Billions in federal funding has been made available to expand broadband access since the Covid-19 pandemic began, but one executive argued some of that money is being wasted on wireline rollouts in areas already covered by fixed wireless access service.
As noted by Pew Charitable Trusts, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed in March 2020 and handed states $150 billion in funding which could, among other things, be used to extend broadband connectivity. The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) followed a year later, making available another $350 billion.
But Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) CEO Claude Aiken told Fierce guidance issued by the Treasury Department about how states should use those funds to expand broadband access essentially ignores the presence of fixed wireless access networks. And that, he said, has led to fears of overbuilding and wasteful spending. The expected influx of an additional $65 billion from a congressional infrastructure bill has exacerbated these concerns.
“They don’t count anything that is wireless as effectively serving an area, no matter what the speed or latency, no matter how happy the customer is,” he explained. Aiken added “the White House fact sheet that supported the infrastructure plan only counts an area served if it has fiber or if it has cable, regardless of the speed.”
In July, UTOPIA fiber’s executive director argued the term overbuilding is bandied about by incumbent providers to make new competition sound like a bad thing.
Aiken said that’s not quite the case here. As an example, he noted one WISPA member serves rural Nebraska with a fixed wireless service offering speeds of 200 Mbps downstream and 100 Mbps upstream. But since fixed wireless isn’t counted when determining whether or not an area is served, the state decided to fund fiber within that WISPA member’s service area.
“This isn’t a big corporate entity that is finally seeing competition for the first time in an area, this is a small entrepreneur who’s doing the best he can – and by all accounts doing a great job – and seeing government funding come in over the top to compete with his business,” Aiken said.
Critics including NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association and National Rural Electric Cooperative Association have raised doubts about the ability of fixed wireless service to keep up with cable and fiber. But WISPA has contended the criticism is unwarranted.
Aiken added “when all the discussion is about making broadband more affordable, serving the unserved, some of these policy choices that are being made around mapping are a little bit concerning…I think inclusion of wireless technologies in some of that guidance is going to be critical to enable innovation as well as ensure that funds are efficiently used.”