UScellular sees FWA as an opportunity to snag BEAD funding

NEW ORLEANS — When the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) expressed a preference for fiber as the best technology to close the digital divide, it looked like wireless operators would largely be left out of the $42.5 billion in Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program funding.

But alas, the winds have shifted a bit. Now, the NTIA is requiring that each state’s broadband office set a threshold amount for places that they deem are too expensive to deploy fiber. In locations above that threshold, providers will be able to apply for BEAD funds and use other technologies – which will likely be fixed wireless access (FWA).

RELATED: Each state must set an extreme high-cost threshold for BEAD money

UScellular, a mobile operator with a footprint in 21 states, is excited about the prospect of providing FWA in areas that aren’t served well with wired broadband.

Rebecca Murphy Thompson, VP of government affairs with UScellular, said company executives have had long conversations with the leaders of state broadband offices in UScellular's footprint.

“We’ve done a lot of work with Ericsson on the economic model,” said Thompson. “We think at least 40% of the states are not going to be able to use fiber. We’re confident we’ll be able to fill in those gaps.”

UScellular’s footprint is not contiguous. It’s got coverage in Virginia, North Carolina, Vermont, Maine, Wisconsin and in the upper Northwest, to name a few.

According to UScellular EVP and CTO Mike Irizarry, who spoke at the Wireless Infrastructure Association’s Connect(X) conference this week, the regional operator already has close to 100,000 FWA subscribers.

Thompson said UScellular is very encouraged that NTIA is going to be flexible with how states set their extremely high-cost thresholds. She said some states will probably have a very high threshold, citing Rhode Island as an example. That state is small and doesn’t have demanding terrain, so fiber will probably be the technology of choice for the whole state. But other states will set thresholds above which it’s just too expensive to deploy fiber.

Interestingly, the CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) Tim Donovan recently expressed some concern about the extremely high cost thresholds.

“In many ways it’s been a little bit of a distraction,” said Donovan. “It has risks for states if they set the threshold too high. But there’s no penalty if they set too low. If they set too high they take other technologies off the table. I think this doesn’t have to be a big issue, set a lower cost threshold, and you can still build fiber above it.”

A blog penned by UScellular’s Thompson and Mike Saperstein, SVP of Government Affairs at WIA, stated that FWA is “a natural choice” in areas where existing wireless infrastructure investment can provide both mobile and home broadband service.