Innovation

AT&T, NetComm Wireless to offer fixed-wireless broadband to rural areas in 18 US states

AT&T and NetComm Wireless recently unveiled a plan to supply fixed-wireless equipment across certain US states. Here's why this plan could be smarter than deploying fiber.

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A tower is built for Microsoft's Mawingu White Space project in Kenya.

Image: Microsoft.

Difficulty accessing broadband continues to plague many Americans—a 2016 Broadband Progress Report found that 34 million people across the US don't have access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service—and the problem is particularly stark in rural areas, where as many as 23 million lack access to this service.

On Thursday, AT&T and NetComm Wireless announced a partnership to address this disparity. A new initiative from the two providers aims to improve fixed-wireless broadband access in rural America. AT&T will be using NetComm Wireless—a supplier of fixed-wireless equipment for Australia's national broadband—to outfit its outdoor wireless antennas. For rural areas across 18 US states, these antennas can provide connectivity speeds of 10Mbps and over.

According to ZDNet, the initiative has "already been deployed in Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee."

The move follows Microsoft's announcement on Tuesday of its Rural Airband Initiative—an ambitious, $10 billion investment in providing 2 million Americans with broadband access in the next five years, via a TV White Space, a 600 MHz band dubbed "Super Wi-Fi." For Georgia, North Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin, Microsoft's seed money could bring broadband access sooner, in under 12 months. Microsoft says it will invest profits gained by the initiative into future plans to help communities in need access broadband.

In addition, AT&T's 5G Evolution upgrade—previously available in Austin, TX—launched in Indiana, and will reach 20 metro areas, including Los Angeles,, San Francisco, Boston, and others, by the end of the year.

The announcement by AT&T and NetComm Wireless to provide low-cost broadband access for rural communities also follows Google Fiber being forced to quit its expansion of fiber in Los Angeles, Dallas, Tampa, Jacksonville, Portland, Phoenix, San Diego, San Jose, and Oklahoma City in 2016.

According to Wes Kerr, director of community solutions at Connected Nation, AT&T has been working on expanding wireless into rural areas for a while, and is also planning to develop its own tech to deploy in rural areas. The new tech, Kerr told TechRepublic, "has some real hope because it utilizes electric transmission lines to help propagate the service."

Ultimately, AT&T and those who traditionally offer voice services are trying to bring new services into an area that's costly to maintain and extremely costly to replace.

"All the buzz is around fiber deployment," said Kerr, "which is wonderful, but difficult to deploy."

The financial aspect, said Kerr, is critical to consider. "Oftentimes, the finances are secondary to the thought process," said Kerr. "It becomes exponentially more cost-prohibitive when the potential subscribers is low."

SEE: Microsoft puts up $10B to bring broadband internet to millions of rural Americans

"Organizations are realizing: We need to do something different to reach the rural areas," he said. "The models we used in the past don't make sense anymore. At least not without lots of additional funding."

Broadband access remains a critical issues for people living in rural communities. Teena Maddox has previously reported on the FCC recently dropping support of broadband subsidies for low-income people, as well as ending opportunities for companies to offer broadband at lower rates. This was a reversal of President Barack Obama's investment of $7.2 towards expanding rural broadband access.

"We're in an always-connected society," said Kerr, "and when a group lacks that access, there's a disconnect. The fixed-wireless service can help expand that reach."

"I would love for everybody to have a fiber connection, but it doesn't make sense to see that kind of deployment right now," Kerr added.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers:

  1. On Thursday, AT&T and Netcomm Wireless partnered to bring broadband connectivity to rural areas across 18 US states using fixed-wireless.
  2. AT&T will be using NetComm Wireless—a supplier of fixed-wireless equipment for Australia's national broadband—to outfit its outdoor wireless antennas. For rural areas across 18 US states, these antennas can provide connectivity speeds of 10Mbps and over.
  3. The move follows on the heels of other initiatives, such as those from Microsoft, Verizon, Google, that are developing plans to offer broadband access to rural communities.

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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