Clearing Mid-range Spectrum

The FCC is in the process of trying to free up mid-range spectrum for 5G. They just opened a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking looking at 2.5 GHz spectrum, located in the contiguous block between 2495 and 2690 MHz. Overall this is the largest contiguous block of mid-range spectrum. Over half of the spectrum sits idle today, particularly in rural America. The history of this spectrum demonstrates the complications involved in trying to reposition spectrum for broadband and cellular use.

The frequency was first assigned by the FCC in 1963 when it was made available to school systems to transmit educational TV between multiple schools. The spectrum band was called Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS). The band was divided into twenty channels and could transmit a TV signal up to about 35 miles. I grew up in a school system that used the technology and from elementary school onward we had a number of classes taught on the TV. Implementing the technology was expensive and much of the spectrum was never claimed.

In 1972 the FCC recognized the underuse of the spectrum and allowed commercial operators to use the bands of 2150 to 2162 MHz on an unlicensed basis for pay-TV transmissions to rooftop antennas. The spectrum could only carry a few TV channels and in the 1970s was used in many markets to transmit the early version of HBO and Nickelodeon. This spectrum band was known as Multipoint Distribution Service (MDS) and also was good for about 35 miles.

Reacting to pressure from cellular companies, the FCC reallocated eight additional channels of the spectrum for commercial use. Added to the MDS spectrum this became known as Multichannel Multipoint Distribution Service (MMDS). At the time this displaced a few school systems and anybody using the spectrum had to pay to move a school system to another workable channel. This spectrum was granted upon request to operators for specific markets.

In 1991 the FCC changed the rules for MMDS and allowed the channels to be used to transmit commercial TV signals. In 1995 any unused MMDS spectrum was sold under one of the first FCC auctions, which was the first to divide service areas into the geographic areas known as Basic Trading Areas (or BTAs) that are still used today. Before this auction, the spectrum was awarded in 35-mile circles called Geographic Service Areas (GSAs). The existing GSAs were left in place and the spectrum sold at auction had to work around existing GSAs.

The FCC started getting pressure from wireless companies to allow for the two-way transmission of data in the frequency (up to now it had been all one-way delivery to a customer site). In 2005 the FCC changed the rules and renamed the block of spectrum as Broadband Radio Service (BRS). This added significant value to licenses since the spectrum could now be repositioned for cellular usage.

At this point, Clearwire entered the picture and saw the value of the spectrum. They offered to buy or lease the spectrum from school systems at prices far lower than market value and were able to amass the right to use a huge amount of the spectrum nationwide. Clearwire never activated much of the spectrum and was in danger of losing the rights to use it. In 2013 Sprint purchased Clearwire, and Sprint is the only cellular company using the spectrum band today.

Today the spectrum band has all sorts of users. There are still school districts using the spectrum to transmit cable TV. There are still license holders who never stopped using the 35-mile GSA areas. There are still MMDS license holders who found a commercial use for the spectrum. And Sprint holds much of the spectrum not held by these other parties.

The FCC is wrestling in the NPRM with how to undo the history of the spectrum to make it more valuable to the industry. Education advocates are still hoping to play in the space since much of the spectrum sits idle in rural America (as is true with a lot of cellular and other mid-range spectrum). The other cellular carriers would like to see chunks of the spectrum sold at auction. Other existing license holders are fighting to extract the biggest value out of any change of control of the spectrum.

The challenge for repositioning this spectrum is complicated because the deployment of the spectrum differs widely today by market. The FCC is struggling to find an easy set of rules to put the genie back in the bottle and start over again. In terms of value for 5G, this spectrum sits in a sweet spot in terms of coverage characteristics. Using the spectrum for cellular data is probably the best use of the spectrum, but the FCC has to step carefully to do this in such a way as to not end up in court cases for years disputing any order. Reallocating spectrum is probably the most difficult thing the FCC does and it’s not hard to see why when you look at the history of this particular block of spectrum and realize that every block of spectrum has a similar messy past.

When Will Small ISPs Offer Wireless Loops?

I wrote last week about what it’s going to take for the big wireless companies to offer 5G fixed wireless in neighborhoods. Their biggest hurdle is going to be the availability of fiber deep inside neighborhoods. Today I look at what it would take for fiber overbuilders to integrate 5G wireless loops into their fiber networks. By definition, fiber overbuilders already build fiber deep into neighborhoods. What factors will enable fiber overbuilders to consider using wireless loops in those networks?

Affordable Technology. Number one on the list is cheaper technology. There is a long history in the wireless industry where new technologies only become affordable after at least one big company buys a lot of units. Fifteen years ago the FCC auctioned LMDS and MMDS spectrum with a lot of hoopla and promise. However, these spectrum bands were barely used because no big companies elected to use them. The reality of the manufacturing world is that prices only come down with big volumes of sales. Manufacturers need to have enough revenue to see them through several rounds of technical upgrades and tweaks, which are always needed when fine-tuning how wireless gear works in the wild.

Verizon is the only company talking about deploying a significant volume of 5G fixed wireless equipment. However, their current first-generation equipment is not 5G compliant and they won’t be deploying actual 5G gear for a few years. Time will tell if they buy enough gear to get equipment prices to an affordable level for the rest of the industry. We also must consider that Verizon might use proprietary technology that won’t be available to others. The use of proprietary hardware is creeping throughout the industry and can be seen with gear like data center switches and Comcast’s settop boxes. The rest of the industry won’t benefit if Verizon takes the proprietary approach – yet another new worry for the industry.

Life Cycle Costs. Anybody considering 5G also needs to consider the full life cycle costs of 5G versus fiber. An ISP will need to compare the life cycle cost of fiber drops and fiber electronics versus the cost of the 5G electronics. There are a couple of costs to consider:

  • We don’t know what Verizon is paying for gear, but at the early stage of the industry my guess is that 5G electronics are still expensive compared to fiber drops.
  • Fiber drops last for a long time. I would expect that most of the fiber drops built twenty years ago for Verizon FiOS are still going strong. It’s likely that 5G electronics on poles will have to replaced or upgraded every 7 – 10 years.
  • Anybody that builds fiber drops to homes knows that over time that some of those drops are abandoned as homes stop buying service. Over time there can be a sizable inventory of unused drops that aren’t driving any revenue – I’ve seen this grow to as many as 5% of total drops over time.
  • Another cost consideration is maintenance costs. We know from long experience that wireless networks require a lot more tinkering and maintenance effort than fiber networks. Fiber technology has gotten so stable that most companies know they can build fiber and not have to worry much about maintenance for the first five to ten years. Fiber technology is getting even more stable as many ISPs are moving the ONTs inside the premise. That’s going to be a hard to match with 5G wireless networks with differing temperatures and precipitation conditions.

We won’t be able to make this cost comparison until 5G electronics are widely available and after a few brave ISPs suffer through the first generation of the technology.

Spectrum. Spectrum is a huge issue. Verizon and other big ISPs are going to have access to licensed spectrum for 5G that’s not going to be available to anybody else. It’s likely that companies like Verizon will get fast speeds by bonding together multiple bands of millimeter wave spectrum while smaller providers will be limited to only unlicensed spectrum bands. The FCC is in the early stages of allocating the various bands of millimeter wave spectrum, so we don’t yet have a clear picture of the unlicensed options that will be available to smaller ISPs.

Faster speeds. There are some fiber overbuilders that already provide a gigabit product to all customers, and it’s likely over time that they will go even faster. Verizon is reporting speeds in the first 5G deployments between 300 Mbps and a gigabit, and many fiber overbuilders are not going to want a network where speeds vary by local conditions, and from customer to customer. Wireless speeds in the field using millimeter wave spectrum are never going to be as consistently reliable and predictable as a fiber-based technology.

Summary. It’s far too early to understand the potential for 5G wireless loops. If the various issues can be clarified, I’m sure that numerous small ISPs will consider 5G. The big unknowns for now are the cost of the electronics and the amount of spectrum that will be available to small ISPs. But even after those two things are known it’s going to be a complex decision for a network owner. I don’t foresee any mad rush by smaller fiber overbuilders to embrace 5G.