WISPA wants FCC to stop obsessing over symmetrical speeds for RDOF funding

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) sent a letter to Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel yesterday related to its concerns about Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) awards.

The FCC is focused on closing the digital divide in America, and RDOF monies are one avenue to pursue that goal. The FCC has indicated a preference for fiber deployments, which offer the highest broadband speeds as well as symmetrical speeds for both the upstream and downstream.

But WISPA represents many fixed wireless access (FWA) providers that have been serving rural customers for years. “These small- and medium-sized businesses have been building innovative networks for more than 20 years and currently connect seven million Americans,” stated WISPA.

The group thinks it is more important to reach unserved areas quickly than to worry about symmetrical broadband speeds. “WISPA believes that, to connect all Americans to fast broadband speeds, symmetrical broadband speeds are not necessary,” it stated in its letter to Rosenworcel.

The debate about symmetrical broadband speeds has been heating up lately, largely driven by increased broadband demands during Covid. Teleconference calls, such as Zoom calls, require faster upload speeds. 

AT&T’s SVP of Wireless and Access Technology Igal Elbaz said recently at a UBS investor conference, “The other trend that we’re seeing is that the uplink growth in data is growing at a higher rate than the downlink.”

But WISPA says consumers typically use at least 10 times more download bandwidth than upload bandwidth. It also argues that fixed wireless access can be deployed much more quickly than wireline technologies and can be upgraded with software over time.

WISPA’s proposed plan to close digital divide

WISPA has developed a Path to Gigabit plan with its suggestions for best closing the digital divide. It included this plan along with its letter to Rosenworcel. And it hopes the FCC will take its concerns into consideration in its drive to bring broadband to rural areas.

Phase 1 of the RDOF auction has already happened, with the auction winners announced in December. The FCC awarded $9.2 billion to 180 bidders. The agency is now in the process of examining the winners’ long-form applications and dispensing funds. Phase 2 of the RDOF auction will award up to another $11.2 billion. That auction has not yet been scheduled.

Asked if WISPA’s Path to Gigabit plan is focused on Phase 2 of the RDOF auction, a WISPA spokesperson said, “To some extent, but it’s broader.” He said the plan “is our comprehensive answer to universal broadband goals/challenges.”

As part of its Path to Gigabit plan, WISPA wants the FCC to provide more access to mid-band and millimeter wave spectrum for WISPS and for the FCC to optimize lower spectrum bands for fixed wireless use. It’s also suggesting that the FCC adopt a “use-it or share-it policy for unused licensed spectrum."

This is an interesting suggestion, given that the big wireless carriers own unused licensed spectrum across vast swaths of the United States, and just recently, both T-Mobile and Verizon have begun rolling out FWA offerings of their own.

RELATED: Verizon CTO compares fiber to fixed wireless access

WISPA’s Path to Gigabit plan also focuses on access to infrastructure such as utility poles and rights of way. “Innovators should be eligible for the same infrastructure rights as large incumbents,” it said.

The group says it’s in the process of setting up individual meetings with FCC commissioners.