There’s a lot of optimism in the broadband industry, driven by new opportunities in rural broadband, technology advances and more. In no particular order, here are 11 important developments that we saw this year.
Rural Renaissance Some rural areas have seen a reversal of long-term population decline. Perhaps it’s no surprise now that more people are working from home and more rural homes have high-speed connectivity. As funding for rural deployments flows into the states, providers large and small are pursuing and winning awards. And as investors realize that whoever deploys fiber in a community first wins, they’ve been racing to upgrade as many non-fiber markets as they can.
BEAD Gains Some Serious Momentum The BEAD rural broadband funding program made a lot of progress this year, staying on schedule as more and more states submitted five-year plans, initial proposals and more to NTIA. The agency refused to budge on certain rules – adhering to the schedule when some stakeholders asked for more time to challenge FCC ability data and allowing fixed wireless funding only for service deployed in licensed spectrum. But after maintaining a hard line, the agency rethought its letter of credit requirements. And just last week, NTIA announced that one state – Louisiana – already had received the necessary approvals to begin using its BEAD funding allotment.
FWA Ups and Downs NTIA refused to budge on its decision to prevent fixed wireless access providers that use unlicensed spectrum from applying for BEAD funding. Nevertheless, FWA made some other gains including some substantial technology advances. And fixed wireless deployed on top of mobile networks continues to be a big success for T-Mobile and Verizon, although some say that success may wane as capacity is needed to support mobile service. Meanwhile, AT&T opted to offer FWA using its mobile infrastructure this year, although not to the same extent as its mobile rivals.
Buy America Finds Success One area where NTIA barely had to budge on BEAD requirements was on Buy America, Build America (BABA) requirements. Initially, some stakeholders said there was no way BEAD winners would be able to meet those requirements. But whenever just one manufacturer of a network element arranged to build that element in the U.S., we soon saw multiple vendors of the same element doing the same thing. If they didn’t, they would get no BEAD business because it would all go to the one company that did have approval.
Enhanced ACAM The FCC did some budging of its own this year, opting to increase the minimum deployment speed requirement for ACAM Universal Service funding to match the requirements of the BEAD program. This was great news for rural providers that receive Universal Service Fund support — and not only because it gave them a way to get higher speeds for their communities. Those providers opting for E-ACAM also can eliminate the risk that some locations in their serving area would go to a competitive provider because those locations would have been eligible for BEAD funding.
Digital Equity The words “digital equity” were heard more frequently in 2023 than ever before. This occurred, in part, because the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law not only made funding available for broadband deployment; it also made $2.75 billion available for digital equity— ensuring that racial and ethnic minorities, rural residents and other “covered populations” can get the maximum benefit from broadband. Additionally, digital equity plans are a requirement for states to receive broadband deployment funding through the BEAD program.
Artificial Intelligence 2023 was also the year when providers got serious about exploring AI. AT&T and Lumen are testing it out with employees. Meanwhile, Verizon and Windstream are offering AI-driven call center options for their customers. And at least one provider – Comcast – has taken steps to use AI in network management. We’re sure to see more companies getting on board soon.
Satellite-to-cellphone One of the most exciting technology developments that emerged this year is satellite-to-cellphone communications, which potentially opens up a whole new market for wireless providers. AT&T and T-Mobile already have had some skirmishes as they both pursue opportunities in this area — T-Mobile with SpaceX, and AT&T with AST SpaceMobile. Meanwhile, the FCC is considering how to regulate the technology.
Cablecos Pursue Symmetrical Multi-Gig As fiber broadband becomes more widely available, the cable industry is beginning to feel the impact. While cablecos’ infrastructure can support multi-gig speeds downstream quite easily, the same is not true of the increasingly important upstream. To address this, the cable companies are pursuing a range of options, including distributed access architecture, new split ratios and DOCSIS 4.0. Comcast has begun rolling out DOCSIS 4.0 and others are expected to follow soon. Fiber providers, take note: It’s a lot cheaper and faster for the cablecos to upgrade their hybrid fiber/coax infrastructure than it is to roll out fiber.
Cablecos—Especially Charter—See Rural Funding Success Despite the cablecos’ HFC/DOCSIS upgrades, they’re also deploying fiber broadband in some areas – for example, in numerous rural markets for which they have won funding. Charter has been especially successful this year, racking up win after win and pursuing self-funded rural builds and upgrades. The company now claims to be the nation’s largest rural provider. And if the past is prelude, one can’t help wondering if we will see cablecos having the same success in the BEAD program.
The Quantum Internet The quantum internet promises to offer faster and more secure communications using a whole new approach to networking based on quantum physics. More development needs to be done before quantum networks move beyond the testbed phase, but the technology gained some serious traction in 2023. EPB of Chattanooga opened what is believed to be the first commercial quantum network in the U.S. and onboarded its first customers. Other quantum networks are in the planning phase. Take heed: the quantum internet community has moved up the timeline for the technology, which is now expected to be a real thing this decade.
Telecompetitor looks forward to identifying and covering more important developments for you in 2024. And we continue to welcome your suggestions about new developments for us to cover.