A fiber-only strategy risks CA’s chance to bridge the digital divide

in summary

California utility regulators are considering a fiber-only strategy to close the state’s digital divide, but fiber can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to deploy. Newer generations of fixed wireless networks offer a promising alternative.

Guest Comment written by

Carl Guardino

Carl Guardino is Vice President of Government Affairs and Public Policy at Tarana.

The California Public Utilities Commission has finalized a proposal to secure $1.86 billion in federal funds awarded to California through a program aimed at bridging the digital divide and bringing reliable high-speed broadband access to every unserved and underserved location in the nation.

However, the CPUC’s current plan will not provide “internet for all” in California. At best, the plan will only result in internet for some.

With state and federal funds available, described as a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, achieving this goal is vital. In California alone, at least 461,481 places – mostly families – do not have adequate internet. That’s roughly 1.5 million Californians who are counting on our politicians to get it right.

To meet or exceed the FCC’s definition of reliable broadband service, both Congress and state legislatures have emphasized a “standards-based, technology-agnostic” approach to delivery, whether via fiber, fixed wireless or satellite technology. Unfortunately, the commission’s current plan abandons this technology-neutral direction in favor of a fiber-only approach.

To be clear, fiber is an excellent way to deliver broadband. The challenge is that it can be prohibitively expensive and take many years to implement. With limited time and limited finances to reach all Californians, the right approach is critical.

'Behind the line again': California broadband plan deprioritizes underserved regions, advocates say

After years of planning a broadband system to bridge California’s digital divide, officials de-prioritized some low-income areas because of unexpected costs. Gov. Gavin Newsom says he’s committed to funding the entire network, but advocates are skeptical.

Among other non-fiber solutions, the latest fixed wireless access technology deserves attention. It delivers broadband wirelessly – without the long labor or digging – and is often used to fill coverage gaps where fiber is too expensive or time-consuming to deploy.

Traditional fixed wireless networks often miss the mark in terms of service speed and reliability, as older versions use either a cellular network or indoor Wi-Fi, neither of which are designed to provide the bandwidth used by homes or businesses. They also struggle to work over long distances.

Next-generation fixed wireless access is a newer and proven technology that is designed to provide residential broadband. It has an unprecedented capacity to provide reliable optical-class service at mass scale and is less affected by physical obstacles, bad weather and radio interference. It is able to deliver vital wireless broadband access to areas where fiber is impractical or outright impossible.

The CPUC’s narrow view of fixed wireless technology will drive up costs, add years to deployment timelines and leave countless Californians without reliable broadband. The commission may need a huge infusion of future funds to complete the job – even when that windfall is clearly labeled as a “once-in-a-lifetime”. It’s just not a good strategy.

With new technology rewriting what’s possible with broadband, California should be able to extend reliable broadband service to every unserved or underserved household and meet the national program’s stated goal of 100 percent coverage. Using every possible solution where it is most optimal is the only way to provide Internet for everyone in California.

It’s not too late to change course. California families depend on it.

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