Connecting Rural America Through Fixed Wireless Technology

fixed wireless in rural america

In places where there are more livestock than people and where miles of land separate one household from the next, finding an internet connection can sometimes be challenging. The length of time it would take and the amount it would cost to build a fiber network in certain remote regions can make it nearly impossible to bring high-speed fiber connections to rural areas. But America's internet service providers have been working towards innovative solutions to bridge the digital divide. 

Some of NCTA's members have begun to explore fixed wireless connectivity as an option to connect customers in rural and remote locations. This technology operates very much like a Wi-Fi connection does, by providing wireless broadband internet access to a location without the use of phone or cable lines, giving ISPs the ability to extend their high-speed services to unserved areas. Homes that don’t have cables running in the ground in close proximity can connect wirelessly to the internet via an antenna installed on or in the house. 

During a recent hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives on rural broadband, Midco’s Senior Director of Government Relations Justin Forde gave a brief explanation of how their new fixed wireless technology works: "Data travels over our fiber network to a tower fed by our fiber, called a 'fiber backhaul tower,' and then the signal is broadcast from tower to tower and ultimately to the customer using spectrum." The wireless signal can reach rural areas up to 50 miles away from Midco's fiber network, reducing the company's need to build out more costly fiber networks, while providing customers with download speeds up to 50 Mbps.

Midco--which serves 385,000 customers in South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas, and Wisconsin--recently began offering a fixed wireless service to its customers through the acquisition of InvisiMax, a fixed wireless company. Deploying fiber connectivity is extremely difficult in certain terrain and weather conditions, such as the granite fields and limestone cliffs that are sprinkled throughout Midco's footprint. But fixed wireless technology gets around these obstacles, and even extends to vast farmlands where it would be too expensive to run fiber to homes that are miles apart. Midco was able to provide broadband service to one community within 30 days--a timeframe that would have looked a lot different if building a new fiber network. These rural customers now have the ability to access a broadband connection to run their businesses, do their homework, and stream video content, even with multiple internet users in the same household. 

Charter is also in the process of exploring fixed wireless solutions for rural communities in its footprint. The ISP, which provides services across 41 states, has been conducting tests over the past year in several of its regions and assessing the speeds it can provide over longer distances. Testifying at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing last month, Charter's Senior Vice President of Wireless Technology Craig Cowden noted that speeds during these trials "significantly exceed the FCC's definition of high speed broadband in most circumstances, allowing for video streaming and the use of multiple apps simultaneously." In its home simulations, the ISP has tested the fixed wireless solution on advanced technology that consumers now want and demand, like 4K TVs and gaming systems, to ensure that the application provides the same high-quality experience Charter's fixed wireline broadband customers receive. 

In order for the fixed wireless solution to succeed, Charter is currently exploring how the 3.5 GHz band can be utilized to expand its broadband services into less densely populated areas, and is encouraging the FCC to help promote rural broadband deployment by moving quickly to authorize general authorized access use of the band, while adopting right-sized licenses that will attract new entrants and support diverse business models. Midco has also urged the FCC to open up the 3.5. GHz band in a way that allows rural fixed wireless providers to compete for licenses. Moving forward, access to more spectrum will be essential to supporting ISPs as they work to connect unserved rural communities.  

Take a look at the video below to see how Charter is testing the 3.5 GHz fixed wireless solution to expand its internet coverage to more unserved areas.