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Policy Considerations for Fixed Wireless Broadband Tech

The Brief

This is part of BPC’s ongoing series on broadband policy and the digital divide.

The broadband divide is one of the more confounding issues US policymakers have attempted to solve over the last several years. Billions of federal dollars have been used trying to connect the last 14.5 million unconnected households to the internet, with little success to show for it. While the conversation is typically focused on bringing high-speed internet to the most rural homes in America, the digital divide is just as great in our cities. According to a 2018 American Community Survey, 13.7% of urban households have no fixed connection to the internet, while 18.7% of households in rural America share the same lack of connectivity. This is not meant to diminish the need for solutions to either problem but illustrates that the digital divide is not monomorphic. Solutions are needed for both urban and rural households, and due to the drastic geographical differences, the solutions will most likely look very different.

Policymakers have been attempting to solve the issue by utilizing wired broadband. Over the past decade, billions have been spent in an attempt to bridge that divide, with billions in additional Covid funds having been designated for broadband and internet connectivity solutions. In addition to the billions already spent, estimates to bring high-speed wired broadband to the entire US are staggering. Industry advocates say it could cost anywhere between $20 and $350 billion to build a nationwide modern fixed network. Such varied estimates exist due to multiple technologies that could theoretically be utilized for the build-out, as well as noisy and misleading broadband coverage maps from the FCC. Combined, these issues make the process uncommonly opaque.

The dominant technology planned as part of most broadband infrastructure plans is the wired broadband that will be used to connect 80-90% of US households, or between 97 and 110 million households (of 122 million total US households). For moderate costs, wired cable or fiber technologies can be brought to the majority of households. However, the primary issue still exists of significant divides on the periphery. That periphery is where several fixed wireless broadband technologies could make inroads that have made considerable progress in recent years.

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Fixed Wireless Broadband Technologies

Satellite Internet

Some may view satellite internet as the internet of the future or as science fiction, but that would ignore the increasingly positive effects that satellite internet is already delivering for users. What makes the new generation of satellite internet possible is an array of satellites launched into low-earth orbit (LEO) that form “megaconstellations” and connect the internet signal from the internet service provider (ISP) to the user’s device. Not only can this service theoretically connect to some of the planet’s most remote areas once enough satellites are put into orbit, but download speeds have already shown to be over 100Mbps with acceptably low latency between 29-41ms. This performance would be more than adequate for remote education, telehealth, and other streaming required events. As additional satellites are launched, improvements are expected in the product.

In the United States, Elon Musk’s Starlink is projected to be the dominant contender in the market, with Amazon’s Project Kuiper entering the market in the next few years. While Starlink has approximately 1,500 satellites already in orbit, the plan is to build out to a full array of 42,000 over the next few decades. That number is astronomic when compared to the approximately 3,350 total satellites currently orbiting Earth. Project Kuiper recently received approval from the FCC to launch its initial array consisting of 3,236 satellites in its first phase. The total planned number in their megaconstellation is not publicly available. China also has plans for a 12,992 satellite megaconstellation, as does Russia withs its “Sphere” program.

This market is in its infancy and still has some significant pitfalls. In the current satellite internet market, the need for an exceptionally clear line of sight can be problematic for anyone with buildings or trees nearby, losing service for hours at a time. In addition, there are concerns regarding pollution and safety risks associated with private companies launching tens of thousands of satellites into low-earth orbit, leading some to wonder if the Kessler Syndrome could come into play. It has also become a pet issue with astronomers, who worry about satellite interference polluting their observations. Nevertheless, satellite internet has incredible potential if people have the patience to wait for the full satellite array to get into orbit and for the technology to mature.

TV White Space Broadband

The theory that enables TV White Space technology has been around for decades. It consists of the unused spectrum of television channels reserved as a buffer to protect channels from distortion. However, with the increasing shift from broadband to digital television, these buffer spaces are becoming less necessary and can be repurposed. As a result, in 2010, the FCC issued a new rule allowing this additional spectrum to become available for other products, including broadband.

There are several major benefits that TV White Space offers: increased signal distance, minimal technology requirements, and non-line-of-sight (NLOS) performance. Traditional Wi-Fi signals can typically proliferate up to 150 feet indoors and 300 feet outdoors. TV White Space, or “Super Wi-Fi,” can travel over six miles in distance, with single-channel download speeds up to 50 Mbps and latency under 15ms. Radwin, a global wireless ISP, has been aggregating multiple channels to achieve speeds up to 300 Mbps. The only technologies that are required are a base antenna and a remote receiver. One of the most established products in the space is Microsoft’s Airband initiative, which is working with partners to bridge the digital divide in both rural and urban communities utilizing white space broadband.

5G Home Internet

Powered by the same technology as next-generation 5G wireless devices, 5G Home Internet offers “fixed wireless” with speeds typically between 30 and 300 Mbps download, with some even achieving 1Gbps download. Beyond speed, the most significant difference between 4G and 5G technology is lower latency. Latency in 4G is typically between 20-30ms, but for 5G will drop under 10ms. One of the most significant differences between Fixed Wireless and broadband or fiber is that no cable is required from ISPs to household, which is often extraordinarily expensive. Instead, an antenna is installed on the home, which connects to wireless towers in the area.

Although Verizon and T-Mobile are rolling out 5G Home Internet, connecting the neediest households is a chief concern. T-Mobile’s launch plan will bring its service to a selection of 634 metro areas, covering 30 million households. While that is a broad cross-section of the country, the connectivity status of these households is unknown. It could include homes that already have high-speed internet or that don’t have any current access. Verizon 5G Home Internet is even more limited, launching to only a small selection of 33 metro markets.

Conclusion

Fixed wireless broadband technologies have the opportunity to turbocharge the US internet market, specifically focusing on those who have been disadvantaged the most by the costs of wired broadband. While fixed wireless broadband as an industry is in its infancy, there is a roadmap for development. Whether that is the 42,000-satellite strong megaconstellation being launched by Starlink, or the repurposing of no longer needed TV buffer channels to create a “super Wi-Fi.” There is hope that these technologies will help bridge the divide in both urban and rural areas at a fraction of the cost of wired broadband, leading to greater connectivity across the country.

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