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.