The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-1 this week to undo Obama-era rules intended to help small companies provide faster wireless internet service.
The FCC said the decision will foster more investment and use of the 3.5 gigahertz band, a radio frequency spectrum that can be used for 5G internet service.
But small wireless internet service providers said the decision could shut smaller players out — limiting their ability to bid on licenses and deliver broadband in rural areas.
The vote represents a shift in federal policy. In 2015, the agency decided to auction 3.5 gigahertz licenses based on census tracts, which are smaller than the geographic areas typically used for licenses.
At the time, the FCC looked to shift from renewable licenses that ran for as long as 15 years toward three-year, non-renewable terms. That change was intended to open the way for smaller companies.
Tuesday’s decision changes that framework, increasing the size of license areas to counties, extending the license terms to 10 years and allowing renewals.
“This action will promote additional investment and encourage broader deployment in the band (and) ensure that our rules for this service keep up with technological advancements,” the agency said in a statement.
The agency has not yet started auctioning the licenses.
Economies of scale make relatively large areas, like counties, more efficient for developing infrastructure, said Dan Andreson, a computer science professor at Kansas State University.
“If you’re auctioning this off in big blocks of territory, then you can economize on the number of towers and the amount of power each tower produces,” Andreson said. “The bad news is, a big block of territory is worth a lot of money.”
Small companies say they might not be able to afford that price.
“A lot of it is going to get captured by the larger cellular-type carriers,” said Galen Manners, owner and founder of Wave Wireless, a wireless internet service provider in southeast Kansas. “It’s kind of sad. It’s disappointing.”
He said large companies are unlikely to use the additional bandwidth to service rural customers, instead using it to increase capacity for their cellular networks in more densely populated areas.
“They’re trying to meet demand just as we’re trying to meet demand,” Manners said.
Andreson agrees that big companies may be less interested in increasing rural internet access than improving service in highly populated urban and suburban areas. Meanwhile, small companies get most of their revenue from rural customers in more sparsely populated areas.
“It just costs way too much to dig a trench out to these farms,” he said. “Whereas, if you’re the local provider, you may say, ‘Hey, this is a much higher percentage. This particular farm is one of the 100 farms I’m serving. I better serve them.’”
Wave Wireless is one of those local providers. Manners says having access to another part of the radio band could further improve his company’s ability to provide faster internet, especially to his rural customers. He says he’s still hoping to bid on a license.
“We could use bigger channels, more access points, more transmitters on a tower,” he said. “It certainly will have an effect on how we progress from here.”
Regardless, Manners is happy his company will still have access to the part of the 3.5 gigahertz band available to the general public.
“We’re going to be able to use about 80 megahertz of spectrum,” he said. “And that’s better than anything we have today. So it’s not all doom and gloom, it is good.”
Nomin Ujiyediin is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @NominUJ.