The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) just announced plans to unleash more than $1 billion in fresh funding for rural broadband via its Broadband ReConnect Program, but not everyone is rejoicing. Claude Aiken, CEO of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), warned new rules adopted for the latest funding round could effectively cut fixed wireless access providers out of the running.
Aiken argued in a statement “innovators and entrepreneurs on the front lines of closing the digital divide likely will find themselves unable to access this funding, and, worse yet, could have their efforts to connect rural America undone by the funding.”
A bit of background is required to understand Aiken’s concern. The $1.15 billion in funding announced by the USDA at the end of last week will be distributed as part of the ReConnect Program’s third funding round. In earlier funding rounds, the USDA specified applicants must target areas which lacked access to broadband service with speeds of at least 10 Mbps upstream and 1 Mbps downstream. Projects receiving funding were required to provide service offering at least 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up.
But those two metrics have been changed for the third round: providers will be permitted to apply for funding to serve areas lacking access to service of at least 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up and they must promise to deliver symmetrical 100 Mbps service in order to be eligible for funding.
As Recon Analytics founder Roger Entner previously explained to Fierce, the symmetrical service capability is a key hurdle for wireless players. That’s why wireless interests hailed the 100/20 Mbps standard for broadband funding that was included in a sprawling infrastructure bill that is still working its way through Congress.
Asked to expand on Aiken’s statement, a WISPA representative told Fierce the group feels the ReConnect Program’s process for evaluating proposals “could do more to invite all players to the table” and allow them to use “the right tool for the right job to serve diverse communities.”
“That might 100/100, or something else,” the representative said. “Network use is not symmetric, however, and architecture follows that. For the communities our members serve, it can be 15-1 down-to-up, or higher. This is also reflected broadly in the marketplace by other transmission models. 100/100 requirements exclude solutions, not invite them.”
The representative added WISPA’s other concerns with the third round rules for ReConnect include requirements around commitments to labor standards and prevailing wage as well as the award of weighted points for local government and non-profit entities.
Aiken argued in his statement the way the rules are currently written means that in practice “these funds will be available to only a few entities.”
He concluded “Put simply, this will hurt small, rural internet service providers. The end result will be inefficient overbuilding of these vibrant community-based networks that have served this country so well.”
This isn’t the first time Aiken has flagged concerns about federal funding fueling fiber overbuilds of fixed wireless access networks. He previously argued billions in federal Covid-19 relief money could be put to better use by counting areas which have access to fixed wireless access service as served on broadband coverage maps.
The application window for the latest batch of ReConnect funding will open November 24.