FCC's chosen rural broadband experiments likely skew heavily towards wireless

9 December 2014 by Steve Blum
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The FCC has provisionally blessed 86 project bids submitted by 40 different companies for the rural broadband experiments program. The total tab is $99.5 million, just inside the $100 million limit for the program’s kitty. The companies selected have 10 days to submit the rest of the required financial, technical and other information.

It’s hard to tell much from the information released by the FCC – just total dollars and census blocks for each company. No information on the geographic areas covered or number of homes or technology involved. But in looking at the data, it seems a fair guess that most of the proposals involve wireless technology.

You can download my spreadsheet here, and play with the numbers yourself. But if you assume 15 households per rural census block – a figure consistent with a defined (albeit small) rural community – a census designated place – the subsidies would range from $2,167 to $52 per household (ignoring the company that bid a $1 total subsidy for 149 census blocks – there’s obviously more to that story). Even at 3 homes per census block – truly the tules – the per household subsidy tops out at $10,833.

Since many of the proposals at the top end of that particular range are only proposing to serve a handful of census blocks, it’s a good bet that household density is higher. Given that a rural fiber-to-the-home project will likely require a subsidy north of $2,000 per household, there are probably few of those proposed. Many of the proposals were submitted by cable and telephone companies (including cooperatives), so there might be some FTTH in the mix, and almost certainly some kind of fiber/copper upgrades.

But projects with low per household subsidies at any density assumption, or those that propose to cover hundreds or even thousands of census blocks at 6 or 7 figure project totals, likely involve wireless technology (although it’s possible some just didn’t ask for a high subsidy percentage – that’s the problem with working with a limited data set). So with the caveat that this is a total wild ass guess, I’d venture that at least three-quarters of the proposals are wireless, and most of the balance include a healthy proportion of pre-existing copper.

On the other hand, 19 – nearly half – of the proposals claim to be capable of delivering 100 Mbps down and 25 Mbps up. So at least some of those involve wireless technology. That’s a difficult standard for fixed wireless service – let alone mobile – to meet, to say the least. But these project are supposed to be experiments, so maybe there is some innovative technology in the mix. Let’s hope so anyway: it would be disappointing if WISPs followed an all too-familiar playbook and substituted hype for science.