WISPA: California should rethink its 'fiber-above-all' broadband plan

This month the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) presented a draft five-year plan to connect the state’s unserved with broadband using the $1.86 billion it received through the federal government’s Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program.

But the CPUC’s plan comes with a warning that the total $4 billion available in state and federal broadband funding won't be enough to completely bridge the digital divide in Californa.

 “While significant, this amount will not enable deployment of broadband infrastructure to all unserved locations in the State,” the Commission said.

There is a significant need for broadband across all of California, said the Wireless Internet Service Provider Association’s (WISPA) state advocacy manager for California, Steve Schwerbel. “Whether it's parts of LA, or rural parts of the state that are more agriculturally focused and have that population density issue that fiber doesn't build out to well.”

The CPUC estimated cost for full coverage with a fiber-to-the-premises network design is approximately $10 billion, including fire protection (about $2 billion). That’s a massive shortfall from the $4 billion the state has in pocket, which Schwerbel noted is “before even considering any digital equity work or getting community anchor institutions connected.”

The CPUC also acknowledged that achieving universal service with fiber will require additional funding beyond the timeline outlined by current programs, stating, “The timeline for universal service with fiber-to-the-premises would extend beyond the [NTIA] BEAD funding timeline and require additional federal and State funding.”

WISPA has called these concerns unsurprising, as California and the NTIA have chosen a “fiber-above-all” approach for their government-subsidized buildouts, instead of opting for a tech-neutral approach that would allow for more fixed wireless and other fiber-alternative projects in the state.

“The fiber lobby has done a great job of pitching itself as kind of the end-all, be-all, and it does have a lot of great case study for it. But there are other opportunities that can come along,” Schwerbel told Fierce. “When we talk about the overall landscape, each state and each project individually needs to be considered on its merits, rather than saying we need to put our finger down on one technology versus another.”

While WISPA “supports fiber,” Schwerbel said a lot of the association’s members decide when to deploy fiber and when to deploy fixed wireless on a case-by-case basis, where each one of those pieces makes sense.

That said, the CPUC’s preference for "fiber-above-all" with state broadband buildouts will limit progress, as fiber is costly and time-consuming to implement in certain areas.

Dense forests, for example, might never be a realistic home for fiber. And in many hard-to-reach areas of California, there are schools, businesses, homes and healthcare locations that need to get online -- and those could be connected “in months rather than years” by deploying a fixed wireless solution rather than waiting for fiber buildouts, Schwerbel added.

WISPA said if there’s a silver lining here, it’s that CPUC “seemingly recognizes the conundrum it and the NTIA have put itself in. It can’t do it all with the preferred ‘future proof’ plan.”

The association called on the CPUC to consider employing a diverse mix of technologies and players to achieve broader, faster and more cost-effective online coverage for the unserved communities in California.

“We really want to disincentivize a conversation about what is the best technology and say, does this technology work to deliver what somebody needs to get online and participate meaningfully in modern society or not? And fixed wireless is just as able to do that as fiber is,” Schwerbel said.

According to Schwerbel, WISPA is in the middle of conversations about state-level bills that would help change the way broadband can be built in California. He explained the state administers “three major pots of money” at the state level for broadband expansion, the largest of which is the Federal Funding Account (FFA).

Under current CPUC rule that FFA money is only accessible by fiber projects. To change this, WISPA is supporting Assembly Bill 1065, which would indicate to the CPUC that wireless internet service providers must be allowed to apply for FFA.

“That would be a major shift in the way California is able to do its broadband funding,” Schwerbel said. “The goal should be to approach this problem from every single angle and to appreciate every single type of provider who's trying to stand in that gap, closing the digital divide once and for all.”

WISPA's members have been "extending their hands [to California] for a long time to say, hey, we want to be your partner, we want to be your friend, we want to work together on solving this issue that we all recognize," Schwerbel added. "We're really hoping for CPUC to take this opportunity to learn from the numbers that they've put out there and just say, we're going to find solutions that work for everybody quickly, efficiently and effectively.”