woman with laptop on deck with a swing in a rural area at golden hour - vertical - chain in foreground

Fixed Wireless Home Broadband Service – A Critical Solution for Closing Connectivity Gaps in Rural America 

In the digital age, internet access is as important as electricity. Every state in America today has a generational opportunity to connect communities that need it most with federal broadband funding.  

When it comes to internet connectivity, time and money matter. States will need to take into consideration cost and time to deployment when spending their federal broadband allocations. While fiber is an excellent broadband technology, fixed wireless has also proven itself to be an effective broadband solution where difficult terrain, cost, and time are barriers to deploying fiber.  

While fixed wireless is not a new technology, recent advancements in 5G, powered by new spectrum acquired by major wireless providers, has led to a fixed wireless boom. Consumers are flocking to this broadband technology for home internet, with fixed wireless accounting for 90% of net broadband customer adds in 2022 and with over 800,000 net adds in each of the past five quarters, led by Verizon and T-Mobile. 

In addition to consumer validation, states and localities can look to success stories like Northampton, NC, when considering the potential of fixed wireless. When the Northampton board of commissioners signed an agreement with UScellular last fall to bring broadband internet access to its residents, time and money were deciding factors. During the commissioners’ meeting when the agreement was approved, Board Chair Charles Tyner said other companies were working to bring broadband access to Northampton County but they were doing it through fiber, which he noted was slower and more expensive to deploy. 

“This is a start for us,” Tyner said of the agreement. “We’ve got to start somewhere.” 

Situated along the Roanoke River in northeastern North Carolina, Northampton County is home to around 20,000 people – less than 33 people per square mile. Steeped in history, the county’s 551 square miles encompass coastal plains, lush farms, massive forests and quiet rivers. Agri-business accounts for about one-third of the county’s local economy, including peanuts, cotton, livestock and forestry products, and the county’s motto declares “Life is Easy.” 

But for too many in Northampton County, life is harder than it has to be because they lacked broadband access.  

UScellular estimated 2,322 households in the county lacked affordable access to any high-speed internet service, a situation it said it could quickly and affordably address using its Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) solution. Within just two months, UScellular had already completed upgrades at its towers to reach 1,144 households that previously did not have access to broadband. The county is helping make the service affordable for residents using federal funding to pay $585 per home to cover equipment and professional installation costs. 

All Americans deserve access to broadband connectivity, and like Northampton County, the United States has the opportunity to bridge the digital divide quickly and cost-effectively using FWA solutions. What made the project in Northampton County successful – a cooperative spirit between the county and the carrier as well as funding to make the service affordable for those who need it – can and must be replicated across the country through the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program. 

Congress in 2021 committed more than $42 billion in funding to broadband deployment. That money will soon be distributed to states for broadband projects. Each state will make its own rules about how to distribute these funds, and all states have an obligation to deploy the money quickly and cost-effectively to bring everyone online. Even with the best intentions, projects that take too long to deploy or cost too much to build will not serve the state’s residents.   

In Wisconsin, for example, research from Cartesian shows that a fiber-only solution would still have 24% of Wisconsin locations without broadband connectivity. Even with unprecedented levels of funding there is simply not enough to cover every location with fiber at those prices.  Analyst firm iGR estimates typical per-household costs for Fixed Wireless Access range from less than $200 per household to about $1,800, depending on a variety of factors. A Fixed Wireless Access solution would be the more sensible, cost-conscious broadband option. Residents would be brought online in a matter of weeks rather than months or years and at a much lower cost.  

Likewise, residents of New Castle, Virginia, reached out to T-Mobile as part of a self-described “Hail Mary” attempt to get better broadband service in their area. Because T-Mobile already had a cellular tower in town, adding the broadband component was quick and cheap. The town’s broadband committee contacted T-Mobile in September 2020 and were enjoying strong internet connectivity by that December.   

While FWA should be considered in areas where fiber is difficult to deploy, fiber remains an essential part of the mix. Fixed Wireless Access relies on fiber at the tower to provide the speeds and bandwidth customers need, but it will be much easier to bring fiber to every tower than to every home across the country.  

Not considering FWA as part of the overall solution would be a tremendous missed opportunity. States that consider flexible solutions will have the best chance at getting their constituents quicly and efficiently connected to high-speed internet.