The Senate made great strides last week in passing the largest infrastructure spending bill in U.S. history. A key cornerstone of this vital legislation is significant investment in faster broadband networks in diverse communities across America. This noble effort includes an increase in broadband access for underserved and rural areas in the wake of the immense demand for connectivity created by the pandemic.
The House should waste no time in passing this badly needed measure while expanding its scope to include support for all viable broadband technologies demanded today by consumers.
Working together on the Federal Communications Commission, we saw firsthand that connecting all Americans to high-quality, affordable broadband quickly and efficiently requires the deployment of all available technologies. Wired and wireless broadband technologies each have an important part to play.
Fiber is an effective broadband solution in many areas of the country. But an often-overlooked technology that more and more consumers are demanding is fixed wireless — an efficient, competitive and popular high-speed alternative. It is being deployed across the country, particularly in more remote areas where fiber is not feasible. With the massive investments going into the deployment of 5G wireless technologies by both national and local broadband internet service providers, fixed wireless capability is only getting better, and consumers are loving it.
Fixed wireless broadband is different from wired service. Wired broadband requires cables trenched underground or hung on poles to reach each building or home. Alternatively, fixed wireless uses radio spectrum and a single transmission point, such as a tower, that covers a wide area to provide service to many locations. Where fixed wireless broadband is available, users simply plug a small device into an outlet and within minutes they can connect to the internet — wirelessly.
More than ever before, internet connectivity is crucial to everyday life. Those without a reliable and affordable connection risk being left behind in school, at work, and more. According to data collected by the FCC, an estimated 5.7 million American households do not have broadband internet access. Among those that have access, 25 percent have only one provider to choose from — a monopoly. And we all know what that means: higher prices, unreliable service, and poorly served and disappointed customers.
Fixed wireless offers a competitive option for many consumers, particularly in underserved markets where competition is lacking and fiber deployment is lagging. A comprehensive fiber network connecting every home can take years to deploy. In these situations, fixed wireless technology fortunately can provide a high-quality, lower-cost solution that can be deployed more rapidly than fiber. The capital cost per subscriber for fixed wireless is nearly 10 times less than fiber and deployment is measured in months not years, making it an effective and speedy method to connect rural, unserved and underserved communities. Furthermore, fixed wireless broadband puts downward pressure on consumer prices by bringing more competition to underserved markets.
Our experience as regulators has shown us that a one-size-fits-all policy is rarely the solution, especially for macro-level challenges such as promoting connectivity to all. While it fills a tremendous need in urban and densely populated communities, wired fiber solutions for broadband are not the answer everywhere.
We must pursue an all-of-the-above approach that will get everyone connected, no matter where they live.
Mignon L. Clyburn, a Democrat, served as a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission from 2009 to 2018, including as acting chair from May 2013 to October 2013.
Robert M. McDowell, a Republican, served as a commissioner of the FCC from 2006 to 2013. He is a partner at Cooley LLP, where he co-leads its global communications practice.