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Federal Funding and Common Language are Key for Bringing Broadband to Rural America

Fixed wireless access (FWA) is an effective way to bridge the digital divide between rural America and the rest of the country. But that doesn’t mean it will be cheap or easy, which is why federal funding is critical for enabling FWA to live up to its potential.

That was one major theme at the Competitive Carriers Association’s (CCA) annual conference in October 2023, where several keynotes and roundtables focused on the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program. It’s the result of a 2020 Congressional order requiring communication service providers (CSPs) to remove infrastructure from Huawei and ZTE due to national security concerns. Hence the program’s nickname: “Rip and Replace.”

Congress allocated $1.9 billion to help cover the cost, but that’s nowhere near what CSPs will need to spend. In the “Conversation with Industry Titans” keynote, one speaker said that unless Congress fully funds the program with another $3 billion, Rip and Replace will take 17 years to complete.

In fact, the funding shortfall is so big that it threatens to undermine the goal of using FWA to bring broadband to more rural homes and businesses. That’s because as the “Keeping Consumers and Our Networks Safe” roundtable explained, many CSPs will end up ripping but not replacing, including in areas where they’re the lone provider.

Even if Rip and Replace didn’t exist, CSPs still would struggle financially to build out 5G in rural areas without federal funding support such as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program and the proposed $9 billion 5G Fund. A 2022 UScellular white paper shows why:

“Our economics require over 150 subscribers at $65 per month to equip an existing tower with the necessary equipment; or approximately 500 subscribers to build a new tower, and we can’t assume that everyone will adopt the service. This density is rare in unserved and underserved locations, which is a key driver of the current digital divide. The cost of building and maintaining a tower in rural America can be nearly twice as expensive as building a tower in an urban area, and the density of customers in these areas is far less than in suburban and urban areas, thereby putting pressure on the revenue generation needed to drive a positive return on investment. These factors highlight the importance of the support provided in IIJA to expanding broadband. These funds can be effectively used by subsidizing infrastructure investments like FWA – improving both access and affordability.”

How Rural CSPs Can Save Time and Money Building Out FWA

A week after the conference, CCA and iconectiv hosted a webinar that explores why and how CSPs are using TruOps™ Common Language® for network planning and expansion, including rural FWA. Common Language provides a standardized naming system that spans multiple code sets. This system is used to identify network locations, points of interconnection, and network assets. One example is CLLI™ Codes, which over 1,800 CSPs use to identify, classify and understand the location and other attributes of network infrastructure such as towers, routers and points of presence. In rural areas and cities, CLLI Codes help CSPs streamline interconnection with their peers, maximize efficiency and minimize errors in network design and provisioning.

Another example is Network View, a new Common Language feature that provides a visual representation of CLLI Code data on an interactive digital map. CSPs simply enter location information such as a rural address to see all of the telecom equipment with a CLLI Code at that site. This visibility aids in expansion by pinpointing areas where broadband access is lacking and where new network infrastructure should be deployed. It simplifies network planning by providing a clear picture of existing infrastructure and potential collocation opportunities, minimizing the need for physical site surveys, ultimately saving time and resources.

By centralizing information and offering a clear view of the network, Common Language streamlines operational processes. This is particularly valuable for rural CSPs with limited resources because it helps automate operations, reduce manual workloads and allocate resources more efficiently. This operational efficiency translates into cost savings and quicker service deployment — exactly what rural residents, schools, businesses and health care clinics need.