Pandemic Surfaced Limitations in Rural Connectivity

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By Dean Tan | 2Q 2020 | IN-5798

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted temporary Special Temporary Authority (STA) access to Fixed-Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISP) on March 26, 2020. This move came as the country battles COVID-19 through social distancing measures and stay home requirements that are driving the need for better connectivity at home. As families stay within their homes for telework and home-based learning, there has been a resulting demand surge for bandwidth of as much as 40%.

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Regulators Open Spectrum Band for WISPs

NEWS


The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted temporary Special Temporary Authority (STA) access to Fixed-Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISP) on March 26, 2020. This move came as the country battles COVID-19 through social distancing measures and stay home requirements that are driving the need for better connectivity at home. As families stay within their homes for telework and home-based learning, there has been a resulting demand surge for bandwidth of as much as 40%.

The WISPs have been granted temporary access to the 5.8 GHz (5,850 to 5,895 MHz) band for 60 days, which will bring greater connectivity to those living in rural areas in 29 states. The granted 5.8 GHz is part of the U-NII-4 band, which is also shared with Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC). The STA granted access to 33 WISPs operating in the rural areas. Notable WISPs include NextLink Internet, Metalink Technology, and Safelink Internet. Due to the COVID-19 situation, WISPs will tune their equipment at their customers’ premises through a software update in order for the equipment to utilize the temporarily available spectrum. The FCC previously granted T-Mobile temporary spectrum access, in the 600 MHz, during mid-March to meet the increased demand for broadband capacity due to the pandemic.  

Limitations Surface Due to COVID-19 Pandemic

IMPACT


Due to the COVID-19 situation, WISPs will tune their equipment at their customers’ premises through a software update to their already FCC-certified 5 GHz equipment to utilize the temporary spectrum. Under the STA, WISPS operate within 5.725 to 5.825 GHz in the U-NII-3 band. The users, including first responders, in the U-NII-3 band, also potentially contribute interference and demand surge within the band. However, this has also shown the limitations in the current band and capabilities of the WISPs to handle the increased demand with their existing spectrum.

While it is unclear at this stage how the COVID-19 pandemic will evolve within the 60-day period under STA, WISPs may have to also consider their options to tackle a prolonged extension to the battle against COVID-19. While it is possible for the FCC to consider extending the STA, WISPs might also face a new “normal” in the demand for bandwidth from rural areas. Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) solutions, which WISPs mostly utilized to provide coverage, cover about 51% of the United States’ population. FWA allows cost-effective and quick deployment time to consumers and is widely used in rural areas where the construction of Fiber-to-Everything (FTTx) or other wired solutions are hard to justify due to their higher cost. Under the new normal, WISPs are having to seek out solutions that can handle the increased demand.

WISPs Need to Be Future-Focused

RECOMMENDATIONS


The temporary spectrum access under the STA has provided the WISPs with a way to handle the increased demand in the short term. The demand is likely driven by residential broadband usage. However, WISPs need to keep track of the future, when this demand could become a new normal. WISPs should also note the importance of increasing capacity or new ways of handling future demands and development (e.g., in the agricultural industry) in these rural areas.

While 5G deployment within urban areas is driven by the demand for higher capacity and the smart cities initiatives, the rural areas have different focus and applications. WISPs are key players in the rural areas where they lessen the digital divide and provide unserved populations with connectivity. Rural areas, which mainly consist of the agriculture and manufacturing industries, will see the next wave of enterprise-level business opportunities driven by the coming waves of 5G applications. WISPs need to keep tabs on these developments. For example, a factory or an agricultural company goes into Artificial Intelligence (AI) or robotics solutions for its manufacturing or operations in the fields. In this case, the connectivity must provide the capacity, low latency, and reliability required to support these enterprise level rollouts. The FCC has US$9 billion allocated for 5G rural connectivity, of which US$1 billion is meant for precision agriculture. The idea here is to bring real-time information to the farmers and improve the industry’s production and management. Agriculture is not the only industry to benefit from the 5G development; other industries such as manufacturing and renewable energy industries will also see the positive impact of 5G.

With larger ranges of spectrum, 5G will enhance the FWA solutions and provide higher speed and reduced latency to consumers and businesses in rural areas to meet demand. MetaLINK Technologies, one of the 33 WISPs under the STA, has already launched its 5G option for FWA after it won bids in the 28 GHz spectrum (mmWave). In addition, MetaLINK Technologies also reside within one of the working groups for the Task Force set up by the FCC. With 5G FWA solutions, different deployment scenarios will require various Consumer Premises Equipment (CPE) solutions, indoor and outdoor, driving the growth and development of the CPE market. ABI Research has forecasted the global 5G fixed wireless broadband CPE market will reach 7 million installations and generate US$50 billion in revenue in 2024, in 5G Fixed Wireless Broadband CPE Market Set to Reach Nearly 7 Million Units in 2024 and our LTE and 5G Fixed Broadband Market Update (PT-2264) Application Analysis Report, respectively. WISPs have to prepare themselves for the changing tide toward the 5G era and the different deployment scenarios, both residential and business, in the rural areas to capture new growth markets.

 

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