The Industry

No Home Broadband Option

We spend a lot of time arguing policy questions, such as asking if 25/3 Mbps is adequate broadband. What policymakers should really be talking about are the huge numbers of homes with dreadful broadband. The worst thing about the deceptive FCC maps is that they often give the perception that most rural areas have at least some broadband options when many rural residents will tell you they have no real broadband options.

Policymakers don’t grasp the lousy choices in many rural areas. The FCC maps might show the availability of DSL, but if it’s even available (often it’s not), the speeds can be incredibly slow. Rural households refuse to pay for DSL that might deliver only 1 or 2 Mbps download and practically no upload.

I think the FCC assumes that everybody has access to satellite broadband. But I’ve talked to countless rural residents who tried satellite broadband and rejected it. Real speeds are often much slower than advertised speeds since trees and hills can quash a satellite signal. The latency can be crippling, and in places where the speeds are impaired, the high latency means a household will struggle with simple real-time tasks like keeping a connection to a shopping site. Satellite plans also come with tiny data caps. I’d like to put a few Washington DC policymakers on a monthly data plan with a 40 GB or 60 GB cap so they can understand how quickly that is used in a month. But the real killer with satellite broadband is the cost. HughesNet told investors last year that its average revenue per customer was over $93 per month. Many rural homes refuse to pay that much for a broadband product that doesn’t work.

We hear a lot of stories about how fixed wireless technology is getting better to the point where we’re hearing preposterous conversations about bringing gigabit fixed wireless to rural areas. There are still a lot of places with woods and hills where fixed wireless is a poor technology choice. I worked with one county recently that gathered thousands of speed tests for fixed wireless that showed average download speeds under 5 Mbps and upload speeds below 1 Mbps. There are still a lot of WISPs that are cramming too many customers on towers, chaining too many towers together with wireless backhaul, and selling to customers who are too far from towers. This is not to say that there aren’t great WISPs, but in too many rural places the fixed wireless choices are bleak.

Rural residents have also suffered with cellular hotspots. These are the plans that cellular companies have had for years that basically price home broadband at the same prices and data caps as cellular broadband. During the pandemic, I’ve heard from families who were spending $500 to $1,000 per month in order to enable home-schooling during the pandemic. This product is not available in huge parts of rural America because of the poor or nonexistent cellular coverage. We complain about the FCC’s broadband maps, but those are heads and tails better than the cellular company coverage maps which massively overstate rural cellular availability.

There is some relief in sight for some rural homes. I recently talked to farmers who are thrilled with the T-Mobile fixed cellular product – but they said distance from cell sites is key and that many of their neighbors are out of range of the few cell sites found in most rural counties. There are rural folks who are happy with Starlink. But there are a lot of people now into the second year on the waiting list to get Starlink. Starlink also has reported problems with trees and hills and also comes with a steep $99 per month price tag.

When a rural household says they have no broadband connection, I’ve learned that you have to believe them. They will have already tried the DSL, fixed wireless, satellite, and cellular hotpots, and decided that none of the options work well enough to justify paying for them. The shame is that the FCC maps might give the impression that residents have two, three, or four broadband options when they really have none.

The Industry

AT&T’s 5G Strategy

AT&T recently described their long-term 5G strategy using what they call the 3 pillars of 5G – the three areas where the company is putting their 5G focus. The first pillar is a concentration on 5G cellular, and the company’s goal is to launch a 5G-based cellular service, with some cities coming on board in the second half of 2020. This launch will use frequencies in the sub-6 GHz range. This admission that there won’t be any AT&T 5G until at least 2020 contradicts the AT&T marketing folks who are currently trying to paint the company’s 4G LTE as pre-5G.

The biggest problem for the public will be getting a 5G cellphone. AT&T is working with Samsung to hopefully launch two phones later this year that have some 5G capability. As always with a new generation of wireless technology, the bottleneck will be in handsets. The cell phone makers can’t just make generic 5G phones – they have to work with the carriers to be ready to support the spectific subset of 5G features that are released. You might recall that the 5G cellular specification contains 13 improvements, and only the first generation of a few of those will be included in the first generation 5G cell sites. Cellphone manufacturers will also have to wrestle with the fact that each big cellular carrier will introduce a different set of 5G features.

This is a real gamble for cellphone makers because a 5G phone will become quickly obsolete. A 5G phone sold in late 2019 probably won’t include all of the 5G features that will be on the market by late 2020 – and this is likely to be true for the next 3 or 4 years as the carriers roll out incremental 5G improvements. It’s also a gamble for customers because anybody that buys an early 5G cellphone will have early bragging rights, but those cool benefits can be out of date in six months. I think most people will be like me and will wait a few years until the 5G dust settles.

AT&T’s second pillar is fixed wireless. This one is a head-scratcher because they are talking about the fixed cellular product they’ve already been using for several years – and that product is not 5G. This is the product that delivers broadband to homes using existing low-band cellular frequencies. This is not the same as Verizon’s product that delivers hundreds of megabits per second but is instead a product that delivers speeds up to 50 Mbps depending upon how far a customer lives from a cell tower – with reports that most households are getting 15 Mbps at best. This is the product that AT&T is mostly using to satisfy its CAF II requirements in rural America. All of the engineers I’ve talked to don’t think that 5G is going to materially improve this product.

The final pillar of AT&T’s strategy is edge computing. What AT&T means by this is to put fast processors at customer sites when there is the need to process low-latency, high-bandwidth data. Like other carriers, AT&T has found that not everything is suited for the cloud and that trying to send big data to and from the cloud can create a bandwidth bottleneck and add latency. This strategy doesn’t require 5G and AT&T has already been deploying edge routers. However, 5G will enhance this ability at customer sites that need to connect a huge number of devices simultaneously. 5G can make it easier to connect to a huge number of IoT devices in a hospital or to 50,000 cell phones in a stadium. The bottom line is that the migration to more edge computing is not a 5G issue and applies equally to AT&T’s fiber customers.

There is really nothing new in the three-pillar announcement and AT&T has been talking about all three applications from some time – but the announcement does highlight the company’s focus for stockholders.

In what was mostly a dig at Verizon, AT&T’s CEO Randall Stephenson did hold out the possibility of AT&T following Verizon into the 5G fixed wireless local loop using millimeter wave spectrum – however, he said such a product offering is probably three to five years into the future. He envisions the product as an enhancement to AT&T’s fiber products, not necessarily a replacement. He emphasized that AT&T is happy with the current fiber deployments. He provided some new statistics on a recent earnings call and said the company is seeing customer penetration rates between 33% and 40% within 18 months of new fiber deployment and penetration around 50% after three years. Those are impressive statistics because AT&T’s fiber deployments have been largely in urban areas competing with the big cable companies.

A year ago, Stephenson said that getting sufficient backhaul was his number one concern with deploying high-bandwidth wireless. While he hasn’t repeated that recently, it fits in with his narrative of seeing millimeter wave radio deployments in the 3-5 year time frame. The company recently released a new policy paper on its AirGig product that says that the product is still under development and might play well with 5G. AirGig is the mysterious wireless product that shoots wireless signals along power lines and somehow uses the power lines to maintain focus of the signal. Perhaps the company is seeing a future path for using AirGig as the backhaul to 5G fixed wireless deployments.

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