My Predictions for 2024

BEAD Predictions. It’s clear that most state broadband offices are going to try to award all of the BEAD grants in 2024. There will be barely any BEAD construction completed in 2024, but there will be big hoopla over the handful of customers that get connected before the end of the year.

A lot of pundits have been predicting that a large majority of the funding will go to the largest ISPs to build fiber. But after reading the grant rules in numerous states, I’m not so sure. In some states, the big companies will win it all. States that emphasize the cost of the grant per passing might end up giving all of the money to WISPs. A few state rules are so obtuse that even the big ISPs might decide to take their money to a neighboring state.

RDOF Troubles. I’ve talked with a lot of local governments that haven’t heard a peep from RDOF winners. Most winners will be required to have completed 40% of the RDOF construction by the end of 2024, so this is the year that will flush out ISPs that are going to default. Defaults will probably be too late to attract any BEAD funding.

Wireless Technology Improvements Shake up the Market. 6 GHz radios will change the WISP landscape. New radios that include the giant 6 GHz channels will deliver much faster speeds. More WISPs will begin advertising gigabit speeds in 2024, but most will not deliver what they advertise – but speeds will still be fast.

Big cellular companies will use C-Band spectrum to boost speeds on FWA broadband. But a lot of rural counties that are hoping to get faster speeds will not see the new technology deployed in 2024.

The Beginning of Consolidation. We’re going to see some interesting acquisitions in 2024. I don’t know who, but some of them will be big names. There is a huge amount of venture capital suddenly interested in broadband, and as it becomes clear that these companies will not win as much BEAD grants as they hoped, they’ll turn their attention to acquisitions.

Cable Companies Will Lose Broadband Customers. The large cable companies collectively gained only 4,700 customers in the third quarter of this year, and the only one that grew was Charter. In 2024, customer losses will increase each quarter, and the cable industry is going to panic. Cable company board rooms are at a loss on how to stem the losses. They are now banking that the public will be happy with faster upload speeds with mid-split upgrades, but that isn’t going to impress customers who are offered a fiber alternative or a much cheaper FWA alternative.

Little Impact from FCC Broadband Regulation. If you listen to the rhetoric from the big ISPs, the double whammy of Title II regulation and the new digital discrimination rules will devastate ISPs and kill innovation and new investments. The reality is that there will barely be a peep from regulators concerning the new regulations in 2024. Some minor investigations will be undertaken, but the new regulation will have almost no impact on the market or investments.

Congress Will Let ACP Lapse. There seems to be a big consensus in Congress that the ACP program should continue., But I can’t picture the currently dysfunctional Congress approving new funding for the subsidy program before ACP runs dry. I think ACP will get renewed later in 2024, but only after first lapsing, which will create chaos for ISPs and customers. When ACP is renewed, the number of eligible households will be greatly pared down.

The FCC Will Launch the 5G Fund. This is intended to bring more rural cell towers. The industry says that $9 billion is not nearly enough to reach all of the places that need better cellular coverage, so counties and states will lobby fiercely to get included in the funding.

Big ISPs Will Continue to Buy Back Stocks Rather than Invest in Networks or Maintenance. This may be the least bold prediction I have ever made.

The Definition of Upload Speed

The FCC is in the process of increasing the definition of broadband from today’s paltry 25/3 Mbps to 100/20 Mbps. This blog looks at the FCC’s decision to consider 20 Mbps as the definition of upload.

We know where the 20 Mbps number comes from. Early discussions of the BEAD grant rules considered that grant-eligible areas would be anywhere that customers don’t have the option to purchase broadband with speeds of at least 100/100 Mbps. But cable companies and the wireless industry went ballistic, and there was furious lobbying to lower the BEAD coverage definition to 100/20 Mbps. The reason for this was obvious since both technologies at the time could meet the 100 Mbps download speed but could not meet a 100 Mbps upload speed requirement.

This means that the 20 Mbps definition is a political compromise that has nothing to do with the broadband speeds that households and businesses need. Interestingly, technology in those two industries is changing quickly, and cable companies and WISPs are on the verge of being able to meet 100 Mbps uploads if they upgrade to the latest technology.

Several of the big cable companies are currently implementing mid-split technology upgrades that I’ve seen reported as delivering from 100 Mbps to 300 Mbps upload speeds depending upon the local conditions in a cable company network. The big cable companies have all said that they intend to implement DOCSIS 4.0 upgrades that will enable gigabit upload speeds. But cable companies will likely continue to fight to keep the 20 Mbps definition because they will not want to upgrade their networks in smaller and non-competitive markets.

We’re also on the verge of big changes in fixed wireless technology. As WISPs implement the newest radios, and particularly when they integrate 6 GHz spectrum, the networks will be able to deliver much faster speeds. Wireless network technology is interesting in that the ISP can determine the amount of upload and download speed to offer – and as overall speeds get faster, WISPs will be able to deliver 100 Mbps speeds if they elect to do so.

We’re also seeing speed increases from FWA cellular wireless. Verizon recently reported the ability to deliver much faster speeds with the introduction of C-Band spectrum into towers. If they choose, Verizon and the other carriers using C-Band could also meet a 100 Mbps upload speed.

The FCC should consider a faster definition of broadband just because of the changes in technology. There is no reason to set a low definition of 20 Mbps upload that only rewards ISPs that want to stick with older technology. To do so is reminiscent of past FCC decisions that protected DSL long after it was obsolete.

What I find puzzling is that in the NOI, the FCC argued for a faster definition of upload speeds. They mention a study by the Consortium School Network (CoSN) that says that a single student working at home should have a 12 Mbps connection and a 20 Mbps connection is not sufficient to allow multiple students to work from home. The FCC also acknowledges that there are a lot of uses of broadband today that need faster connections. For example, the NOI cites that a 25 Mbps connection is needed for 4K video conferencing, telehealth, and remote learning. The FCC cites that graphics-intensive work can require a 45 Mbps connection. And they acknowledge what millions of gamers will tell you, which is that a 20 Mbps connection is far from adequate. Keeping a 20 Mbps definition of broadband is a regulatory decision that says that these faster uses of broadband are not important or needed.

We also can’t forget that the definition of broadband is not just for households. Cable company networks that offer 20 Mbps upload to businesses are massively inadequate. Businesses have migrated a lot of functions to the cloud, and I could list fifty ways that businesses want to use upload broadband – and many can’t due to slow technologies.

You might think that the definition of broadband is not important – but it says that any ISP connection slower than the definition is not really broadband. If the FCC considers a faster upload speed it will provide an incentive for ISPs to upgrade technology to meet a faster definition – since customers will demand speeds that are considered to be broadband.

Unfortunately, the FCC will likely adopt the 20 Mbps definition, and millions of homes, and particularly businesses, will continue to suffer with inadequate upload speeds for the next five years until the FCC looks again at the definition of broadband. This is a chance for the FCC to implement a policy change that will have real market implications. But the FCC probably doesn’t want to face the ISP lobbying effort to keep an inadequate definition of broadband – even as ISPs are already making upgrades that can meet a faster definition.

Introducing 6 GHz into WiFi

WiFi is already the most successful deployment of spectrum ever. In the recent Annual Internet Report, Cisco predicted that by 2022 that WiFi will cross the threshold and will carry more than 50% of global IP traffic. Cisco predicts by 2023 that there will be 628 million WiFi hotspots – most used for home broadband.

These are amazing statistics when you consider that WiFi has been limited to using 70 MHz of spectrum in the 2.4 GHz spectrum band and 500 MHz in the 5 GHz spectrum band. That’s all about to change as two major upgrades are being made to WiFi – the upgrade to WiFi 6 and the integration 6 GHz spectrum into WiFi.

The Impact of WiFi 6. WiFi 6 is the new consumer-friendly name given to the next generation of WiFi technology (replaces the term 802.11ax). Even without the introduction of new spectrum WiFi 6 will significantly improve performance over WiFi 5 (802.11ac).

The problem with current WiFi is congestion. Congestion comes in two ways – from multiple devices trying to use the same router, and from multiple routers trying to use the same channels. My house is probably typical, and we have a few dozen devices that can use the WiFi router. My wife’s Subaru even connects to our network to check for updates every time she pulls into the driveway. With only two of us in the house, we don’t overtax our router – but we can when my daughter is home from college.

Channel congestion is the real culprit in our neighborhood. We live in a moderately dense neighborhood of single-family homes and we can all see multiple WiFi networks. I just looked at my computer and I see 24 other WiFi networks, including the delightfully named ‘More Cowbell’ and ‘Very Secret CIA Network’. All of these networks are using the same small number of channels, and WiFi pauses whenever it sees a demand for bandwidth from any of these networks.

Both kinds of congestion slow down throughput due to the nature of the WiFi specification. The demands for routers and for channels are queued and each device has to wait its turn to transmit or receive data. Theoretically, a WiFi network can transmit data quickly by grabbing a full channel – but that rarely happens. The existing 5 GHz band has six 80-MHz and two 160-MHz channels available. A download of a big file could go quickly if a full channel could be used for the purpose. However, if there are overlapping demands for even a portion of a channel then the whole channel is not assigned for a specific task.

Wi-Fi 6 introduces a few major upgrades in the way that WiFi works to decrease congestion. The first is the introduction of orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA). This technology allows devices to transmit simultaneously rather than wait for a turn in the queue. OFDMA divides channels into smaller sub-channels called resource units. The analogy used in the industry is that this will open WiFi from a single-lane technology to a multi-lane freeway. WiFi 6 also uses other techniques like improved beamforming to make a focused connection to a specific device, which lowers the chances of interference from other devices.

The Impact of 6 GHz. WiFi performance was already getting a lot better due to WiFi 6 technology. Adding the 6 GHz spectrum will drive performance to yet another level. The 6GHz spectrum adds seven 160 MHz channels to the WiFi environment (or alternately adds fifty-nine 20 MHz channels. For the typical WiFi environment, such as a home in an urban setting, this is enough new channels that a big bandwidth demand ought to be able to grab a full 160 MHz channel. This is going to increase the perceived speeds of WiFi routers significantly.

When the extra bandwidth is paired with OFDMA technology, interference ought to be a thing of the past, except perhaps in super-busy environments like a business hotel or a stadium. Undoubtedly, we’ll find ways over the next decade to fill up WiFi 6 routers and we’ll eventually be begging the FCC for even more WiFi spectrum. But for now, this should solve WiFi interference in all but the toughest WiFi environments.

It’s worth a word of caution that this improvement isn’t going to happen overnight. You need both a WiFi 6 router and WiFi-capable devices to take advantage of the new WiFi 6 technology. You’ll also need devices capable of using the 6 GHz spectrum. Unless you’re willing to throw away every WiFi device in your home and start over, it’s going to take most homes years to migrate into the combined benefits of WiFi 6 and 6 GHz spectrum.

Can 5G Replace WiFi?

Verizon recently posted a webcast with investors where Ronan Dunne, EVP and CEO of the Verizon Consumer Group said that he believed that 5G hotspots using millimeter wave spectrum will eventually displace WiFi in homes.

He cites major benefits of 5G over WiFi. He believes that a 5G network will be more reliable and more secure. He thinks that people will value the safety that comes from having traffic inside their home being encrypted as it rides Verizon’s 5G network compared to the more public nature of WiFi where every neighbor can see a home’s WiFi network.

He also cites the convenience of being able to transfer 5G traffic between networks. He paints a picture where a customer making a call or watching a video using a home 5G hotspot will be able to walk out the door and seamlessly continue the session outside on their cellphone. That’s pretty slick stuff should that ever come to pass.

The picture he’s painting for Verizon investors is a future where homes buy a Verizon 5G subscription to use in place of WiFi. This is part of Verizon’s ongoing effort to find a business case for 5G. His vision of the future is possible, but there are a lot of hurdles for Verizon to overcome to achieve that vision.

It’s going to get harder to compete with WiFi since the technology is getting a lot better with two major upgrades. First, the industry has introduced WiFi 6, which brings higher quality performance, lower latency, and faster data rates. WiFi 6 will use techniques like improved beamforming to greatly reduce interference between WiFi uses within the home.

Even more importantly, WiFi will be incorporating the new 6 GHz spectrum band that will increase bandwidth capabilities by adding seven 160 MHz bands and fourteen 80 MHz bands. It will be much easier to put home devices on separate channels when these new channels are added to the existing channels available on 2.4 and 5 GHz. This means that 5G will be competing against a much improved WiFi compared to the technology we all use today.

Another big hurdle for Verizon to overcome is that WiFi is ubiquitous today. WiFi is built into a huge number of devices, and a homeowner might already own a dozen or more devices capable of using WiFi. Verizon will have to somehow convince homeowners that 5G is so superior that it’s worth replacing the panoply of WiFi devices.

Another hurdle is that there is going to be WiFi vendors painting almost the same picture as Verizon. The makers of WiFi routers are already envisioning future devices that will introduce millimeter-wave spectrum including 5G into the home. There are vendors already working on devices that will provide both WiFi 6 and 5G using millimeter-wave connections simultaneously, using the publicly available 60 GHz V band. These solutions envision offering everything that Verizon can do, except the ability to roam seamlessly in and out of a home – and it will be done by selling a box instead of a new monthly subscription.

Another interesting hurdle to switching home networks to 5G is that there might be separate 5G solutions for each cellular carrier that uses different bands of spectrum. It’s relatively easy for device makers today to build a cellphone or other device that can use different cellular carriers because the carriers all use similar spectrum. But as each cellular company picks a different mix of frequencies moving forward, there is likely going to be cellphones and other devices that are specific to one carrier. It’s impossible to build a cellphone with today’s battery technology that can receive a huge range of spectrums – the multiple antenna systems would drain a cellphone dry in no time.

The largest hurdle of all is that WiFi is free to use after buying a WiFi router or meshed WiFi devices for the home. There is no monthly subscription fee to use the wireless WiFi connections within the home. Verizon clearly foresees a world where every home has a new monthly subscription to use its in-home 5G network.

Mr. Dunne makes one good point. It’s becoming increasingly clear that public WiFi networks are susceptible to hacking. A 5G network controlled by a carrier should be a lot safer than a WiFi hotspot managed by a coffee shop. The big question is if this enough incentive for people to buy 5G-capable devices or for coffee shops to switch to 5G networks. Even should coffee shops go with a 5G solution, will homes follow suit?

Mr. Dunne vision has an underlying assumption that people will value data security enough to be willing to pay more for it. He envisions people choosing a managed network when they have a choice. He could be right, and perhaps there will be enough data breaches in coming years with WiFi that the paradigm will change from WiFi to 5G. But it’s going to be incredibly hard to dislodge WiFi, particularly when it’s evolving and improving along with 5G.

Even if Mr. Dunne is right, this shift is not coming soon, probably not within this decade. For now, WiFi has won the device war and any shift to 5G would drag out over many years. It’s going to be incredibly difficult for the cellular carriers to convince everybody to switch to 5G.

I sympathize with Mr. Dunne’s dilemma. Investors want to understand where the revenues will come from to fund the expensive upgrades to 5G. Verizon and the other cellular carriers have tossed out a lot of ideas, but so far none of them have stuck to the wall.  Investors are getting rightfully nervous since there doesn’t appear to be any significant 5G revenues coming in the next few years. The carriers keep painting pictures of an amazing 5G future as a way to not have to talk about lack of 5G revenues today.

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.