Excerpts: WISPAPALOOZA Show Dailies, with David Zumwalt

Hopes, goals and objectives for WISPA short-term, and long-term.

We see a lot of opportunity down the road, but also a lot of significant challenges over the next couple of years, too.  Core to our mission is growing our diverse and ever-changing membership base.  As with any technology, broadband communications rapidly changes, and that means our members change, too.  Wireless represents the bread and butter for most of our members – many of whom are small, local companies – but we see hybrid models playing an ever-bigger role in our members’ bottom lines.  In this regard, the fiber marketplace will explode over the next five years.  A good majority of our members already use it where it makes sense.  But it will definitely grow in popularity because more and more consumers demand it.  So, we’ll have to expand our tent further to attract and serve that aspect of our membership.  As with technology, this type of growth and evolution will never cease for the association.

If our members can grow, then so will we.  The technology has never been better.  And it keeps progressing.  That boosts growth, clearly.  But, we see some moderate headwinds ahead which technology cannot really address.  Government policy and its reach into our businesses has never been more formidable.  The tens-of-billions of dollars of government subsidies and expanding regulatory mandates have had, and will continue to have, a tremendously distorting effect on our industry.  The key to mitigating this, as well as taking advantage of opportunities within this maelstrom, is expanding our advocacy efforts to more ably trumpet the interests of our industry at large to stay ahead of this tide.  In this regard, and on top of our current federal advocacy efforts, we hope to develop a robust and truly proactive (not reactive) state team to help WISPA members realize all the opportunities pouring in on the state side.  This significant change will frame much of our efforts over the next year or so, especially as the subsidy spigot to the states – such as the NTIA’s $42 billion BEAD program – starts to flow.

Current world/national issues that concern WISPs. 

Access to spectrum – As WISPs, access to spectrum represents the lifeblood of our work.  This includes unlicensed and licensed spectrum.  Thankfully, it looks like 5.9 and the 6 GHz unlicensed will soon come online, which will really boost capacity and help our members provide service which rivals fiber in many areas.  Other areas in mid-band and mmWave bands show promise, too.  More unlicensed and/or shared spectrum is always good; it provides consumers with immense benefit and drives our internet economy.  Where spectrum gets auctioned, the key to this will be FCC processes and rules built to invite the greatest array of participants to the table – such as small WISPs.  We believe auctions should encompass more than solely opportunities to fund the US Treasury.  Having a diverse array of players, not just the Big Three 5G mobile companies, means more solutions.  Solutions that can solve our most pressing communications challenge to date – e.g., the digital divide.  WISPs must and can play a role here.

Avoiding stultifying regulations – To a large extent, the WISP industry exploded due to the idea of permissionless innovation.  Part 15 Spectrum allowed WISPs to take previously un- and underutilized spectrum and just run with it, creating an industry that now serves approximately 9 million Americans.  Similarly, the lack of broadband-specific regulation has allowed WISPs to go quickly and flexibly into areas left behind or ignored by legacy providers.  They offer solutions which service the unserved precisely because regulations did not stop them.  They created their own permission slips.  This approach works.  But in a multi-stakeholder environment, one which sees communications networks as essential to overall American prosperity, the urge to regulate will not abate.  So, we have to remain vigilant to keep regulation low.  Light regulation can promote competitive entry such as what our industry provides.  But regulation should not create an environment which steers opportunities to only the few biggest, well-heeled players.

Stopping pernicious overbuilding – Our industry has grown and evolved mostly through private investment and risk.  But over the past couple of years, we’ve witnessed an immense amount of government money being thrown at the development of rural and under-resourced market – the places that are truly expensive and hard to serve with reliable broadband.  The most notable of these is the NTIA’s BEAD program, which has $42 billion dedicated for the states for broadband deployment in the digital divide.  These are markets that we serve ably, and which represent growth areas for us.  Or could be, that is.  Unfortunately, the NTIA’s model has locked providers of purely unlicensed spectrum out of most of those grant opportunities.  So, that’s a problem.  The way the NTIA’s rules are designed – essentially not counting us as even being in the market we serve – means that gobs of money will get spent to overbuild our members’ networks in these  areas.  That isn’t right.  To be sure, more and more of our members have come to the realization that government funding must play a role in their business models.  It’s not their first choice, but if you are going to have these massive, distorting programs, then they should be technologically neutral, and inviting to small players – especially those already on the ground solving the problem the government ostensibly seeks to solve.  The NTIA model stands contrary to that, amounting to an official policy of government-sponsored overbuilding.  Not good any way you look at it.

Supply chain – With this nation’s pandemic response, and its resulting inflation and other challenges, we simply don’t have enough fiber, chips, equipment, and most importantly, skilled labor, to keep deploying broadband networks at the pace needed.  Boosting supply, which is dependent in large measure on finding more labor, does not just turn on overnight.  It may be another couple of years before we move through this rough patch in the global economy.  Regardless, this inordinately hurts small players and the rural, under-resourced and Tribal areas they serve.         

BEAD program update. 

On November 15, 2021, President Biden signed into law the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) that established the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program.  This program appropriates $42 billion for broadband deployment, mapping, and adoption projects, with funding to be delivered through the States, Territories, and the District of Columbia (DC).  These non-Federal government recipients were also given discretion over projects qualifying for disbursement of BEAD funds.
On May 13th, 2022, the NTIA published its BEAD Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO), which established a clear preference for projects incorporating optical fiber and treats as unserved those areas served exclusively with unlicensed fixed wireless service in the last mile.  That means BEAD funding can be used to overbuild such networks, even though WISPA members tended to be the only service providers active in the areas prioritized for funding under the IIJA, and even if broadband speeds of 100/20 Mbps were already being provided.  It also means that such networks could only qualify for BEAD funding in limited circumstances after a State had determined what its “extremely high cost per location threshold" should be.
WISPA is talking with the NTIA and other stakeholders – a full court press of sorts – to change this definition so that purely unlicensed providers can access BEAD grants that states will implement.  Additionally, we’re working to address other requirements within the rules which adversely affect financing, access to labor, and other costs-causing obligations, so that smaller players, if they wanted to apply for BEAD money, have a fair shot.  This work will run over the next couple of years as the NTIA, the FCC, Congress and others refine the NOFO process so that it can fully realize the goals Congress set before it in the IIJA.
How the BEAD program can benefit WISPA members.

To the extent the program becomes more inclusive to providers of purely unlicensed spectrum, then they’ll be able to compete for those state grants, which will total $42 billion for deployment.  There’s also close to $20 billion more for digital equity and middle-mile programs, which do not have the same restrictions.  Those who are already providing fiber, have licensed spectrum, or are part of the FCC’s ACP, ECF, CAF and RDOF programs, well, the hurdles will be far fewer and the opportunities more apparent.  That aside, it’s really dependent on the sophistication and the exposure to risk that any given company feels comfortable with.Government programs always come with lots of strings.  The decision to go for such funding involves a complex balance of factors each company needs to carefully weigh.  But the opportunities are there by design – states cannot do this work without WISPs or others in the private sector accomplishing the work needed in the local communities.

What must WISPs do to insulate themselves from a downturn in the economy?
They have to do what they’ve always done – staying agile and flexible, and open to all possibilities.  That involves going for government funding, or working with PPPs, and other non-traditional avenues of support to keep the business growing.  Looking innovatively at services, like managed Wi-Fi, or IoT applications and processes, or network management for others, etc.  The list can go on forever.  WISPs are solution providers who have wide skill sets that Americans demand.  The internet is not going away anytime soon.  That said, WISPs still have to fight for growth, like everyone else, especially when pocketbooks become tighter.  So, the old adage remains true - In good times, advertise a lot.  In bad times, advertise even more.  Spend more on your paid marketing and avail yourself of all of the free social media properties to get your voice out there and above the fray.  Be active, hopeful.  Don’t rest. 
From WISPA’s vantage point, discuss the change in the modern workforce from in-office to distributed workers, and how WISPs have helped this migration.

The pandemic made us see this, and now the nature of “office work” and other activities – such as schooling, telemedicine, entertainment, etc. – has changed for good.  We stayed safe, connected and productive through remote access.  The trends for telecommuting were already pronounced before the pandemic, but since then, the need for remote access has only grown with the evolution of technology, and tons of new government money ensuring all Americans can affordably get on the internet.  WISPs and their excellent services were part of that development over the past 20 years, and all indications point to the fact they will remain at the advent of this growth for the foreseeable future.