Broadband wireless economics are poised for a boost thanks to impending technology advances and the availability of new spectrum, said Rise Broadband Co-founder Jeff Kohler in an interview with Telecompetitor this week. And if you’re seeking an insider view on the broadband wireless market it’s hard to think of a better source than Kohler.
Originally known as JAB Broadband, Rise now has acquired 112 broadband wireless companies and operates in 16 states. The company also was one of the biggest winners of Rural Broadband Experiment funding and expects to bid in the Connect America Fund reverse auction – which means it could one day become the carrier of last resort in parts of rural America.
In the past Kohler was accustomed to waiting three to four years to see a doubling of broadband wireless capacity. But recently he’s seen bigger gains occurring on a tighter timeframe.
“We’re getting quadruple the capacity and double or triple the speed for the same price” that the company was recently paying, Kohler said.
Currently the company offers speeds of 50 Mbps and Kohler expects next-generation technology to support speeds of up to 100 Mbps.
Kohler also is optimistic about the government’s plan to free up spectrum in the 3550 to 3650 MHz band, which is expected to include a large amount of unlicensed or lightly licensed spectrum.
Improved Broadband Wireless Economics
An important driver of improved broadband wireless economics for Rise Broadband is the company’s shift toward fixed broadband wireless equipment based on LTE. Rise now uses LTE equipment for its more densely populated serving areas.
LTE economies of scale have driven CPE costs down to half of what Rise traditionally has paid, Kohler said. He noted, though, that LTE towers are more expensive. Therefore, if the company doesn’t expect to serve at least 100 customers from a tower, it sticks with traditional offerings – typically based on OFDM. On average, Rise serves about 300 customers per LTE tower but can serve as many as 500, Kohler noted.
The LTE equipment that Rise uses currently operates in the 3.65 GHz “lightly licensed” band and in the 2.5 GHz licensed band. Rise has 16 licenses in the 2.5 GHz band and “we continue to acquire more 2.5 spectrum,” Kohler said.
More Spectrum Coming
Moving forward, the LTE equipment that Rise uses also will be able to operate in the 3.55 GHz to 3.65 GHz band that the FCC has moved to free up for broadband wireless use on a shared basis with the Department of Defense. Kohler is enthusiastic about the prospects for that spectrum, sometimes known as citizens broadband radio service (CBRS).
The spectrum will be made available to network operators on a shared basis with the Department of Defense, which will continue to use the spectrum in parts of the country. Plans for the band include using spectrum sharing technology similar to what supports spectrum sharing in the TV white spaces band.
The CBRS band “could be a game changer,” said Kohler. “That type of spectrum [supports] faster speeds and can operate at slightly higher power.”
Broadband wireless providers could gain access to the spectrum as early as 2017, Kohler said. The next step, he said, will be for the FCC to issue a notice of proposed rule making about how a bidding process for the spectrum will work. Kohler expects that to happen after the 600 MHz reverse auction for TV broadcast spectrum is completed.
About 70 MHz of the CBRS spectrum band will be available for licensing, and one of the things that is particularly appealing to Kohler is that “instead of licensing the whole country or huge [geographic] swaths, the spectrum will be auctioned by census tract – it appears it may be affordable for small carriers.”
If at least one entity bids on an area, the FCC will issue priority access licenses (PALs) for that area, Kohler noted. Other spectrum will be made available on a general availability access (GAA) basis – essentially an unlicensed basis.
Acquisitions, CAF and Beyond
Rise continues to look at acquiring more companies – and as Kohler explained, that strategy also contributes to Rise’s ongoing improvements to broadband wireless economics.
“What we like about our acquisitions strategy is these small entities spent the last 16 to 20 years securing the best towers,” said Kohler. “When you do an acquisition, you not only get customers and revenues, you obtain great tower spaces you couldn’t otherwise get and it clears spectrum.”
While neighboring spectrum users are required to “coordinate” their use of unlicensed spectrum with one another, Kohler noted that “some neighbors like to coordinate more than others.” By making acquisitions, Rise sometimes finds that “we get de facto licenses for unlicensed spectrum by being the only provider.”
Kohler also noted, though, that “our growth strategy is a mix of acquisition and growing through our own marketing efforts.”
Moving forward, Rise expects to bid to provide broadband in areas of the country where the incumbent price cap carrier declined Connect America Fund money – provided that areas to be served are close to existing operations.
Rise was a big winner in the FCC’s Rural Broadband Experiments program, which used a reverse auction process to award funding to a limited number of areas as a precursor to the CAF auction. And the company would appear well positioned to make further wins in that auction.
In comparison with landline options, “fixed wireless can be built for a fraction of the cost,” Kohler said – and based on the information he shared about improved broadband wireless economics, it would appear that the cost gap between the two options could be widening.