Wednesday, May 25, 2022

NTIA chief's comments on subsidizing non-fiber telecom infrastructure as "escape hatch" raises questions

Do the BEAD rules mean satellite and other non-fiber services won’t be eligible for funding?

Again, no. It’s true the NTIA in its BEAD rules said it will count areas covered only by satellite broadband or service based on unlicensed spectrum as unserved and also expressed a preference for fiber. However, Davidson said he expects satellite and other non-fiber technologies will receive plenty of funding.

“This is an infrastructure project that’s designed to last for years. And we do put our thumb on the scale on the most resilient, future-proof technologies that we can,” he said. But NTIA knows “there has to be an escape valve for states. And for the really high-cost areas we fully expect that there will be states who have significant portions of other technologies.”

Source: NTIA chief answers 5 burning broadband funding questions

Alan Davidson, the NTIA administrator, didn't elaborate in this piece as to what those other non-fiber to the premise (FTTP) technologies will be. States can authorize Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program grant funding for up to 75 percent of project costs in high cost areas, with the 25 percent match waivable. These are defined in the rules as areas with higher than average construction costs for projects where at least 80 percent of homes and businesses cannot order service with minimum throughput of 25Mbps down and 3Mbps up.

Davidson is quoted as specifying satellite as one of the fiber alternatives. But satellite has been around for years in these areas, calling into question why it would need subsidization to expand it. Moreover, it's a substandard, costly option that no one really wants to rely upon for connectivity. Satellite is also omitted from the BEAD rules as a form of reliable service where it is the only service option.

The other possible technology is fixed terrestrial wireless. The BEAD rules implicitly allow funding of fixed wireless using licensed spectrum or a mix of licensed and unlicensed spectrum as they recognize it as "reliable" service. As with satellite, fixed wireless has been around for many years in areas of the nation as a stopgap until FTTP can be deployed, calling into question the need to subsidize its expansion. It's best suited to areas of the nation with relatively flat terrain and modest tree growth since it utilizes frequencies that require a clear line of sight to end users -- areas because of these attributes are also likely to be less costly to build FTTP.

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