TDS thinks a blend of fiber, FWA is the best use of BEAD money

TDS Telecom believes it has a leg up on the competition as operators across the country prepare to square off for billions in federal funding from the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program next year. That’s because its association with sister company UScellular will allow it to pitch hybrid deployment plans to states using licensed fixed wireless access (FWA) service to cover areas where it isn’t economical to deploy fiber.

It's no secret that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration has expressed a preference for BEAD projects which use fiber. But during an investor conference this week, TDS Telecom CFO Michelle Brukwicki noted it’s just not going to make financial sense to take fiber everywhere in the country.

“We’ve gotten fiber to many, many of those smaller, more rural communities” within TDS’ ILEC footprint, she said. “And there are government and regulatory programs that are either in place today or coming that will help take fiber out even farther. We’re definitely going to take advantage those opportunities…[but] there are still going to be places where I think it’s not going to be economical, even with that government assistance, to get fiber out there.”

While BEAD money may be enough to close the broadband gap using fiber in smaller, more densely populated states like Connecticut, UScellular CEO Laurent Therivel argued during the same session that won’t be the case in larger states with dispersed populations.

“Even with $46 billion of government money, there are very few states that view that money as the answer to connect their entire state,” he asserted. “If you’re the governor of Iowa, governor of Wisconsin, Oklahoma, most of the states we serve, you have to have some kind of blended option because $46 billion doesn’t connect everyone.”

That’s where fixed wireless comes in, Therivel said. “If you’re a pureplay fiber player, is there opportunity? Sure. But then you have to go figure out how to connect the farmhouse at the end of the street that’s two miles down the road…boy, it’s not economical to run two miles of fiber for one home.” But using FWA, UScellular and TDS Telecom can offer efficient options to cover homes no matter where they are.

UScellular already provides licensed 5G FWA service using its high-frequency millimeter wave spectrum in a handful of markets, offering speeds tiers between 50 Mbps and 300 Mbps. UScellular also has an LTE-based FWA product in all its markets.

At the end of 2023, it will also be able to deploy new mid-frequency C-Band spectrum, which will allow it to push its 5G fixed wireless coverage further out. T-Mobile and Verizon are both also using licensed mid-band spectrum for their fixed wireless access offerings.

Between the fiber play and FWA offering, TDS and UScellular are in “tremendous position” to win BEAD money, Therivel concluded.