Don’t expect fiber or 5G in rural communities, FCC commissioners say

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

John deere booth ces 7jan2020

Fiber and mobile 5G are fine for cities and suburbs, but rural communities can look forward to satellites and fixed wireless broadband service, according to the Federal Communication Commission’s republican majority. Speaking at CES in Las Vegas this week, FCC chair Ajit Pai, republican commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr, and their democratic colleague Geoffrey Starks were upbeat about 5G, fiber and, as Carr put it, the “new wave of innovation and services”.

But that wave will only break on urban and suburban beaches, at least via conventional broadband service.

“To say we’re going to have fiber throughout the United States is both not realistic – it’s not technically doable”, said O’Rielly. “There are communities where satellite service is the exact answer”.

Pai said 5G infrastructure that connects a smartphone to fast broadband access – the standard 5G use case – will be built in cities and suburbs. Rural 5G deployments will support other services – fixed wireless broadband, for example – that might or might not be offered by mobile carriers on mobile spectrum. His rural broadband advisor, Preston Wise, who spoke on a rural 5G panel, said the rebooted version of the FCC’s primary broadband subsidy program – now called the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund – will be used “to deploy fixed broadband in parts of rural America”, although he held out the possibility that some of the money would go toward fiber to the premise (FTTP) projects.

Rural FTTP doesn’t fit very well into the business plans of incumbent monopoly model telecoms companies. Rural electric cooperatives, on the other hand, are deploying fiber. Pai hopes to encourage rural utility co-ops to apply for FCC subsidies – he said he doesn’t care which broadband carriers get the money.

I hope that’s true. Although electric co-ops and wireless operators figured prominently in the last round of FCC broadband subsidy auctions, they were only allowed to bid on communities that AT&T, Frontier Communications and other legacy telcos didn’t want to serve.

Legacy telcos were given a right of first refusal and they exercised it. Satellite and fixed wireless fit their rural business plans perfectly. Letting them dictate rural broadband technology choices, as O’Rielly seems happy to do, will lock in a deep divide between rural and urban communities for many decades to come.