With 5G, advantage finally shifts to rural America

Downeast Maine is home to Washington County where the sun first touches America every morning on the state’s quintessential coastline and there are more blueberries than stars in the sky. Despite this natural beauty, Washington County is the most economically challenged county in New England by household income. There are many contributors to the designation with the digital divide between rural and urban areas being a primary factor, especially in the 21st century.

It is a circumstance replayed across disadvantaged rural areas throughout America. Simply put, fiber connectivity has been too cost-prohibitive to justify the infrastructure investment in rural areas where consumers are less in number and thus, they have been left behind in the digital age. Of course, without access to broadband internet you simply cannot compete in the global marketplace, begging the age-old question of which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

No Chicken. No Egg. No Problem.

worker on tower

It turns out the information superhighway has a bypass around the need for fiber – 4GLTE cellular networks. In 2015, Wireless Partners constructed its first 4GLTE cellular network in Washington County.

It was the first 4G cellular network in a rural New England market and it made Verizon available to consumers in these areas. Other major carriers have since utilized the network to provide roaming services for their customers. A year later, Wireless Partners built a 4GLTE network in New Hampshire’s most northern county, Coos County, and almost immediately a major business located to the area due to the 4G capacity.

With 4G, rural areas finally had a competitive non-fiber option and could put up a fair fight. However, in the spring of 2019, the inherent remoteness of New England’s most rural counties truly shifted from being a limitation to an advantage with the advent of fixed wireless internet.

Fixed wireless internet is a cellular-based technology that utilizes excess spectrum on 4G networks to provide wireless internet to homes and businesses the same way it provides data to your mobile phone. It was a technological evolution born for rural areas. Because of the inherent remoteness and smaller, distributed user base, rural 4G networks not only had the spectrum to spare but were not tethered to fiber like their urban cousins.

The timing could not have been more serendipitous. Rural or urban, as consumers of content we are collectively transitioning our preferred method of delivery to streaming platforms. This transition reduces a primary need for fiber connectivity – cable TV.

Internet is fast becoming the only remaining tether we have to fiber and it is a hard tether to break in urban areas as evidenced by the notorious service bundle. However, rural areas where that tether never existed are at the vanguard of the transition with fixed wireless.

Break Point

Family sunrise

In 2019, Wireless Partners partnered with Consolidated Communications, Inc. (CCI) to launch a fixed wireless service, Trailrunner Wireless. CCI  utilizes Wireless Partners’ networks in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont to offer Trailrunner to its customers. For the first time, the broadband challenged parts of New England have access to reliable broadband internet speeds for distance learning, telemedicine, personal video communication, and first responder support.

Wireless Partners followed that up by signing a deal with Nokia to install 5G hardware on their networks in advance of the deployment of 5G software. As a result, both counties will be the first rural markets in New England to get 5G. More notably, they will be the first markets (rural or urban) to truly be prepared to take advantage of the full potential of 5G due to having a fixed wireless service already in place.  

In a twist of fortune, rural areas like Downeast Maine, New Hampshire’s North Country and Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom have the advantage over their urban rivals. While more populated urban and suburban areas stay tethered to fiber, rural areas are leading the 5G revolution, streaming their content at speeds equal to or faster than fiber without the tether.