Wireless Is Essential, But Fiber Remains the Future (For Now)

From the miraculous benefits of WiMax to the hype surrounding 5G, U.S. wireless companies have long promised near-Utopian levels of technological revolution.

Yet time after time these promises have fallen short, reminding a telecom sector all-too-familiar with hype that fiber optics remains, for now, the backbone of bridging the digital divide. 

From Google Fiber to Starry, numerous companies have promised to use wireless technology as a supplement or even replacement for future-proof fiber. But more often than not these promises have failed to have any meaningful impact at scale. Worse, many wireless services often fail to deliver on a routinely neglected aspect of telecom policy: affordability.

That’s not to say that wireless doesn’t have an immense, integral role to play in shoring up the nation’s broadband gaps. 5G, rural and urban small WISPs, satellite, and other wireless options are all essential in bridging the digital divide and extending access to rural communities and tribal nations (see: the FCC Tribal Priority Window and the beneficial wireless options that have emerged). 

But reality continues to demonstrate that there’s simply no substitute for the kind of high capacity, affordable fiber efforts being deployed by a steady parade of municipalities, cooperatives, and city-owned utilities. And as an historic level of federal subsidies wind their way to the states, the distinction is more important than ever. 

A Rich History Of Wishful Thinking

The industry crown for unwarranted wireless industry hype likely belongs to WiMax, a family of wireless broadband communication standards based on the IEEE 802.16 set of standards and introduced in 2001.

From 2001 to 2011, there were no shortage of missives about how the standard would revolutionize connectivity worldwide, ushering forth the golden age of affordable broadband access. There were countless warnings that marketing departments had gotten well ahead of themselves, all widely ignored by the speculative investment set.

Ultimately the standard failed to deliver any of its many promises. The primary WiMax enthusiast in the States, Sprint, launched its first commercial WiMax network in 2008, only to shut the network down in 2015. Much like Earthlink’s citywide Wi-Fi efforts (and that of most muni Wi-Fi builds), the technology was ultimately supplanted by other, more modern standards like 4G (LTE) and 5G. 

Those newer wireless standards haven’t been immune from exaggeration and hype. 

Ahead of 5G’s launch in the U.S. there was no shortage of claims that the standard would change the world, revolutionizing everything from the self-driving car industry to modern “smart cities,” ushering forth a “new industrial revolution” that would radically change everything from tattoo work to modern cancer treatments

Once again, few of these claims came true. 

U.S. 5G speeds have proven to be far slower than overseas deployments courtesy of a dearth of middleband spectrum. U.S. cellular plans are also some of the most expensive in the developed world, and wireless connections often include throttling or other nickel and dime network management practices not seen on traditional fiber connections.

While 5G delivers faster speeds at lower latencies than previous wireless standards, it was always more of an evolution than a revolution. But wireless carrier marketing departments, eager to justify higher prices, spike smartphone and network gear sales, and nab even greater federal subsidies, haven’t been particularly interested in any such distinction. 

Google, Starry Wireless Promises Also Fail To Materialize

The parade of promises surrounding wireless’ looming potential are nothing if not consistent. In 2016, Google acquired point-to-point wireless connectivity company Webpass, promising that the acquisition would be the backbone of a multi-year effort to expand broadband access. 

"Joining Google Fiber will be a great development for our users because the companies share the same vision of the future and commitment to the customer," Charles Barr, president and founder of Webpass said at the time. "Google Fiber's resources will enable Webpass to grow faster and reach many more customers than we could as a standalone company."

That didn’t happen. 

Google’s Webpass ambitions ran face-first into Google’s 2016 plan to cut costs, layoff staff, and mothball Google Fiber expansion efforts. Not only did Webpass not see any meaningful market expansion, the Webpass footprint initially shrunk due to the company exiting the Boston market shortly after the acquisition.

As of 2022, Webpass, now dubbed Fiber Webpass, is currently available in limited portions of 11 cities. As Google has rekindled interest in fiber expansion in markets like Utah, they’ve insisted that Webpass continues to play an integral but somewhat ambiguous role in those expansions (most notably streamlining apartment and office building installations). 

But the company’s original promise of wireless at meaningful scale simply never materialized.

Another promising upstart named Starry, the brainchild of former Aereo boss Chet Kanojia, also promised significant market disruption when launched in January of 2016. The company uses IEEE 802.11-based technology and 24 GHz and 37 GHz millimeter wave spectrum to deliver service tiers starting at 200 Mbps for $50 a month. 

“With Starry's technology, we can deploy and scale faster than traditional wired networks—at a fraction of the cost,” Kanokia said at launch. “This is how the networks of the future will be built around the globe."

Yet once again, such promises never materialized. Starry halted its network deployment earlier this year, laid off half of the company’s staff, and is in the process of being delisted from the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). The company’s unsustainable cash burn rate made it impossible to deliver on its promises of ubiquitous wireless at scale. 

Starry currently offers broadband to roughly 80,950 subscribers in seven markets in a nation where an estimated 20-40 million Americans lack access to broadband. Despite grand promises, Google Webpass and Starry combined barely managed to make a dent in the nation’s overall connectivity needs. 

Starlink, Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) Creates The Latest Hype Cycle

Again, none of this is to say that wireless doesn’t have an essential role to play in shoring up overall access and providing essential competition—after policymakers drive fiber as deeply into markets as possible. 

5G fixed wireless access (FWA) deployments by T-Mobile and Verizon have begun providing some light competition for the nation’s cable broadband giants, offering wireless 5G home broadband at speeds of 30 to 180 Megabits per second (Mbps) for as low as $50 a month. 

T-Mobile estimates it should serve around 7 million to 8 million FWA customers by the end of 2025. Verizon has been similarly bullish on fixed wireless, calling it the “next generation of broadband.” Both companies are looking to capitalize on the fact that cable monopolies see some of the lowest customer satisfaction ratings of any industry in America

But those FWA offerings are attempting to replicate cable broadband, itself a technology that historically failed to keep pace with fiber, particularly on the upstream. Residential FWA still faces capacity constraints that cable doesn’t, as well as many networks using management practices (like throttling HD and 4K video) unseen on cable broadband networks.

Will FWA from big mobile monopolies be able to scale and maintain broadband service quality? It’s probably not likely, telecom analyst Craig Moffett recently noted. 

“No operator wants to risk their high-value mobile service experience for the benefit of a few incremental low-value fixed subscriptions,” he noted last year

Despite some promising early inroads, market researchers estimate that FWA will only obtain an estimated 10 percent market share by 2027. In the interim, most cable companies will be accelerating plans to upgrade upstream-constrained cable networks with full duplex DOCSIS or fiber, while FWA providers attempt to figure out network management tricks to manage spectrum constraints. 

More recently, SpaceX’s Starlink has enjoyed its time in the hype spotlight as a near-magical solution for the nation’s broadband woes. But most experts say the service also lacks the capacity to meaningfully disrupt the nation’s cable monopolies, may not be financially viable long term, is facing increasing capacity-related speed slowdowns, and features a first month up front cost of $710, falling well short on affordability.

That’s before you mention a decided lack of any competent customer service, or the fact that many users spent more than a year on waiting lists for service they never received. Starlink is a useful option for those without broadband access that can afford it, but in terms of truly bridging the digital divide, it’s barely making a dent. 

SpaceX itself has been more circumspect about its goals of uniform connectivity while middling reviews and the laws of physics puncture the myth that Starlink is a connectivity cure all.

Fiber Is The Future And Federal Subsidies Reflect It

“If it's not fiber, it's not broadband,” Vermont Community Broadband Board (VCBB) Executive Director Christine Hallquist told ILSR in a recent interview regarding the success of Communications Union District (CUD) fiber deployments in Vermont, echoing the tagline of the Fiber Broadband Association. 

“If you don't have fiber up in the air in five years and you're not providing fiber services, you're gonna be out of business,” Hallquist said he warned cable giants years ago. “If you look at the cable infrastructure, I think this is probably true nationwide. If you look at a 25 year life, you look at operation maintenance. Why would anybody build cable?” To their credit, the cable companies do seem to be using fiber in most of their new builds. 

Federal policymakers have (sometimes) gotten the message. Federal subsidy guidance and speed standards affixed to the the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) make some effort to prioritize fiber over wireless or cable, much to the chagrin of cable providers, WISPs and big cellular providers alike.

“The program prioritizes projects designed to provide fiber connectivity directly to the end user," the NTIA said of its Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, which will dole out $42.5 billion for broadband services in predominantly rural areas.

It will likely take several years for BEAD funding to fully make its way to the states. During that time there will be no limit of creative lobbying to ensure that funding heads to entrenched cable giants and cellular providers, and away from the kind of community-backed, open access fiber networks shoring up access and driving down costs nationwide. 

Last month, a coalition of wireless industry lobbying organizations sent a letter to broadband offices in all US states and territories, urging them to adopt a low “Extremely High Cost Per Location Threshold” (EHCT) to ensure that alternative wireless options aren’t elbowed out by future-proof fiber when it comes to subsidization.

“The reality is that wireless is oftentimes the fastest, most efficient, and most cost-effective way to bring connectivity to rural and non-urban areas,” said Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) President and CEO Steven K. Berry stated in a press release.

There’s no dispute that wireless is an essential part of bridging the digital divide, particularly in sparsely-populated, geographically treacherous rural America. WISPs in particular have a long history of working to shore up access to markets deemed unworthy of entrenched monopoly attention. 

Those WISPs have expressed concerns that NTIA guidance often treats FWA as a less reliable connectivity option. Last May, the NTIA declared that any territory served only with FWA using unlicensed spectrum would be considered “unserved,'' something the agency was recently forced to clarify.

FWA systems relying on unlicensed spectrum "do not, by definition, have guaranteed access to the transmission medium they use to provide service,” the NTIA said. “Those providers could — depending on the band — be subject to interference from other operators in the unlicensed band at any given moment or, where a licensed user has priority, be forced to reduce or cease operations. As a result, they can’t be available with a high degree of certainty both at present and for the foreseeable future."

The NTIA isn’t arguing that wireless shouldn’t be subsidized or doesn’t have an essential role to play, only that more reliable, less capacity constrained fiber options should routinely take priority when and where it makes the most sense. And it’s not an either/or equation; shoring up fiber access now benefits wireless efforts down the road. 

"Fiber is definitely our priority. But we know there's going to be a healthy mix of technology in the end," NTIA boss Alan Davidson recently told an industry panel

History is filled with examples of how wireless is an immensely useful niche option for neglected Americans. But the wireless sector is also filled with unsubstantiated hype when it comes to promises of fiber-equivalent connectivity at meaningful scale. The Connect This! show regularly discusses the smoke and mirrors around gigabit wireless claims at scale in rural America.

The United States is facing what could be a once-in-a-generation wave of broadband subsidies that could revolutionize rural connectivity in the United States. Fiber optic connectivity should be the backbone of those efforts, with 5G and fixed wireless filling in the gaps and providing needed choice in these broken markets. 

Over time as wireless standards evolve, the FCC frees more spectrum for small WISPs rather than the largest monopolies, and fiber is belatedly driven deeply into the unserved nooks and crannies of America’s often unforgiving geography, wireless may become indistinguishable from traditional fixed options. But there’s ample indication that we’re not there yet, and we’d be wise to heed the warnings of history when it comes to wireless hype.

*A short video on how fiber gets to the home can be seen below: 

Header image of NYC Mesh node courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Inline image of cell tower courtesy of Sean Gonsalves

Inline image of broken promises sign courtesy of Flickr user Lisa Norwood, Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Inline image of Starlink user terminal courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)