Existing 4G Spectrum

I suspect that most people don’t realize the small number of frequencies that are used today to support cellular service. Below is a list of the frequencies used by each US cellular carrier for providing 4G LTE. Except for Sprint, they all use the same basic frequencies.

Frequencies (in MHz)

AT&T  – 1900, 1700 abcde, 700 bc

Verizon – 1900, 1700 f, 700 c

T-Mobile – 1900, 1700 def, 700 a, 600

Sprint – 1900 g, 850, 2500

The letters represent separate licenses for specific sub-bands of the various frequencies. For example, the 1700 MHz band has been licensed in bands a through f and the carriers own rights to various sub-bands rather than to the whole spectrum. The same is also true for 1900 MHz and 700 MHz spectrum. In many cases, the licenses for the various spectrum bands are not nationwide. This means the frequencies used in Cleveland by one of the carriers might be slightly different than the spectrum used in San Francisco.

The carriers are using these limited spectrum bands today to support both 4G voice and data. In metropolitan areas, the carriers are in big trouble. They are finding it impossible to satisfy customer requests for data service, which is resulting in customer blockages or greatly reduced broadband speeds.

One of the primary reasons that the carriers are running into blockages on 4G data is that they aren’t deploying enough different bands of spectrum for broadband. The carriers have three remedies that can be used to improve cellular data – use more bands of spectrum, build more cell sites (small cells), and implement 5G which will allow for more simultaneous connections.

The CTIA, the lobbying group for the wireless carriers has been heavily lobbying the FCC to allocate 400 MHz of additional mid-range spectrum for cellular data. The FCC is considering repositioning numerous bands of spectrum and the CTIA wants to grab everything possible for data purposes.

Unfortunately, spectrum alone is not going to provide the solution the wireless carriers are hoping for. One of the primary reasons that the cellular carriers only use a few different bands of spectrum today is to simplify handsets. There is a huge price to pay for using multiple bands of spectrum in a cell phone. The more bands of spectrum, the more antennas that must be supported and the more power that is used.

If the cellular companies try to load many more bands of mid-range spectrum onto cellphones they will have majorly overstressed the battery life of phones. Most cellphone customers are not likely going to want to trade faster data speeds for shorter battery lives. As I look forward at the strategies of the cellular carriers, the battery life of cellphones might be their biggest limitation. The question is not so much about how much data a cellphone can handle, but rather how much battery life must be sacrificed to gain broadband  performance. The only solution for this is likely some new battery technology that is not yet on the horizon.

I don’t believe that the average cellphone user values cellular data speeds in the same way that they value fast landline data speeds. 4G today is easily capable of streaming video and there’s no reason on a cellphone to stream more than one video stream at the same time. 4G is reasonably okay today at operating most celular apps. The one group of cellphone users that always want more bandwidth are gamers – but there is no way that cellphones are ever going to be able to match the capabilities of gaming systems or gaming computers using landline broadband connections.

I scratch my head every time I hear 5G claims about providing gigabit cellular service. I don’t want to sound like an old-timer who sees no need for greater speeds. But I think we need to be realistic and ask if superfast cellular bandwidth is really needed today – after all, there are still no landline applications for homes that require anything near to a gigabit of bandwidth. The primary reason homes need faster download speeds is to handle multiple big bandwidth applications at the same time, something that is not today a requirement for cellphones.

The idea of gigabit cellular is mostly coming from the imagination of the cellular company marketers. The 5G standard calls for eventual ubiquitous 100 Mbps cellular speeds. Even achieving that much speed is going to require tying together multiple mid-range bands of spectrum. I’m having a hard time seeing the additional revenue streams that will pay for the massive upgrades needed to reach the 100 Mbps goal. The cellular companies all know this but aren’t talking about it because that would dilute the message that 5G will transform the world.

Reclaiming Spectrum

The FCC recently wrote a letter to DISH Networks warning the company that it had not complied with the FCC’s build-out requirements for its AWS-4 and its E and H blocks of 700 MHz spectrum. The warning was more sternly worded than what we normally see from the FCC, and perhaps they will take steps to reclaim the spectrum if DISH is unable to meet the required deployment of the spectrum. The company has a long history of sitting on spectrum and delaying its use. They recently told the FCC that they want to use the AWS spectrum to launch a nationwide IoT monitoring network and that they are interested in entering the cellular business with the 700 MHz licenses.

Today’s blog is not about DISH specifically. Instead, I want to talk about the FCC reclaiming spectrum. This is an important issue for rural America because the majority of licensed spectrum sits idle in rural America for a number of reasons. We could go a long way towards fixing the rural broadband problem if the unused spectrum could be reclaimed by the FCC and repositioned for rural use. There are a number of reasons why the spectrum sits idle today.

Coverage Rules. Most FCC licenses come with coverage requirements. For instance, a given spectrum might need to eventually be deployed to cover something like 70% of the households in a license area. That rule allows spectrum holders to deploy spectrum to urban areas and legally ignore the surrounding rural areas.

There is nothing wrong with this from a business perspective. Cellular companies only need to use their full inventory of spectrum in urban areas where most customers live, and the FCC rules should not require deployment of spectrum where nobody will use it. But the coverage rules mean that the spectrum will remain unused in rural areas as long as the primary license holder is serving the urban areas – effectively forever. Since the spectrum is licensed, nobody else can use it. This problem is caused by the way that the FCC licenses spectrum for large geographic areas, while the spectrum buyers are interested in serving only a portion of the license areas.

Ideally unused spectrum should be made available to somebody else who can make a business case for it. There are several ways to fix this issue. First, licensed holders could be compelled by the FCC to sub-license the spectrum to others where it sits idle. Or the FCC could reclaim the spectrum in unused geographic areas and distribute it to those who will use it.

Deployment Delays. Other spectrum goes unused due to deployment delays by license holders. The DISH Network spectrum is a perfect example. The company bought this spectrum for a use that they were unable to execute. Since the spectrum is valuable the license holders deploy delaying tactics to stop the FCC from reclaiming the spectrum. The FCC has largely been derelict in enforcing its own rules and I’m sure that DISH was shocked at the FCC response. DISH probably figured that this would be business as usual and that the FCC would grant them more time as had been done in the past. I have no idea if DISH really intends to deploy an IoT network or go into the cellular business – but those are the kinds of new competitive ventures that the FCC has been publicly asking for, so DISH is telling the FCC exactly what it wants to hear. But it’s likely that DISH just wants another delay until they can find a buyer for their sinking satellite business by somebody who will value the spectrum. Regardless of the reasons, the FCC has ignored its own deployment rules numerous times and granted license holders more time.

Spectrum Speculators. There is a class of investors who buy spectrum with the hopes of selling it or licensing it to somebody else. They will buy spectrum and rig up a bogus use of the spectrum to meet the build-out requirements. I’ve seen wireless links deployed that carry no data but that are intended only to prove to the FCC that the spectrum is being used. The FCC ought to do a better job of identifying the fake deployments that are done only to preserve the license.

There’s no way to know if the letter to DISH signals a change at the FCC and if they intend to enforce the spectrum rules. Better enforcement of the rules alone won’t help rural America if the spectrum gets re-licensed and the same cycle repeats. We need spectrum rules that free up spectrum in rural areas where the spectrum sits idle. Perhaps this could be done by requiring license holders to sub-license the spectrum to others where it sits idle. The FCC has said numerous time that wireless technology can be the salvation for rural broadband, yet they allow the most valuable spectrum to sit idle while WISPs are relegated to delivering broadband using a few tiny swaths of unlicensed spectrum. This is not a hard problem to solve, but it requires the will to solve it, and an FCC that won’t cave-in to the big spectrum license holders.

What’s Up With Dish?

Satellite_dish_(Television)The FCC just held an auction for the 1900 MHz spectrum and the only bidder and the winner of it all was Dish Networks. For some reason they did this under a different corporate name, but everybody knew from the beginning that it was them bidding.

This is not the first spectrum purchased by Dish. In the 2008 auction for 700 MHz Dish bought a nationwide footprint in the E Block. Dish also bought a nationwide 40 MHz-wide band of S-band spectrum at 2 GHz from TerreStar Networks and DBSD North America. Adding this all together Dish now has a sizable pile of spectrum.

So what do they plan to do with it? Nobody is entirely sure, but we know a bit about what they have been experimenting with. The E Block of the 700 MHz spectrum isn’t really usable for two-way communications. Last year Dish told the FCC that it was experimenting with using the frequency for various mobile television technologies. This included Mobile to Handheld (ATSC M/H), Digital Video Broadcasting Handheld (DVB-H), Satellite Services to Handhelds (DVB-SH), and China Mobile Multimedia Broadcasting (CMMB). They also could use the spectrum in an LTE network to broadcast some of their satellite service directly to handsets.

If they can get happy with one of these technologies, then they could then offer a mobile TV service. You might remember that Qualcomm tried this a few years back and offered a dozen or so TV channels for $10. That venture was a failure. But since then the world has changed rapidly. There are now a lot of smart phones and tablets and there are a lot of people looking for ways to bypass their expensive cable packages. One only has to look at the success Aereo has had in major cities to see that the time might be ripe for such an offering. And Dish already has the programming and would avoid Aereo’s legal woes.

Dish is currently testing wireless broadband in Virginia and will be testing it later this year in Corpus Christie. They have made a deal with Sprint to use the spectrum from Sprint cell sites and they could use this spectrum to bring broadband to some parts of rural America. The amount of bandwidth they can deliver would not be competitive in metropolitan areas, but it might be welcomed in those parts of America where there is still no real broadband.

Like all wireless data technologies, the speeds anybody gets is going to depend largely on how far away they are from a transmitter. But one would think that this technology could deliver up to 20 Mbps download close to a transmitter and maybe 3 Mbps download four or five miles from the transmitter. In places that still have dial-up that could be a good new option.

This would also bring broadband to those same areas where Dish sells a lot of satellite TV. This would allow them for the first time to offer a bundle of services, something they have always wanted to do. They already have some of the cheapest television prices in the country, since it is cheaper to operate satellites than it is to operate wireline cable networks. They could become quite profitable with the bundle – and one would suppose this would also bundle in Sprint cellular service.

Rural America needs broadband badly. What Dish is looking at is really not a great solution, but it is a lot better than what is there today. The only problem I see with this idea is that once Dish delivers slow broadband to a rural area that other providers are going to be even less likely to invest to build landline networks to bring real broadband. While 5 Mbps sounds like heaven to somebody on dial-up, it doesn’t give the rural customer the same speeds and benefits gotten in urban markets. The data speeds in Cities is getting faster all of the time and there is a growing list of places that now have an option for Gigabit fiber. As much as I appreciate what Dish is contemplating, I also fear that their bandwidth could relegate rural markets to a permanent slow Internet hell. The FCC would no longer worry about such areas because they would consider that they have broadband. Which is a shame, because this is not broadband that can help rural America thrive, but rather will just keep them limping by.