Pai talks up rural 5G, but puts his money on 4G subsidies

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Salinas windmill cell site

5G technology has a role to fill in rural broadband service, but it won’t be the kind of 5G that mobile carriers are hyping. That’s according to Federal Communications Commission chair (and Charlton Heston Courage Under Fire Award winner) Ajit Pai. He was speaking at rural broadband trade show in New Orleans last week.

There’s no makable business case on the horizon for densified 5G mobile networks in rural communities. AT&T dismisses rural 5G as an “infill” technology, and it and other carriers are not leaning on rural cities and counties for pole access, as they are in richer and more populated parts of California. Pai acknowledges that, but points to fixed 5G service to homes and businesses as a substitute for fiber to the premise systems…

“Contrary to what some people have suggested, I actually think 5G has a very promising future in rural America and part of the reason is, in terms of the possibilities of fixed wireless, given the fiber penetration that some of your members have,” he said. “I think the ability of rural telecom carriers to think broadly about the future of these networks and how to extend this great fiber penetration you’ve got, there’s a huge amount of promise there.”

Pai’s FCC has a mixed record on 5G fixed wireless. On the one hand, the FCC is working on opening up tremendous swaths of spectrum – in the 3.5 GHz, 4 GHz and 6 GHz bands, particularly – to support broadband service. On the other hand, the FCC and other federal agencies are spending billions of dollars to lock rural communities into fixed 4G service for generations to come.

The FCC’s Connect America Fund program is paying for AT&T’s program to replace rural copper networks with limited capacity 4G service, and supporting similar efforts by Frontier Communications. AT&T also won the contest for a national public safety network – FirstNet – that will likewise be 4G based. Pai is not putting his money where his mouth is: the 4G-based systems that the Trump administration is subsidising do not have the potential capacity of the copper networks they’re replacing, let alone substitute for fiber.