The criticality of broadband internet connections has never been more apparent than it is today, and the drive to ensure that everyone has access to it—whether they’re in urban or rural environments—is driving some important innovations on the policy, technology, and service front.
The US government, for example, recently unveiled the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), a $14.2 billion effort designed to let families with limited incomes—many of whom live in rural communities—get significant credits to help pay for their internet service.
On the tech side, over the last year, we’ve seen both T-Mobile and Verizon launch wireless broadband services (also called Fixed Wireless Access or FWA) that leverage speedy new 5G connections, such as those enabled by the debut of critical C-Band frequencies (see “Verizon And AT&T C-Band Launch Portends Future Of 5G” for more). The T-Mobile Home Internet service uses its 2.5 GHz mid-band frequencies to deliver speeds that often top wired connections from cable companies and other traditional internet service providers (ISPs), all without having to worry about drilling holes and running cables through your home. Similarly, Verizon’s 5G Home uses the 3.7 GHz C-Band frequencies in many cities, and the even speedier mmWave in a select few, to offer similar types of wireless connections.
One technology that hasn’t seen much attention or focus is CBRS (Citizens Band Radio Service), mid-band frequencies that are in the 3.55-3.7 GHz range (see “Spectrum-Sharing Technologies Like CBRS Key To More Robust Wireless Networks” and “CBRS Vs. C-Band: Making Sense Of Mid-Band 5G” for more on what CBRS is, it’s history, and how it works). Part of the problem is that CBRS isn’t very well-known or understood, so it has gotten lost in all the noise about 5G.
It turns out, however, that using CBRS to create wireless broadband services is a great and cost-effective way for smaller carriers and ISPs to offer broadband in rural communities. Within the past week, both Mercury Broadband, a regional internet provider focused on rural areas across four midwestern states (Kansas, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan), and Avista Utilities, an energy company that provides power to regions across four northwest states (Washington, Montana, Idaho, and Alaska), debuted CBRS-based Fixed Wireless Access services to the communities they serve.
Mercury (which worked in conjunction with t3 Broadband) and Avista both partnered with Samsung Networks to provide the CBRS-compatible network infrastructure equipment necessary to power these networks (see “Rural Broadband Possibilities Improving With CBRS Options From Samsung Networks” for more background information). Samsung’s Massive MIMO radios are a key component of both deployments along with other network components, including a compact core for Avista and CDU baseband units for Mercury Broadband.
CBRS spectrum, along with the right kind of beam-forming capabilities found in Massive MIMO radios, is uniquely well suited to rural environments, because the signals can travel across the long distances often found between towers and homes in less populous areas. In addition, as a semi-licensed spectrum, CBRS enables free access of up to 80 MHz of incredibly valuable frequencies through what’s known as General Authorized Access or GAA.
For smaller service providers who can’t afford the billions of dollars that the major carriers recently spent on fully licensed C-Band and other mid-band frequencies, this is a game changer. They don’t get the exclusive ownership that licensed spectrum provides (meaning that private businesses or even other carriers could theoretically try to use some of the frequencies at the same time, much as multiple people can use the same WiFi frequencies), but practically speaking, there’s likely to be little overlap, especially in rural areas. What they do get, however, is the ability to offer a wireless broadband service to rural customers with the same level of convenience as the very latest from some of the biggest carriers and significantly more flexibility, faster speeds, and often lower prices than current wire-based choices.
Plus, the efficiency of CBRS networks means that these companies can deliver higher-quality services with fewer towers than before, making it a more financially attractive option for smaller service providers. In fact, initial tests that t3 Broadband did with Mercury Broadband suggest that they can provide the same quality of service with 1,000 towers that used to take 2,500 towers—a staggering 2.5x improvement.
In terms of performance, the capabilities of CBRS were originally created in the 4G era, but with a nod to the future. In practical terms, that means CBRS services can start out using 4G signals but then can be upgraded to 5G with firmware updates to the end user equipment and the network infrastructure. The Samsung Networks gear is already 5G compatible, and while both Mercury Broadband and Avista are starting out with 4G, they are both 5G-ready and will be upgraded to full 5G FWA capabilities in the future.
Finally, CBRS-based networks are also enabling entirely new types of broadband offerings from non-traditional players. The new Avista Edge service, for example, is one of the only examples of an energy utility providing broadband internet service. What’s particularly fascinating about the offering is that it leverages the unique characteristics of its energy company heritage in several different ways. First, the receiving portion of the service consists of a device that connects between the home’s electric meter and a power outlet. Second, the broadband services run over the home’s power lines to a small plug-in device that then broadcasts it throughout the house via WiFi. In addition, the service lets you easily monitor your power usage along with your Internet access.
A Pew Research Center study recently found that the gap between broadband availability in urban and rural areas—a critical part of the digital divide in the US—is quite large, with nearly 30 percent of rural Americans lacking internet service. As a result, having new options for helping bridge that gap—such as CBRS-based fixed wireless access—is an important step forward. The Samsung Networks-powered efforts that Mercury Broadband and Avista Edge have started to offer will only be available in a limited number of cities at launch, but their very existence is a powerful sign that the opportunities for rural broadband and rural broadband providers are definitely looking up.
Disclosure: TECHnalysis Research is a tech industry market research and consulting firm and, like all companies in that field, works with many technology vendors as clients, some of whom may be listed in this article.