Catching a WISP of rural broadband strategy

editor's corner

As 2013 begins, many of the same old debates regarding the benefits and drawbacks of unlicensed vs. licensed spectrum will rear their heads as will the handwringing regarding the lack of broadband service in rural and remote areas.

Last September I wrote a column pondering what is needed to bring broadband, in particular wireless broadband, to unserved and underserved communities. A number of folks commented both publicly and privately to me that government grant programs generally result in failed businesses because they fund only the initial rollout of networks without providing sufficient money for long-term operational costs.

A few commenters also rolled their eyes at the idea of using 3G or LTE for rural broadband, which, of course, was at the heart of last year's $300 million Mobility Fund reverse auction. The FCC Mobility Fund will pay winning bidders to deploy either 3G service within two years or 4G service within three years of receiving their auction award money. The fund is supposed to provide $500 million annually for ongoing support of those mobile services, but some question the logic behind the technology requirements.

"Every time I hear someone talking mobility or 3G/4G as a rural broadband solution it troubles me. Those are expensive propositions as far as [monetary] cost per home passed is concerned, and those solutions are not capable of delivering the bandwidth/speeds required we see from our typical residential and business customers," Jeff Kohler, co-founder and chief development officer of Jab Wireless, told me.

Englewood, Colo.-based Jab is a wireless Internet service provider (WISP) operating as both a licensed and unlicensed service provider, and Kohler's experience has convinced him unlicensed fixed wireless is the way to go for rural broadband because it has what he terms "at least a 10:1 cost advantage over licensed wireless or wired solutions."

He said companies such as Ubiquiti Networks and Cambium Networks (Cambium was formerly part of Motorola Solutions) provide proprietary solutions that deliver capacity and speeds at reasonable price points for low-density areas. Nonetheless, there is no getting around the fact that low subscriber density crimps any rural broadband effort.

Kohler, however, is optimistic that ongoing network rollouts will continue to bridge the digital divide for people outside of metropolitan areas who desire connectivity. "The underserved (not necessarily unserved) areas allow a nice balance of subscriber density and cost to provide the service. From there we can continue spreading to the truly rural areas," he said.

Jab has more than 70 percent of its spectrum holdings in the 5 GHz band, about 20 percent in 2.4 GHz and 5 percent each in 900 MHz and 3.65 GHz. The company's preferred spectrum for new deployments is 5 GHz, and Kohler would like to see more spectrum open up in that band.

In fact, this week the FCC moved to free up more 5 GHz spectrum but not specifically for rural broadband. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced the commission will initiate a proceeding next month to unleash up to 195 MHz of unlicensed spectrum in the 5 GHz band for 802.11ac Gigabit Wi-Fi. The commission also used its 5 GHz announcement to remind everyone that back in 2010 it allowed unlicensed devices to operate in white spaces, the unused spectrum between broadcast TV channels.

WISPs such as Jab are a primary target for TV white-space spectrum because the rural areas they generally target have loads of unused TV white space. The FCC has made 700 MHz TV white space available and aims to release even more via the series of incentives auctions planned for TV broadcast spectrum in 2014.

However, Kohler cautions that not only is TV white-space spectrum limited in channel size, thus restricting data speeds, but the white-space equipment is four times the cost of equipment Jab currently uses. Though he thinks white-space spectrum will eventually be useful in rural applications--thanks to the distances they can cover and their better non-line-of-sight performance--the industry will be hindered by a number of issues, including pricey equipment, relatively slow data speeds and current height restrictions on antennas. There could also be problems with self-interference caused by the long-distance coverage enabled by white-space spectrum.

TV white space "will be another spectrum tool in the bag, but I don't see it changing our business in the near term," said Kohler.

Clearly there are plenty of technology solutions, both proprietary and standardized, plus numerous spectrum alternatives for expanding wireless broadband into underserved and unserved communities. My assessment is that bridging the rural digital divide comes down to money and whichever combinations of technologies and spectrum can provide a decent ROI for delivering broadband to an area with 2,000 residents vs. an area with 200,000. Some have suggested that non-profit companies will have to deliver rural broadband due to the economics involved, but my reply is that even those operations would need to find inexpensive solutions to make a go of it.

Since white-space spectrum is a hot topic given the planned incentive auctions of TV broadcast spectrum, I'd like to focus on that with this week's poll, which you will find on the FierceBroadbandWireless home page. Let us know how soon you think the availability of TV white-space spectrum will pay off in terms of growing the number rural wireless broadband deployments.--Tammy