The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) has spent the past four months trying to understand a ruling from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) which will effectively allow billions in federal funding to go toward wireline overbuilds of areas already covered by fixed wireless access (FWA) broadband. But thus far, WISPA CEO David Zumwalt told Fierce it’s been unable to get a straight answer from the NTIA about why it decided FWA services based on unlicensed spectrum don’t count as reliable broadband.

Zumwalt’s questions specifically relate to the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program. The program is designed to subsidize the rollout of broadband in areas where speeds of 25 Mbps downstream/3 Mbps upstream are currently unavailable. In May, NTIA unveiled rules for the program which specify areas served exclusively by fixed wireless services based on unlicensed spectrum will be considered “unserved.”

According to Zumwalt, the decision affects a “pretty large subset” of WISPs. That’s in part because unlicensed spectrum offers service providers more deployment flexibility than licensed spectrum.

“You have the option to get spectrum licenses…but to get individual paths to go point ot point can be time consuming and plus at times people need to move their endpoints. And so you want complete flexibility to be able to serve an endpoint,” he explained. “That’s one of the things that makes unlicensed spectrum so attractive, because there’s not a need to go get a separate license to put a path in or to change a path.”

The CEO said WISPA has asked NTIA staff directly why they came to the conclusion they did about services based on unlicensed spectrum. Zumwalt said the response it got was that the issue doesn’t have to do with the fundamental reliability of FWA systems, but about the future availability of unlicensed spectrum. But when WISPA took that information to the Federal Communications Commission, which has regulatory responsibility for spectrum in the country, that agency indicated it didn’t have any concerns about the availability of unlicensed spectrum.

“They’re saying we know wireless is reliable…but we’re concerned about availability. But nobody can point to what the availability challenge is,” Zumwalt said. He added that it’s possible the NTIA has concerns about congestion and interference, but noted there are few problems with those issues in the sparsely populated regions which account for most of the unserved territory in the country.

It is also possible the NTIA’s concerns relate to questions surrounding the FCC’s allocation of the 6 GHz band for unlicensed use in 2020. While the move was designed to open up 1,200 MHz of spectrum to alleviate congestion, challenges to the decision and the FCC’s rules for operation have left the future of the band in limbo. The implications of the 6 GHz question for fixed wireless providers are clear when you consider recent trials from Resound Networks and Nextlink both relied on the band to achieve gigabit speeds.

(UPDATE) It seems, however, Zumwalt's hypothesis is correct. A senior NTIA official told Fierce that FWA systems which rely on unlicensed spectrum "do not, by definition, have guaranteed access to the transmission medium they use to provide service  Those providers could - depending on the band - be subject to interference from other operators in the unlicensed band at any given moment or, where a licensed user has priority, be forced to reduce or cease operations. As a result, they can’t be available with a high degree of certainty both at present and for the foreseeable future."

Still, the classification is frustrating for Zumwalt and WISPA members, many of whom have gone out on a limb to serve communities left behind by big wireline providers. Confusing matters more, NTIA chief Alan Davidson has said he fully expects fixed wireless providers to be among BEAD grant recipients, though didn't specify whether the agency would require these operators to use licensed spectrum.

“The whole reason the WISPS are out there is these very guys who are going to benefit from the BEAD program today abandoned those communities earlier. And now they’re going to go compete with the WISPS using federal dollars the taxpayers have paid for and that just sucks,” Zumwalt said.

Zumwalt said WISPA has formally asked the NTIA to reverse course and count FWA areas as served, especially in light of the fact that other government agencies like the FCC have actually provided funding for unlicensed FWA deployments.

He added it’s also pushing for the NTIA to rethink its requirement that BEAD funding recipients get a letter of credit. According to Zumwalt, many of the rural banks WISPs have longstanding relationships with just don’t have the ability to provide letters of credit and WISPS also lack the funding reserves many larger banks look for before issuing such letters.

“There’s a legitimate interest that the federal government has in making sure that if funds are going to be deployed through the states to some partnership in the private sector – they want to know that the private is going to perform. That’s absolutely fair. But there are ways that you can do it without creating these punitive mechanisms that disadvantage the smaller players,” he concluded.

This story has been updated to include a comment from an NTIA official.