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Fixed Wireless Failings for Rural Communities

Is fixed wireless a more affordable solution than fiber? Not so fast, according to a recent 150-page study conducted by the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society by CTC Technology and Energy.

“A lot of the discussion on fixed wireless and fiber has not been apples-to-apples comparisons and frequently not in any sort of detailed models that take multiple facets into account, including the complexity of building both the technologies and the specifics of certain rural environments,” Andrew Afflerbach, Ph.D., P.E., CEO and Chief Technology Officer, CTC Technology & Energy said. “We’ve done very specific scenarios ranging from a small town to very low density rural and come up with some quite interesting results and we’re still beginning to unpack the details. We find that the fiber and fixed wireless costs are comparable.”

Afflerbach specializes in the planning, designing, and implementation oversight of fiber and wireless broadband communications networks. With over 25 years of broadband experience, he testifies as an expert witness on broadband communications issues and is frequently consulted on critical communications policy issues through technical analyses submitted to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and policymakers.

Fiber advantages over fixed wireless networks include a thousand times the broadband capacity and the ability to scale bandwidth by simply changing out the electronics at the ends, said Afflerbach, providing a future-proof past for scaling upward. While fiber is initially more expensive to deploy, in the long term the cost of fiber and fixed wireless costs are comparable since fixed wireless networks require the replacement of the entire system every few years. For service providers, it is simply less complex to fully and consistently serve rural households using fiber.

Depending on the geography and density of the area and the available spectrum, fixed wireless makes it possible to use a single site to serve up to hundreds of users, but adding broadband speed and capacity requires moving from lower-frequency RF into millimeter wave technology. While lower frequencies are good for providing coverage around hills and trees, millimeter wave require strict line of sight between the distribution tower and customers.

“What this means in a rural setting is it’s very challenging to use something like very high-frequency, high-speed communications,” said Afflerbach. “You’re using more the mid-band and the low-band communications which can work with certain amount of challenge with line of sight and foliage…”

Other fixed wireless technology challenges include weather affecting signal quality and antenna alignment, the inability to provide sufficient symmetrical bandwidth necessary for real-time applications such as group videoconferencing and no clear path to providing the gigabit speeds necessary to support next-generation applications such as augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR).

To learn more about the ins and (many) outs of fixed wireless, listen to the full Fiber for Breakfast podcast here.