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New report exposes cost and quality drawbacks of fixed wireless technologies in delivering broadband to rural communities

Amidst the largest ever federal investment in broadband buildout in the US, a new report finds fixed wireless technologies fall short of fiber optic networks when it comes to delivering cost effective, high quality broadband services in rural areas. The report, authored by CTC Technology & Energy (CTC), commissioned by CWA, and published by the Benton Institute, analyzes a candidate fixed wireless network as compared to a candidate fiber optic network in the same real-world settings across a variety of rural geographies. Ultimately, the report finds that fiber networks are more suitable for rural broadband deployment when it comes to bandwidth, costs, overall quality, and long-term sustainability.

The report, “Fixed wireless technologies and their suitability for broadband delivery,” aims to provide an accessible guide to current and anticipated future fixed wireless technologies. It comes as states begin to develop their broadband action plans to qualify for funding under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which allocates a minimum of $100 million per state for build-out. In all, the federal government has appropriated more than $100 billion towards providing Americans with high-speed, affordable internet through both the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and American Rescue Plan.

Key findings from the report include:

  • Challenges – Fixed wireless network coverage is adversely affected by line-of-sight obstructions (including buildings and seasonal foliage) and weather, and it is challenging to design a fixed wireless network that is both cost-effective and provides comprehensive coverage of unserved areas.

  • Bandwidth – The theoretical bandwidth of fiber is thousands of times higher than fixed wireless. Meanwhile, fixed wireless networks have inherent capacity limitations that sharply limit the number of users on a given network.

  • Sustainability – Fiber is sustainable, scalable, and renewable. It offers greater capacity, predictable performance, lower maintenance costs, and a longer technological lifetime than fixed wireless technologies, and has no line-of-sight or capacity issues.

  • Cost – While initial capital costs are higher for fiber than for fixed wireless network deployments (most of the capital cost for fiber relates to construction), ongoing operational costs for fixed wireless are higher. A major operational cost for fixed wireless is equipment replacement, while other large costs include construction of tower sites and wholesale internet.

“The U.S. is in the middle of the largest publicly-subsidized broadband buildout in history. With the potential to bring essential connectivity to millions of Americans currently lacking internet access, states must ensure that they are closely investigating all network options and choosing the most suitable technologies,” said CWA District 4 Vice President Linda L. Hinton, who spoke at a webinar presenting the new report. “What we cannot do is expend public dollars on inferior technologies that have slower, less reliable service than fiber, once again leaving behind lower-income, rural, and tribal communities. That’s what the study shows in terms of dollars and cents. States must have long-term solutions and sustainability in mind when making these critical decisions.”

With 22 percent of all Americans living in rural areas lacking access to fixed broadband services at threshold speeds, CTC and CWA’s analysis provides states critical insight into the technologies needed to ensure quality, sustainable, and affordable internet for millions.

“The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) creates the opportunity to bring broadband to unserved Americans that is the same or better than what served Americans have—and to ensure that what is built has a long, useful life. This analysis is informed by thorough street by street designs in multiple small town and rural environments to estimate costs and the technical strengths and weaknesses of fiber and wireless approaches,” said Dr. Andrew Afflerbach, P.E., CTC CEO and Chief Technology Officer. “The report demonstrates that in most environments, fiber and wireless have similar long-term total costs of operation. Moreover, fiber optics can continue operating and be upgraded at a much lower cost than a wireless network.”

As states determine their broadband infrastructure for buildout, the report recommends state grant makers investigate the following parameters in order to ensure a high-performance, scalable, financially sustainable, long-lasting solution:

  1. The proposed network’s speed and latency that will be immediately available, starting with a requirement of 100/20 Mbps to the premises.

  2. The network’s speed & latency and cost to operate the network in five years, 10 years, 15 years, and 20 years.

  3. The capital cost to construct the network and to deliver the level of service promised in five, 10, 15, and 20 years.

  4. The network’s ability to provide cost-effective service to all individuals in the service area, including the strategy for obtaining line-of-sight for fixed wireless deployments.

  5. The network’s resiliency, including the ability for key components to continue operating during a power failure or service cut and the ability to restore service quickly.

More detailed recommendations for states’ broadband buildout can be found on Page 51 of the report.


New report exposes cost and quality drawbacks of fixed wireless technologies in delivering broadband to rural communities (CWA, June 22, 2022)