Time is running out for wireless internet service providers (WISPs) to change the government’s mind about unlicensed spectrum. With pressure mounting, the CEO of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) sent a fresh letter to the head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) warning its current rules could lead to $8.6 billion in broadband subsidy money being spent on areas that are already covered by fixed wireless access services using unlicensed airwaves.
Back in May 2022, the NTIA announced rules for the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program stating that areas covered by services relying solely on unlicensed spectrum would be counted as “unserved” for the purpose of funding allocation. WISPA pushed back, noting the rule would impact a large subset of WISPs which have long used unlicensed spectrum as a low-cost, flexible option to reach rural areas.
According to the NTIA, the agency’s rule is based on concerns that unlicensed spectrum might be subject to congestion or interference which might cause service to be impeded or cut off entirely over the long term.
But in a letter to NTIA chief Alan Davidson this week, WISPA CEO David Zumwalt contended the Federal Communications Commission had no such concerns when it funded unlicensed fixed wireless deployments through both its Connect America Fund and Rural Digital Opportunity Fund programs. By deviating from precedent and marking these locations as unserved, he argued, the NTIA could end up wasting as much as $8.6 billion in BEAD money trying to run fiber to areas already receiving 25/3 Mbps or 100/20 Mbps service.
The $8.6 billion number stems from analyst calculations that the cost to deploy fiber to each of the 1.92 million locations currently served by unlicensed FWA could be as high as $4,500. Most fiber players have cited a cost per passing of $500 to $1,500, but costs can be significantly higher in remote and rural areas. Fiber Broadband Association chief Gary Bolton told Fierce in September the cost to cover rural locations can run as high as $4,000.
“By excluding locations that are already being served by broadband networks using entirely unlicensed spectrum, as much as $8.6 billion of the $41.6 billion that Congress appropriated for BEAD deployment funds (more than one-fifth of total BEAD funds) could be wastefully spent,” he wrote. “That $8.6 billion could instead be used to fund deployment of fiber broadband networks to truly unserved homes and businesses.”
Zumwalt’s last ditch effort to get the NTIA to change its mind comes as the agency prepares to calculate state BEAD allocations based on new maps from the FCC. NTIA has said it plans to announce allocations by June 30.
In an interview with Fierce, Zumwalt said the heart of the argument is not whether or not to deploy fiber – WISPs already do – it’s whether or not to run fiber all the way to the premise. And if the NTIA is trying to reach as many unserved citizens as possible, fiber to the home won’t be the right tool in all locations.
Zumwalt said he’s optimistic WISPA will be able to eek out a win. He noted the NTIA has continued to take meetings with not only the association but also several industry vendors, including Tarana Wireless, Siklu and Cambium Networks. In those meetings, the vendors were able to “demonstrate that not only can unlicensed fixed wireless keep up with the capacity demands, the broadband and the speed demands that are coming at us, but [that they] also have very good interference mitigation capabilities.”
If the NTIA fails to change its mind, Zumwalt said he doesn’t think it will constitute an existential threat for WISPs but acknowledged it could change the way they operate. Specifically, he said WISPs may look to consolidate so they have more resources to participate in an increasingly complex regulatory landscape and effectively compete for funding.
“It’s no longer an industry where you see an opportunity and can put together a network and scale it based on subscriber growth and your own private capital capacity,” he said. Now there are more hoops to jump through to earn a seat at the table.
Zumwalt concluded: “All we can do is provide advice and support for our positions to these federal agencies. NTIA has heard it from us in stereo.”
This story has been updated to add context about the average cost per passing cited by fiber players.