How fixed
wireless access
can help expand
rural internet access

Author: Shane Schick

If you live in an urban area, the easy access to websites, apps and mobile devices might lead you to assume that online access has become truly ubiquitous. However, as research and surveys consistently show, the term "rural internet access" is a bit of a misnomer. To put it into perspective, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center in 2021, just 72% of people living in rural areas in the U.S. said they have a broadband internet connection at home.

This builds upon earlier research from Pew that found 24% of rural Americans consider access to high-speed internet in their local community to be a major problem. Based on its own analysis, Broadband Now estimates 42 million people in the U.S. do not have the ability to purchase broadband internet, either because it is not even available or because it is beyond their financial means. Most of these people are in rural areas. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) found 22.3% of rural residents lack coverage from their minimum broadband speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and uploads of 3 Mbps (commonly known as 25/3).

Fixed wireless access (FWA) could be the answer to these challenges at a time when businesses in rural areas need to be online more than ever to reach their customers.

The quest for better rural internet service

While the availability of rural internet access has been a concern for years, the pandemic further underscored the urgency of finding a solution. As an article published by the World Economic Forum pointed out, the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 turned the internet into a lifeline beyond just buying products and streaming services online. Other key services impacted by the quality of internet service include:

The need for improved rural internet service has been recognized by both governments and businesses alike. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes a $65 billion investment in broadband with the aim to "deliver reliable, affordable, high-speed internet to every household." The U. S. Department of Agriculture's ReConnect Program furnishes loans and grants to provide funds for the costs to construct, improve, or acquire the facilities and equipment needed to provide broadband service in eligible rural areas.

What FWA means for rural internet users

A report from the CTIA said FWA can be defined as a last-mile technology to provide internet service by using wireless links between fixed points—such as a cell tower and an antenna located at an individual location—instead of running fiber or cable lines.

Some of the benefits cited in the CTIA report include lower costs to serve an area, in part because it minimizes the need to build additional infrastructure out to every location that needs service, which in rural areas might mean running physical cable or fiber for miles to remote residences.

FWA also offers streamlined deployment, since in many cases it allows customers to install the service themselves, rather than waiting for a technician to visit their location.

Operators can also take advantage of 5G innovations to offer greater network efficiency, the report added. If download and upload capacity needs change, for instance, FWA can be adjusted quickly and easily on the backend systems with no need to send a technician out to make changes at the location.

How FWA can help businesses reach the last mile

There are a number of ways businesses can benefit from the reliability and speed provided by FWA, in areas where it is available. Example use cases include providing data-driven agricultural practices to farming and allowing rural small businesses to offer their products and services online.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce believes the full adoption of digital tools for rural small businesses would lead to an additional $74 billion in sales per year, an addition of $41 billion in GDP and at least 300,000 extra jobs.

Research from 5G Americas, meanwhile, suggested that FWA could homogenize the user experience for companies that need to provide the same connectivity to employees working in rural offices or their homes as those working at their headquarters. As with any business, there is always some risk of physical connections going down, so FWA can serve as a backup and failover option.

FWA has already reached a point that it is comparing favorably with wired services and in many cases would be a competitive alternative to technologies such as DSL, according to a recent report from Deloitte. While fixed wireless delivered vs. satellite will remain an important choice for rural internet service, FWA appears to be growing in popularity, with Deloitte predicting the number of FWA connections will grow to 88 million this year. FWA is an attractive option due to its lower cost and higher bandwidth as compared to currently available satellite options.

Services like Allconnect have online directories to determine if FWA is available in a given area, and you can also talk to your provider about how FWA could offer the rural internet service you need for your business.

The author of this content is a paid contributor for Verizon.