Another Rural Wireless Provider?

T-Mobile announced the start of a trial for a fixed wireless broadband product using LTE. The product is being marketed as “T-Mobile Home Internet”. The company will offer the product by invitation only to some existing T-Mobile cellular customers in “rural and underserved areas”. The company says they might connect as many as 50,000 customers this year. The company is marketing the product as 50 Mbps broadband, with a monthly price of $50 and no data cap. The company warns that speeds may be curtailed during times of network congestion.

The company further says that their ultimate goal is to offer speeds of up to 100 Mbps, but only if they are allowed to merge with Sprint and gain access to Sprint’s huge inventory of mid-range spectrum. They said the combination of the two companies would enable them to cover as many as 9.5 million homes with 100 Mbps broadband in about half of US zip codes.

There are positive aspects the planned deployment, but also a number of issues that make me skeptical. One positive aspect is that some of the spectrum used for LTE can better pass through trees compared to the spectrum used for the fixed wireless technology that is being widely deployed in the open plains and prairies of the Midwest and West. This opens up the possibility of bringing some wireless broadband to places like Appalachia – with the caveat that heavy woods are still going to slow down data speeds. It’s worth noting that this is still a line-of-sight technology and fixed LTE will be blocked by hills or other physical impediments.

The other positive aspect of the announced product is the price and lack of a data cap. Contrast this to the AT&T fixed LTE product that has a price as high as $70 along with a stingy 160 GB monthly cap, and with overage charges that can bring the AT&T price up to $200 per month.

I am skeptical of a number of the claims made or implied by the announcement. The primary concern is download speeds. Fixed LTE will be the same as any other fixed wireless product and speeds will decrease with the distance of a customer from the serving tower. In rural America distances can mount up quickly. LTE broadband is similar to rural cellular voice and works best where customers can get 4 or 5 bars. Anybody living in rural America understands that there are a lot more places with 1 or 2 bars of signal strength than of 4 or 5 bars.

The 50 Mbps advertised speed is clearly an ‘up-to’ speed and in rural America it’s doubtful that anybody other than those who live under a tower could actually get that much speed. This is one of the few times when I’ve seen AT&T advertise truthfully and they market their LTE product as delivering at least 10 Mbps speed. I’ve read numerous online reviews of the AT&T product and the typical speeds reported by customers range between 10 Mbps and 25 Mbps, with only a few lucky customers claiming speeds faster than that.

The online reviews of the AT&T LTE product also indicate that signal strength is heavily influenced by rain and can completely disappear during a downpour. Perhaps even more concerning are reports that in some cases speeds remain slow after a rain due to wet leaves on trees that must be scattering the signal.

Another concern is that T-Mobile is touting this as a solution for underserved rural America.  T-Mobile has far less presence in rural America than AT&T and Verizon and is on fewer rural cellular towers. This is evidenced by their claim that even after a merger with Sprint they’d only be seeing 9.5 million passings – that’s really small coverage for a nationwide cellular network. I’m a bit skeptical that T-Mobile will invest in connecting to more rural towers just to offer this product – the cost of backhaul to rural towers often makes for a lousy business case.

The claim also says that the product will have some aspects of both 4G and 5G. I’ve talked to several wireless engineers who have told me that they can’t see any particular advantage for 5G over 4G when deploying as fixed wireless. A carrier already opens up the available data path fully with 4G to reach a customer and 5G can’t make the spectrum perform any better. I’d love to hear from anybody who can tell me how 5G would enhance this particular application. This might be a case where the 5G term is tossed in for the benefit of politicians and marketing.

Finally, this is clearly a ploy to keep pushing for the merger with Sprint. The claim of the combined companies being able to offer 100 Mbps rural broadband has even more holes than the arguments for achieving 50 Mbps. However, Sprint does have a larger rural presence on rural towers today than T-Mobile, although I think the Sprint towers are already counted in the 9.5 million passings claim.

But putting aside all my skepticism, it would be great if T-Mobile can bring broadband to any rural customers that otherwise wouldn’t have it. Even should they not achieve the full 50 Mbps claim, many rural homes would be thrilled to get speeds at half that level. A wireless product with no data caps would also be a welcomed product. The timing of the announcement is clearly aimed at promoting the merger process with Sprint and I hope the company’s deployment plans don’t evaporate if the merger doesn’t happen.

The Customer WiFi Experience

Every broadband provider is familiar with customer complaints about the quality of broadband connections. A lot of these complaints are due to poorly performing WiFi, but I think that a lot of ISPs are providing broadband connections that are inadequate for customer needs. Making customers happy means solving both of these issues.

It’s the rare customer these days that still only has a wired connection to a computer and almost the whole residential market has shifted to WiFi. As I have covered in a number of blogs, there are numerous reasons why WiFi is not the greatest distribution mechanism in many homes. I could probably write three of four pages of ways that WiFi can be a problem, but here are a few examples of WiFi issues:

  • Customers (and even some ISPs) don’t appreciate how quickly a WiFi signal loses strength with distance. And the losses are dramatically increased when the signal has to pass through walls or other impediments.
  • Many homes have barriers that can completely block WiFi. For instance, older homes with plaster walls that contain metal lathe can destroy a WiFi signal. Large heating ducts can kill the signal.
  • Most ISPs place the WiFi router at the most convenient place that is nearest to where their wire enters the home. Most homes would benefit greatly by instead placing the router somewhere near the center of the house (or whatever place makes the most sense with more complicated floor plans). Customers can make things worse by placing the WiFi router in a closet or cupboard (happens far too often).
  • There are a lot of devices today, like your cellphones, that are preset to specific WiFi channels. Too many devices trying to use the same channels can cause havoc even if there is enough overall WiFi bandwidth.
  • A WiFi network can experience the equivalent of a death spiral when multiple devices keep asking to connect at the same time. The WiFi standard causes the transmission to pause when receiving new requests for connection, and with enough devices this can cause frequent stops and starts of the signal which significantly reduces effective bandwidth. Homes are starting to have a lot of WiFi capable devices (and your neighbor’s devices just add to the problem).

A number of ISPs have begun to sell a managed WiFi product that can solve a lot of these WiFi woes. The product often begins by a wireless survey of the home to understand the delivery barriers and to understand the best placement of a router. Sometimes just putting a WiFi router in a better place can fix problems. But there are also new tools available to ISPs to allow the placement of multiple networked WiFi routers around the home, each acting as a fresh and separate hotspot. I live in an old home built in 1923 and I bought networked hotspots from Eero which solved all of my WiFi issues. And there is more help coming in the future, with the next generation of home WiFi routers offering dynamic routing between the 2.4 and 5 GHz WiFi spectrum to better make sure that devices are spread around the usable spectrum.

But managed WiFi alone will not fix all of the customer bandwidth issues. A surprising number of ISPs are not properly sizing bandwidth to meet customer’s needs. Just recently I met with a client who still has over half of their customers on connection speeds of 10 Mbps or slower, even though their network is capable of gigabit speeds. It is a rare home these days that will find 10 Mbps to always be adequate. One of my other clients uses a simple formula to determine the right amount of customer bandwidth. They allow for 4 Mbps download for every major connected device (smart TV, laptop, heavily used cellphone, gaming device, etc). And then they add another 25% to the needed speed to account for interference among devices and for the many smaller use WiFi devices we now have like smart thermostats or smart appliances. Even their formula sometimes underestimates the needed bandwidth. But one thing is obvious, which is that there are very few homes today that don’t need more than 10 Mbps under that kind of bandwidth allowance.

It’s easy to fault the big cable companies for having lousy customer service – because they largely do. But one thing they seem to have figured out is that giving customers faster speeds eliminates a lot of customer complaints. The big cable companies like Comcast, Charter and Cox have unilaterally increased customer data speeds over the past few years. These companies now have base products in most markets of at least 50 Mbps, and that has greatly improved customer performance. Even customers with a lousy WiFi configuration might be happy if a 50 Mbps connection provides enough bandwidth to push some bandwidth into the remote corners of a home.

So my advice to ISPs is to stop being stingy with speeds. An ISP that still keeps the majority of customers on slow data products is their own worst enemy. Slow speeds make it almost impossible to design an adequate WiFi network. And customers will resent the ISP who delivers poor performance. I know that many ISPs are worried that increasing speeds will mean a decrease in revenue – but I find many of those that think this way might be selling six or more speeds. I’ve been recommending to ISPs for years to follow the big cable companies and to set your base speed high enough to satisfy the average home. A few years ago I thought that base speed was at least 25 Mbps, but I’m growing convinced that it’s now more like 50 Mbps. It seems like the big cable companies got this one thing right – while many other ISPs have not.