The latest US government broadband subsidy program could potentially transform the broadband market in rural and underserved areas, but funding will need to pass through state governments, which comes with strings attached.
Fiber buildouts get priority treatment in the latest round of funding, potentially changing technology preferences in the US broadband market.
On May 13, 2022, the US government announced funding for three broadband subsidization programs, totaling $45 billion, aimed to bring internet to all American households and bridge the digital divide. The program will be administered through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), part of the US Department of Commerce, and distributed through state governments. The biggest chunk of the provided funding goes into the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program. BEAD funding focuses on broadband projects in unserved and underserved areas, as well as on planning and capacity-building for program administration in state offices. Program implementation will be led by the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) broadband coverage maps for identifying unserved and underserved areas (i.e., those with no access to 25 Mbps downlink/3 Mbps uplink and 100 Mbps downlink/20 Mbps uplink services, respectively).
At the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Starlink – with ample financial support from the US and its allies – supplied terminals and active service in the country.
Starlink’s service has proven unparalleled resilience, giving a new set of arguments for further development of low earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations.
Since the beginning of the all-out Russian invasion of Ukraine, Starlink has consistently proven its worth as a critical communications medium. The service has been proven resilient, both in its design and operations. The service requires no ground-based infrastructure aside from a user terminal, allowing users to set up internet access quickly. It circumvents terrestrial infrastructure, which has not only been damaged by the ongoing warfare, but has also crumbled under targeted Russian cyber and physical attacks and sabotage. This part of its performance was expected.
After a COVID-related decline in CapEx in 2020, US operators returned almost exactly to 2019 levels in 2021, in line with guidance provided at the beginning of the year.
Operators are planning to increase CapEx by double digits in 2022, with the increase being driven by midband 5G deployments and increasing appetite for fiber from both large and small operators.
An analysis of US operator financial results based on Q4 2021 earnings releases shows that CapEx in 2021 came in nearly identically to 2019 levels after a COVID-driven dip in 2020. The nine network operators shown below – all of which spent more than $1 billion in CapEx – spent $70.6 billion in 2021 CapEx, up 5.2% from 2020 and nearly flat from 2019. GlobalData estimates that the big three that account for nearly 70% of total CapEx – AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile USA – spent roughly $49 billion, up 7% from 2020. Continue reading “Midband 5G and Fiber Drive Increased 2022 CapEx Guidance from US Operators”→
• Despite growing fiber and FWA momentum in their home market, US cable MSOs are still mostly sticking with cable as their current and future network technology.
• This insistence on staying the course is natural, given cable’s “value for money” ratio, but the technological superiority of fiber and flexibility of FWA may increasingly endanger the very core of the MSO’s business.
Recent announcements coming from major US telcos indicate new enthusiasm for fiber and FWA investment. AT&T is forging on with its plan to add 30 million new locations to its fiber network, and has introduced XGS-PON into its network, enabling 2Gbps and 5Gbps services. Verizon has (finally) started offering 2Gbps service on its NG-PON2 network in New York City. Smaller operators like Frontier, Ziply, Vexus Fiber, and Hotwire have mostly jumped on the XGS-PON bandwagon and offer multi-gig services as well.
• With $65 billion in federal funding up for grabs, states in the U.S. will now have to navigate a set of complex regulatory hurdles in order to get projects off the ground.
• Two industry associations plan to introduce a playbook to help speed up this process. In the process, they hope to make the case for fiber as the best deployment option for many rural broadband scenarios.
With visions of government funding dancing in their heads, two U.S. fiber advocacy groups announced plans in December to publish a “Broadband Infrastructure Playbook” next month. The playbook is designed to help educate state governments spending some of the $65 billion in deployment funds allocated in the infrastructure bill passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Biden in November.
The two groups – the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA) and the NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association – are preparing the playbook to help demystify the complex and convoluted funding mechanisms laid out by the newly-formed “Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment” (BEAD) program that will require each state to implement its own plan. While final awards will vary widely, each state will receive a minimum of $100 million in funding for broadband infrastructure development. The near-term catch is that every state is required to coordinate with local governments and submit a five-year action plan in order to qualify for funding.
Compared to most other countries (including the UK, many EU countries, Australia, and India) in which the central government directly administers subsidies, or funds wholesale national broadband networks, the U.S. plan vastly overcomplicates matters through its state-by state process. While including state governments into the process may have been necessary for passage, it risks delaying the process of subsidy distribution and broadband deployments and may open the way for more political horse trading and lobbying on behalf of various interest groups. In that context, the Broadband Infrastructure Playbook should be seen with two lenses: 1) as a badly-needed information source to help states navigate a complicated funding process, and 2) as an opportunity for the FBA and NTCA to influence the process in favor of fiber deployments.
The playbook will provide a detailed overview of the statutory requirements associated with the new broadband infrastructure law and offer recommendations for how states should structure their broadband programs. Templates will also be provided to help accelerate the process of creating state funding applications and competitive bidding evaluations.
Specifically, the FBA and NTCA have indicated the playbook will provide recommendations in the following areas:
• Overall program plan, sequencing and timing of activities
• Recommendations on how states can best incorporate federal grant programs
• Key process and information requirements (e.g., in the mapping of underserved areas, the management of the award process and post-award monitoring)
• Organizational structure, scale and distribution of responsibilities
• Interfaces with other state government departments and external bodies
The FBA and NTCA are also calling for both states and broadband network providers to participate in the research for the playbook and share lessons learned from earlier funding programs. The two associations plan to issue the playbook in early 2022 in order to give states the opportunity to have systems in place in tie for the announcement of final funding awards, expected in May 2022.
While the playbook should provide an important tool in addressing the digital divide, the motives of the FBA and NTCA are of course not entirely altruistic. The FBA in particular represents dozens of telecommunications infrastructure vendors eager to break ground on a host of government-funded rural broadband contracts that are likely to extend well through the remainder of this decade. Rural broadband can come in many flavors, notably fixed wireless, and the two groups are keen to steer many of those investment decisions to fiber. The to-be-released playbook can play a vital role in that regard.
Verizon will exceed its 2021 plans of adding 14,000 ‘5G Ultra Wideband’ cell sites that operate at mmWave frequencies.
While mmWave buildout will continue, Verizon signaled that its 2022 5G buildout plans will center around the C-band spectrum it obtained at auction earlier in 2021.
U.S. operator Verizon announced in December it has already exceeded its previously announced 2021 target of building 14,000 ‘5G Ultra Wideband’ cell sites using so-called millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum. However, the company also left a clear signal to the industry that it is ready to devote more attention to providing 5G in midband spectrum in 2022 and beyond. Continue reading “Verizon Turns 5G Spotlight to Midband Spectrum in 2022”→
SoftBank plans to issue a sustainability bond to help fund its high-altitude platform station (HAPS) project designed to enable Internet service in currently hard-to-reach locales.
Investors may be reluctant to invest in the new bond because of the long timeframe to commercial viability, lack of a clear path to profit, and emerging competition from LEO competitors like Starlink and Project Kuiper.
Japanese investment management conglomerate SoftBank Corporation announced it will issue a sustainability bond to fund its novel HAPS project designed to enable Internet service in currently hard-to-reach locales. Sustainability bonds are becoming an increasingly popular way for telecoms operators to fund environmental initiatives; however, investors may be skeptical of SoftBank’s plans to use a sustainability bond to fund development of its still-unproven HAPS model. Continue reading “SoftBank Sustainability Bond Plans May Face Skeptical Investment Community”→
• NEC and Netcracker wrap their respective professional services and domain orchestration solution around Juniper’s IP networking and ADVA’s open line system for a multi-layer, multi-vendor, and automated 5G Xhaul.
• The cooperation has great potential to increase each of the vendors’ credibility in 5G transport, but must show tangible advantages in functionality and cost savings to uproot entrenched competitors.
The 5G transport market continues to heat up, as operators are gradually waking up to the fact that transport renovation and automation will be one of the key ingredients of their future end-to-end 5G architecture. In that context, accelerated activity by NEC and Netcracker in 5G Xhaul illustrates well the importance of transport for 5G, and the size of the market opportunity awaiting. NEC, Netcracker, Juniper, and ADVA contributed their leading capabilities to their joint solution introduced in September.
The offering ticks several important boxes:
• IP/optical integration to simplify and streamline transport architectures;
• Support for 400ZR interfaces for cost-optimized, high-speed coherent transport;
• Open optical line system technology that can seamlessly support gear from multiple transport vendors;
• Multi-layer service and network lifecycle management to manage increasing complexity that accompany the migration to 5G architectures; and
• Closed loop automation to improve agility and respond more quickly to changing network traffic conditions.
NEC’s 5G Xhaul transformation services will serve both as a key ingredient of the solution and as a differentiator, especially for operators keen on composing technology elements from different vendors but lacking in-house capabilities to do so. The multi-vendor nature of the solution should also resonate well with customers seeking more openness and choice in their transport networks.
Including Netcracker’s Network Domain Orchestration into the offering is particularly significant and will appeal especially well with operators seeking flexibility and advanced capabilities like network slicing lifecycle management in their Xhaul networks. Network slicing functionality support is generally present in most transport networking elements today, both in IP and packet-optical domain. But deploying, maintaining, and decommissioning end-to-end network slices requires multi-layer and multi-domain orchestration, and is far from trivial. Even converged IP/optical networks need multi-layer and multi-domain coordination to successfully provision network slices and match them with services deployed on the network.
NEC’s and Netcracker’s solution enters a highly competitive Xhaul market, with already slanted playing field. Large radio vendors like Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia, and ZTE have wide and deep Xhaul offerings, and enjoy the opportunity to bundle their transport with radio access. Historically, this has meant that the attach rate between radio and Xhaul has been significant (50-60%); this significantly shrinks addressable market for any non-radio vendor. However, that could be changing as many vendors look to 5G to alter traditional infrastructure procurement paradigms. NEC’s services offering and Netcracker’s Network Domain Orchestration may provide important differentiators for operators seeking advanced Xhaul capabilities, but the key to success will be to demonstrate the integrated solution’s capabilities in live networks – both in terms of advanced functionality, such as network slicing, and in delivering significant and measurable improvement in terms of underlying network operation economics.
Orange’s expansion of its equipment refurbishing efforts to the radio network represents new levels of scale, complexity, and maturity in its circular economy initiative.
Fears that reused radio equipment will not match the improved energy consumption of new units have not been borne out in real-world usage.
In October 2021, Paris-based multinational telecoms operator Orange announced an agreementwith Nokia to increase its use of refurbished network equipment across its entire 26-country footprint. Beginning with radio access network (RAN) equipment, the arrangement will extend to other network infrastructure elements. In taking this step, Orange is establishing an advanced position that it hopes other telecoms groups will follow. Continue reading “Orange and Nokia Push the Circular Economy Forward with RAN Refurbishment”→