Another Spectrum Battle

Back in July the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking comments for opening up spectrum from 3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz, known as the C-Band. As is happening with every block of usable spectrum, there is a growing tug-of-war between using this spectrum for 5G or using it for rural broadband.

This C-Band spectrum has traditionally been used to transit signals from satellites back to earth stations. Today it’s in use by every cable company that receives cable TV signals at a ‘big-dish’ satellite farm. The spectrum had much wider use in the past when it was used to deliver signal directly to customers using the giant 7 – 10 foot dishes you used to see in rural backyards.

This spectrum is valuable for either cellular data or for point-to-multipoint rural radio broadband systems. The spectrum sits in the middle between the 2.4 GHz and the 5.8 GHz used today for delivering most rural broadband. The spectrum is particularly attractive because of the size of the block, at 500 megahertz.

When the FCC released the NPRM, the four big satellite companies – Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat and Telesat – created the C-Band Alliance. They’ve suggested that some of their current use of this spectrum could be moved elsewhere. But where it’s not easy to move the spectrum, the group volunteered to be the clearing house to coordinate the use of C-Band for other purposes so that it won’t interfere with satellite use. The Alliance suggests that this might require curtailing full use of the spectrum near some satellite farms, but largely they think the spectrum can be freed for full use in most places. Their offer is seen as a way to convince the FCC to not force satellite companies completely out of the spectrum block.

I note that we are nearing a day when the need for the big satellite earth stations to receive TV might become obsolete. For example, we see AT&T delivering TV signal nationwide on fiber using only two headends and satellite farms. If all TV stations and all satellite farm locations were connected by fiber these signals could be delivered terrestrially. I also note this is not the spectrum used by DirecTV and Dish networks to connect to subscribers – they use the K-band at 12-18 GHz.

A group calling itself the Broadband Access Coalition (BAC) is asking the FCC to set aside the upper 300 megahertz from the band for use for rural broadband. This group is comprised of advocates for rural wireless broadband, including Baicells Technologies, Cambium Networks, Rise Broadband, Public Knowledge, the Open Technology Institute at New America, and others. The BAC proposal asks for frequency sharing that would allow for the spectrum to be used for both 5G and also for rural broadband using smart radios and databases to coordinate use.

Both the satellite providers and the 5G companies oppose the BAC idea. The satellite providers argue that it’s too complicated to share bandwidth and they fear interference with satellite farms. The 5G companies want the whole band of spectrum and tout the advantages this will bring to 5G. They’d also like to see the spectrum go to auction and dangle the prospect for the FCC to collect $20 billion or more from an auction.

The FCC has it within their power to accommodate rural broadband as they deal with this block of spectrum. However, recent history with other spectrum bands shows the FCC to have a major bias towards the promise of 5G and towards raising money through auctions – which allocates frequency to a handful of the biggest names in the industry.

The BAC proposal is to set aside part of the spectrum for rural broadband while leaving the whole spectrum available to 5G on a shared and coordinated basis. We know that in real life the big majority of all ‘5G spectrum’ is not going to be deployed in rural America. The 5G providers legitimately need a huge amount of spectrum in urban areas if they are to accomplish everything they’ve touted for 5G. But in rural areas most bands of spectrum will sit idle because the spectrum owners won’t have an economic use for deploying in areas of low density.

The BAC proposal is an interesting mechanism that would free up C-Band in areas where there is no other use of the spectrum while still fully accommodating 5G where it’s deployed. That’s the kind of creating thinking we need to see implemented.

The FCC keeps publicly saying that one of its primary goals is to improve rural broadband – as I wrote in a blog last week, that’s part of their primary stated goals for the next five years. This spectrum could be of huge value for point-to-multipoint rural radio systems and would be another way to boost rural broadband speeds. The FCC has it within their power to use the C-Band spectrum for both 5G and for rural broadband – both uses can be accommodated. My bet, sadly, is that this will be another giveaway to the big cellular companies.

When Will Small ISPs Offer Wireless Loops?

I wrote last week about what it’s going to take for the big wireless companies to offer 5G fixed wireless in neighborhoods. Their biggest hurdle is going to be the availability of fiber deep inside neighborhoods. Today I look at what it would take for fiber overbuilders to integrate 5G wireless loops into their fiber networks. By definition, fiber overbuilders already build fiber deep into neighborhoods. What factors will enable fiber overbuilders to consider using wireless loops in those networks?

Affordable Technology. Number one on the list is cheaper technology. There is a long history in the wireless industry where new technologies only become affordable after at least one big company buys a lot of units. Fifteen years ago the FCC auctioned LMDS and MMDS spectrum with a lot of hoopla and promise. However, these spectrum bands were barely used because no big companies elected to use them. The reality of the manufacturing world is that prices only come down with big volumes of sales. Manufacturers need to have enough revenue to see them through several rounds of technical upgrades and tweaks, which are always needed when fine-tuning how wireless gear works in the wild.

Verizon is the only company talking about deploying a significant volume of 5G fixed wireless equipment. However, their current first-generation equipment is not 5G compliant and they won’t be deploying actual 5G gear for a few years. Time will tell if they buy enough gear to get equipment prices to an affordable level for the rest of the industry. We also must consider that Verizon might use proprietary technology that won’t be available to others. The use of proprietary hardware is creeping throughout the industry and can be seen with gear like data center switches and Comcast’s settop boxes. The rest of the industry won’t benefit if Verizon takes the proprietary approach – yet another new worry for the industry.

Life Cycle Costs. Anybody considering 5G also needs to consider the full life cycle costs of 5G versus fiber. An ISP will need to compare the life cycle cost of fiber drops and fiber electronics versus the cost of the 5G electronics. There are a couple of costs to consider:

  • We don’t know what Verizon is paying for gear, but at the early stage of the industry my guess is that 5G electronics are still expensive compared to fiber drops.
  • Fiber drops last for a long time. I would expect that most of the fiber drops built twenty years ago for Verizon FiOS are still going strong. It’s likely that 5G electronics on poles will have to replaced or upgraded every 7 – 10 years.
  • Anybody that builds fiber drops to homes knows that over time that some of those drops are abandoned as homes stop buying service. Over time there can be a sizable inventory of unused drops that aren’t driving any revenue – I’ve seen this grow to as many as 5% of total drops over time.
  • Another cost consideration is maintenance costs. We know from long experience that wireless networks require a lot more tinkering and maintenance effort than fiber networks. Fiber technology has gotten so stable that most companies know they can build fiber and not have to worry much about maintenance for the first five to ten years. Fiber technology is getting even more stable as many ISPs are moving the ONTs inside the premise. That’s going to be a hard to match with 5G wireless networks with differing temperatures and precipitation conditions.

We won’t be able to make this cost comparison until 5G electronics are widely available and after a few brave ISPs suffer through the first generation of the technology.

Spectrum. Spectrum is a huge issue. Verizon and other big ISPs are going to have access to licensed spectrum for 5G that’s not going to be available to anybody else. It’s likely that companies like Verizon will get fast speeds by bonding together multiple bands of millimeter wave spectrum while smaller providers will be limited to only unlicensed spectrum bands. The FCC is in the early stages of allocating the various bands of millimeter wave spectrum, so we don’t yet have a clear picture of the unlicensed options that will be available to smaller ISPs.

Faster speeds. There are some fiber overbuilders that already provide a gigabit product to all customers, and it’s likely over time that they will go even faster. Verizon is reporting speeds in the first 5G deployments between 300 Mbps and a gigabit, and many fiber overbuilders are not going to want a network where speeds vary by local conditions, and from customer to customer. Wireless speeds in the field using millimeter wave spectrum are never going to be as consistently reliable and predictable as a fiber-based technology.

Summary. It’s far too early to understand the potential for 5G wireless loops. If the various issues can be clarified, I’m sure that numerous small ISPs will consider 5G. The big unknowns for now are the cost of the electronics and the amount of spectrum that will be available to small ISPs. But even after those two things are known it’s going to be a complex decision for a network owner. I don’t foresee any mad rush by smaller fiber overbuilders to embrace 5G.

AT&T and Connected Vehicles

AT&T just released a blog talking about their connected vehicle product. This blog paints a picture of where AT&T is at today and where they hope to be headed into the future in this market niche.

For a company like AT&T, the only reason to be excited about a new market niche is the creation of a new revenue stream. AT&T claims to have 24 million connected cars on its network as of the end of 3Q 2018. They also claim 3 million additional connected fleet vehicles. They also have over 1 million customers who are buying mobile WiFi hotspots from AT&T.

What does that look like as a revenue stream? AT&T has relationships with 29 global car manufacturers. Most new cars today come with some kind of connectivity plan that’s free to a car buyer for a short time, usually 3 to 6 months. When the free trial is over consumers must subscribe in order to retain the connectivity service.

As an example of how this works, all new Buicks and Fiats come with AT&T’s UConnect Access for a 6-month free trial period. This service provides unlimited broadband to the vehicle for streaming video or for feeding the on-board mapping system. After the trial customers must subscribe to the service at a monthly rate of $14.99 per month – or they can buy a la carte for connectivity at $9.99 per day or $34.99 per month.

In the blog AT&T touts a relationship with Subaru. The company provides a trial subscription to Starlink that provides on-board navigation on a screen plus safety features like the ability to call for roadside assistance or to locate a stolen vehicle. Subaru offers different plans for different vehicles that range from a Starlink trial of between 4-months and 3-years. Once the trial is over the cost of extending Starlink is $49 for the first year and then $99 per year to extend just the security package or $149 per year to extend the whole service. Starlink is not part of AT&T, so only some portion of this revenue goes to the carrier.

I wonder how many people extend these free trials and become paying customers? I have to think that the majority of the AT&T connected vehicles are under the Starlink relationship which has been around for many years. Families that drive a lot and watch a lot of video in a vehicle might find the UConnect Access to be a much better alternative than using cellular data plans. People who want the feature of locating their car if stolen might like the Starlink. However, most drivers probably don’t see a value in these plans. Most of the features offered in these packages are available as part of everybody’s cellular data plans using the Bluetooth connectivity in these vehicles.

The vehicle fleet business, however, is intriguing. Companies can use this connectivity to keep drivers connected to the home office and core software systems. This can also be done with cellphones, but I can think of several benefits to building this directly into the vehicle.

The second half of their blog discusses the possibility for 5G and automated cars. That’s the future revenue stream the company is banking on, and probably one of their biggest hopes for 5G. They have two hopes for 5G vehicle connectivity:

  • They hope to provide the connectivity between vehicles using 5G and the cloud. They believe that cars will be connected to the 5G network in order to ‘learn’ from other vehicle’s driving experience in the immediate vicinity.
  • They also hope to eventually provide broadband to driverless cars where passengers will be interested in being connected while traveling.

The first application of connecting nearby vehicles is no guarantee. It all depends on the technology path chosen to power driverless vehicles. There is one school of thought that says that the majority of the brains and decision making will be done by on-board computers, and if cars connect to nearby vehicles it will be through the use of on-board wireless communication. AT&T is hoping for the alternate approach where that connectivity is done in the cloud – but that’s going to require a massive investment in small cell sites everywhere. If the cloud solution is not the preferred technology then companies like AT&T will have no incentive to place 5G cell sites along the millions of miles of roads.

This is one of those chicken and egg situations. I liken it to smart city technology. A decade ago many predicted that cities would need mountains of fiber to support smart cities – but today most such applications are being done wirelessly. Any company banking on a fiber-based solution got left behind. At this point, nobody can predict the technology that will ultimately be used by smart cars. However, since the 5G technology needs the deployment of a massive ubiquitous cellular network, the simpler solution is to do it some other way.

FCC Proposes New WiFi Spectrum

At their recent open meeting the FCC announced that it is proposing to use up to 1,200 megahertz of the spectrum band between 5.925 GHz and 7.125 GHz (being referred to as the 6 GHz band) as unlicensed spectrum. This is a bold proposal and more than doubles the total amount of bandwidth that would be available for WiFi.

However, their proposal comes with several proposed caveats that will have to be considered before expecting the spectrum to be useful everywhere for rural broadband. First, the FCC proposal is that any place where the spectrum is currently being used for Broadcast Auxiliary Service and Cable TV Relay service that the spectrum only be licensed for indoor use.

In those places where the spectrum is being used heavily for point-to-point microwave service, the outdoor use would have to be coordinated with existing users by use of an automated frequency coordination system, or a database, that would ensure no interference. I assume one of the rules that must be clarified is a definition of what constitutes ‘heavy’ existing point-to-point use of the spectrum.

In places where there are no existing uses of the spectrum it sounds like it would be available for outdoor use as well as indoor use.

This band of spectrum would be a great addition to networks that provide point-to-multipoint fixed wireless service. The spectrum will have a slightly smaller effective delivery area than the 5.8 GHz WiFi ISM band now widely in use. The 5.8 GHz spectrum is already the workhorse in most fixed wireless networks and adding additional spectrum would increase the bandwidth that can be delivered to a given customer in systems that can combine spectrum from various frequencies.

The key is going to be to find out what the two restrictions mean in the real world and how many places are going to have partial or total restrictions of the spectrum. Hopefully the FCC will produce maps or databases that document the areas they think are restricted using their two proposed criteria.

This spectrum would also be welcome indoors and would add more channels for home WiFi routers, making it easier to cover a home and provide coverage to greater numbers of devices simultaneously. The FCC hopes the spectrum can be used everywhere for indoor use, but they are asking the industry if that causes any problems.

Note that this is not an order, but a proposal. The FCC released a draft of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on October 2, and after this vote they should soon publish a schedule for a public comment period from the industry and other interested parties.

WiFi has been a gigantic boon to the economy and it’s a great move by the FCC to provide additional WiFi spectrum, even if this turns out to be largely restricted to indoor use. However, everybody associated with rural broadband is going to hope this is decided soon and that the frequency is added to the toolbox for serving fixed wireless in rural areas.

Interestingly, this spectrum would make it easier for ISPs that claimed they can achieve universal 100 Mbps speeds for fixed wireless in the recent reverse CAF II auctions. Perhaps some of those companies were counting on this spectrum as a way to meet that claim.

It’s always hard to predict the speed of the FCC process. I see that various WiFi-related organizations are hoping this means use of the spectrum as early as sometime next year. However, we’ve often seen the FCC proceed a lot slower than what the industry wants and one of factors the FCC is going to take into consideration is the pushback from cellular companies that will likely want this to be licensed spectrum. Unfortunately, the large cellular companies seem to be getting everything on their wish list from this FCC, so we’ll have to see how that plays out.

I imagine that device manufacturers are already considering this in the design of new hardware, but still need to know more before finalizing software. This is perhaps the best announcement so far from this FCC. The benefit to the country from WiFi is gigantic and this will vastly strengthen the advantages of WiFi.

Flexible Numerology

This is the last in a series that looks at the underlying technologies that will create improvements for 5G – I looked previously at MIMO antennas and network slicing. Today I look at flexible numerology. Flexible numerology, in a nutshell involves new techniques that allow for changing the width of data channels in a frequency band.

The easiest way to understand the issues involved is to think back at how we used wireless devices in the past. Anybody that ever fiddled with an older 802.11n WiFi router using 2.4 GHz remembers directing different devices in the home to channels 1,6 or 11. While the 2.4 GHz band has 11 separate available channels, most wireless router manufacturers limited the use to those three channels in order to avoid cross-channel interference. They knew that if a home only used these three channels they’d likely not see such interference and would get the maximum performance on each channel. However, the decision to use only those three channels limited the amount of bandwidth that can be utilized. In peak usage situations only 3 of the 11 channels of 2.4 GHz are carrying bandwidth – avoiding interference meant not using much of the available frequency.

It’s easy to think of the channels within a wireless frequency as separate channels, because that’s how they are defined at the FCC. Cable companies are able to create distinct channels of frequency within the controlled confines of a coaxial cable in way to limit interference between channels. But when transmitted in the wild through the air all sorts of interference arises. Anybody old enough to remember watching TV in the 50s can remember times when you could see ghosts of a nearby channel when you were watching one of the low channel numbers.

Our cellular networks have been designed in a similar fashion to the WiFi channels. Within each of the frequencies used for cellular service are channels predefined by the FCC, with buffers between each channel. However, even with the buffers there is cross-channel interference between neighboring channels, and so the cellular carriers have selectively chosen to spread the actual use of frequency in ways similar to how we used channels 1,6 and 11 for WiFi.

Flexible numerology is new goal for 5G that was published with the 3GPP Release 15 standard. Flexible numerology is part of a system for allocating frequency in a new way that is intended to get the most and best use of the spectrum.

5G will use the same underlying method for modulating signals as 4G LTE – orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM). The OFDM scheme is the current way to try to get the best use of frequency and with OFDM a data stream is split across several separate narrowband channels to reduce interference, much in the same way that we used the three channels of WiFi.

Flexible numerology is going to give the cell site the option to create much smaller narrowband channels within the channels described in the OFDM standard. That’s the magic sauce that will enable 5G to communicate with huge number of devices without creating massive interference.

Consider a situation of two users at a 5G site. One is an IoT sensor that wants to trickle small amounts of data to the network and the other is a gamer that needs bursts of huge amounts of bandwidth. In the LTE network both devices would be given a narrowband channel – the IoT device for perhaps a tiny amount of time and the gamer for longer bursts. That’s an inefficient use of frequency since the IoT device is transmitting only a tiny amount of data. For even the short time that the cell site communicates with that device, in an LTE network the device commands as much bandwidth as any other user.

Flexible numerology will allow assigning a tiny slice of frequency to the IoT device. For example, the cell site might elect to assign 1/64th of a channel to the IoT device, meaning the remaining 63/64ths of the frequency can be assigned to some other purpose to be used at the same time that the IoT device is demanding bandwidth. In a 5G network the IoT device might grab a tiny slice of frequency for a short period of time and barely create a ripple in the overall use of frequency at the cell site.

The cellular network might treat the gamer the same as today but has numerous new options with flexible numerology to improve the gaming performance. It might separate sent and received data and size each path according to needs. It might create a connection for a longer time period than normal to efficiently transmit the needed packages. Essentially, flexible numerology lets the cell site treat every customer differently depending upon their specific needs.

This implementation of flexible numerology for 5G is complicated and will require new algorithms that ultimately get built into the chips for 5G devices. It’s always interesting to watch how new standards are implemented in the industry. I’ve seen numerous papers on the web over the last few months from labs and universities looking at the challenges of flexible numerology. These investigations will eventually get translated into lab trials of devices, and, if those trials are successful make it into the production for both cell sites and cellular devices. This is why a new standard like 5G can’t be implemented immediately. Standards define the problem, and then scientists, engineers and manufacturers take a shot at making the new ideas work (or sometimes find out that they don’t work). It’s likely to be years until the flexible numerology is made to work good enough to be in everyday use in cell sites – but when it does the utilization of frequency will be significantly improved, which is a key goal for 5G.

The Millimeter Wave Auctions

The FCC will soon hold the auction for two bands of millimeter wave spectrum. The auction for the 28 GHz spectrum, referred to as Auction 101, will begin on November 14 and will offer 3,072 licenses in the 27.5 to 28.35 GHz band. The auction for 24 GHz, referred to as Auction 102, will follow at the end of Auction 101 and will offer 2,909 licenses in the 24.25 to 24.45 GHz and the 24.75 to 25.25 GHz bands.

This is the spectrum that will support 5G high-bandwidth products. The most unusual aspect of this auction is that the FCC is offering much wider channels than ever before, making the spectrum particularly useful for broadband deployment and also for the frequency slicing needed to serve multiple customers. The Auction 101 includes two blocks of 425 MHz and is being auctioned by County. Auction 102 will include seven blocks of 100 MHz and will be auctioned by Partial Economic Areas (PEA). PEAs divide the country into 416 zones, grouped by economic interest. They vary from the gigantic PEA that encompasses all of the New York City and the surrounding areas in Connecticut and New Jersey to PEAs that are almost entirely rural.

That means that every part of the country could see as many as seven different license holders, assuming that somebody pursues all of the spectrum. It’s likely, though, that there will be rural areas where nobody buys the spectrum. It will be interesting to look at the maps when the auctions are done.

This is the spectrum that can be used to support the fixed wireless broadband like Verizon is now deploying from poles. The spectrum has the capability of delivering big bandwidth, but for relatively short distances of 1,000 feet or more. The spectrum can also be used as a focused beam to deliver several gigabits of bandwidth for a mile to a single point, such as what Webpass is currently doing to serve downtown high-rise apartment buildings.

The industry consensus is that this spectrum will find limited use in rural areas for now since it’s hard, with existing technology, to deploy a 5G transmitter site that might only reach a few potential customers.

The FCC has released the names of the companies that will be bidding in the auction. As expected the big cellular companies are there and AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile are bidding. Absent is Sprint, but the speculation is that they are relying on the merger with T-Mobile and have elected to sit out the auction.

The big telcos are also in the auctions with AT&T, Verizon, Frontier and Windstream all participating. Absent is CenturyLink, which further strengthens the belief that they are no longer pursuing residential broadband.

The only cable company of any size in the auction is Cox Communications. The other big companies like Comcast, Charter, Altice and many others are sitting out the auction. It doesn’t make sense for a cable company to deploy the spectrum where they are already the incumbent broadband provider. Wireless technology for end users would complete directly with their own networks. Since Cox is privately held it’s hard to know their plans, but one use of the spectrum would be to expand in the areas surrounding their current footprint or to move into new markets. It’s costly to expand their hybrid-fiber networks and 5G wireless might be a cheaper way to move into new markets.

There are some rural companies that are bidding for spectrum. It’s hard to know if the rural telcos and cooperatives on the list want to use the spectrum to enhance broadband in their own footprint or if they want to use the spectrum to expand into larger nearby markets. One of the most interesting companies taking part in both auctions is US Cellular. They are the fifth largest cellular company after the big four and serve mostly rural markets. They’ve already made public announcements about upgrading to the most current version of 4G LTE and it will be interesting to see how they use this spectrum.

PropTech

One of the things that I’ve always loved with our industry is that there are dozens of new acronyms to learn every year – and that’s the result of the industry always moving in new directions. The latest new acronym for me is PropTech, meaning telecom technology designed to benefit large buildings. There are now numerous companies, including well-funded start-ups, that are specializing in bringing broadband and upgrading other technology in buildings.

It’s been interesting to watch the growth of the industry over time. For many years the telecom focus for large buildings was bringing a competitive cable TV product into buildings, usually delivered by satellite.

When broadband was first introduced in the late 90s and speeds were still slow, tenants were able to get sufficient broadband from the cable or telephone incumbent. The first place we saw a demand for bigger bandwidth was in high rises housing big corporate clients. This was an area of focus for the telcos and the big CLECs that arose in the late 1990s. CLECs were measured by how many buildings they had lit with fiber – and the numbers were low, with only a handful of large buildings connected in each major city.

There were cost barriers for constructing downtown fiber – construction costs were high, gaining access to entrance facilities was a challenge and there was no easy technology for stringing fiber inside older buildings – so the number of fiber-wired buildings remained relatively small. Around 2000 we started to see newly constructed residential and business high rises come wired with fiber. But getting fiber into older buildings remained a challenge. I have numerous clients that built fiber to whole cities before 2010 but bypassed the high rises and large apartment complexes.

This started changing a decade ago as we saw new technologies aimed at more easily rewiring older buildings. Probably the most important breakthrough was flexible fiber that could easily bend around corners, allowing fiber-wiring schemes that could unobtrusively hide fiber in the corners of ceilings. Since then we’ve seen other improvements that make it easier and affordable to service larger buildings such as the use of G.Fast to distribute broadband using existing copper wiring.

PropTech is now taking real estate technology to the next level. Broadband is still the primary focus today, and building owners want fast broadband for tenants. But PropTech goes far beyond just broadband. Landlords now want to provide networked WiFi in common areas. Landlords want cellular boosters to provide better cellphone coverage for tenants. Buildings owners want to tout security and want security cameras in parking and other common areas that can be accessed by tenants. We’re seeing landlords now adding smart-home technology into upscale units. We’re also seeing buildings with business tenants constructing sophisticated data center rooms rather than the old wiring closets that used to house electronics.

Some of the new technology is designed to help landlords control their own operating expenses. This includes things like sensors and smart meters aimed at minimizing power costs. New buildings are going green, often generating much or all of their own energy needs – all supported by a robust telecom infrastructure.

Convincing landlords to spend the capital to adopt PropTech isn’t always easy. PropTech business plans stress new revenue streams from providing broadband, new revenues from increased rents and cost-savings as a way to pay for upgrades. The ultimate value to a landlord is the increased value of the property from modernizing. Some PropTech companies are even bringing the funding required to pay for the upgrades, making it easy for a landlord to say yes.

PropTech is creating some interesting changes in urban broadband. For many years the best broadband in cities was found in single family homes. But today some of the best networks and fastest data speeds are found in the high rises – where just a few years ago renters suffered from slow broadband and poor cell phone coverage.

A Better WiFi?

Regardless of the kind of ISP service you buy, almost every home network today uses WiFi for the last leg of our broadband network. Many of the broadband complaints ISPs hear about are actually problems with WiFi and not with the underlying broadband network serving the home.

Luckily the engineers that support the WiFi standards don’t sit still and are always working to improve the performance of WiFi. The latest effort was kicked off a few weeks ago when the 802.11 Extremely High Throughput Study Group of the IEEE initiated an effort to look for ways to improve peak throughput for WiFi networks.

This group will be investigating two issues. First, they want to find ways to increase peak throughput on WiFi for big data applications like video streaming, augmented reality and virtual reality. The current WiFi standard doesn’t allow for a prioritization of service and the device in your home with the lowest bandwidth requirement can claim the same priority for grabbing the WiFi signal as the most data-intensive application. This is key feature baked into the WiFi standard that was intended to allow the WiFi network to communicate simultaneously with multiple users and devices.

The Study Group will also be looking latency. We are now seeing applications in the home like immersive gaming that require extremely low latency, which is difficult to achieve on a WiFi network. Immersive gaming requires fast turnaround of packets to and from the gamer. The sharing nature of WiFi means that a WiFi network will interrupt a stream to a gamer when it sees demand from another device. Such interruptions are quick, but multiple short interruptions means a big data stream stops and starts and packets get lost and have to be resent. Changing this will be a big challenge because the pauses taken to accommodate multiple applications is they key characteristic of the sharing nature of WiFi.

This Study Group effort is a perfect example of how standards change over time. They are trying to accommodate new requirements into an existing technology. We’ve never had applications in the home environment that require the combination of dedicated bandwidth and extremely low latency. In a business environment any application of this nature would typically be hard-wired into a network and not use WiFi. However, businesses now also want mobile performance for applications like augmented reality that must be supported wirelessly.

The Study Group is taking the first step, which is to define the problem to be solved. That means looking in detail at how WiFi networks operates when asked to handle big data applications in a busy environment. This deep look will let the engineers more specifically define the exact way that WiFi interferes with ideal network performance. If they have one, the Study Group might suggest specific solutions to fix the identified problems, but it’s possible they won’t have one.

The end result of the work from the Study group is a detailed description of the problem. In this case they will identify the specific aspects of the current WiFi specifications that are interfering with the desired performance. The Group will also specifically define the hoped-for results that would come with a change in the WiFi standard. This kind of document gives the whole industry a roadmap and set of specific goals to tackle, and interested labs at universities and manufacturers around the world will tackle the problem defined by the Study Group.

Most people in the industry probably view standards as a finished product, as a specific immutable description of how a technology works. However, almost the exact opposite is true and standards are instead a list of performance goals. As engineers and scientists find ways to satisfy the goals those goals the standards are amended to include the new solutions. This is done publicly so that all of the devices using the protocol are compatible.

I just had this same discussion a few days ago concerning the 5G standards. At this early stage of 5G development what’s been agreed upon is the overall goals for the new wireless protocol. As various breakthroughs are achieved to meet those goals the standards will be updated and amended. The first set of goals for 5G are a high-level wish list of hoped-for performance. Over the next decade the 5G standard will be modified numerous times as technical solutions are found to help to achieve those performance goals. It’s possible that some of the goals will never be met while others will be surpassed, but any given time the 5G ‘standard’ will be a huge set of documents that define the current agreed-upon ways that must be followed by anybody making 5G gear.

This Work Group has their work cut out for them, because the issues that are interfering with large dedicated data connections or that are introducing latency into WiFi are core components of the original WiFi specification. When the choice was made to allow WiFi to share bandwidth among all users it made it difficult, and maybe impossible to somehow treat some packets better then the rest. I’m glad to know that there are engineers who are always working ahead of the market looking to solve such problems.

False Advertising for 5G

As has been expected, the wireless carriers are now actively marketing 5G cellular even though there are no actual 5G deployments. The marketing folks are always far in front of the engineers and are proclaiming 5G today much in the same way that they proclaimed 4G long before it was available.

The perfect case in point is AT&T. The company announced the launch of what they are calling 5G Evolution in 239 markets. They are also claiming they will be launching what they are calling standards-based 5G in at least 19 cities in early 2019.

The 5G Evolution product doesn’t contain any part of the new 5G standards. Instead, 5G Evolution is AT&T’s deployment of 4G LTE-Advanced technology, which can be characterized as their first fully-compliant 4G product. This is a significant upgrade that they should be proud of, but I guess their marketing folks would rather call this an evolutionary step towards 5G rather than admit that they are finally bringing mature 4G to the market – a claim they’ve already been making for many years.

What I find most annoying about AT&T’s announcement is the claim that 5G Evolution will “enable peak theoretical wireless speeds for capable devices of at least 400 megabits per second”, although their footnote goes on to say that “actual speeds are lower and will vary”. The 4G standard has been theoretically capable of speeds of at least 300 Mbps in a lab setting since the standard was first announced – but that theoretical speed has no relevance to today’s 4G network that generally delivers an average 4G speed of less than 15 Mbps.

This is like having a fiber-to-the-home provider advertise that their product is capable of speeds of 159 terabits per second, although actual speeds might be something less (that’s the current fastest speed achieved on fiber by scientists at the NICT Network System Research Institute in Japan). The intent of the statement on the AT&T website is clearly aimed at making people think they will soon be getting blazingly fast cellular data – which is not true. This is the kind of false advertising that is overstating the case for 5G (and in this case for 4G) that is confusing the public, politicians and regulators. You can’t really blame policy-makers for thinking that wireless will soon be the only technology we will need when the biggest wireless provider shamelessly claims speeds far in excess of what they will be ever be deploying.

AT&T’s second claim of launching standards-based mobile 5G in 19 markets is a little closer to the truth, but is still not 5G cellular. That service is going to deploy millimeter spectrum hotspots (a technology that is being referred to as Mi-Fi) in selected locations in 19 cities including Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Nashville, Orlando, etc.

These will be true hotspots, similar to what we see in Starbucks, meaning that users will have to be in the immediate vicinity of a hotspot to get the faster service. Millimeter wave hotspots have an even shorter propagation distance than normal WiFi hotspots and the signal will travel for a few hundred feet, at best. The hotspot data won’t roam and will only work for a user while they stay in range of a given hot spot.

AT&T hasn’t said where this will be deployed, but I have to imagine it will be in places like big business hotels, convention centers and indoor sports arenas. The deployment serves several purposes for AT&T. In those busy locations it will provide an alternate source of broadband for AT&T customers who have a phone capable of receiving the Mi-Fi signal. This will relieve the pressure on normal cellular data locally, while also providing a wow factor for AT&T customers that get the faster broadband.

However, again, AT&T’s advertising is deceptive. Their press releases make it sound like the general public in these cities will soon have much faster cellular data, and they will not. Those with the right phone that find themselves in one of the selected venues will see the faster speeds, but this technology will not be deployed to the wider market in these cities. Millimeter wave hotspots are an indoor technology and not of much practical use outside. The travel distances are so short that a millimeter wave hot spot loses a significant percentage of its strength in the short distance from a pole to the ground.

I can’t really blame the marketing folks at AT&T for touting imaginary 5G. It’s what’s hot in the marketplace today and what the public has been primed to expect. But just like the false hype when 4G was first introduced, cellular customers are not on the verge of seeing blazingly fast cellphone service in the places they live and work. This advertising seems to be intended to boost the AT&T brand, but it also might be defensive since other cellular carriers are making similar claims.

Unfortunately, this kind of false advertising plants the notion for politicians and policy-makers that cellular broadband will soon be all we will need. That’s an interesting corporate tactic to take by AT&T which is also building more fiber-to-the-premise right now than anybody else. These false claims seems to be most strongly competing with their own fiber broadband. But as I’ve always said, AT&T wears many hats and I imagine that their own fiber folks are as annoyed by this false advertising as the rest of us in the industry.

The 5G Summit

There was recently a 5G Summit held at the White House to discuss how the administration could encourage the public sector to deploy 5G as quickly as possible. The purpose of the summit was summarized well by Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council who said the administration’s approach to the issue is ‘American first, 5G first”.

Kudlow went on to say that the administration wants to give the wireless industry whatever they need to deploy 5G quickly. The FCC recently took a big step in that direction by speeding up and cutting the costs for attaching 5G small cell sites to poles and other infrastructure in the right-of-way.

There are a few other ways that were mentioned about how the administration could foster 5G deployment. David Redl, the head of the NTIA called for the government to make the needed spectrum available for 5G. The FCC is in the process of having an auction for spectrum in the 25 GHz and 28 GHz bands. The FCC is also working towards finalizing rules for the 3.5 GHz and 3.7 GHz spectrum (the 3.5 GHz CBRS band will be the subject of tomorrow’s blog).

I hope that the fervor to promote 5G doesn’t result in giving all of the new spectrum to the big wireless carriers. One of the best things the FCC ever did was to set aside some blocks of spectrum for public use. This fueled the WiFi technology sector and most homes now have WiFi networks. The spectrum also powers the fixed wireless technology that is bringing better broadband to rural America. While 5G is important, the administration and the FCC need to set aside more public spectrum to allow for innovation and broadband deployment outside of the big ISP sector.

I found this summit to be intriguing because it’s the first time I recall the government so heavily touting a telecom technology before it was introduced into the marketplace. There was mention in the Summit that the US is in a race with China to deploy 5G, but I’ve never seen anybody explain how that might give China an advantage over the US. China is far behind the US in terms of landline broadband and it makes sense for them (and much of the rest of the world) to stress wireless technologies.

There certainly was no similar hoopla when Verizon first announced the widespread deployment of fiber – an important milestone in the industry. In fact, at the time the press and Wall Street said that Verizon was making a mistake. It’s interesting to see that Verizon is again the market leader and is the only company, perhaps aside from T-Mobile, that has announced any plans to deploy 5G broadband. It’s worth looking back in history to remember that no other big ISPs followed Verizon’s lead and for over a decade the only other fiber to residences was built by small telcos, municipalities and small overbuilders.

Even if the government makes it as easy as possible to deploy 5G, will other big ISPs follow Verizon into the business? For now, AT&T has clearly decided to pass on the technology and is instead investing in fiber to homes and businesses. The big cable companies have shown no interest in the technology. The cellular companies will upgrade mobile networks to 5G but that’s expected to happen incrementally over a decade and won’t be a transformational technology upgrade. 4G LTE is still expected to be the wireless workhorse for many years to come.

There was one negative issue mentioned at the Summit by Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon. While praising efforts to deploy 5G he also said that we needed to take steps to protect the supply chain for 5G. Currently the FCC has precluded the use of any federal funds to buy technology manufactured by Huawei. But a more pressing issue is the current tariffs on China that are inflating the cost of 5G electronics – something that will be a barrier to deployment if they remain in place for very long.

It’s likely that the Summit was nothing more than politicians climbing onto a popular bandwagon. There has been enough hype about 5G that much of the public views it as a cutting-edge technology that will somehow transform broadband. We’re going to have to watch the Verizon deployment for a while, though, to see if that is true.

The administration has it within their power to create more benefits for companies willing to invest in 5G. However, helping huge companies like Verizon, which doesn’t need the help, is not likely going to bring 5G to more homes. And federal money won’t transform 5G into a technology that can benefit rural America, since 5G requires a robust fiber network. I just hope this doesn’t signal more giveaways to the giant ISPs – but if the FCC’s small cell order is any indicator, that might be all it means.