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Christina’s Blog: Congress should recognize fixed wireless plays important role in bridging rural digital divide

Earlier in May, the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held an FCC oversight hearing, touching on a wide range of communications policy issues.  Of these, the area that saw much agreement between Members and the empaneled FCC Commissioners was the need to eradicate the rural divide and expeditiously get broadband out to the forgotten areas of America.

According to the FCC, more than 20 million Americans – the majority of whom living in rural communities – lack adequate access to affordable, high-speed broadband.  They have been left behind because sparse populations make it unprofitable for large companies to serve those communities.  While this number has decreased over the past two years, it remains a stubborn obstacle to job growth, innovation and increased prosperity in those regions of the U.S.

A lot of hope has been placed on wireless services to bridge this gap.  It is far cheaper to beam a signal to isolated residents and businesses than it is to wire them with fiber.  5G has ostensibly emerged as the centerpiece of Washington’s strategy to heal the lingering divide.  No doubt, the promise of high-speed 5G connectivity sounds great, and policymakers are right to promote it.  But, contrary to the narrative of America’s very largest carriers, it is not the only solution.

After all, 5G exists almost exclusively in an exceedingly small handful of hyper-controlled, dense urban testbeds.  If it ever gets off the ground, it won’t be for years until (just some) of rural America gets it.  And by then, it’s just as likely that technology will have moved us on to our next “G” of communications connectivity.

WISPs serve nearly four million individuals and businesses with high-speed broadband in rural America.  They do it primarily through unlicensed spectrum.  On their own dime.  Now.  Today.  And they could do more overnight if only policies were more supportive of these community servants.  

To this end, the House has two groups – the Rural Broadband Task Force, and the Rural Broadband Caucus – which are working to unlock the immense potential of unserved and underserved rural areas that do not have broadband access.  Both groups have asked for WISPA’s help in understanding the depth of the issue, and how fixed wireless services can bring isolated areas of our nation quickly and cost-effectively into the digital economy.  These efforts, among others in Congress, are greatly appreciated. 

And more can be done. To this point, WISPs can play an even greater role in erasing the divide if Congress would: Promote balanced approaches for accessing spectrum; ensure that subsidy programs are fair and technologically-neutral; enable meaningful access to infrastructure for broadband deployments; and keep regulatory requirements appropriately scaled for small businesses.

This approach is technologically agnostic, fair, and taxpayer-friendly.  Moreover – and not to knock our 5G brethren – it works to answer the challenge of rural broadband in a more holistic manner, not beholden to any single (and someday, outdated) technology. 

“America’s future depends on 5G leadership,” exclaims one large carrier’s marketing department.  That sure sounds important – that is, until one recognizes getting there means crowding out other viable alternatives, such as fixed wireless, which can do the same job now and at a fraction of the cost.

Congress would do well to break the hold 5G has on U.S. communications policy and wrap its arms around other solutions, which could bridge the rural divide overnight, not somewhere in the distant future.

Christina Mason is WISPA’s VP of Government Affairs

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