CCA: bringing fiber to rural doesn't bring mobile

The Competitive Carriers Association is having its CCA Mobile Carriers Show in Tampa, Florida, April 11-13, where small wireless operators will have many things to talk about. Fierce Wireless editor Bevin Fletcher will be moderating a panel on Tuesday morning, April 12 to discuss the status of 5G deployments.

Steven Berry, CEO of the CCA, said smaller carriers are happy, along with everyone else, that billions of dollars of government funding will be poured into closing the digital divide. But he stressed that bringing fiber to rural areas is not the same as bringing mobile. 

Berry likes to tell a story about a conversation he had with a U.S. politician. They were talking about rural broadband, and the politician took his phone out of his pocket and said "this is the key" to closing the digital divide.

That left Berry shaking his head.

“Fiber to the home is not mobile,” said Berry. “The Biden administration is going to spend $42.5 billion on fiber to the home. Great. But putting fiber to the farmhouse does not give coverage to the back 40 or the feedlot. If you’re running a tractor on the back 40 and want to control it autonomously, you don’t have enough throughput to do that if you’re not on a robust 5G network.”

Berry and the CCA are big proponents of taking some of the government funds for broadband and putting them toward 5G. CCA commissioned a study by CostQuest, that was released in December 2021, to determine the initial investment needed to deploy ubiquitous 5G service to structures, roads and land currently unserved nationwide by 5G.

CostQuest determine it would cost about $36 billion to do ubiquitous 5G around the U.S.

“We now know the 5G Fund of $9 billion is totally insufficient,” said Berry. “People want their phone, iPad to work anytime, anywhere. That’s not going to happen with a fiber solution to a specific location. People forget there are two different types of networks.”

He added, “Wireless has been underfunded. It’s been lost in this rush to find fiber. It’s all good that we’re finally getting fiber to rural America, but it doesn’t build a wireless network. I think that’s part of the deficiency in the Biden Administration proposal so far.”

Berry did note that the $36 billion figure for ubiquitous 5G could be reduced if the government does help to successfully deploy fiber to unserved areas. Then the wireless network could leverage all that fiber for backhaul. And the fiber will also help with fixed wireless access (FWA) deployments.

“FWA is part of the answer for mobility,” he said. “But you’re not going to get true mobility unless you have a mobile network.”

He also said, “A lot of it depends on spectrum.” Many smaller carriers participated in the CBRS auction in 2020. And some of them might also participate in the upcoming Auction 108 to secure 2.5 GHz spectrum in counties they serve.

“Wireless access will give these small carriers an advantage in those areas where they already have a footprint,” said Berry.

He said a lot of small wireless carriers are actually “moving quite rapidly” in terms of deploying 5G. One reason is that some of these carriers want to get Huawei equipment out of their networks, and there are no new 3G elements being made now, anyway. So, they are moving to either 4G or 5G.

Many of the carriers with Huawei equipment hope to receive reimbursement funds from the FCC as part of its Huawei rip and replace program. But the amount of funding that carriers filed to receive as part of the program, has far exceeded the budget. This is leaving service providers a bit in the lurch until the funding shortfall issue gets resolved.