Going Wireless-only for Broadband

According to New Street Research (NSR), up to 14% of homes in the US could go all-wireless for broadband. They estimate that there are 17 million homes which are small enough users of bandwidth to justify satisfying their broadband needs strictly using a cellular connection. NSR says that only about 6.6 million homes have elected to go all-wireless today, meaning there is a sizable gap of around 10 million more homes for which wireless might be a reasonable alternative.

The number of households that are going wireless-only has been growing. Surveys by Nielsen and others have shown that the trend to go wireless-only is driven mostly by economics, helped by the ability of many people to satisfy their broadband demands using WiFi at work, school or other public places.

NSR also predicts that the number of homes that can benefit by going wireless-only will continue to shrink. They estimate that only 14 million homes will benefit by going all-wireless within five years – with the decrease due to the growing demand of households for more broadband.

There are factors that make going wireless an attractive alternative for those that don’t use much broadband. Cellular data speeds have been getting faster as cellular carriers continue to implement full 4G technology. The first fully compliant 4G cell site was activated in 2017 and full 4G is now being deployed in many urban locations. As speeds get faster it becomes easier to justify using a cellphone for broadband.

Of course, cellular data speeds need to be put into context. A good 4G connection might be in the range of 15 Mbps. That speed feels glacial when compared to the latest speeds offered by cable companies. Both Comcast and Charter are in the process of increasing data speeds for their basic product to between 100 Mbps and 200 Mbps depending upon the market. Cellphones also tend to have sluggish operating systems that are tailored for video and that can make regular web viewing feel slow and clunky.

Cellular data speeds will continue to improve as we see the slow introduction of 5G into the cellular network. The 5G specification calls for cellular data speeds of 100 Mbps download when 5G is fully implemented. That transition is likely to take another decade, and even when implemented isn’t going to mean fast cellular speeds everywhere. The only way to achieve 100 Mbps speeds is by combining multiple spectrum paths to a given cellphone user, probably from multiple cell sites. Most of the country, including most urban and suburban neighborhoods are not going to be saturated with multiple small cell sites – the cellular companies are going to deploy faster cellular speeds in areas that justify the expenditure. The major cellular providers have all said that they will be relying on 4G LTE cellular for a long time to come.

One of the factors that is making it easier to go wireless-only is that people have access throughout the day to WiFi, which is powered from landline broadband. Most teenagers would claim that they use their cellphones for data, but most of them have access to WiFi at home and school and at other places they frequent.

The number one factor that drives people to go all-wireless for data is price. Home broadband is expensive by the time you add up all of the fees from a cable company. Since most people in the country already has a cellphone then dropping the home broadband connection is a good way for the budget-conscious to control their expenses.

The wireless carriers are also making it easier to go all wireless by including some level of video programming with some cellular plans. These are known as zero-rating plans that let a customer watch some video for free outside of their data usage plan. T-Mobile has had these plans for a few years and they are now becoming widely available on many cellular plans throughout the industry.

The monthly data caps on most wireless plans are getting larger. For the careful shopper who lives in an urban area there are usually a handful of truly unlimited data plans. Users have learned, though, that many such plans heavily restrict tethering to laptops and other devices. But data caps have creeped higher across-the-board in the industry compared to a few years ago. Users who are willing to pay more for data can now buy the supposedly unlimited data plans from the major carriers that are actually capped between 20 – 25 GB per month.

There are always other factors to consider like cellular coverage. I happen to live in a hilly wooded town where coverage for all of the carriers varies block by block. There are so many dead spots in my town that it’s challenging to use cellular even for voice calls. I happen to ride Uber a lot and it’s frustrating to see Uber drivers get close to my neighborhood and get lost when they lose their Verizon signal. This city would be a hard place to rely only on a cellphone. Rural America has the same problem and regardless of the coverage maps published by the cellular companies there are still huge areas where rural cellular coverage is spotty or non-existent.

Another factor that makes it harder to go all-wireless is working from home. Cellphones are not always adequate when trying to log onto corporate WANs or for downloading and working on documents, spreadsheets and PowerPoints. While tethering to a computer can solve this problem, it doesn’t take a lot of working from home to surpass the data caps on most cellular plans.

I’ve seen a number of articles in the last few years talking claiming that the future is wireless and that we eventually won’t need landline broadband. This claim ignores the fact that the amount of data demanded by the average household is doubling every three years. The average home uses ten times or more data on their landline connection today than on their cellphones. It’s hard to foresee the cellphone networks able to close that gap when the amount of landline data use keeps growing so rapidly.

Is our Future Mobile Wireless?

I had a conversation last week with somebody who firmly believes that our broadband future is going to be 100% mobile wireless. He works for a big national software company that you would recognize and he says the company believes that the future of broadband will be wireless and they are migrating all of their software applications to work on cellphones. If you have been reading my blog you know I take almost the opposite view, but there are strong proponents of a wireless future, and it’s a topic worth continually revisiting.

Certainly we are doing more and more things by cellphone. But I think those that view future broadband as mobile are concentrating on faster mobile data speeds but are ignoring the underlying overall data capacity of cellular networks. I still think that our future is going to become even more reliant on fiber in order to handle the big volumes of bandwidth we will all need. This doesn’t mean that I don’t love cellphone data – but I think it’s a complement for landline broadband and not an equivalent substitute. Cellphone networks have major limitations and they are not going to be able to keep up with our need for bandwidth capacity. Even today the vast majority of cellphone data is handed off to landline networks through WiFi. And in my mind that just makes a cellphone into another terminal on your landline network.

Almost everybody understands the difference in quality between using your cellphone in your home using WiFi versus doing the same tasks using only the cellular network. I largely use my cellphone for reading news articles. And while this is a lot lighter application than watching video, I find that I usually have problems opening articles on the web when I’m out of the house. Today’s 4G speeds are still pretty poor and the national average download speed is reported to be just over 7 Mbps.

I think all of the folks who think cellphones are the future are counting on 5G to make a huge difference. But as I’ve written many times, it will be at least a decade before we see a mature 5G cellular network – and even then the speeds are not likely to be hugely faster than the 4G specification today. 5G is really intended to increase the stability of broadband connections (less dropped calls) and the number of connections (able to connect to a lot of IoT devices). The 5G specifications are not even shooting for at a huge speed increase, with the specification calling for 100 Mbps download cellular speeds, which translates into an average of perhaps 50 Mbps connections for all of the customers within a cell site. Interestingly, that’s the same target speed of the 4G specification.

And those greater future speeds sounds great. Since a cellphone connection by definition is for one user, a faster speed means that a cellular connection will support a 4K video stream eventually. But what this argument ignores is that a home a decade from now is going to be packed with devices wanting to make simultaneous connections to the Internet. It is the accumulated volume of usage from all of those devices that is going to add up to huge broadband demand for homes.

Already today homes are packed with broadband hungry devices. We have smart TVs, cellphones, laptops, desktops and tablets all wanting to connect to the network. We have other bandwidth hungry applications like gaming boxes and surveillance cameras. More and more of us are cutting the cord and watching video online. And then there are going to piles of new devices with smaller broadband demands, but which in total will add up to significant bandwidth. Further, a lot of applications we use are now in the cloud. My home uses a lot of bandwidth every day just backing up my data files, connecting to software in the cloud, making VoIP calls, and automatically updating software and apps.

I’ve touted a statistic many times that you might be tired of hearing, but I think it’s at the heart of the matter. The amount of bandwidth used by homes has been doubling every three years since 1980, and there is no end in sight to that trend. Already today a 4G connection is inadequate to support the average home. If you don’t think that’s true, talk to the homes now using AT&T’s fixed LTE connections that deliver 10 Mbps. That kind of speed is not adequate today to provide enough bandwidth to use the many broadband services I discussed above. Cellular connections are already too slow today to provide a reasonable home broadband, even as AT&T is planning to foist these connections on millions of rural homes.

There is no reason to think that 5G will be able top satisfy the total broadband needs of a home. The only way it might do that is if we end up in a world where we have to buy a small cellular subscription for every device in our home – I know I would prefer to instead connect all of my devices to WiFi to avoid such fees. Yes, 5G will be faster, but a dozen years from now when 5G is finally a mature cellular technology, homes will need a lot more bandwidth and a 5G connections then will feel just as inadequate then as 4G feels today.

Unless we get to a future point where the electronics get so cheap that there will be a ‘cell site’ for every few homes, then it’s hard to figure that cellular can ever be a true substitute for landline broadband. And even if such a technology develops you still have to ask if it would make any sense to deploy. Those small cell sites are largely going to have to be fiber fed to deliver the needed bandwidth and backhaul. And in that case small cell sites might not be any cheaper than fiber directly to the premise, especially when considering the lifecycle costs of the cell site electronics. Even if we end up with that kind of network – it’s would not really be a cellular network as much as it would be using wireless loops as the last few feet of a landline network – something that for years we have called fiber-to-the-curb. Such a network would still require us to build fiber almost everywhere.

Finally, Unlimited Cellular Data

SONY DSCIn a virtual blink of an eye all of the cellular companies are now offering unlimited data. This probably represents a watershed event for the cellular industry and probably marks the start of the slide of cellular data into a commodity, much as has happened in the past with cellular voice and texting.

Up until now, US cellular data has been the most expensive broadband in the world. They have been selling a gigabyte of download for $10. There are numerous ISPs that will let people download a terabyte of data for between $60 and $120 per month, and that makes cellular data between 80 and 160 times more expensive than landline data.

It’s really impossible to blame this gigantic pricing difference on anything other than greed. Looking back five years ago the cellular companies claimed the high prices were due mostly to a desire to protect their cell sites from being swamped with data usage. Perhaps back when cell sites used traditional TDS backhaul (DS3s mostly), there might have been some truth to this. But today most cell sites have fiber Ethernet backhaul of gigabit or greater capacity.

This change seemed inevitable. The cellular companies have all started offering zero-rated plans where they offer some content (often their own) on an unlimited basis while still counting other content against their stingy data caps. That stark contrast pointed out the hypocrisy of their pricing. And while the current FCC is backing away from enforcing these kinds of net neutrality issues – the price contrast is so large that it might have brought eventual scrutiny from Congress during any Telecom Act re-write.

Possibly the biggest impact of this change is that it’s going to change how people use cellphones and other mobile devices like tablets and laptops. Cellphone data speeds in the US are not the best in the world, but they are good enough in most places to be able to watch a single video stream. It’s not much of a stretch of the imagination to foresee wide usage of apps that will use cellphones to capture and transfer video images to televisions. And that could make cellular data an economic substitute for landline broadband.

There is already a lot of talk about younger people preferring cellular data to landline data – mostly due to the mobility aspect. But this has largely meant that cell phone users had to stay close to WiFi most of the time in order to avoid large cellular bills. But unlimited data plans will free users to go anywhere there is a strong enough cell signal to get the connection speeds they need. Over time this could lead to an erosion of landline broadband connections, where households that have unlimited cellular data will find that to be good enough.

The upside to this, though, might be that poorer households might finally get better access to the Internet. Until now, unless a user was able to sit at home behind a landline WiFi signal, cellular data has been too expensive to use in urban areas for things like homework. Since most people now see a cellphone as mandatory to daily life, poorer households will probably be able to get by with only a cellular data plan. This might be the last nail in the coffin for urban DSL.

This change will really make a difference in rural America. I have heard from many rural households that use their cellphone data plan for their household broadband and it’s not unusual to hear of families with schoolkids spending $500 or more per month for totally inadequate cellular broadband. These households are going to be relieved to be able to buy a $100 unlimited plan instead.

Of course, in a lot of rural America there is not the same kind of cellular service that those in cities take for granted. There are very few rural places that have more than one major cellphone carrier with decent signal. And there are a lot of rural households that live too far from a cell tower to get decent cellular speeds. But unlimited plans will probably be a good band-aid to cover for the lack of affordable broadband for millions of rural homes. It won’t be too many years when this won’t be enough speed, but for today cellular broadband is a whole lot better than no broadband.

We’ll have to wait a bit to see if these plans really are unlimited, and what it means if they aren’t. Obviously the plans will be a lot less useful if they somehow preclude tethering. But however they are priced, we are probably not going backwards to the day when your $60 cell plan includes 2 gigabytes of download with every additional gigabyte costing an additional $10. Teens ten years from now will think anybody who remembers being careful how we used our cellphones is an ancient dinosaur!

The Limitations of Cellular Data

SONY DSCIt’s hard these days to find anybody that is satisfied with the quality of data received over cellphones. A research report published by Aptelligent late last year showed that the US placed 10th in the world in overall cellular network performance, measured by the combination of reliability and speed. We all know that sometimes cellphone data is adequate, but can suddenly deteriorate to where you can’t load simple web pages. There are a number of factors baked into the cellular architecture that contribute to data performance. Following are a few of the key factors:

Data Power Drop-off. Cellular networks, by design, assume a massive drop-off of data speeds with distance. I don’t think most people understand how drastic the power curve is. Cellular companies show us bars to indicate the power of our connections – but these bars are not telling us a true story. The cellular architecture has a 100:1 data rate ratio from cell tower to the edge of the delivery area (generally a few miles). To provide an example, this means that if a cell site if designed to deliver 10 Mbps at the cell tower, that it will deliver only 1 Mbps at the mid-point of the cell tower range and only 0.1 Mbps at the edge.

Shape of the Cellular Footprint. It’s easy to think that there are nice concentric circles of cellphone signals propagating around cell towers. But nothing could be farther from the truth. If you go around any cell site and measure and plot the strength of signals you will find that the footprint of a cell tower looks a lot more like an amoeba, with the signal in some directions traveling a relatively short distance while in others it might travel much farther. If these footprints were static then engineers could design around the vagaries at a given cell site. But the footprint can change quite dramatically according to temperature, humidity and even the number of users concentrated in one portion of the footprint. This is why the delivery of broadcast wireless services is always going to more an art than a science, because the delivery footprint is constantly shifting, in many cases dramatically.

Proliferation of Antennas. Modern cellular networks have improved performance by significantly increasing the number of transmitting antennas on a cell tower (and also more receiving antennas in cell phones). This use of MIMO (multiple input, multiple-output) has produced a significant improvement for customers who are able to gain simultaneous signal from more than one transmitter. But there are two consequences of MIMO that actually decrease performance for some users. First, MIMO largely benefits those that are closest to the cell tower, and that means there are fewer quality connections available for those farther away from the cell tower. Second, MIMO has a secondary characteristic in that MIMO works best using cellular channels that are not-adjacent. And during time of heavy cellular usage this has the result of improving the signal strength in the MIMO channels but decreasing the strength of the other channels, again decreasing quality for customers that grab the weaker channels.

Impaired Hand Offs. Mobility is enabled in a cellular network when a customer is handed off from one cell site to the next while traveling. MIMO and other techniques that increase the signal to a given customer then make it more difficult for that customer to be handed to the next cell site. Hand offs were relatively error free when customers received a one channel signal from one transmitter, but now the quality of hand offs from one cell site to another can vary dramatically, resulting in more disconnects or drastic swings in the strength of connections.

Small-Cell Issues. All of the above issues will be compounded by the introduction of small-cells into the cellular network. In today’s cellular architecture a customer can only be handled by one cell tower at a time. Cellular networks don’t automatically assign the strongest connection to a customer, but rather the nearest available one. While small-cells will increase the opportunity to get a signal in a crowded environment, it also increases the chance of getting a poor connection, or of running into hand off issues for mobile customers.

2D Signal Propagation. Cell tower antennas are largely aimed to transmit close to the ground and do not waste signals by sending signals upwards in a 3D pattern. Anybody who has traveled to a big city and received poor signal on an upper floor of a tall hotel is familiar with this issue. The cellular signals are focused towards street level and not towards anybody higher. That’s not to say that you can’t get a cellular connection at the top of a highrise, or even in an airplane, but the vast majority of the connections (and the strongest connections) are aimed downward.

Crisis Propagation. Cell towers are arranged as an interconnected mesh. When something drastic happens to a given cell tower, such as losing power or being swamped with calls during an emergency, this not only shuts down the tower with a problem, but the problem cascades to nearby towers, often taking them out of service as well. This is similar to a rolling blackout in an electric grid. Carriers have been working on load balancing techniques to try to tamp down this problem, but it’s still relatively easy for a given cell tower to get overwhelmed and start a neighborhood and even regional cascade.

These issues all outline how complicated it is to design a great cellphone network. The above issues are worsened by the fact that in the US our cell sites were largely placed years ago to accommodate voice traffic and thus are not situated to instead provide optimum data traffic. But even a brand new cellular network designed to optimize data traffic would run into these same or different issues. It’s nearly impossible to design a cellular network that can handle all of the issues encountered in the real world. This makes me glad I’m not a cellular engineer.

The Battle for IoT Connectivity

Amazon EchoThere is a major battle brewing for control of the connections that control the Internet of Things. Today in the early stage of home IoT most devices are being connected using WiFi. But there is going to be a huge push to have connection instead made through 5G cellular.

I saw an article this week where Qualcomm said that they were excited about 5G and that it would be a world-changing technology. The part of 5G that they are most excited about is the possibility of using 5G to connect IoT devises together. Qualcomm’s CEO Stephen Mollenkopf talked about 5G at the recent CES show and talked about a future where 5G is used for live-streaming virtual reality, autonomous cars and connected cities where street lamps are networked together.

Of course, Qualcomm and the cellular vendors are most interested in the potential for making money using 5G technology. Qualcomm wants to make the hundreds of millions of chips they envision in a 5G connected world. And Verizon and AT&T want to sell data connections to all of the 5G connected devices. It’s an interesting vision of the world. Some of that vision makes sense and 5G is the obvious way to connect outdoors for things like street lights.

But it’s not obvious to me at this early stage of IoT that either 5G or WiFi are the obvious winner of the battle for IoT connectivity in the home. There are pros and cons for each technology.

WiFi has an upper hand today because it’s already in almost every home. People are comfortable using WiFi because it doesn’t cost anything extra to connect an IoT device. But WiFi has some natural limitations that might make it a harder choice in the future if our homes get filled with IoT devices. As I’ve discussed in some recent blogs, the way that WiFi shares data can be a big problem when there is a lot of steady and continuous demand for the bandwidth. WiFi is probably a great choice for IoT devices that only occasionally need to make a connection or that need short-burst connections to share information.

But the WiFi standard doesn’t include quality of service and any prioritization of which connections are the most important. WiFi instead always does its best to share bandwidth, regardless of the number of devices that are asking to connect to it. When a WiFi router gets multiple demands it shuts down for a short period and then tries to reinitiate connections again. If too many devices are demanding connection, a WiFi system goes into a mode of continuously stopping and restarting and none of the connections get a satisfactory connection. Even if there is enough bandwidth in the network to handle most of the requests, too many simultaneous requests simply blows the brains out of WiFi. The consequence for this is that having a lot of small and inconsequential connections can ruin the important connections like video streaming or gaming.

But cellular data is also not an automatic answer. Certainly today there is no way to cope with IoT using 4G cellular networks. Each cell site has a limited number of connections. A great example of this is that I often talk to a buddy of mine in DC while he commutes, and he usually loses his cellular signal when crossing the between Maryland and Virginia. This is due to there not being enough cellular connections available in the limited area of the American Legion bridge. 5G will supposedly solve this problem and promises to expand the number of connections from a cell site by a factor of 50 times or so – meaning that there will be a lot more possible connections. But you still have to wonder if that will be sufficient in a world when every IoT device wants a connection. LG just announced that every appliance it sells will now come with an IoT connection, and I imagine this will soon be true of all appliances, toys and almost anything else you buy in the future that has any electronics.

Of a bigger concern to me is that 5G connections are not going to be free. With WiFi, once I’ve bought my home broadband connection I can add devices at will (until I overload my router). But I think Verizon and AT&T are excited about IoT because they want to charge a small monthly fee for every device you connect through them. It may not be a lot – perhaps a dollar per device per month – but the next thing you know every home will be sending then an additional $50 or more per month to keep IoT devices connected. It’s no wonder they are salivating at the possibility. And it’s no wonder that the big cable companies are talking about buying T-Mobile.

I’m also concerned from a security perspective of sending the data from all of my IoT devices to the same core routers at Verizon or AT&T. Since it’s likely that the recent privacy rules for broadband will be overturned or weakened, I am concerned about having one company know so much about me. If I use a WiFi network my feeds will still go out through my data ISP, but if I’m concerned about security I can encrypt my network and make it harder for them to know what I’m doing. That is going to be impossible to do with a cellular connection.

But one thing is for sure and this is going to be a huge battle. And it’s likely to be fought behind the scenes as the cellular companies try to make deals with device manufacturers to use 5G instead of WiFi. WiFi has the early lead today and it’s still going to be a while until there are functional 5G cellular networks. But once those are in place it’s going to be a war worth watching.

How We Use Cellphone Data

HTC-Incredible-S-SmartphoneNielsen recently took a look at how we use cellphone data. They installed apps on people’s phones that tracked data usage on both cellular networks and WiFi. The data comes from a massive study on the usage of 45,000 Android users in August. Nielsen also continues to study the usage of 30,000 cellular customers every month using the same app.

What Nielsen found wasn’t surprising in that they found that younger people use cellular data the most. They also found that Hispanics are the largest data users among various ethnic groups.

Here are the average monthly usage by age:

‘                      Cell Data         WiFi Data

18 – 24            3.2 GB            14.1 GB

25 – 34            3.6 GB            11.2 GB

35 – 44            2.9 GB              9.3 GB

45 – 54            2.1 GB              7.5 GB

55 – 64            1.4 GB              6.4 GB

65+                  0.9 GB              4.8 GB

This study quantifies a lot of things that we already knew about cellular usage. We know, for example, that younger people use their cellphones to watch video more than older people. I have anecdotal evidence of that by watching my 17-year old. If she’s representative of her age group then they are using cellular data even more than the 18-24 year olds. They communicate with pictures and videos where older generations use email, chat, and text messaging.

These numbers also show that most people are not yet using their cellphones as a substitute for landline data usage. Certainly there are many individuals for whom the cellphone is their only source for data, but these numbers show average cellphone data usage far below average landline usage. I have a number of clients that track landline customer data usage and most of them are reporting average monthly downloads somewhere between 100 GB and 150 GB per household. Comcast recently reported that their 6-month rolling median data usage is 75 GB – meaning half of their customers use less than that, and half use more. All of the numbers in the above charts, while representing individuals and not families, are still far below those numbers.

Nielsen also tracked data usage by ethnicity, as follows:

‘                                  Cell Data        WiFi Data

Hispanic                       3.8 GB          10.1 GB

Native American         3.5 GB            7.3 GB

African-American        3.3 GB            9.1 GB

Asian                            2.3 GB            9.9 GB

White                           2.2 GB             8.6 GB

This shows that Hispanics, on average, are the largest users of data, both cellular and WiFi. Whites are at the bottom of the average usage chart.

Nielsen also was able to look into usage by geography. They didn’t publish all of the results, but did provide some interesting statistics. For example, they have some strong evidence now that cities with widespread WiFi networks can save customers money on their cellphone plans. For example, New York City has a lot of public WiFi and users in the city use WiFi 14% more than the national average while using cellular data 12% less. Contrast this with a city like Los Angeles with little public WiFi, and citizens there use WiFi 9% less than the national average and use cellular data 13% more. This kind of study can provide the basis for a city to quantify the benefits to the public for building a public WiFi network.

Fixed Wireless and CAF II

USF-logoBill Smith, the President of Technology Operations at AT&T just announced that the company will use fixed wireless to meet CAF II requirements when it is ‘uneconomical to build wireline’. The CAF II requirements are that AT&T (and every other large telco that took the funding) must provide 10/1 Mbps broadband to everybody within defined rural geographical areas. The FCC awarded the telcos billions of dollars over 6 years to complete the upgrades.

On the day I first read of the CAF II awards I expected that AT&T and some of the other telcos would use wireless to fulfill the obligations. I am very familiar with a lot of the rural areas where the CAF II money was awarded and I know it would take a lot more money than what the FCC was providing to build broadband to these areas that have little or no broadband today.

There are only a few technological approaches that can be considered in the rural areas covered by CAF II:

  • Fiber is the ultimate broadband delivery mechanism, but there is no chance that any of the big telcos will build rural last-mile fiber to satisfy this requirement. I’ve looked at some rural counties recently where the cost to build fiber can be 5 – 10 times more than what CAF II is providing.
  • Expanded DSL. Most of the CAF II areas have either no DSL or incredibly slow DSL where the customers are too far from the DSL hub. The only way to bring 10/1 DSL to rural America is to build a lot of fiber deep into rural areas and then initiate the DSL out in the hinterlands. This is also expensive, but because it keeps the existing copper lines it costs a lot less than building fiber everywhere.
  • Point-to-Multipoint Wireless. In this technology transmitters are put onto towers and where the 3.65 GHz spectrum is available can deliver 10 Mbps or more up to perhaps 6 miles. The distance are only out to about 4 miles at most if using WiFi spectrum. There are several problems with this technology. First, existing towers are sometimes scarce in rural areas and this means building new towers. Second, this isn’t a great solution where there are a lot of trees or a lot of hilly terrain. It’s a great solution in the plains, not so great in Appalachia. Finally, this equipment has a life-cycle of perhaps 7 – 10 years before it has to be replaced. After the CAF II funds are spent and this equipment wears out it might mean that in decade that customers on this technology will revert to no broadband.
  • Cellular Data. This is data delivered using licensed spectrum and AT&T has a mountain of it, and in rural areas this spectrum is largely unused. But to get 10/1 speeds everywhere means building new towers, and probably fiber to reach those towers.

Most people think of cellular data as something that only works on cellphones. But there are all sorts of devices that can receive cellular bandwidth, such as phones and data modems that work directly from cellular signals.

But the biggest issue with the cellular solution isn’t technological. As long as somebody is close enough to a cell site it will work (with the caveat that if the cell site is too busy a user might get no signal). The real issue is price. If AT&T is going to price fixed data similarly to cellular data, then this is not a broadband solution. Cellular broadband in the US is about the most expensive broadband in the developed world. At an average cost of about $8 per downloaded gigabit of data, it doesn’t take much for a normal household to rack up huge bills.

Comcast recently said that their average customer download is around 100 gigabits per month. At cellular prices that would cost $800 to $1,000 a month, which is not what the FCC had in mind for CAF II. There are many homes in rural America already using their cellphones for data. I recently talked to a rural household that sees bills of $500 per month in the summer when the kids are home all of the time – and that’s with constantly telling the kids to stay off broadband.

AT&T has a dilemma if they sell their cellular data to cellphone users at today’s high prices but sell it to fixed broadband customers at a lower price. Since fixed data customers will use a lot more data if it’s not too expensive, this will kill their argument that cellular data needs to be so expensive due to congestion at the towers. So I’ll be very interested to see how AT&T’s plan is implemented. I hope that if AT&T implements their first CAF II market at cellular data prices that the FCC pulls the plug on the rest of the funding. And if AT&T offers cellular data for CAF II customers at a reduced rate then all of their cellphone customers ought to raise holy hell.

Why Regulate Broadband?

FCC_New_LogoOften lost in the discussion of how much the big ISPs in the country hate Title II regulation of broadband is the more general discussion of whether the broadband market ought to be regulated. When I first entered the industry telephone service was heavily regulated in almost every manner imaginable, and this was due to the gigantic monopoly power of AT&T at the time. Over the years various parts of the telephone industry have become lesser regulated or even deregulated. And somehow during this process we seem to have gotten used to the idea that communications services are best when deregulated.

But I want to step back to a general discussion about regulation in general. Governments tend to regulate industries for several different reasons. For example, there is generally regulation of the financial industry because failures of large banks can devastate the rest of the economy. We also regulate businesses that can harm people, and so we do things like inspect food or have rules about transporting dangerous chemicals.

And finally, we regulate companies that provide services that most people need and for which a given provider can hold huge power over customers by nature of being a monopoly. This is why we regulate electric and water companies – because they tend to be natural monopolies in a given market. And it’s why we used to regulate Ma Bell.

When broadband first became a product there was no discussion of regulating it because it didn’t appear at the time that there were going to be monopoly providers. In the dial-up days there were all sorts of new companies like AOL and Compuserve entering the market. And then along came faster broadband and the cable companies and the telcos launched new and faster broadband products at almost the same time. It looked like there would be vigorous competition between DSL and cable modems.

But in the few decades since then it’s become obvious that cable modems have won that battle. Cable companies are growing to the point in many markets of having a virtual monopoly since the DSL products are too slow to keep pace. Every quarter when broadband customers are announced by all of the big companies it’s obvious that there are still people flocking from DSL to cable modems. It’s been clear for some time that broadband, which has largely been a duopoly market, is trending towards monopoly as DSL fades.

The other test that regulators use when considering regulation is if there is any effective substitute for the monopoly products or services. Cable companies argue that cellular wireless data and fiber are both effective substitutes for cable modem. But are they really?

I’ve written a number of times about how lousy cellular wireless is as a competitor to landline broadband. While there are certainly people who are satisfied with only a cellular data connection, the bandwidth and pricing of cellular data make it a poor second cousin to landline data, and most cellphone users seek out WiFi rather than rely solely on cellular data. And while there is talk about going to 5G and gigabit wireless networks, this talk is still almost all hype.

There are certainly markets where fiber is a good competitor for cable modems. But the other day I looked at the list of the 200 largest cities in the country and the majority of cities on that list do not have fiber and are not on anybody’s list to bring fiber. And even where there is some fiber there are no large markets where there is fiber everywhere in a city – ask all of the eastern cities how they feel about how Verizon built FiOS to only parts of their cities. Further, the cable companies are all implementing DOCSIS 3.1 which is going to give cable systems the ability to keep up with fiber speeds for the next decade.

And even where somebody builds fiber, at best we end up in a duopoly situation. When you look at where Google has brought fiber it looks to me like most of the competition is with data speeds and not with prices. If anything, the average price paid for broadband is higher where Google has built fiber.

It’s obvious that Comcast doesn’t think there is any effective competition as witnessed by their trial with data caps, which everybody expects to go nationwide soon. Their data caps are going to mean a big rate increase for a lot of customers, something that could never happen in a competitive market.

So, when looked at from a regulatory perspective, the broadband market is ripe for regulation. In fact, it probably should have been regulated much sooner. I see nothing on the horizon that is going to improve broadband choice for the vast majority of Americans and I hope the FCC can find a way to put some teeth in the way they regulate broadband.

Those Damned Statistics

thCAVW45NPOne of my biggest pet peeves in life is the misuse of statistics. I am a math guy and I sometimes tackle math problems just for the fun of it. I understand statistics pretty well and my firm performs surveys. I think I disappoint a lot of my clients when I try to stop them from interpreting the results in a survey to prove something that the responses really don’t prove. Surveys are a really useful tool, but too often I see the survey results used to support untruthful conclusions.

A week ago the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) released their latest poll looking at broadband usage in the US. The survey asked a lot of good questions and some of the results are very useful. For example, they show that overall broadband penetration in the US is up to 72% of households. But even that statistic is suspect, as I will discuss below.

The problem with this survey is that they didn’t ask the right questions, and this largely invalidates the results. The emphasis of this particular survey was to look at how people use cellphones for data access. And so they asked questions such as asking the various activities that people now use their phone for such as browsing the web or emails. And as one would expect, more people are using their cellphones for data, largely due to the widespread introduction of smartphones over the last few years.

There is nothing specific with any of the individual results. For example, the report notes that 42% of phone users browse the web on their phone compared to 33% in 2011. I have no doubt that this is true. It’s not the individual statistics that are a problem, but rather the way the statistics were used to reach conclusions. In reading this report one gets the impression that cellphone data usage is just another form of broadband and that using your cellphone to browse the web is more or less the same as browsing off a wired broadband connection.

The worst example of this is in the main summary where the NTIA concluded that “broadband, whether fixed or mobile, is now available to almost 99% of the U.S. population”. This implies that broadband is everywhere and with that statement the NTIA is basically patting themselves on the back for a job well done. But it’s a load of bosh and I expect better from government reports.

As I said, the main problem with this report is that they didn’t ask the right questions, and so the responses can’t be trusted. Consider data usage on cellphones. In the first paragraph of the report they conclude that the data usage on cellphones has increased exponentially and is now deeply ingrained in the American way of life. The problem I have with this conclusion is that they are implying that cellphone data usage is the same as the use of landline data – and it is not. The vast majority of cell phone data is consumed on WiFi networks at work, home or at public hot spots. And yes, people are using their cellphones to browse the web and read email, but most of this usage is carried on a landline connection and the smartphone is just the screen of choice.

Cellular data usage is not growing exponentially, or maybe just barely so. Sandvine measures data usage at all of the major Internet POPs and they show that cellular data is growing at about 20% year, or doubling every five years, while landline data usage is doubling every three years. I trust the Sandvine data because they look at all of the usage that comes through the Internet and not just at a small sample. The cell carriers have trained us well to go find WiFi. Sandvine shows that on average that a landline connection today uses almost 100 times more data than a cellphone connection. This alone proves that cellphones are no substitute for a landline.

I have the same problems with the report when it quantifies the percentage of households on landline broadband. The report assumes that if somebody has a cable modem or DSL that they have broadband and we know for large parts of the country that having a connection is not the same thing as having broadband. They consider somebody on dial-up to not be broadband, but when they say that 72% of households have landline broadband, what they really mean is that 72% of homes have a connection that is faster than dial-up.

I just got a call yesterday from a man on the eastern shore of Maryland. He live a few miles outside of a town and he has a 1 Mbps DSL connection. The people a little further out than him have even slower DSL or can only get dial-up or satellite. I get these kinds of calls all of the time from people wanting to know what they can do to get better broadband in their community.

I would challenge the NTIA to go to rural America and talk to people rather than stretching the results of a survey to mean more than it does. I would like them to tell the farmer that is trying to run a large business with only cellphone data that he has broadband. I would like them to tell the man on the eastern shore of Maryland that he and his neighbors have broadband. And I would like them to tell all of the people who are about to lose their copper lines that cellular data is the same as broadband. Because in this report that is what they have told all of us.