The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) is asking lawmakers and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to consider a three-part proposal it has developed to close the digital divide in America. WISPA’s “Path to Gigabit” plan includes policy related to spectrum, federal subsidies and infrastructure rules.
In terms of spectrum, WISPA wants the federal government to allocate at least 200 MHz of mid-band spectrum for small carriers such as WISPs to access. The group says that current spectrum auctions that use partial economic areas (PEAs) foreclose participation by many of the small providers that are already serving rural communities today.
Speaking during a press event today, WISPA President and CEO Claude Aiken gave the example of a West Virginia WISP that wanted to use unused spectrum in a particular area of the state. But even though there was “Gigahertz available that wasn’t being used,” the WISP couldn’t access it.
WISPA wants the allocation of at least 200 MHz of mid-band spectrum for coordinated, non-auctioned, high-powered, point-to-multipoint use, on either a shared or licensed-by-rule basis.
Asked which spectrum WISPA is proposing be made available, Aiken said, “A key one that would be a perfect example would be in the upper C-band. Some portion of the 3.1 to 3.5 GHz band also would be a prime candidate.”
The group is “not necessarily looking to tie the hands of the FCC at this particular time, but we think a shared, coordinated, licensed approach would make a lot of sense here,” said Aiken.
The second part of its digital divide proposal is to develop subsidy programs that incentivize present providers, including WISPs that often use fixed wireless access (FWA) technology to bring broadband to rural, unserved areas.
In fact, a number of WISPs won funding in the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction, which concluded its Phase 1 in December, 2020.
“Our members who have historically been shut out of those programs have been able to participate, and they’ve made a big splash,” said Aiken, possibly alluding to the RDOF auction. There were also WISPs that participated in the priority access licenses (PALs) auction for CBRS spectrum in mid-2020. The CBRS auction awarded county-sized licenses instead of using the PEA model.
Criticism of FWA for unserved areas
There’s been some criticism of WISPs who won RDOF funds by those who claim that FWA networks cannot deliver gigabit speeds.
Aiken said, “FWA can absolutely do gigabit speeds today in certain contexts. But a focus on symmetry and speeds that consumers aren’t fully utilizing today can be less optimal in actually serving the needs of America in a timely and cost-effective manner.”
He defended WISPs, saying they can use a variety of technologies to deliver broadband to unserved areas, including the use of FWA, the deployment of fiber, or a hybrid combination.
WISPA also implores lawmakers to focus on bringing broadband to unserved areas. Aiken said in the past, groups that won government funding often focused on underserved areas, which has resulted in better connectivity for some suburban locales, while still leaving the most rural areas unserved. “Those at the furthest reaches get left behind,” he said. “We’re wary of programs that would subsidize connectivity in suburbia before it gets out to rural America.”
Finally, the third leg of WISPA’s suggested reforms would align infrastructure policy for things such as pole access, rights-of-way and “dig once” rules.
“We have tried to make a dent in this digital divide problem,” said Aiken. “We typically have not looked at the problem in a holistic way. We wanted to come out with a proposal, if adopted, that would get connectivity out there quickly.”