My Thoughts on AT&T AirGig

PoleBy now most of you have seen AT&T’s announcement of a new wireless technology they are calling AirGig. This is a technology that can bounce millimeter wave signals along a series of inexpensive plastic antennae perched at the top of utility poles.

The press release is unclear about the speeds that might be delivered from the technology. The press release says it has the potential to deliver multi-gigabit speeds. But at the same time it talks about delivering 4G cellular as well as 5G cellular and fixed broadband. The 4G LTE cellular standard can deliver about 15 Mbps while the 5G cellular standard (which is still being developed) is expected to eventually increase cellular speeds to about 50 Mbps. So perhaps AT&T plans to use the technology to deploy micro cell sites while also being able to deliver millimeter wave wireless broadband loops. The link above includes a short video which doesn’t clarify this issue very well.

Like any new radio technology, there is bound to be a number of issues involved with moving the technology from the lab to the field. I can only speculate at this point, but I can foresee the following as potential issues with the millimeter wave part of the technology:

  • The video implies that the antennas will be used to deliver bandwidth using a broadcast hotspot. I’m not entirely sure that the FCC will even approve this spectrum to be used in this manner – this is the same spectrum used in microwave ovens. It can be dangerous to work around for linemen climbing poles and it can create all sorts of havoc by interfering with cable TV networks and TV reception.
  • Millimeter wave spectrum does not travel very far when used as a hot spot. This spectrum has high atmospheric attenuation and is absorbed by gases in the atmosphere. When focused in a point-to-point the spectrum can work well to about half a mile. But in a hot spot mode it’s good, at best, for a few hundred feet and loses bandwidth quickly with distance traveled. The bandwidth is only going to reach to homes that are close to the pole lines.
  • Millimeter wave spectrum suffers from rain fade and during a rain storm almost all of the spectrum is scattered.
  • The spectrum doesn’t penetrate foliage, or much of anything else. So there is going to have to be a clear path between the pole unit and the user. America is a land of residential trees and even in the open plains people plant trees closely around their house as a windbreak.
  • The millimeter wave spectrum won’t penetrate walls, so this will require some sort of outdoor receiver to catch millimeter wave signals.
  • I wonder how the units will handle icing. Where cables tend to shake ice off within a few days, hardware mounted on poles can be ice-covered for months.
  • The technology seems to depend on using multiple wireless hops to go from unit to unit. Wireless hops always introduce latency into the signal and it will be interesting to see how much latency is introduced along rural pole runs.
  • For any wireless network to deliver fast speeds it has to be connected somewhere to fiber backhaul. There are still many rural counties with little or no fiber.

We have always seen that every wireless technology has practical limitations that make it suitable for some situations and not others. This technology will be no different. In places where this can work it might be an incredible new broadband solution. But there are bound to be situations where the technology will have too many problems to be practical.

I’ve seen speculation that one of the major reasons for this press release is to cause a pause to anybody thinking of building fiber. After all, why should anybody build fiber if there is cheap multi-gigabit wireless coming to every utility pole? But with all of the possible limitations mentioned above (and others that are bound to pop up in the real world) this technology may only work in some places, or it might not work well at all. This could be the technology we have all been waiting for or it could be a flop. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Using Cellular for Home Broadband

slow-downFor some time both Verizon and AT&T have been telling the FCC and state Commissions that they want to replace rural telephone lines with cellular connections, which means bringing cellular data plans to rural areas. We’ve now finally seen Verizon’s plans for what rural cellular data plans will look like:

The headline on this Verizon web site is “use the power of the Verizon 4G LTE Network to give you a lightning-fast Internet connection in your home,” followed later on in the offer with the header “Ditch your Low-Speed Internet.”

Those phrases sound great until you then see the offered speeds: “Fast Internet access with average speeds of 5 – 12 Mbps download and 2 – 5 Mbps upload.” I guess for somebody who’s been on dial-up this might be lightning fast, but it’s awfully hard to call this broadband.

But then comes the real kicker when they list the price and the monthly data caps:

  • 10 GB monthly data cap $60
  • 20 GB monthly data cap $90
  • 30 GB monthly data cap $120
  • $10 per additional gigabit of usage.

Before I totally scoff at this, it’s important to realize that there are already many households trying to get by using today’s cellular plans for home data. Compared to those plans this new offer is a little better. But these new plans are not broadband and it displays the greed of the cellular companies that they can even put such a plan into the public with a straight face. What these plans say to anybody living in a rural Verizon or AT&T area is – you’re screwed.

It’s easy to put these plans into perspective. Just last week I was traveling in Minnesota and there was a day that I used my cellular data plan to power by laptop broadband. In just one day, doing only normal business things, I used over a gigabit of data. I didn’t watch video or do anything that was a blatant data hog. And so the $120 plan would not even power my one business laptop for a month and I’d be paying that much per month and facing $10 for every gigabit I went over 30 GB.

Cellular data in this country is among the most expensive data used anywhere in the world. When you look at charts that are occasionally compiled of worldwide data prices per megabit the only places more expensive are Antarctica, some parts of Africa, and remote islands. And Verizon wants to take that ultra-expensive cellular data and extend it into rural homes.

This pricing by Verizon should end once-and-for-all the arguments that I hear all of the time that the future of rural broadband is wireless. Verizon has it within their means to offer an affordable alternative broadband product from rural cell towers – and this is not it.

I can fully understand why cellular companies don’t want to sell broadband connections in urban areas that are used to streaming Netflix – busy cell sites are really not made for that and such a connection ties up a valuable channel for a long time. But in rural areas where there are fewer people using cell towers the wireless carriers potentially could offer an affordable product with a much larger data cap. They fact that they are choosing to not do so says more about their greed than anything else.

I hope the FCC is paying attention to this. A copy of this web site need to be attached to any filing that the cellular carriers make at the FCC asking to tear down rural copper and replace it with cellular data. If the FCC supports such an idea, even in the slightest – this is what they are agreeing to.

Are You Ready for 5G?

Cell-TowerIn the last month I have seen several announcements of groups claiming they will be launching 5G cellular in the next few years. For example, both South Korea and Japan have announced plans to introduce 5G before they host the Olympics in 2018 and 2020. Three of the Chinese ministries have announced plans to jointly develop 5G. And the Isle of Man says they are going to have the first 5G network (and before you laugh, they had the second LTE network in the world).

I have written before about the inflation of claims in wireless technologies, and so I have to ask what these groups are talking about. There is nobody in the world today that is delivering wireless that comes close to meeting the 4G specification. That spec calls for the ability to deliver 100 Mbps to a moving vehicle and 1 Gbps to a stationary customer. What is being sold as 4G everywhere is significantly slower than those speeds.

For example, OpenSignal studies wireless speeds all over the world. In February 2014 they reported that the average speed of US 4G networks was only at 6.5 Mbps in the second half of 2013, down from 9.65 Mbps the year before. The US speeds have rebounded some in 2014, but even the fastest 4G networks, in Australia, average only 17 – 25 Mbps. That is a long way from 1 Gbps.

Moreover, there aren’t yet any specifications or standards for 5G, so these announcements mean nothing in since there is no 5G specification to shoot for. The process to create a worldwide 5G standard hasn’t even begun and the expectation is that a standard might be in place by 2020.

I am not even sure how much demand there is for faster wireless networks. It’s not coming from cellular data for smartphones. That business in the US has been growing about 20% per year, or doubling every five years and it’s expected to stay on that pace. New demand might come from the Internet of Things, from devices that want to use bandwidth from the cellular network. IoT usage of cellular networks is new and, for example, there are utilities now using cellular bandwidth to read meters. And while industry experts expect a huge increase in this machine-to-machine traffic by 2020 I’m not sure that it needs greater speeds.

The other thing we have to always remember with cellular traffic is that it handles only a tiny fraction of the total data used in the country today. Reports from Sandvine have shown that cellular traffic only carries about 1% of the total volume of data delivered to end users in the US today, and landline data usage is still growing faster than cellular data. This is probably due to the expensive data plans that cellular companies sell and which have taught customers to be frugal with smartphone data. But it’s also a function of the much slower speeds on 4G compared to many landline connections.

Another limiting factor on 4G, or 5G or any G getting faster is the way we allocate spectrum. In the US we dole out spectrum in tiny channels that were not designed to handle large data connections. Additionally, any given cell site is limited in the number of data connections that can be made at once.

So I am completely skeptical about these announcements of upcoming 5G networks. I am still waiting for a cellular company to actually meet the 4G standard – what we are calling 4G today is really a souped of version of 3G technology. It’s very hard to foresee any breakthroughs by 2020 that will let cell sites routinely deliver the 1 Gbps that is promised by 4G. My guess is by the time that somebody does deliver 1 Gbps to a cellphone that the breakthrough is going to be marketed as 10G.

I don’t think that any of the groups that are promising 5G by 2020 are anticipating any major breakthroughs in cellphone technology. Instead the industry is constantly making tweaks and adjustments that boost cell speeds a little more each time. All of these technology boosts are significant and we all benefit as the cellular network gets faster. But the constant little tweaks are playing hell with handset makers and with cellular companies trying to keep the fastest technology at all of their cell sites.

We are not really going to get a handle on this until we have fully implemented software defined networking. That is going to happen when the large cell companies migrate all of the brains in their networks to a few hub cell sites that will service all of the cellular transmitters in their network. This means putting the brains of the cellphone network into the cloud so that making an update to the hub will update all of the cell sites in the network. AT&T and Verizon are both moving in that direction, but it might be a decade until we see a fully cloud-based cellular network.

Living Within Our Data Caps

Cell-TowerAn interesting thing happened to the wireless carriers on their trip to bring us 4G. They warned us repeatedly that we could expect issues as they upgraded their networks, and they forced us onto skinny data plans of a few gigabits of data so that most of us have learned to use WiFi with our cellphones rather than spend a fortune with the cellphone provider.

But maybe the wireless carriers have gone too far. Adobe Systems reported last week that that more than half of all data from cell phones is now using WiFi instead of 3G or 4G. Total WiFi traffic from mobile passed data directly on the wireless networks more than a year ago. This has to be troubling to AT&T and Verizon because their business plans rely on consumers using the faster 4G LTE networks. They have made huge investments over the last few years in increasing data speeds and that is the basis of all of their advertising.

So perhaps the tactic of imposing small data caps has backfired on them. They are not seeing their new expensive networks used nearly as much as they counted on, and this is limiting their ability to monetize the expensive upgrades. I know that I personally am very happy buying a 2 gigabit monthly cap and I only use cellphones data for directions while driving or when I have no other choice when traveling. I would never consider watching a video on my phone when I’m not at home. Apparently there are a lot of people like me in the world.

When AT&T and Verizon realized that people weren’t using as much data as they had hoped for they both got into the tablet business hoping that it would boost the use of their 4G LTE data. They have been bundling tablets into plans and even selling them below cost as a way to drive more data usage on their networks. But that move has also backfired and I saw a report that estimated that 93% of tablet data usage is using WiFi instead of the LTE network.

The WiFi trend is only going to get worse for the carriers as Hotspot 2.0 rolls out. That is the new WiFi standard that is going to let cellphones and other devices easily and automatically log into public hotspots without going through today’s annoying process of having to log onto each new network. With Hotspot 2.0 you can be pre-certified to join any WiFi router that is part of that network. So as you walk down the street in a business district you might long onto numerous different WiFi routers as you walk by them – while staying off the LTE network.

The precursors for Hotspot 2.0 are already in the market today. I know that once I have logged in once with my cellphone to any AT&T or Comcast hotspot that my phone doesn’t ask my permission whenever I come into range of another of their hotspots and just automatically connects me.

It’s been reported that the wireless carriers have had pretty good success getting families to upgrade to monthly 10 GB deluxe plans. But what they didn’t count on is how so many people are being careful to stay within their plan to avoid getting hit with charges for extra data.

It’s been reported that both AT&T and Verizon have invested heavily in the Internet of Things and they are touting 4G connectivity as the best way to connect for a wide range of devices from wireless utility meters to animal-tracking collars. But a lot of the IoT devices in the world are going to be inside of homes and businesses where an LTE connection is often not as good as a signal from an inside-the-home WiFi router. The fact is that any outdoor radio broadcast signal is going to vary with factors like weather, temperature and the amount of the spectrum being used by others. This often makes LTE less reliable locally than a solid WiFi signal.

It will be interesting to see how the wireless carriers react to this. They have spent many billions upgrading their wireless networks and are not seeing the kind of revenue they expected from that effort. This might make them more cautious about leaping in to make the next big network upgrade, which seems to be needed every few years. It’s possible that they will expand their network more through mini-cell sites to make their signal stronger where people live as a way to make it more usable. The one thing they are unlikely to do, at least for a while is to give customers more data in the base wireless plans. They are likely to stick with the incremental data usage plans in place today.

One place the wireless carriers are counting on is in the connected car industry since that is one market where WiFi is not a real alternative. It is expected that every new car will come with data connectivity and that the amount of data used by each car will climb over time as more and more apps are included with cars. Expect them to be selling tens of millions of small monthly data plans to car owners as a way to make up for us all avoiding their expensive data on our cellphones. But even in that market they are competing against the smartphone which can handle all of the functions promised for the 4G functionality that is part of the smart car. I know I would rather get driving directions as part of my existing cellphone plan than buy a second data plan for my car.

The Future According to CenturyLink

telephone cablesRecently the CFO of CenturyLink, Stewart Ewing, spoke at the Bank of America / Merrill Lynch 2014 Global Telecom and Media Conference. He had some interesting things to say about the future of CenturyLink that contrasts with some of the things that other large carriers like AT&T and Verizon have been saying.

The most interesting thing he had to say is that CenturyLink sees the future of broadband in the landline link to a home. He cannot foresee 4G wireless as a substitute for a landline wireless connection. He doesn’t see wireless delivering enough bandwidth in coming years as demand at homes keeps growing. Already today the average CenturyLink residence uses slightly less than 50 Gigabits of data per month and that is far above the data caps for 4G plans. He doesn’t think cellular can deliver the needed speeds, and unless the cellular model is drastically changed, it’s too expensive and capped at really low levels.

So CenturyLink plans to continue to upgrade its rural plant. About two thirds of CenturyLink’s customers can get 10 Mbps or higher today and the company is working to make that available everywhere. Contrast this to AT&T and Verizon. They have both told the FCC that they have plans to convert millions of rural lines to 4G LTE. I have written about this many times and see it as one of the biggest threats on the horizon to rural broadband. LTE is a great product when you want a burst of fast data to your cell phone. But the LTE network is not designed to serve multiple video streams to large numbers of households. 4G is also capable of some fairly impressive speeds that are significantly in excess of 10 Mbps, but those speeds drop quickly as you move away from a cell site.

It’s fairly obvious that AT&T and Verizon favor LTE since it is their own best economic benefit – their wireless operations dwarf their landline businesses. Nobody can argue with a straight face that LTE is the best way to provide data for customers from either a a performance or a cost basis. Cellular coverage is still poor in a lot of rural America and so forcing people off of copper and onto wireless will  degrade the ability of many rural households to get broadband. But these two companies have a big financial incentive to move people from low-priced landlines to expensive cellular connections. It makes me think that if the FCC really cares about rural America that they ought to be divesting the landline business from AT&T and Verizon to remove the wireless bias.

CenturyLink says they are worried about the FCC changing the definition of rural broadband to be higher than 10 Mbps. They say that speed is difficult to achieve in their DSL plant and that they are far more comfortable with a definition of around 6 Mbps. It’s honestly refreshing to hear a telco executive tell people the truth for a change. The other big telcos spew a lot of rhetoric to sway the FCC or to assuage the public and it’s unusual to hear somebody tell the unvarnished truth to the public.

Those who follow my blog know that I promote a high definition of broadband. Households want the ability to stream multiple videos simultaneously. And you can expect in just a few years for there to be a much greater demand for HD quality video and a climbing demand for 4K video. The average urban household that has choice is already finding 10 Mbps to be far too slow. Just this week Verizon increased its minimum FiOS speeds to a symmetrical 35 Mbps. I know this is a really big technological expectation for CenturyLink and other rural telcos still using copper, but the definition of broadband needs to keep pace with what the normal household wants to buy, and that number is going to keep climbing year after year. If we don’t set the bar high then rural places are going to fall further behind the speeds available in cities.

CenturyLink does expect to continue to expand the footprint of its Prism TV product. This is a paired and bonded DSL product that can deliver up to 50 Mbps for customers somewhat close to a central office. CenturyLink has made this available to over 2 million customers and plans to make it available to 300,000 more in 2015.

Interestingly, CenturyLink does not plan to expand WiFi hotspots. Some other carriers seem to be in a race to put in hot spots but CenturyLink cannot see a way to monetize the effort. Of course, CenturyLink will put a hotspot in for a business that asks for one, but they don’t intend to build hotspots of their own. I have also written about this topic several times. Nobody who is not serving a captive audience like at an airport or in an airplane has been able to get much money from selling Internet by the hour. And while the giant cellular carriers benefit greatly by more WiFi, I have yet to hear of a deal where they are paying somebody to install public hot spots. Comcast says they have installed hundreds of thousands of hot spots and they recently announced that they are turning the wireless modems of all of their residential customers into hot spots. But to me that seems more like a move that is going to antagonize the public greatly with little obvious monetary benefit. I think CenturyLink is being prudent to stay away from this business until somebody shows a way to make money with it.