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The FCC recently announced that it will finally be opening its Connect America Fund II in June. The fund will be dedicated to disseminating $2 billion dollars over 10 years to support new broadband infrastructure in rural locations across the U.S.

As service providers begin to put in their bids for funding, many will also be considering the most efficient and cost-effective technology to ensure they are able to bring high-speed connectivity to the challenging rural market. Traditionally, copper (DSL, DOCSIS) or fiber would have been the broadband delivery method of choice; however, the evolution of fixed wireless access (FWA) has made the technology a viable alternative or supplementary access solution for delivering high-speed broadband to rural locations.

There are a unique set of challenges associated with delivering high-speed broadband to rural locations that service providers do not encounter in more urban locations, including geographical variables and high costs. Fortunately, recent fixed wireless solutions are equipped to address these variables as they serve as a cost-effective alternative to drop, distribution and/or feeder fiber, providing a whole new set of deployment models to the traditional Fiber-to-the-x (FTTx) deployment models.

Unlike “urban jungles,” rural areas have a varying degree of terrain. Depending on the geography of the region, providers can encounter anything from rock and sand to compacted dirt and mud — making planning and executing a fiber buildout difficult. Many times, technicians are unaware of what type of soil composition they will be digging into until the project has begun. And then, they may find that getting the adequate trenches dug to lay the fiber is near impossible.

Another geographical challenge that evolving fixed wireless technologies addresses is the “line-of-sight requirement.” Similar to the unpredictability of the soil composition when building out a broadband fiber infrastructure, densely populated forests and high trees can interfere with fixed wireless broadband connectivity.  New “near line-of-sight” and “non-line-of-site” wireless technologies enable fixed wireless broadband to address many markets with high-speed broadband at low cost.

New fixed wireless products and technologies address many legacy challenges, including radio size, ease of deployments, reliability and interference from other wireless signals. Technologies like SON (self-organizing networks), massive MIMO, beamforming, beam steering, interference cancellation and others have helped to mitigate many of these challenges.

According to the Department of Transportation, the average cost of laying fiber is $27,000 per mile, making it the biggest cost to a rural broadband deployment. In earlier times, fixed wireless was a costly and unreliable broadband delivery technology as it was difficult to engineer and provided significantly slower service rates than FTTx alternatives. Since the technology’s evolution, fixed wireless has become a viable alternative to fiber, allowing providers to deliver much higher broadband speeds than even required by the FCC. With fiber’s high costs, service providers are now turning to fixed wireless to deliver the last-mile connection directly to the home — or using it for loop shorting — opening the door for vectoring and Gfast technologies to be used. Both options are able to significantly reduce overall deployment costs.

Additionally, the FCC’s new regulation is now allowing the use of several new spectrums for fixed wireless applications in licensed, lightly licensed (shared) and unlicensed categories. This, again, enables service providers to use fixed wireless for different applications as well as offer services based on various market requirements. For example, rural areas may use unlicensed or lightly licensed spectrums, versus dense urban areas that may require licensed spectrum to avoid interference.

When building out these rural networks, it is important to recognize that each location has its own infrastructure needs and challenges, as does each provider. For that reason, partnering with a vendor with FWA, FTTH and FTTx outside plant experience best allows providers to get the most out of their networks by meeting their individual broadband delivery needs regardless of the current state of their infrastructure.

The transformative effects of having access to high-speed broadband cannot be overlooked or denied. Everything from telemedicine, economic growth, education and remote business operations rely on high-speed connectivity. Access to these capabilities should be available to even the most rural of locations and the ability of fixed wireless to overcome the traditional challenges that service providers face will undoubtedly aid in making the second CAF II rollout a success.

Hossam Salib is VP of Cable & Wireless Strategy at ADTRAN.

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