Gaining Access to Multi-tenant Buildings

In 2007 the FCC banned certain kinds of exclusivity arrangements between ISPs and owners of multi-tenant buildings. At the time of the order, the big cable companies had signed contracts with apartment owners giving them exclusive access to buildings. The FCC order in 2007 got rid of the most egregious types of contracts – in many cases, cable company contracts were so convoluted that building owners didn’t even understand the agreements were exclusive.

However, the FCC order was still a far cry away from ordering open access for ISPs to buildings and there are many landlords still today who won’t allow in competitors. The most common arrangements liked by landlords are revenue share arrangements where the building owner makes money from an arrangement with an ISP. While such arrangements aren’t legally exclusive, they can be lucrative enough to make landlords favor an ISP and give them exclusive access.

WISPA, the industry association for wireless ISPs has asked the FCC to force apartment owners to allow access to multiple ISPs. WISPA conducted a survey of its members and found that wireless companies are routinely denied access to apartment buildings. Some of the reasons for denying access include:

  • Existing arrangements with ISPs that make the landlord not want to grant access to an additional ISP.
  • Apartment owners often deny access because wireless ISPs (WISPs) are often not considered to be telephone or cable companies – many WISPs offer only broadband and have no official regulatory status.
  • Building owners often say that an existing ISP serving the building has exclusive rights to the existing wiring, including conduits that might be used to string new wiring to reach units. This is often the case if the original cable or telephone company paid for the inside wiring when the building was first constructed.
  • Many landlords say that they already have an existing marketing arrangement with an ISP, meaning they get rewarded for sending tenants to that ISP.
  • Many landlords will only consider revenue sharing arrangements since that’s what they have with an existing ISP. Some landlords have even insisted on a WISP signing a revenue-sharing arrangement even before negotiating and talking pricing and logistics.

These objections by landlords fall into two categories. One is compensation-based where a landlord is happy with the financial status quo relationship with an existing ISP. The other primary reason is some contractual relationship with an existing ISP that is hard or impossible for a landlord to preempt.

The concerns of WISPs are all valid, and in fact, the same list can be made by companies that want to build fiber to apartment buildings. However, landlords seem more open to fiber-based ISPs since saying that their building has fiber adds cachet and is valued by many tenants.

WISPs sometimes have unusual issues not faced by other ISP overbuilders. For example, one common wireless model is to beam broadband to a roof of an apartment building. That presents a challenge for gaining access to apartments since inside wiring generally begins in a communications space at the base of a building.

The issue is further clouded by the long history of FCC regulation of inside wiring. The topic of ownership and rights for inside wiring has been debated in various dockets since the 1990s and there are regulatory rulings that can give ammunition to both sides of wiring arguments.

The WISPs are facing an antagonistic FCC on this issue. The agency recently preempted a San Francisco ordinance that would have made all apartment buildings open access – meaning available to any ISP. This FCC has been siding with large incumbent cable and telephone companies on most issues and is not likely to go against them by allowing open access to all apartment buildings.

Starry Resurfaces

I’ve written a few times over the years about Starry, a wireless ISP that is originally launching in Boston. The company was founded by Chet Kanojia who readers might remember as the founder of Aereo – the company that tried to deliver affordable local programming through a wireless connection.

Starry’s product set is simple – $50 per month for 200 Mbps broadband. There’s a $50 install fee and then $50 per month with no add-ons or extra charges. This easily beats the regular broadband prices for Charter and Verizon FiOS, both at $70+ for the same speed when considering the charge for the modem.

Starry has changed its business plan. They had first announced a launch in 2016 that was going to beam to a small antenna placed in a customer’s window. I’m imagining they ran into a number of issues with this, including technical issues, because that plan never went beyond the first round of beta testing and Starry went quiet.

The new technology will use millimeter wave spectrum to beam broadband to a receiver on the top of apartment buildings and will then use existing wiring to connect to customers. This involves point-to-point radios. Starry launched a few years ago using licensed millimeter wave spectrum at 38.2 and 38.6 GHz. The company says they are going to be using spectrum between 37 GHz and 40 GHz, so they must be planning to engage in the upcoming auctions for 37 GHz and 39 GHz spectrum.

At the spectrum they are using they could easily be beaming between 1 – 2 gigabytes of data to a given apartment building today. That will increase if they get access to more bands of spectrum.  That’s plenty of bandwidth to provide a 200 Mbps product to every tenant. The company is advertising that they are using pre-5G technology. That’s an interesting phrase because they are likely delivering Ethernet over the wireless connection to each building. Perhaps if they buy more spectrum they will then claim to be using 5G. This is an interesting concept for point-to-point radios because the 5G standard doesn’t do anything to increase the speed on a connection. However, they might get some advantages from 5G which will make it easier to link multiple frequencies on the same point-to-point path.

The current business plan is to use the existing wiring in a building. That is interesting because they are bringing broadband to the roof, and the wiring from apartment buildings today always originates on the first floor or basement in a communications space. I have to think that Starry is dropping a fiber from the roof to the communications room in order to get access to wiring.

The only wiring that is almost always available in a home-run configuration to each apartment is the telco copper, and I guess this is the wiring they are using. With today’s G.Fast technology it’s easy in most cases to achieve speeds of at least 400 Mbps and sometimes faster. I’ve heard that G.Fast is achieving near gigabit speeds in labs, so it’s likely over time that Starry will be able to step up the speeds. Coaxial cables are a different matter and there are numerous different wiring schemes around and also a wide variety of situations where the cable incumbent can lay claim to those cables.

Starry is creating yet another competitor for anybody building broadband in an urban environment. I have a hard time seeing this technology making any sense in a small town or rural environment. In cities the technology probably only makes sense for somewhat sizable apartment buildings, or perhaps multi-tenant business buildings. It’s an intriguing technology for landlords because they can offer tenants another option other than the incumbent cable or telephone company.

It’s been interesting over the years to watch the evolution of broadband in apartment buildings. For many years there were hurdles for a competitor to deliver big bandwidth inside apartment buildings. The cost of rewiring older apartment buildings was often prohibitive. But today there are lower-cost techniques for stringing fiber inside older buildings as well as creative uses of existing wiring such as using G.Fast. Where apartment buildings were often left out of fiber business plans they are now a big focus for competitors.

The bottom line is that anybody planning on competing for downtown apartment buildings will have another potential competitor. Starry plans on being in most major metropolitan markets and there are likely going to be copycat ISPs that do this elsewhere. Urban apartment buildings have gone from being underserved to perhaps having some of the best broadband in any market.

Broadband and Apartments

Comcast just released the results of a survey they completed that talked to apartment building managers around the country. The published results of this survey can be found here. No doubt the survey was conducted and published as a way for Comcast to convince apartment owners and managers that Comcast can provide them with a broadband solution. But the findings are interesting in that I’ve seen few such surveys that concentrate on the MDU demographic. I’m sure the big ISPs do this kind of market research all of the time, but have rarely disclosed their findings.

While there are some apartment buildings in most communities, this is particularly of interest for urban areas where there are significant numbers of people living in apartments. There are a number of big cities in the country where half or more of residents live in apartments and condominiums. As I’ve discussed in a number of blogs, many cities have spotty broadband coverage that ranges from buildings with fiber for tenants down to buildings with no broadband connectivity. Here are the most interesting results of the survey:

Renter’s Expectations. 87% of apartment managers thought that technology played a vital role in keeping tenants satisfied. 75% of managers said that a majority of prospective tenants ask about communications services. 46% of managers said that having fast broadband connections was their most important amenity for residents with another 36% ranking WiFi as the most important. A distant third was in-apartment laundry.

Property Values. Property managers were asked how technology improves the value of their properties. 30% of managers said that providing good communications services boosted the value of their property by at least 20%. Over 90% of building managers said that good infrastructure increased their value to some degree.

Competition. 67% of the buildings involved in the survey have only one or two telecom service providers – meaning generally the incumbents.

Desire to Modernize. A lot of building managers have plans to improve technology for tenants. 47% have plans to improve infrastructure capable of delivering gigabit speeds. 48% have plans to introduce some smart home technologies (which also require good communications infrastructure).

Challenges Faced. While apartment managers almost universally want to improve their communications infrastructure, they face several roadblocks. 67% are worried about the cost of upgrades. 40% worry about having a quality ISP available even should they make the upgrades. 82% said that they would be quick to adapt upgrades that reduce their operating costs.

Plans for Future Technology Improvements. 89% of managers said that technology plays an important role in the decision of tenants to renew leases. The same percentage said that they wanted to improve WiFi performance in their buildings; 60% want to add energy-efficiency improvements; 49% want to add better security; 43% want to add smart home technology and 43% also want to bolster the underlying communications infrastructure.

Demographics. Looking at the trends with apartments provides one of the few glimpses into how younger households are shaping broadband demand. The managers surveyed said that 36% of their tenants were between 18 and 34, a much higher percentage than seen in single family homes. 90% of building managers said that younger renters were driving the demand for faster broadband speeds and better WiFi.

Delivering Fiber to Apartments

Bellevue_Apartment_BuildingOne of the biggest issues that’s not talked about much with fiber deployment is getting fiber to older apartment buildings. According to the US Census there are around 19 million housing units in buildings with 5 or more rental units. Statistics from several apartment industry sources estimate that over half of those units were built before 1980 and over 80% were built before 2000. This means that a large percentage of apartment buildings are not pre-wired for broadband. There are both network and business issues associated with serving apartments that makes this part of the fiber business a real challenge.

The network issues are of two types. First is the issue of access to buildings. Building owners have the right to allow or not allow access to service providers. Many business owners will already have some sort of contractual or financial arrangement with the incumbent cable company. A few years ago the FCC outlawed a lot of specific kinds of onerous contracts between the two parties. The cable companies had used deceptive tactics to lock cable owners to only allowing them into buildings. But there are still numerous ways for an apartment owner and cable company to agree to keep other providers out of apartments.

But even should an apartment owner allow a fiber builder in, the cost of wiring older apartment buildings can be prohibitive. When a fiber builder comes to a single family home they generally are free to use the existing coaxial and telephone wiring in the home if they want access to it. But unless an apartment owner is going to grant exclusive access to a fiber builder the existing wires are still going to be used by the incumbent cable and telephone company.

And that means a total rewiring of the building. That can be a nightmare for older buildings. It might mean dealing with asbestos in ceilings and walls. It often means trying to somehow snake fiber through concrete floors and walls or else having to somehow run wiring through open hallways. And it often means disturbing tenants, and coordinating gaining entrance to multiple apartments or condos can be a challenge.

There are also business issues to deal with in apartments. Probably the number one issue is dealing with tenant churn. Almost by definition apartments have a much higher percentage of turnover than single family homes and it can be a real challenge to get and keep a decent penetration rate in apartments. Companies have tried different ideas, such as getting referrals from apartment owners, but the turnover generally is seen as a problem by most overbuilders.

One way to deal with the churn is to make a financial arrangement with the building owner rather than with each tenant. That generally involves paying some sort of commission. That is not a big problem with selling broadband, but the commissions expected on cable TV could easily push under the cost of providing the service. There was a time when seeking wholesale cable arrangements was a good business plan, but the rising cost of programming has made it far less attractive.

There are companies that are concentrating on serving apartment units in metropolitan areas. They bring a fiber to a complex and then serve data and cable to every tenant, often built into the rent. One would have to think that most of these deals are being done with newer apartments that have been built with telecom expansion in mind – lots of empty conduit throughout the building or even fiber already in the walls.

But for the normal fiber overbuilder who mostly serves single family homes and small businesses, apartments are mostly seen as an obstacle more than an opportunity. I have numerous clients who have built whole towns except for the apartments and they have yet to find an affordable and profitable business case for doing so. There are some new and interesting ways to more easily wire older buildings, such as running fiber along the ceilings in hallways – but a lot of my clients are not yet convinced there is a long-term profitable option for serving apartments.