A company that was founded in 1931 to operate movie theaters is now offering internet, cable TV, phone and other services to more than 400,000 residential and business customers in the upper Midwest, with plans to deploy 3.5 GHz spectrum when it becomes available.
Midcontinent Communications (Midco) is one of the entities that provided testimony during Sen. John Thune’s 5G hearing in his home state of South Dakota on Friday. Thune, who is chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, also invited FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken, Dakota State University President José-Marie Griffiths, Verizon SVP of Federal Government Affairs Robert Fisher and SDN Communications CEO Mark Shlanta to provide testimony.
Justin Forde, Midco’s senior director of government relations, explained in written testimony how the company is testing residential fixed wireless speeds of 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload using its 3.65 GHz nationwide nonexclusive and 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band licenses. Once Midco is able to access spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band, it can offer 100/20 Mbps speeds more widely in its fixed wireless footprint, he said.
Forde himself spoke of seeing the benefits of fixed wireless firsthand, as his small farmstead gets internet from the top of a grain elevator in Prosper, North Dakota.
Midco’s fiber network is the connectivity backbone for its fixed wireless business and other fixed wireless businesses through bandwidth wholesale agreements. The company uses its fiber network as the backbone and uses fixed wireless to reach more remote locations.
Forde said a fixed wireless option is a huge benefit to friends and neighbors who are not on Midco’s wired network. Fixed wireless allows it to reach remote, rural areas that are up to 50 miles away from its fiber network, and it’s a solution that can be implemented relatively quickly and without the expense of building fiber networks. It’s also deployable in the winter months when the weather makes fiber construction impossible.
While much bigger carriers like Verizon are using millimeter wave spectrum to offer fixed wireless access in what they’re marketing as 5G, Midco is beginning to test with the higher bands. It can use the 70 and 80 GHz bands for point-to-point connections and the 50 and 60 GHz bands for its point-to-multipoint connections.
“A new meshing technology will increase redundancy and reliability, and we will be testing Gigabit fixed wireless services,” Forde said. “Millimeter wave technology can be an additional tool in the toolbox to offer high-speed and reliable broadband to rural America.”
Of course, in the race to 5G, Midco doesn’t want the FCC and Congress to neglect rural America. Forde offered up several suggestions for advancing rural broadband. For one, mobile 5G is not currently a realistic solution to close the digital divide in rural areas, he said.
Fixed wireless will continue to be a solution, and he asked that fixed wireless providers like Midco be given equal access to spectrum as it’s freed up for commercial use. Based on field testing, the company knows that the 3.5 GHz band is key for it to provide speeds of 100/20 and higher to homes that are over 8 miles away from the tower.
The FCC is currently changing the rules for the 3.5 GHz band, and under those rules, after 2020, “we will lose our interference protection in the 3.65 GHz band, and we will then need to either use general authorized access spectrum, in which case our operations would not be entitled to interference protection, or bid on priority access licenses in the 3550-3650 MHz range that will be auctioned,” he said. “Moreover, only 70 MHz of spectrum will be auctioned, and there is no guarantee Midco will be able to gain access to that spectrum.”
Midco supports the FCC’s adoption of county-sized priority access licenses (PALs) in the draft CBRS order that was recently released, and it urged the FCC to adopt this particular rule at its Oct. 23 meeting.
Midco is also encouraging the FCC to expand its definition of rural provider for rural bidding credits to be any provider with 250,000 broadband subscribers or fewer in each state in which the provider seeks a PAL for the 3.5 GHz band. By limiting the number of broadband subscribers on a state-by-state basis, midsized regional companies that focus on rural communities can benefit from the rural bidding credits and the FCC’s ultimate purpose for the credits remains intact, he said.
As for the 2.5 GHz band, also known as the Educational Broadband Service band, opening it for licensing by other noneducational entities would allow Midco to provide fixed wireless service to even more rural residents, he said.