Nextlink teams up with Tarana to deploy CBRS in rural areas

Nextlink Internet and Tarana announced a partnership to bring gigabit broadband service to communities and rural areas in 11 states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin.

They expect to expand service to hundreds of rural counties over the next several years, covering over a quarter million households, according to a press release.

Part of this ties back to the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) licenses Nextlink picked up at auction in 2020. Nextlink bid $28.4 million for 1,072 Priority Access Licenses (PALs), which it’s using as part of its fixed wireless deployment. The company has big ambitions for doing its part to close the digital divide.

Tarana also offers a 5 GHz version of its platform, but Nextlink’s first choice is to use the 3.5 GHz CBRS spectrum where it has PALs, according to Claude Aiken, chief strategy officer and chief legal officer at Nextlink.

Nextlink is trying to do a couple of things with this platform, he said. One is to create competition in areas traditionally served by just one service provider, which could be a cable company or another fiber provider.

Another is stepping up and exceeding its Connect America Fund (CAF) obligations. Nextlink is receiving $281 million from the FCC to deploy 100/20 Mbps broadband to more than 100,000 locations across six states under the FCC’s CAF Phase 2 program.

It’s required to reach 40% of its deployment by the end of this year, but Nextlink announced in August that it’s already more than 50% completed with its obligation – with no signs of slowing down.

On top of that, it’s now deploying equipment that can do up to 500 Mbps in those areas where it’s mandated to deliver 100 Mbps. Nextlink is using Tarana’s G1 platform, which promises to deliver gigabit services at impressive distances and in non-line-of-sight (NLoS) paths.

Nextlink plans on using a combination of fiber and gigabit fixed wireless to meet its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) obligations, and Tarana is “uniquely positioned” to help Nextlink deliver on all of its promises, the companies said. Nextlink also said its initiative is leveraging a new set of G1 capabilities from Tarana, which has scheduled a product launch event for September 27.

In a lot of these rural areas that Nextlink is targeting, residents have few, if any, choices when it comes to high-speed internet, so it’s a welcome change.

“We’re seeing performance significant enough that we feel comfortable offering these 500-megabit packages to a broad area of coverage,” he said.

It’s seeing this type of performance up to nine miles from the tower, which is a significant improvement over other types of solutions it deployed in the past, according to Aiken.

Previously, Nextlink said it was going to offer the 100/20 speeds using Nokia CBRS equipment.

Aiken clarified that Nextlink is augmenting, not replacing, the Nokia gear. "We continue to operate our private LTE/5G CBRS footprint with fixed wireless and IoT powered by Nokia and are working with Tarana for its next-generation fixed wireless platform," he said. Nokia and Tarana are two of its biggest partners so far. 

The CBRS auction offered a chance for smaller and more rural-oriented companies like Nextlink to participate at auction and get spectrum licenses based on smaller, county-sized geographic areas. Other auctions involved Partial Economic Areas (PEAs) that are more appealing to big wireless carriers interested in targeting high-density urban areas.

“I think you’re seeing CBRS being most quietly and widely deployed in the fixed wireless ecosystem. It’s a fantastic band conceptually because of the ‘use it or share it’ characteristics. It’s a step forward in spectral efficiencies, especially as policymakers are talking about spectrum crunches in the future and the need to do more sharing,” Aiken said. “We have a model here that actually works and that we are deploying in a pretty widespread way across multiple states.”