One of the biggest surprises in the rules that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) issued for the $42.5 billion BEAD rural broadband funding program was the agency’s definition of “reliable broadband” – at least with regard to fixed wireless.
While fixed wireless using “entirely licensed spectrum or a hybrid of licensed and unlicensed spectrum” was considered “reliable,” fixed wireless “relying entirely on unlicensed spectrum” was not. This is important because areas lacking reliable broadband at speeds of at least 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream will be considered “unserved” and therefore eligible for funding priority in the BEAD, or Broadband Equity Access and Deployment, program.
In addition, states with money left in their BEAD allotment after deployments to all unserved locations are funded will be able to use the remaining funding for “underserved” locations, defined as those lacking reliable broadband at speeds of at least 100/20 Mbps.
In other words, competitors in some cases could get BEAD funding to overbuild areas where fixed wireless providers already provide service if the fixed wireless service uses unlicensed spectrum.
The notice of funding opportunity (NOFO) for the BEAD program didn’t detail what was meant by “hybrid” or “relying entirely on unlicensed spectrum,” but Telecompetitor got some clarification this week.
We talked to David Zumwalt, CEO of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), which is concerned that the BEAD rules could pave the way for subsidized carriers to deploy service in areas that WISPA members already serve, even if the WISP offers service at speeds exceeding 100/20 Mbps. More on that later in this post.
We also reached out to NTIA to ask for more details on the definitions of reliable and unreliable fixed wireless.
In answer to our question, an NTIA spokesperson referred us to the data specifications for the FCC Broadband Data Collection.
The Broadband Data Collection (BDC) initiative, currently in progress, will be critical to BEAD and other broadband funding programs. All broadband providers are required to report where they have service available. Service providers also must identify the type of technology used.
As the 72-page BDC data specifications explain, the technology type “indicates the portion of the internet access connection that terminates at the end user’s location or premises . . . also known as the ‘last mile’ technology.” In other words, it doesn’t encompass the technology used for backhaul – an understanding that Zumwalt confirmed.
So if backhaul has nothing to do with it, what is meant by “a hybrid of licensed and unlicensed spectrum” – the phrase included in the definition of licensed service?
The meaning is implied in the BDC definition of licensed fixed wireless service. As in the BEAD NOFO, licensed fixed wireless is defined to include service “using entirely licensed spectrum or using a hybrid of licensed and unlicensed spectrum.” But the BDC data specifications go on to say that this includes “services provided over a 4G LTE or 5G-NR mobile network but sold as a fixed solution; services using the CBRS band/3.5 GHz spectrum (whether licensed, licensed-by-rule or a combination thereof) or services using licensed microwave, etc.”
As Zumwalt confirmed, this is good news for fixed wireless providers that are using or plan to use CBRS spectrum, even if they didn’t win priority access licenses in the CBRS auction but instead plan to use the band on a general authorized access (GAA), or lightly licensed, basis.
But it’s not good news for WISPA members that rely on some other commonly used spectrum bands, such as the 5.8 GHz band.
According to Zumwalt, some WISPA members could see their service areas overbuilt while some other areas remain unserved. Potentially, WISPA members could apply for BEAD funding to deploy fiber, but Zumwalt expressed concern that WISPs are likely to have difficulty obtaining the letters of credit required for funding recipients.
When we asked Zumwalt what motivated NTIA to exclude unlicensed fixed wireless from the reliable service category, he said “their primary concern was about future availability.”
He added, though, that “You can make the case that the FCC has moved licensed spectrum around more than unlicensed spectrum.” He also noted that unlicensed spectrum is less crowded in rural areas than in urban areas and that WISPA members have not experienced major churn or interference issues.
“NTIA should issue a revision to the [BEAD] NOFO to make clear that locations that can access broadband service using entirely unlicensed spectrum meet the criteria for reliable broadband service and thus will not be considered ‘unserved,’” WISPA argues in a position paper.
Whether or not NTIA agrees to that change, there are other open issues the agency may have to clarify – such as whether providing an LTE backup option would enable a fixed wireless provider using unlicensed spectrum to qualify as providing a hybrid, and therefore licensed and reliable service.
Zumwalt said he anticipates NTIA issuing some sort of fact sheet to clarify issues such as that.
If so, NTIA should do that ASAP, as providers are required to submit availability data for the BDC by September 1 and the agency will need to coordinate any changes or clarifications with the FCC. And for fixed wireless providers, there is a lot riding on whether they classify their service as “licensed” or “unlicensed.”