- July 27, 2021
Bill Baker (left), CEO of Nextlink Internet, and Jeff Johnston, lead economist for communications at CoBank.
Providing fixed wireless access and fiber-to-the-home telecommunications service in rural Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois makes Nextlink Internet what its CEO, Bill Baker, calls a hybrid provider. Baker spoke during an AGL Virtual Summit in June at the session, “Rural Coverage Opportunities and Challenges,” moderated by Jeff Johnston, a lead economist for communications at CoBank, a national cooperative bank that provides credit to the U.S. rural economy.
Johnston asked Baker whether service offered through Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), through private networks or roaming agreements, would help to defray some costs associated with building networks in high-cost areas.
Baker said that although CBRS has potential, operators using CBRS cannot accomplish the higher-use features of CBRS with what he referred to as non-carrier-grade equipment.
“In doing things like being a roaming service on the wholesale side doing private networks, you can scrape off a lot of the mom-and-pop operators,” Baker said. “They’re not going to have the sophistication or the capital, or have the kind of gear that’s capable and doing those things, when you talk about private networks.”
Oil companies in West Texas, the Dakotas and parts of Oklahoma bought many CBRS Private Access Licenses (PALs) just to have their own dedicated spectrum in the oil shale field for monitoring services on their equipment, rather than using unlicensed 5 GHz equipment, Baker said. He explained that CBRS has corporate and industrial uses, and it will depend on who wants to get into the roaming and the private network aspect. “We use carrier-grade gear, so that’s something we are looking at,” he said.
With CBRS, it is easier to achieve a roaming outcome than a private network, Baker said, because a private network might be extremely localized with a corporate partner or perhaps a municipality that wants to use it across their offices and a county area. The dynamics differ, he said, adding that Nextlink Internet is one of the largest CBRS frequency owners in the United States with a dominant footprint in the central United States.
“We believe that CBRS is an unbelievable tool in the toolkit when it comes to rural fixed wireless where you can have effectively licensed 100 by 20 service capable of penetrating tree canopy,” he said, referring to internet speeds of 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload. “There’s a lot of different speed requirements bandied out there in various federal, state and local programs, but probably the most common is the 100 by 20 speed tier. That’s the required speed tier if you’re going to get Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) funding on a broadband project, for instance.” RDOF is an FCC initiative designed to inject billions of dollars into the construction and operation of rural broadband networks.
“That’s where we see CBRS playing an important role,” Baker said, “especially getting away from some of the challenges of 5 GHz unlicensed operation in rural markets.”
Johnston said he hadn’t realized that it was such a leap for a smaller wireless internet service provider (WISP) that had been deploying unlicensed 5 GHz over Wi-Fi to change to a CBRS carrier-grade type of network implementation.
“Oh yeah, just the technical operational aspects, forget about the capital,” Baker said. “If you take one of the most common 5 GHz fixed wireless gear setups that most small WISPs use, to equip a tower is going to cost you $1,000 versus the likely price that same tower would be if you’re a non-volume buyer of CBRS carrier-grade equipment from one of the big boys — Nokia, Ericsson, Samsung — you’re talking about north of $50,000 to equip that tower. That’s not even remotely comparable. If you’re buying at scale, you can get that price down. But it’s still radically more expensive to operate CBRS than it is 5 GHz.”
Baker said that a typical list of WISPs will continue to operate at 5 GHz, and perhaps they will deploy some lower-end CBRS equipment. He said that 6 GHz availability probably will come out in 2022, and that 6 GHz would fundamentally replace the 5 GHz gear. “You’ll see a massive forklift in rural America, from the 5 GHz operators as they move to 6 GHz,” he said.
Elaborating on the subject of government-provided funding for rural broadband connectivity, Baker said, “All of these funds are a wonderful idea. However, the devil is in the details. Who decides how the funds are used and which underserved communities get the benefit?’
Baker said that Nextlink Internet is a Connect America Fund (CAF) Phase 2 grant recipient and a provisional Rural Digital Opportunity Fund grant recipient, a likely state recipient and almost certainly a county recipient of Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) funds.
“There are so many programs flowing right now, and each program, whether it’s federal, state or local, has its own methodology determining what’s unserved, underserved, how they want, what do they want to see it served with,” Baker said. “It is really all over the board right now.”
Some programs do not want to stack, Baker said, for instance, state or county money on a federally funded project area. “Conversely, some programs want to stack money on top of a federal area and make that federal recipient — you may have a six-year deployment obligation — to do it in 18 months instead,” he said. “They’re paying that guy to go fast.”
Many factors affect what projects receive funding and how the projects are funded, Baker said. “Everyone’s focused on the White House infrastructure bill, but right now, between the state funds to ARC funds to RDOF funds, you can’t help but be getting better internet, if you’re out in a rural area.”
For the June 8 AGL Virtual Summit, Total Tech sponsors included Raycap, Valmont Site Pro 1, Vertical Bridge and B+T Group. Tech sponsors included Alden Systems and Aurora Insight. Viavi Solutions sponsored the keynote address. Additional sponsors included Gap Wireless, NATE, VoltServer and WIA.
Sharpe Smith programmed the Summit, and Kari Willis hosted. AGL Media Group has scheduled the next AGL Virtual Summit for Sept. 8. To register, click here.
Don Bishop is executive editor and associate publisher of AGL Magazine.