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Over the past decade, broadband speeds have improved and the technology for deploying and delivering services has advanced. However, universal access to superfast broadband across the United States remains a significant problem. As outlined in a recent petition submitted to the FCC, though, sharing between telecoms providers in the 3.7-4.2GHz spectrum could offer a viable solution to close this gap.

It’s well known that there is a stark difference in broadband availability in rural and urban areas in the United States. Thirty-nine percent of Americans living in rural regions do not have access to 25 Mbps broadband – a significant contrast to the mere 4 percent of urban Americans without access to these speeds. Disruptive, labor-intensive service deployment coupled with poor return on investment (ROI) means that the majority of providers are reluctant to invest in broadband service provision to rural, isolated areas. Residents here face major disadvantages as a result, with poor access to the education and training, job prospects, mobile working opportunities, and public services which reliable broadband services provide.

Despite better broadband provision in urban areas, even services in many of these regions still do not provide the required speeds and reliability needed to support many of today’s internet applications and connected devices. Around half of the U.S. population live in suburban areas, and the majority of homes in these regions receive broadband connectivity from a single provider, which owns and manages the wireline infrastructure which runs to these residences. Service providers have historically monopolized the only wire connecting to homes, with new entrants unable to offer the infrastructure needed to rival these companies. Incumbent providers therefore face little competition which would ordinarily require them to upgrade or replace legacy networks with fibre; a costly and disruptive process.

Poor levels of competition impact consumer experience and quality of service. Without the pressures from rivals to reduce costs and improve speeds, many Americans are stuck with slow, unreliable broadband and inflexible, costly contracts.

Innovative new service providers must work with government regulators to develop an entirely new approach and place necessary competitive pressure on incumbent providers. Dominant players must upgrade their systems and deploy deep fiber, which is required to feed bandwidth into residential areas. Yet when it comes to extending this connectivity to the home, a new solution is needed; one which is cost-effective and easy to deploy, and will therefore allow newcomers to enter the market. And that’s where fixed wireless comes in.

Fixed wireless services to the home can be introduced to complement existing wireline services, via a hybrid fiber-wireless model. Offering multiple gigabits of capacity from access points, this solution can be quickly deployed at low cost, and connected to the nearest available fiber node.

However, improving infrastructure is only one part of the story. In order to deliver broadband using fixed wireless, these innovative service providers must also be able to access and utilize suitable spectrum. Superfast broadband at gigabit speeds requires access to new spectrum and sufficiently wide channels, up to 160 MHz for each service provider in the area. Again, this new spectrum must be affordable for all players in the fixed wireless market, helping to inject much-needed competition into the industry.

New spectrum is being made available for telecoms service providers in the 3.55-3.7GHz bands, known stateside as the Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS). However, this shared spectrum band only frees up 150 MHz for hybrid mixed mobile and fixed wireless use. This is not a wide enough channel to be sub-divided into smaller sections for each service provider, and is therefore not sufficient to deliver the gigabit speeds of new hybrid fixed wireless services.

Telecoms providers such as T-Mobile believe that this new spectrum should be made available through the traditional spectrum auction process. However, the costs involved with purchasing new spectrum mean smaller ISPs would be unable to compete. This will do nothing to scale back the dominance of incumbents which characterizes – and problematizes – our current broadband market, and will continue to shut out the much needed competition.

The industry must instead explore innovative new ways of sharing existing spectrum. Work has already begun, with a petition recently submitted to the FCC by the newly formed Broadband Access Coalition (BAC), which requests shared access to the 3.7-4.2 GHz spectrum for fixed wireless use. BAC, made up of a number of leading industry organizations, including Mimosa, the Open Technology Institute at New America, and WISPA, assert that this shared access will optimize 500 MHz of spectrum which is currently underutilized by the C-band satellite companies operating in this band. They have not coordinated their use of the spectrum efficiently across geographical regions, and are wasting much of this valuable spectrum. This can in fact be quickly and easily opened up to fixed wireless broadband service providers and effectively shared, as these services can be pre-coordinated to ensure that the new broadband entrants do not interfere with the satellite earth stations which have already been deployed.

Opening 500 MHz of spectrum for the shared use by satellite incumbents and fixed wireless providers will potentially allow up to three internet service providers offering gigabit speeds in a single location, thanks to new developments in spectrum sharing technology. This will allow multiple providers to offer their broadband services to consumers, encouraging competition and driving better service quality. Managing these locations should include offering fair licensing terms to all market players, regardless of size and capital. This will avoid the current problem of spectrum warehousing, whereby dominant market players buy up swathes of spectrum which is not utilized and leaves some areas underserved.

BAC’s petition signals an important and much needed shift in the industry from organizations and regulators. The problem of the digital divide can only be address and rectified through collaborative, industry-wide effort, and the creative approach to service delivery and provision proposed by BAC.

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