Rural Broadband: Understanding the Infrastructure Challenges for Wireless Internet Service Providers

● Jul 13, 2023

There are many challenges that WISPs face in providing high-speed internet in rural areas. We delve into the complexities of low population density, technology limitations, cost overruns, and regulatory barriers, while also exploring innovative solutions that are helping WISPs overcome these obstacles and bridge the digital divide in rural communities.

In today’s digital era, high-speed internet is not a luxury but a necessity. However, for many rural communities, broadband access remains a dream. Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) are instrumental in bridging this digital gap, but they encounter unique infrastructure challenges that complicate the ability to provide rural broadband widely. This blog post will delve into these challenges and explore innovative solutions that are helping WISPs succeed in rural areas.

An Overview of The Infrastructure Challenges WISPs Face

In terms of infrastructure challenges and establishing internet connections for homes and businesses, the options are limited.

The main options are fiber, Satellite/DSL, and Coax but the primary purpose of these systems was never intended to be providing internet, and can be extremely expensive and time-consuming to deploy. In addition, these systems are predominantly geared towards serving densely populated areas, with rural regions often relegated to later stages of network expansion plans.

The next challenge involves delivering reliable internet to remote and less populated regions that fiber has yet to reach. This is where fixed wireless comes into play, offering a solution specifically designed for direct internet connections over both unlicensed and licensed wireless frequencies.

However, fixed wireless comes with its own set of challenges. These include the necessity for a clear line of sight, limited capacity due to available frequencies, and potential interference. So while fixed wireless may be a valuable tool, its effectiveness is limited to specific environments and areas.

Unlike fiber or Coax, fixed wireless technology has the potential to improve over time. It offers faster speeds, lower latencies, and the ability to mitigate interference. With continuous advancements, fixed wireless is even reaching a point where it can deliver speeds comparable to fiber, something previously thought to be unattainable.

The primary challenges WISPs face today are securing funding, ensuring product availability, and managing deployment timelines. Recognizing these challenges, the FCC and government have worked with manufacturers, nonprofit organizations like WISPA, and local ISPs to come up with funding plans. These efforts have resulted in the creation of grants aimed at accelerating deployments and fostering innovation around rural broadband. The ultimate goal of these initiatives is to connect rural America by 2025, ensuring a minimum internet speed of 25 Mbps for every household.

The Impact of Low Population Density and Economic Viability

One of the most significant challenges WISPs face in rural areas is low population density. As Doug Dawson, an industry expert, puts it, “Most of the issues of bringing fast broadband to rural areas are a direct result of the low density of housing in rural areas (1).

The low population makes it difficult for WISPs to attract enough customers to cover costs, often referred to as the break-even customer penetration rate—the number of customers needed to cover annual operating expenses. The high costs of implementing land-based broadband technology further compound this issue.

Technology Constraints

The technology deployed for rural broadband—DSL, fixed wireless, and geostationary satellites—often fails to offer fast broadband speeds. While a growing number of rural homes now have fiber broadband and fixed wireless technology has improved significantly over the past few years, these technologies still have their limitations.

As newer silicone chips are produced, and newer licensed and unlicensed frequencies are released, fixed wireless will be ever-evolving, eventually meeting upwards of 20GB over wireless in the coming years. 

The Challenge of Cost Overruns

Cost overruns can occur due to problems with the supply chain, such as a shortage of materials or contractors, which can increase the cost of building fiber. In times of high demand, labor rates typically rise.

Additionally, change orders, which are events that give a construction contractor a chance to charge more than the original proposed cost of construction, can also contribute to cost overruns (1).

Terrain and Natural Obstructions

In rural areas, setting up wireless internet isn’t just about tech—it’s also about the lay of the land.

Take this example from a document by Anna Read. During a city network project, the team hit a huge underground boulder. Instead of adjusting their plans, they decided to bore through it. The result? A big, unexpected cost (1). 

Or the second example, of another customer I had in IL. Was planning on trenching fiber several miles, and a part of this had to go under a freeway. The time involved in permits and fees to trench fiber under a freeway is an extra cost and unforeseen up front. They installed a wireless 10GB backhaul/PTP over the freeway and were able to connect by the deadline but also bought them more time to work with the city on permits and approvals. 

These examples illustrate how natural obstacles can throw a curveball in rural projects, emphasizing the need for flexibility and careful planning.

Regulatory Hurdles

Government initiatives and grants for rural broadband can provide much-needed financial support. As Doug Dawson, president of CCG Consulting, points out, “Most new terrestrial landline broadband networks need state or federal grant funding to make any sense in a rural area—the cost of construction generally is too high to justify without some help from grants. These grants generally cover a percentage of the total project cost (1).

Securing funding, especially from the Rural Utility Service (RUS) which is part of the Department of Agriculture, can be challenging. RUS loan rules are rigid and don’t align well with other forms of borrowing. 

For instance, a RUS loan might require pledging 100% of the project’s collateral to the RUS or even pledging the entire ISP’s ownership to the RUS. This can make it difficult for ISPs to secure the necessary funding (1).

Overcoming Infrastructure Challenges

As technology advances, manufacturers in the wireless industry are continually improving chips and technologies, making traditional wireless challenges more manageable. This progress is helping to meet the growing demand for better internet in rural parts of the country.

While the ultimate goal is to provide fiber to the home, this solution is costly and time-consuming to implement. Therefore, flexibility and understanding of available technologies are crucial. A combination of wireless and fiber solutions is currently the most effective way to overcome these challenges.

Rural Wireless Technology Solutions

Emerging technologies are paving the way for innovative solutions to the challenges faced by rural WISPs. For instance, the use of alternative infrastructure such as drones, balloons, and satellites can help overcome the physical and geographical barriers inherent in rural areas (1).

Moreover, the integration of technologies such as 5G, IoT, AI, and cloud computing is set to revolutionize rural wireless communication. These technologies will enable the creation of smart rural areas, where applications such as precision agriculture, remote healthcare, and distance learning can be realized (2). This transformation extends beyond the technology itself, impacting various economic sectors and enhancing the functionality and efficiency of applications in education, healthcare, and agriculture.

However, these solutions come with their own set of challenges. For example, the key characteristic of 5G—leveraging multiple, closely placed cell sites—may not be cost-effective in areas with low housing density. Similarly, while low Earth orbit satellite companies are making strides, they aren’t ready to go fully mainstream until they’ve launched a large enough constellation of satellites (1).

To address these issues, the industry is exploring the use of low-frequency bands (3Ghz and 6Ghz) and Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) technologies, Interference Mitigation algorithms, and many more features. Low-frequency bands are particularly effective in rural areas, where signals often need to travel long distances and penetrate various obstacles. MIMO, on the other hand, uses multiple antennas at both the transmitter and receiver to improve communication performance. It is one of the cornerstones of modern wireless communication standards, such as 4G and 5G, providing both an increase in capacity and a more reliable connection (2). Then adding Beamforming and Interference mitigation you can achieve a more focused signal to dedicated radios and also play nice with other devices using the same or similar bands. 

Leveraging Vertical Structures for Clear Line-of-Sight

The strategic use of vertical structures can be a game-changer for rural WISPs. These structures, whether natural or man-made, can serve as ideal mounting points for network infrastructure, such as microwave backhaul and fixed wireless access (FWA) systems. When these systems are placed high up, they can cover vast distances and provide high throughput, given they have an unobstructed line-of-sight (3).

Instead of constructing new towers, which can be costly, WISPs can leverage existing vertical structures. This could include anything from water towers and church steeples to barns and small towers erected for precision agriculture1. By doing so, WISPs can significantly cut down on the initial capital investment required for infrastructure and equipment, making it a more feasible option for those operating within a tight budget.

However, this approach is not without its challenges. Identifying suitable locations and structures that can serve the target communities can be a complex task. Once a potential location is found, WISPs need to negotiate with landowners regarding pricing, terms, and other conditions for land acquisition or rental. Despite these hurdles, the potential cost savings make it a worthwhile strategy to explore.

Financing Infrastructure

When considering the expansion into new areas, rural WISPs must take into account both the initial capital investment (CAPEX) and the recurring operating costs (OPEX). The CAPEX primarily involves the costs of infrastructure and equipment, which can range from $25,000 to $100,000 depending on the extent of new infrastructure required (3).

The type of radio technology deployed significantly influences the CAPEX. For instance, equipment based on 802.11, which offers medium range and higher speeds, can cost between $20,000 and $30,000. On the other hand, a licensed LTE deployment, which provides a larger coverage area, can cost around $70,000 (3).

Another significant portion of the CAPEX is the cost associated with the construction of new towers to support radio transmission and backhaul delivery. In ideal scenarios, existing structures like water tanks, grain silos, or municipal towers that are near fiber connections can be used, often at little to no cost. WISPs frequently negotiate with structure owners to provide free internet service in exchange for collocation rights (3).

However, the primary challenge for new deployments remains the high CAPEX costs. While new entrants need to establish transport circuits to deliver service to new customers, established WISPs can often leverage backhaul from their existing sites until customer demand necessitates additional capacity or circuits (3).

Government Grants & Funding

Government grants and funding options for broadband infrastructure are vast and complex. We aren’t even going to try to cover it all in this blog but we will touch on a few key federal programs including, the ReConnect Grants, Community Connect Grants, and the BroadbandUSA Program.

State programs also exist, though they vary widely and are often influenced by federal funding. Additionally, there are federal loan guarantees and public financing options like revenue bonds and general obligation bonds. It’s important to note that these programs often require significant paperwork and may come with specific conditions.

For a more comprehensive understanding and assistance in navigating these options, we’d be happy to connect you with an expert in government grants and funding. Contact us and let us know what you are hoping to achieve and what you need help with.

In the meantime, here is additional information on the three grant programs mentioned and their websites to learn more:

The ReConnect Program

The USDA’s ReConnect Program aims to facilitate broadband deployment in rural areas lacking sufficient access by providing loans, grants, and loan/grant combinations. The program aims to improve economic opportunity, education, and healthcare, thereby enhancing the quality of life in rural areas.

Community Connect Grants

The Community Connect Grants program provides financial assistance to eligible applicants to establish broadband service in rural, economically-challenged communities where service does not exist. The program supports the construction, acquisition, or leasing of facilities, spectrum, land, or buildings used to deploy broadband service for all residential and business customers located within the Proposed Funded Service Area (PFSA).


The BroadbandUSA program by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) serves state, local, and tribal governments, industry, and nonprofits that seek to expand broadband connectivity and promote digital inclusion. The program promotes planning and funding efforts through solution-neutral guides and resources, hosting local and regional planning workshops, and promoting interagency coordination. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has allocated $65 billion to help close the digital divide and ensure that all Americans have access to reliable, high-speed, and affordable broadband. This includes the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, the Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program, the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, and the Digital Equity Act Programs.

Industry Collaboration and Partnerships

Partnerships between local and larger ISPs can be a powerful strategy for overcoming rural broadband challenges. Local ISPs, with their deep understanding of the local landscape and community, can effectively manage network planning, design, and deployment. However, they often lack the resources for large-scale infrastructure development, which is where larger ISPs can step in (3).

These partnerships can take various forms, including wholesale, resale, and agent models, each with its own commercial structure. The key is to leverage each partner’s strengths while balancing their weaknesses (3).

In essence, these collaborations can help local ISPs extend sustainable broadband services into rural areas, while larger ISPs gain additional revenue with limited extra expense (3).

Overcoming infrastructure challenges for rural broadband is a complex task. From low population density and economic viability to technology limitations and regulatory barriers, WISPs face a myriad of challenges in providing high-speed internet to rural areas. However, as we’ve seen, innovative solutions and strategies are helping WISPs overcome these challenges.

By leveraging emerging technologies, securing funding, and fostering industry collaboration, WISPs can overcome infrastructure challenges and provide reliable, high-speed internet to rural communities. The path might be tough, but the rewards – linking rural communities, boosting local economies, and closing the digital gap – are well worth the effort.

Don’t let infrastructure challenges hold you back. 

At Continental Computers, we’re committed to helping you succeed. Whether you service rural or metropolitan areas, we’ll create a custom-tailored wireless solution that allows you to deliver high-speed, reliable internet to your customers. 

Get in touch with our experts in rural broadband today!


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