Watch Communications taps Tarana's FWA to connect 1.4M homes

Watch Communications will deploy Tarana Wireless’ Gigabit 1 (G1) fixed wireless access (FWA) platform to deliver internet to an estimated 1.4 million households and businesses across Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky by the end of 2024.

Tarana has touted G1 as a solution to reaching the underserved and unserved areas that fiber cannot. Midwestern internet service provider (ISP) Watch is one of more than 250 ISPs across 19 countries that have adopted the platform since its launch in late 2021, as more and more providers are mixing FWA with their fiber footprints.

With the G1 platform, Tarana pitches a non-line-of-sight (NLoS) technology it calls next generation fixed wireless access, or ngFWA. It uses the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band at 3.5 GHz or the 5 GHz spectrum band, and will tap into the 6 GHz band once the automated frequency coordination (AFC) system is up and running.

Before Watch started deploying G1 in June, the ISP used fiber for ultra-high speeds, as it often encountered the “well-known challenges of connecting wireless customers without direct line-of-sight to a communications tower,” the company said.

CEO Chris Daniels told Fierce that at first, he was skeptical about the ngFWA platform because of “certain problems that were very troubling to the fixed wireless space.”

“But based on initial deployments we had, it performed so well that we basically shifted gears and never looked back,” he added.

Watch has been heavily deploying 4G and 5G-ready technology for the “last few years,” and Daniels said the G1 platform enables the deployment of “a lot more dense networks that provide much better speeds with much better coverage and non-line of sight type of conditions.” Specifically, the ngFWA allows for up to 400 Mbps service plans, which is an upgrade for many of Watch’s legacy customers that were previously limited to typical plans between 5 and 25 Mbps.

For a single cell site, Watch will deploy four sectors of Tarana’s G1 platform to tap into either the CBRS or 5 GHz band. Along with that, the deployments need hybrid cables (made of fiber and copper) down each tower to a carrier grade cabinet that sits at the tower’s base.

Watch uses commercial towers from companies like American Tower and Crown Castle and uses contract deployment companies as well as its own internal crews for deployment.

In addition to the Tarana kit, Watch deploys either a high-speed microwave that backhauls each site,“or in a lot of cases, a backhaul using fiber because there is a capacity need for the Tarana solution,” Daniels said.

"At some point, you have to have fiber pretty close to the tower,” he added.

Watch is building ngFWA in Ohio currently and will shift to other states after those deployments are completed.

Tarana fights FWA skepticism

Divisions over whether investment should go into fixed wireless or fiber infrastructure have mounted recently, especially as state and federal funding has been meted out across the country for broadband expansion.

Some states have had contentious processes in planning for broadband funding. California’s officials, for example, argued over whether the state’s plans for Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment funding should have a fiber-above-all focus or take a technology neutral approach.

In June, rural broadband stakeholders met with the House Committee on Agriculture to advocate for changes to the next iteration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Bill. Testimonies were divided when it came to maintaining tech neutrality, with Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA– The Rural Broadband Association arguing that fiber is the only answer to building out a “future-proof” footprint across the country.

Bloomfield said that fixed wireless is a less desirable long-term solution due to interference, reliability issues and limited spectrum capacity.

Tarana CEO Basil Alwan noted that with previous generations of FWA, the argument could be made that the technology was not investable for governments, because they would have to go back and lay fiber down to replace FWA later.

But Alwan said that now, ngFWA technology has advanced enough “to the point where we have an offer that's really endgame broadband.”

“This is a product that can stand the test of time, it's going to gigabit and beyond,” he added. “So it's got a future ahead of it, this technology, now that it's proven. We have deployed a lot of it at this point, and you're not going to have to come back and clean up later.”

Alwan said that despite tensions over funding, fixed wireless and fiber shouldn’t be in competition with one another, because the reality is that broadband access is “not a one size fits all kind of game.”

“Fiber is a great technology where the economics work,” Alwan told Fierce. “What we're saying is more of a belief to marry the two, some fiber, some ngFWA, to deliver great service to a broader set of customers.”

In some places where density is high, fiber is a good solution. But in other places, where there's no chance of any infrastructure, wireless can offer a “very competitive service” and either bring competition to a market or provide performance in a market that previously didn't have options.

Tarana has worked with some customers that are taking existing wireless systems and upgrading them to get to hundreds of megabits per second speeds, and other customers (who are sometimes the same customers) that are starting to overbuild where they only have a single option.

Alwan said that the U.S. is facing what he calls the "remainder challenge" – meaning every time a fiber home is deployed, the remainder of homes that are not connected “gets harder to serve, because the low hanging fruit is always what's done first,” he explained.

Essentially, the pressure is building to find a solution for those harder-to-reach areas, which Alwan said is playing to Tarana’s advantage as more providers increasingly build with both fiber and ngFWA.

“[The NTIA's] interest in [fiber plus ngFWA] is exactly what we're talking about. They're facing a little bit of a challenge here, where if they look at the big dollars, as big as that number is, they still don't have enough in many states, they believe, to cover the unserved and certainly not the underserved,” he noted.

“So the question becomes, do you end up stipulating fiber and not serve everybody? Or do you do a hybrid set of technologies and serve everybody?”

According to Daniels, Watch has deployed almost 70% of its CAF II-funded network build as of now, but that last 30% -- “the remainder” -- is the hardest part to deploy.  

“Because like [Alwan] said, we went after the low hanging fruit first to try to get that done,” he added. “Without Tarana, we couldn't really economically meet that challenge of reaching those locations, because there's a lot of trees and things we have to get through.”

Daniels added that it’s important that governments officials, and the broadband programs they put out, take a “balanced approach” that allows ISPs to use the “right technology in areas where it's appropriate, so that we can maximize taxpayer dollars and deploy solutions for folks and give them broadband that they don't have today.”