said that's not necessarily a strategy available to smaller companies like Vistabeam. After all, the nation's big carriers have collectively spent over $100 billion acquiring licensed spectrum holdings in recent FCC auctions.
"Most of the unlicensed guys, we're out there because it's the tool that's available," Larsen said.
An argument often raised against operations in unlicensed spectrum is that those transmissions aren't as protected as they would be in licensed spectrum, since anyone can use unlicensed spectrum. After all, a spectrum license specifically prevents anyone but the licensee from using the band covered by the license. On the other hand, FWA advocates have pointed to the growing amount of unlicensed spectrum hitting the US market, from CBRS to 6GHz. The release of all that spectrum could help reduce overcrowding, they argue.
Vistabeam isn't the only FWA provider advocating for unlicensed operations. "Thousands of five-star reviews from Nextlink customers served with unlicensed spectrum speak volumes. Unlicensed spectrum unlocks incredible innovation and allows companies like ours to provide quality service in rural areas where interference is unlikely," WISP Nextlink wrote in response to questions from Light Reading. The company is using fixed wireless and other technologies to offer Internet services in rural areas under the US government's CAF II and Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) programs. Those programs are viewed as the precursors to the Biden administration's BEAD program.
Nextlink continued: "Unlicensed spectrum remains a critical tool for closing the digital divide. Removing it from the proverbial toolkit will mean fewer providers at the table for BEAD, and fewer Americans served with gigabit-speed broadband going forward."
Mike Wendy, of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association trade group, said that a "good majority" of the group's members use unlicensed spectrum exclusively to serve their customers. A recent report predicted FWA providers in the US could collectively count a total of around 10 million customers by 2023.
Vistabeam's Larsen said he's hoping that WISPs will be able to convince the NTIA to change its rules. If that doesn't happen, he said WISPs might be able to convince state regulators to embrace FWA in unlicensed spectrum, considering BEAD funds will ultimately be administered on the state level.
The topic has already come up in Senate hearings on the NTIA's BEAD guidelines, according to reports. However, NTIA officials have defended the agency's guidelines, including its emphasis on fiber over other connection technologies.
"You will see that we have clearly expressed a preference for fiber," said Andy Berke, of the NTIA, in comments at the recent Fiber Connect trade show, according to Broadband Breakfast. "Fiber is future proof. If we put something in the ground, we know we are only going to have to put it in the ground once."
— Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano
A version of this story first appeared on Light Reading.