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NTIA's Fiber-Only BEAD Policy Limits Broadband Expansion

As states work to make use of federal broadband funding, a stipulation that the money can't be used for wireless networks is shortsighted and could hinder high-speed Internet access for those who need it now.

In a roundtable of state broadband leaders in 2022 we were asked what was the one thing we each feared as the U.S. got ready to spend $45 billion for the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program. I said I occasionally feared that by year two or three we will have invested this enormous amount of money, but we won’t have moved the needle on broadband nearly as far as we should have. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) fiber-only policy is one of those potential barriers.

NTIA, fiber manufacturers and quite a few broadband leaders have a bias against fixed wireless networks — and particularly unlicensed ones — whether stated, implied or inferred. NTIA’s reported position on BEAD is that, “Any fully unlicensed networks will not be considered a 'reliable broadband network.'" This policy stance is particularly puzzling because this same agency, in other grant programs, has awarded millions of dollars for projects comprised entirely of fixed wireless networks.

Richard Bernhardt, vice president of spectrum and industry for the Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP) Association believes, “NTIA should be saying every grant applicant has a set of standard requirements: speed, quality, reliability, level of customer care, etc., and a standard way of delivering those services. Don't tell communities, ‘Use 3 GPP, LTE, 5G, NR, whatever.’ Don't tell them, ‘Use fiber or use license/unlicensed.’ Tell communities to use whatever works for them that delivers those standards.”

By unlocking the technology handcuffs, you would get successes such as Cleveland, which recently announced the start of a citywide fixed wireless network that will serve up to 170,000 residents in 34 neighborhoods. The network will deliver at least 100 Mb per second symmetrical (equal speeds down and up) service and cost residents only $18 a month. Some parts of Cleveland, such as the Fairfax neighborhood, already have access to this low-cost, high-speed service.

While of course Bernhardt and the other members of WISP have their own inherent biases against NTIA’s fiber-only position, he makes an excellent point about the common sense behind his argument.

Bernhardt asks, “Do you put a Ferrari of networks in everybody's driveway? No, you provide a ‘vehicle’ that lets families do basic tasks and log onto Netflix, gets parents to work, enables kids to do their homework, and lets grandma see pictures and videos of their grandkids. Maybe 100 Mb down, 20 Mb up, although many people won’t use more than 30 Mb.”

Forty-five-billion dollars is a lot of money, but not enough to serve 81 million unconnected only fiber.


Broadband deployment is not a zero-sum game. The argument “we only get five years of wireless versus couple of decades from fiber” — five years being the commonly cited average lifespan of a wireless network — misses a huge point.

From start to finish, building a fiber network can take at least two to three years. If a wireless network goes live in six months for people who currently have no Internet at all, that network is operating for 18 to 30 months while waiting to complete the fiber build. That’s enough time to show direct and indirect network ROI.

In that time, students will reap the benefits of Internet access. Businesses will immediately get increases in employee productivity, more marketing awareness, more sales and economic development. Telehealth will impact health care in the community. Wireless networks are so powerful these days that the constituent may not need fiber service for two or three more years, saving residents a lot of money.

For example, Kajeet, which partners with Verizon, T-Mobile and others, offers a connectivity management platform and a "wireless leapfrogging" deployment tactic that will enable the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma to have broadband connectivity in 2024 rather than 2026.

“We're building a fiber ring, leapfrogging it with wireless towers and use point-to-multipoint to get residents and business access to wireless from different locations,” said Jamaal Smith, Kajeet vice president of sales public sector and private wireless.

And what happens to the wireless infrastructure after the fiber is built? “They plan to continue to use wireless in their overall solution,” Smith said. “The fiber will give their businesses sustainability, but they're going to still use wireless to connect some of the homes. They also are forming a consortium with several of the neighboring tribes and will create their own WISP.”


Over the last five to seven years, wireless technologies have gone through an extensive metamorphosis. A lot of those bashing wireless and claiming it’s not future-proof don't seem to understand the reality of what’s out there now, deployed and working.

“We're selling one manufacture’s first-generation product that delivers 300 meg download, 100 meg upload,” said Dwayne Zimmerman, CEO for Crowsnest Broadband (a WISP). “Each radio attached to a tower has 7 or 8 gigabits of aggregate capacity per radio. You can put four or eight of them up on a tower. We've got 100 gig, 40 gig, 25 gig backbone and 10 gig transport circuits. There are all kinds of bandwidth ready to be used.”

Crowsnest recently edged out over 215 applicants nationwide to secure a $20 million grant from NTIA’s Broadband Infrastructure Program to serve 7,261 unserved households in seven rural Pennsylvania counties, and with an entirely fixed wireless network.

“Our WISP currently has small businesses with 30 meg plans,” Zimmerman said. “And then we've got several businesses like Curry Supply Company. They're a $100 million company with a dedicated point-to-point link with a 1.5 gigabit direct Internet access over wireless.”


Matt Larsen, CEO of WISP Vistabeam, put it this way: “Let’s talk about a hypothetical wireless network, maybe a 3 Ghz Tarana system that would serve up to 500 locations (1,250 people) within a 4-mile radius from the network tower. The network would require a fiber backhaul or 10GB mmWave backhaul to a nearby fiber location.” The estimated cost would be $100,000 for the tower and $550,000 for the end-user customer premise equipment (CPE) for a total of $650,000 and require about 35 days for installation.

In comparison, a fiber network assuming lowest cost could be $500,000 for the network construction and $300,000 for the end users, for a total of $800,000.

“Assuming the highest cost,” Larsen continued, “this could be $2.5 million for the network construction and $400,000 for the end users for a total of $2.9 million. The fiber build-out time is probably a year at best, and 24-36 months at worst if there are … permitting, labor and supply chain issues. Fiber construction has a lot of moving parts compared to wireless.”

How many states are finding that the numbers of dollars their towns and cities need for broadband is about twice the amount of their BEAD allotment if they are forced to adopt a fiber-only policy?

“We might have needed a BEAD pool of $60 billion or more to provide the same coverage as $42.5 billion in 2021 construction costs,” wrote broadband blogger Doug Dawson in an August 2023 post. Many thrifty and responsible bureaucrats would say it makes more financial sense to build hybrid fiber/wireless networks so you can stretch those BEAD dollars further.

Craig Settles assists cities and co-ops with business planning for broadband, as well as showing how telehealth can drive broadband adoption. In December, he wrote “Be All You Can BEAD,” which presents community stakeholders with an overview of why fixed wireless is technology needed in the BEAD program, and how communities can combine wireless and fiber to be greater than the sum of their parts.