Editor’s Corner—Frontier, CenturyLink, Windstream see broadband wireless as a gap filler for CAF-II obligations, but is it optimal?

rural area (Pixabay)
Sean Buckley, FierceTelecom

Frontier's recent revelation that it intends to use fixed wireless to address the rural broadband availability problem using the second phase of the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF-II) program is set on a simple goal: extend broadband to areas where deploying wireline facilities is prohibitive.

What’s interesting about Frontier is that other than being a supplier of backhaul, the telco is mainly a wireline carrier. Can it effectively overcome engineering and regulatory challenges to complement rural wireline broadband with wireless?

Frontier previously accepted $283 million in CAF-II support from the FCC, which it says will enable it to build broadband service to over 650,000 rural locations. As with CAF-I, CAF-II was  developed to help enable providers deliver up to 10/1 Mbps broadband in hard to reach rural areas.

Since accepting CAF-II funds in 2015, Frontier has made progress with its CAF-II build-outs. At the end of June, Frontier had reached the 40% milestone in nine states: Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Montana, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Washington and West Virginia.

Frontier said in an FCC filing that “as we continue this effort to bridge the digital divide, we believe that wireless spectrum allocated with rules that accommodate fixed point-to-multipoint” would be optimal to further its broadband expansion goals.

Given the financial and operational challenges of deploying wireline broadband in rural areas, broadband wireless could be a complementary lower cost service to address the rural areas that Frontier and other telcos like Consolidated and Windstream can use to address CAF-II obligations.  

A collective interest

Frontier is not the only telco that is seeking to enhance its CAF-II plans with broadband wireless technology.

Fellow rural-facing telcos Windstream and Consolidated are also eager to complement their CAF-II wireline deployments with wireless in harder to reach rural areas of their network footprints under CAF-II. Like Frontier, these service providers accepted varying amounts of CAF-II funding.

These two telcos joined Frontier to request in an FCC filing (PDF) to permit flexible use of spectrum bands between 3.7 and 24 GHz. Consolidated and Windstream expressed interest in being able to use 3.7-4.2 GHz band spectrum for rural fixed point-to-multipoint deployments, such as through the rules proposed by the Broadband Access Coalition (BAC).

If these companies could get access to these spectrum bands, the three service providers said they could enhance their broadband expansion commitment to expanding broadband to more homes via the CAF-II program.

Additionally, the FCC is considering opening other bands—such as the 5.9-6.4 GHz and the 6.42-7.1 GHz bands—for use. This would give service providers that need to extend rural coverage quickly another option to use.

Joining the fray is CenturyLink. The telco, which also accepted CAF-II funding, is also keen to take advantage of wireless in very rural areas and has asked the FCC for permission to conduct a 3.4 GHz wireless trial.

CenturyLink said in its filing request with the FCC that it wants to test the “viability of new technologies in this band that may be useful in providing fixed broadband services.”

Additionally, CenturyLink has said it is open to partnering with service providers rolling out 5G wireless.

Glen Post, CEO of CenturyLink, told investors in September that “we want to partner with 5G providers and other wireless providers where we can bring higher speeds to customers at less costs” if the proposed build-outs are areas its CAF-II funding allocation covers.

Regulatory, technical challenges

While leveraging broadband wireless could give these telcos and others leveraging CAF-II funding an opportunity to fill in broadband gaps they can’t reach with wireline, this journey won’t be without its challenges.

The first of these is regulatory. These carriers will need to get the necessary approvals to not only operate in these bands, but must get the FCC to change the rules to support point-to-multipoint deployments.

In the joint FCC filing, Frontier, Windstream and Consolidated said the FCC should consider enabling the 3.7-4.2 GHz band for point-to-multipoint that are not covered by traditional mobile licensing schemes. These carriers suggested the FCC should consider the BAC's proposal to update Part 11 rules so the spectrum can be made available to other rural providers.

But there are also technical challenges. Besides deploying radios and assigning technicians to install and maintaining the equipment, the service providers will need to be able to get a clear line-of-sight connection view to customers as well as necessary fiber facilities to backhaul traffic.

Doug Dawson, the owner of CCG, agrees. In a recent blog post he said if Frontier and other providers can deploy it correctly, these providers could give rural consumers a decent broadband experience. 

“On the plus side, if this is done right this technology can be used to deliver bandwidth up to 100 Mbps, but in a full deployment speeds can be engineered to deliver consistent 25 Mbps download speeds,” Dawson said. “But those kinds of speeds require an open line-of-sight to customers, tall towers that are relatively close to customers (within 3 - 4 miles) and towers that are fiber fed.”

Dawson added if these network deployments are “done poorly the technology delivers much slower broadband.”

Putting aside these challenges, it's hard to not to see the benefits wireless broadband could bring for rural providers. These telcos can use a complementary approach to address remote areas that are still difficult to address even with CAF-II funding today.—Sean | @FierceTelecom