CenturyLink, Consolidated, Frontier and Windstream have collectively made their case to the FCC that preserving census tracts in rural areas for 3.5 GHz spectrum—including a hybrid approach that allows large license sizes in urban areas—will enable them to expand their rural broadband deployments further.
In a joint FCC filing (PDF), these providers, which are leveraging CAF-II funding to provide 10/1 Mbps rural broadband services, said they are testing and deploying 3.5 GHz-compatible broadband wireless technology in areas where deploying fiber and related facilities is cost prohibitive.
By offering neutral access to the 3.5 GHz band in rural areas, these providers say they would be able to accelerate rural broadband rollouts. A key issue for these providers is that Partial Economic Areas (PEAs) aren’t aligned with how rural CAF areas are structured. A recent WISPA study illustrated that rural CAF areas tend to cluster around the edges of PEAs.
“To make these types of rural broadband deployments possible, the FCC must preserve census tract license sizes in rural areas—partial economic areas and even counties would preclude meaningful participation in the band by companies focused on providing broadband in the most rural areas,” the service providers said in the joint filing. “By licensing the 3.5 GHz band in rural areas on a census tract basis, the FCC can help enable faster broadband to more rural Americans.”
The other issue raised in rural areas is the amount of available spectrum. Although there’s a shortage of spectrum in urban areas like Boston and New York City, the service providers say “there is a relative spectrum abundance in rural areas.”
Proving out the economics for broadband deployments is also a challenge. In an urban area, there could be several providers vying for consumers' and business’ attention, but in a rural area service providers rely on subsidies like the CAF-II program to make investments.
Finally, the service provider group said that secondary markets are too costly and slow to allow for rural deployments.
“Rural players have not been able to realistically obtain spectrum in other bands,” the providers said. “At the same time, package bidding coupled with census tract license sizes reduces exposure risk for larger companies while promoting competition.”
The providers added that “there should be no concern that carriers are going to 'cherry-pick' licenses in rural areas.”
CAF 3 spectrum proposal
To make more spectrum available to service providers expanding rural broadband access, these service providers proposed that the FCC should allocate additional spectrum available for rural areas.
Specifically, the group said that the FCC should consider allocating 80 MHz of spectrum as part of the CAF program.
“80 MHz in CAF CBs would enable carriers to deploy sustained speeds greater than 25/3 or more to over 200 customers per site,” the service provider group said. “Technology advances will allow for faster speeds in the future.”
Frontier is currently rolling out 25 Mbps speeds in some of its rural markets using the 3.5 GHz spectrum and will consider higher speeds as it procures new equipment and spectrum over time.
Ongoing tests, deployments
Seeing the 3.5 GHz band as another tool to reach rural Americans, these providers are in some stage of either testing or deploying broadband wireless.
Frontier, for one, confirmed in September it was testing broadband wireless with plans to deploy it in more areas if it meets its requirements. The service provider is also exploring 3.5 GHz deployments, including as a member of the CBRS Alliance, which is exploring CBRS specifications and spectrum use rules.
Already, the service provider has been making progress with its CAF-II commitments, providing broadband to over 331,000 and small businesses in its CAF-eligible areas, and the company has improved speeds to nearly 875,000 additional homes and businesses. The deployments reflect a combination of Frontier capital investment and resources that the FCC has made available through the CAF program.
Perley McBride, CFO of Frontier, told investors during a conference in September 2017 that broadband wireless could be a “good solution” to the deployment challenge “in very rural America[,] and if it works the way [Frontier is] expecting it to work, . . . [Frontier] will deploy more of that next year.”
Likewise, Windstream is trialing fixed wireless and modeling 3.5 GHz deployments and is also a member of the CBRS Alliance.
CenturyLink is also advancing its CAF-II commitments, reaching over 600,000 rural homes and businesses with broadband over the past two years. While it has not revealed any specific plans yet, CenturyLink has obtained an experimental license for 3.5 GHz spectrum.
“The testing seeks to understand the viability of new technologies in this band that may be useful in providing fixed broadband services,” CenturyLink said in the filing.
While it’s going to take time to see how these providers apply broadband wireless to their rural builds, it’s clear that they are showing some commitment to finding new ways to serve markets that have been traditionally ignored.