Fixed LTE for Rural Broadband Emerges

For several years it’s been apparent that the ever-increasing performance of 4G/LTE wireless networks would make them a practical option for rural broadband. The specifications for LTE span the range from tens of megabits per second to hundreds, and with 5G the range extends from hundreds of megabits to thousands (gigabits.) Wireless performance is constrained by the number of users per unit of spectrum because it’s a shared medium network, like Wi-Fi and most of the Internet. But users are less concentrated in rural areas than in urban ones, and there are also fewer candidates for spectrum assignments.

The math is so compelling that Australia’s National Broadband Plan stressed fixed LTE for regions too remote for its high-flying optical fiber network, and even incorporated plans to use satellite broadband for the final two percent.

Purists like Susan Crawford have always poo-pooed LTE as a second rate technology, claiming that the date caps on current mobile plans would never be good enough for residential broadband services meant to be used by consumers of video streaming. The counter-argument holds that fixed LTE will be offered with higher data limits than mobile plans, especially in low-density areas.

While I’ve made that argument in the past, until recently there wasn’t much evidence that such data plans would emerge or that anyone saw rural residential LTE as an interesting market. But that has started to change with the rise of small, subsidized carriers such as StarryInfiniti Broadband, and Rise Broadband.

Nokia and Huawei are touting basestations designed for the rural market already, and others are bound to follow. LTE is a global technology and there are lots and lots of rural people in the world who are clamoring for high performance broadband to the farm.

Rise Broadband is particularly aggressive:

Until recently, Rise Broadband was known as JAB Broadband, but the company, which has acquired multiple broadband wireless businesses in recent years, recently changed its name and began using the Rise brand to replace the various brand names that it has acquired. The FCC made the rural broadband experiment awards under a previous JAB brand name Skybeam. The [FCC] announced last week that it had released Skybeam funding for parts of Illinois, Kansas and Texas after receiving required paperwork.

The FCC is sitting on a mountain of cash for universal service, a good portion of which can be used to support high cost and price-capped carriers, and the Farm Bill contains rural broadband funds as well.

Once a few companies demonstrate that fixed LTE is a viable technology for rural broadband, the flood gates will open and the country folk will catch up the city-slickers, or at least get close enough that the remaining gap is not a big deal.

  • neil

    Fixed wireless LTE from Ericsson used in the Australian NBN works very well, however the big limitation is range (only 14km max) and requirement for clear line of sight to the tower. I guess due to the relatively high frequency spectrum used, at 2302 – 2400 MHz, and 20MHz channel width.
    Unfortunately this excludes many of the potential customers on farms in rural fringe areas, for which it was intended!
    Otherwise, it’s a great service. 25 – 50Mbps down, 5 – 20Mbps up, low latency, and decent, affordable data plans, ranging from e.g. 50GB/mnth anytime, to 1000GB peak / 12000GB off peak.
    How the speeds at peak times hold up over time, as usage increases, has yet to be determined, but so far it seems OK.
    Else they end up with satellite as their only other option (garbage by comparison), or stick with their existing 3G/4G mobile broadband service. Both of these are inadequate, due to very small, expensive data plans, and additionally very high latency on satellite.

    So, any service that has otherwise similar characteristics to fixed wireless, but with a decent range (30 – 40k like current 3G/4G mobile etc) would be a boon.
    I can already get up to 36Mbps, 30km away from the nearest 4G mobile tower, so I don’t see why this can’t be achieved on fixed wireless with suitable equipment?

    • Richard Bennett

      The range problems can largely be solved with lower frequencies, better antennas, and improved signal processing. Fixed location LTE will be part of 5G, so I’m expecting some progress.

      • neil

        I’m so looking forward to 5G it that’s the case! I just hope they offer a lower frequency service for folks in rural areas, and not just catering for high density metro areas (though that’s great too).
        We don’t need lightning fast speeds, but a good solid 25Mbps + service, with large ‘cable like’ data plans and low latency is the order of the day.
        Bring it on!

  • txgman

    Is anyone naive enough to believe that data caps on fixed wireless will be adequate for modern internet usage, or that rates will be reasonable? As a rural customer, I expect to pay more, but it needs to be reasonable. Wireless will never be reasonably priced. Note to politicians: STOP giving telecom providers a seat at the negotiating table – they have proven time and again that their agenda does NOT coincide with the interests of rural consumers.

    Wireless in any form is a band-aid, not a solution. The entire copper
    wired network needs to be rebuilt with fiber, then the problem is solved
    once and for all. Yes, I realize it is expensive, but by the time we
    get done with all these half-baked “solutions” from the telecom
    carriers, we will have spent more than the cost of a complete rebuild with fiber and still not have rural
    internet anywhere close to urban.

    • Richard Bennett

      You seem to be confusing yesterday with tomorrow. There’s plenty of significant wireless tech in the queue just seeking a market.

      • txgman

        As an unserved rural customer, I’ve been avidly reading about promising new wireless tech for years. “Significant NEW tech” isn’t anything new – we’ve been hearing these promises for years from the wireless market. They always involve startups that promise to have finally solved the rural problem, but never manage to deploy effectively beyond a handful of test markets. The reason? Speeds no where near advertised, unlimited caps become throttled caps, and “lower than fiber prices!” becomes significantly more expensive.

        Yes, I’m talking about yesterday, but in this case yesterday was just like the day before, which was just like the day before that one. I’ll fully admit that I’m pessimistic about tomorrow being any different.

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