Why isn't 5G getting more broadband funding?

Between the American Rescue Plan Act, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 and the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), billions of federal dollars are pouring in to fuel broadband deployments. But all of these funding sources have one thing in common: they all focus heavily on fixed (and fixed wireless) deployments. So, why isn’t wireless getting a bigger piece of the pie and more importantly, will that change anytime soon?

It's worth noting there is a pot of funding on the table for wireless in the form of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) $9 billion 5G Fund for Rural America. That money has yet to be distributed, pending the creation of new, more accurate mobile coverage maps to help ensure funding is targeted at the areas most in need of support.

But Competitive Carriers Association CEO Steven Berry argued in an interview with Fierce the $9 billion total is an arbitrary figure and doesn’t necessarily represent all the funding that is needed.

RELATED: FCC adopts 5G rural fund, new coverage maps still needed

“I’ve testified on the Hill that I really felt that was just sort of a shot in the dark,” he said. “I don’t know how you come up with that when you don’t have the data and information about where there is or is not mobile broadband. So I think we need to re-look at that.”

The FCC’s RDOF Phase I auction doled out $9.2 billion for fixed and fixed wireless broadband, and an additional $11 billion-plus is expected to be allocated through a Phase II proceeding in the coming years. With an influx of broadband funding flowing from Congress, though, Berry suggested “we have an opportunity to rethink the underlying purpose of RDOF II” and potentially free up some of those funds for wireless operators.

So, why were wireless players cut out of the RDOF Phase I auction? Recon Analytics founder Roger Entner told Fierce it was all about speed and more specifically mobile’s inability to deliver a gig to rural America.

“When you look at it, the RDOF spending had download, upload and latency requirements, and it was heavily skewed toward gigabit speeds. And wireless at the time could not provide gigabit speeds in a reliable fashion in rural America,” he explained. He noted millimeter wave spectrum just doesn’t have the necessary reach and the channels on longer-range low-band spectrum aren’t big enough to deliver that kind of bandwidth.

If RDOF Phase II features a similar focus on gigabit speeds, Entner said wireless likely won’t be a player. But he pointed out there is hope on the horizon in the form of the sprawling infrastructure bill Congress is currently working on.

RELATED: Here’s what the U.S. infrastructure bill has in store for broadband

The draft legislation notably includes some $65 billion for broadband, including a more than $42 billion pot of funding for which wireless players would be eligible. As the Wireless Infrastructure Association noted earlier this month, the bill only requires broadband projects to provide speeds of 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload.

Entner said the decision not to target symmetrical speeds was key for the wireless industry: “If it would have required 100 Mbps symmetric, wireless couldn’t have delivered.”

According to a July 2021 report from OpenSignal, average 5G download speeds in the U.S. ranged from 53.2 Mbps for Verizon and AT&T to 87.5 Mbps for T-Mobile. Average 5G upload speeds were much slower, ranging from 8.8 Mbps (AT&T) to 15.1 Mbps (T-Mobile).

Ultimately, Entner said wireless’s future funding prospects hinge on the speed benchmarks the federal government decides to set. “If your requirement is 100 Mbps, wireless can play. If your requirement is a gigabit, wireless has a really difficult time,” he concluded.