The ISP with the biggest fixed broadband footprint in the US is…T-Mobile?

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) dropped its 2022 Communications Marketplace Report, offering a detailed look at the state of the broadband landscape as of December 31, 2021. And despite all the talk about fiber and cable expansions, the report came to an interesting conclusion. The operator with the largest fixed broadband footprint, according to the agency’s data, was not Verizon, AT&T, Comcast or Charter Communications but rather T-Mobile. More than that, the report found FWA technology more generally has rapidly caught up to cable’s formerly dominant coverage.

To be crystal clear, the report pointed to T-Mobile as not the largest broadband provider overall, but as having the largest footprint based on the percentage of the U.S. population covered. That’s an important distinction given the operator had 646,000 fixed wireless customers at the end of Q4 2021, compared to Comcast’s 31.9 million broadband subscribers. Still, T-Mobile’s coverage statics are noteworthy. Even more so when you consider that the report is somewhat dated and T-Mobile’s footprint and subscriber count have grown substantially in the year since December 2021. For instance, by Q4 2022, T-Mobile's FWA subscriber count had grown to 2.6 million.

According to the FCC, T-Mobile was one of only 11 fixed ISPs to cover more than 5% of the U.S. population, covering 60.1% of the country with its fixed wireless service. Verizon and AT&T posted just over 40% population coverage each, with Comcast and Charter trailing with 35.8% and 33.2%, respectively. Rounding out the aforementioned top 11 were Lumen Technologies (16.6%), TDS Telecom (10.9%), Frontier (10.6%), Cox Communications (7.2%), Altice USA (6.7%) and Rise Broadband parent company JAB Wireless (5.4%). All told, the FCC counted 2,201 fixed ISPs across the U.S.

Additionally, the FCC’s data showed T-Mobile’s coverage change between December 2019 and December 2021 was the most dramatic – by a long shot. It went from 0% to 60% population coverage, while Verizon went from 17% to 41%. AT&T’s coverage actually decreased by one percentage point over the same period while Comcast’s and Charter’s remained the same.

T-Mobile was the only provider to have fixed wireless as its sole connectivity option, serving 100% of its footprint with the technology. Verizon covered 64% of its footprint with FWA, 28% with fiber, and 36% with DSL, while AT&T reached 95% of its territory with DSL, 37% with fiber and 2% with fixed wireless. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Charter covered 100% of its footprint with cable and 1% with fiber.

The leap in coverage at T-Mobile and Verizon reflects the broader rise of fixed wireless access. As of December 2019, FCC data showed that fixed wireless technology covered about 47% of the U.S. population. But that figure skyrocketed to 84.9% as of its latest report, putting FWA neck-and-neck with cable, which covered 84.8% of the population. Fiber covered 48% of the population as of December 2021, according to the FCC’s report.

The number of connections across all three technologies rose, but again, fixed wireless grew the fastest. “Since the last Report, residential connections increased from 1.5 million to 2.7 million, a 76% increase in two years,” the report stated. Meanwhile, fiber connections jumped 49% to 24.2 million and cable connections crept up from 67.1 million to 71.8 million.

Cable and fiber rivals have expressed doubts about FWA's longevity, citing spectrum and capacity constraints - though fixed wireless players have pushed back against this assertion. At least for now, though, it seems clear the technology is spreading like a weed.

The full report can be found here.