By RON FIELDS
Post News Network
As Nextlink Internet prepares to expand its network across Kansas and Nebraska, legacy broadband companies are questioning the Dallas-based company's strategy to deploy mostly fixed wireless connectivity to rural residents.
On Aug. 31, Nextlink was awarded almost a half-billion dollars from the Federal Communications Commission to expand its service. In both Kansas and Nebraska, more than $25 million was dedicated to deploying a mix of fiber and fixed wireless connections to about 40,000 customers deemed to have substandard connectivity. The funding is part of the FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund — RDOF.
Jimmy Todd, CEO of Lenora, Kan.-based Nex-Tech, contends the fixed wireless solution — which pipes a signal to customers via an access point on a tower or other high point — is not the solution.
"Fixed wireless is by no means the best option for them," he said. "The pandemic has taught us more than anything else how important it is to be connected. They're not going to get the same kind of service if those funds had gone to fiber providers."
Nextlink, which began a decade ago serving communities around the Dallas-Fort Worth area, also was awarded $281 million in 2018 as part of the FCC's Connect America Fund Phase II — CAF II — which fueled its expansion into five additional states. In the RDOF grant, Nextlink proposed expanding that footprint to 11 states.
The latest grant, Todd said, was a "quick reaction to an outgoing FCC leadership. With CAF II, before there was never any proof of whether or not that was good or not, they rolled out the first round of RDOF."
Both grant programs have percentage-completion milestones that must be met. Todd said several of those milestones were "punted during the pandemic."
Nextlink's Chief Strategy Officer Claude Aiken said the CAF II builds are ahead of the FCC's schedule — but Todd claimed in the more rural parts of Kansas, that is not the case.
"The completion percentages likely are based on population centers further east," he said. "When you're looking at numbers, it's easier to show a higher number of people connected versus a less densely populated area. Out where we're at, we haven't seen a lot of activity."
Aiken said recently the company actually is ahead of its 2022 milestone of 40 percent completion in Kansas, with that state's CAF II work actually 60 percent completed.
Todd admitted Nex-Tech saw strategic areas to expand its network, which currently serves over 30,000 customers and has in recent years expanded into Salina, Great Bend and Moundridge. At least some future fiber expansions could be off the table with Nextlink's plans.
"We'd hoped that we've have the opportunity to build fiber in these rural areas. (Nextlink) hasn't even built out to their CAF II obligations," he said. "Will customers even, four years from now, have any kind of coverage?
"Their arrival keeps you from being able to take fiber to those customers," he added. "The operational costs are so much less. It costs more to deploy, but the operational cost is going to be less."
Todd said, depending upon terrain, population density and other factors, fibers costs between $20,000 and $40,000 per mile to deploy. That's in addition to the approximately $3,000 per customer installation costs.
Daniel Friesen, co-founder and chief innovation officer of Buhler, Kan.-based Ideatek, also said fiber is the best long-term solution.
"While IdeaTek also operates a fixed-wireless network to provide internet to remote, rural areas, fiber is the only real future-proof solution for Kansas," he said. "Investing more in fiber means there would be less state or federal spending on technology that has the tendency to become quickly outdated. Fiber is the only technology proven to serve the state's needs for decades to come."
Kansas and Nebraska have their own pools of dollars to help connect the unconnected — more than 80,000 in both Kansas and Nebraska lack broadband speeds of 25MB download/3MB upload.
"Nextlink does already offer service in parts of Nebraska, so any expansion of its services at least improves options for people, and in many cases, might be an option for service that was never available before," said Deb Collins, public information officer with the Nebraska Public Service Commission.
Nextlink's Aiken said the Kansas pool of money to fund broadband projects is "significantly oversubscribed."
"There are way more applications for funding than money to go around," he said. "Is the contention we should be double-funding these areas to do the same thing? ... This is going to enable people who might have otherwise not have had service to receive it."
But the fixed wireless technology — and the promise it can deliver reliable 100MB-by-20MB speeds at minimum — leaves Todd dubious, especially when it comes to the radio spectrum the wireless signals travel on from tower to home.
"They just don't have the licensed spectrum to do it. They own some, but they're not going to get to gigabit speeds through that. It's subject to too much noise," he said.
And distance from the source signal makes a difference, he said, noting the similarities to a stronger signal while being near a home router.
"The radios are going to have to be in such close proximity. (You can) use higher spectrum radio signals ... but the higher the spectrum, the shorter the distance it travels," Todd said. "Technology has come a long way to improve this, but only to a point."
Aiken said the company is doing a trial run of speed tests for submission to the FCC, noting Nextlink has thousands of customers already using fixed wireless — and getting promised high-speed rates.
"Our chief technology officer has the next-generation gear that we've been deploying in areas that offer up to 500-by-100," Aiken said. "I would certainly hope if our chief technology officer is getting higher than 100-by-20 at his residence, we can certainly do that for other folks."
While Friesen said he disagreed with Nextlink's reliance upon fixed wireless, he said the ambitious deployment plan is well-intentioned.
"How can you not be impressed by the enormous plans companies like NextLink have? They've made a huge commitment to underserved Kansans," he said. "Their wireless plans are highly ambitious, something not yet seen at scale in the market, but we respect any innovation and creativity in the broadband space if it accomplishes the mission of serving the underserved.
"We can support any mission that serves underserved Kansans, even if we disagree on the technological path forward."
Aiken is confident Nextlink's plan of a mix of fiber and fixed wireless will provide the promised high-speed connectivity.
"We do our best to educate the rest of the world on what we can do, regardless of the technology," he said.
Cover image courtesy Pixabay