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Can Fixed Wireless Deliver RDOF Gigabit Speeds – Separating Fact From Fiction

When the FCC awarded $2.36 billion to 6 WISPs (Wireless Internet Service Providers) in phase one of the RDOF auction to deliver Gigabit service capability to 894,325 locations, there were more than a few eyebrows raised. Larry Thompson, one of the nation’s top network design engineering consultants is more than an expert on the topic and developed a white paper that was filed with the FCC to ensure the agency had the facts on when fixed wireless is appropriate in a Gigabit network design.  This information is critical as the FCC carefully scrutinizes the RDOF winners’ long-form applications.  Thompson stressed in his presentation to the Fiber Broadband Association, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Thompson said he thinks of the broadband spectrum like a water hose. In order to deliver the mass of water, or high-speed broadband, that meets current consumer demands, you need to have a very large hose. Thompson explained that low-band wireless services simply do not have enough spectrum to get gigabit speeds. In the mid-band, most are unlicensed and it’s incredibly difficult to deliver reliable broadband when not licensed. That leaves high-band and mmW as the only wireless options left.

Eighty-five percent of RDOF funding was won by bidders in the Gigabit Tier.  While it is assumed that these networks would be built with high-capacity fiber, WISPs proposing fiber and fixed wireless prompted Thompson and his team to develop a white paper looking into the plausibility of FWA delivering adequate broadband speeds across rural America.

“The intent of the white paper was not to bash one technology against another,” Thompson stressed, noting VPS’s involvement in wireless deployments. “The intent of the white paper was to determine if wireless can effectively meet that gigabit tier.”

Because as Thompson put it, the average speed is only going to go up from here.

“Within the next five years or so, the average download speed is going to be 1G. And by 2030, even the upstream is going to be approaching 1G,” he said.

According to data compiled by the FCC, both upload and download speeds are increasing by at least 35% annually.

“I used to show a graphic in my presentations during the early 2000’s that showed we would need 1MB speeds by 2008. At the time, I would have people coming up to me saying, ‘Why in the world would anyone ever need a MB?’ But that was before we had a lot of the tools we use today that require higher broadband speeds,” Larry Thompson, Founder and CEO of Vantage Point Solutions (VPS), said during a recent Fiber for Breakfast webinar.

Streaming platforms, video conferencing applications, countless IoT devices and more continue to drive the need for high-speed broadband. While many Americans’ networks have adapted to this increased demand, we are no strangers to the fact that rural America was left in the past.

Within the white paper, VPS outlines the various needs to expand broadband access across rural America. First and foremost, it’s the realization that successful rural applications will need wide coverage. To explain this concept, Thompson pulled a map from rural Colorado identifying locations where broadband service is needed and laid out distances between each point. Looking at the map, it is apparent that FWA would not provide coverage at the last mile due to the simple fact that these residences are too far apart for the towers to reach them.

“Most rural customers are not close enough distance-wise that it would be plausible to install towers to deliver millimeter wave (mmW),” Thompson stated.

With mmW, higher frequencies are not able to penetrate over longer distances, which stands against the mission of delivering reliable high-speed broadband to our rural communities, Thompson explained.

“There could be possible pockets of a dozen customers in a little housing development where mmW gigabit internet would be a viable solution,” he stated. “I am not saying there’s no possibility that any place could do it. But I am saying there’s probably 95% where this (mmW) would not work.”

His findings are based on last mile solutions. He does note that there are middle-mile instances like crossing a water body where mmW might work well, just not when delivering on the last mile.

“My focus is whether wireless is a practical solution in these RDOF areas,” he said. “If (the FCC) had an auction for UDOF–for urban, not rural–my findings would have likely been very different.”

In the paper, Thompson explains that it’s not about what can you get 1G through, it’s whether that 1G is actually reliable.

That’s why Thompson and VPS put together the following suggestions for the FCC when considering mmW RDOF designs:

  • Design shouldn’t exceed distance capabilities
  • Wireless links should have Line of Sight
  • Serving tower/sector must have adequate capacity
    • Reasonable oversubscription
    • Customer loading (70%)
  • Each antenna site should have adequate backhaul capacity
  • For mesh networks, consider RF backhaul congestion and subscription rates

To read the full white paper, you can access it on the FCC website or via this link: