Telecom Predictions for 2019

It’s that time of year when I look forward at what the next year might bring to the industry. I see the following as the biggest telecom trends for 2019:

5G Will Not Save the World (or the Industry). This will be the year when we will finally stop seeing headlines about how 5G will transform society. There will be almost no actual introduction of 5G in networks, but we’ll still see numerous press releases by the big ISPs crowing about fictional 5G achievements.

CAF II Buildout Nearly Complete, but Few Notice. The CAF II upgrades will not have the impact hoped for by the FCC. Many areas that should have gotten speed increases to at least 10/1 Mbps will get something less, but nobody will officially monitor or note it. Households that buy the upgrades to 10/1 will still feel massively underserved since those speeds are already seriously obsolete.

People Will Wonder Why They Bought 5G Cellphones and 802.11ax Routers. The wireless carriers will begin charging premium prices for 5G-capable cellular phone yet there will be no 5G cell sites deployed. Households will upgrade to 802.11ax WiFi routers without realizing that there are no compatible devices in the home. Both sets of customers will feel cheated since there will be zero improvement in performance. Yet we’ll still see a few articles raving about the performance of each technology.

FCC Will Continue to Work Themselves out of the Regulatory Business. The current FCC will continue on the path to deregulate the large carriers to the fullest extent possible. They will continue to slant every decision in the direction of the big ISPs while claiming that every decision helps rural broadband.

Rural America Will Realize that Nobody is Coming to Help. I predict that hundreds of rural communities will finally realize that nobody is bringing them broadband. I expect many more communities to begin offering money for public/private partnerships as they try desperately to not fall on the wrong side of the broadband divide.

Broadband Prices Start to Climb. 2019 will be the first year that the world will notice the big ISP strategy to significantly increase broadband prices. We saw the first indication in November when Charter increased bundled broadband prices by $5 per month – the biggest broadband price increase in my memory. All the big ISPs are hoping to have broadband prices to $90 within 5 – 7 years.

Corporate Lobbyists Will Drive Policy. In 2018 there were numerous FCC decisions that came straight from the pens of telecom lobbyists. In 2019 those lobbyists will drive state and federal telecom legislation and FCC decisions.

Comcast and Charter Continue to Eat into Cellular Market. These two cable companies will quietly, yet significantly begin eating into the cellular markets in urban areas. I still don’t expect a major reaction by the cellar companies, but by 2020 we should start seeing cellular prices take another tumble.

Household Bandwidth Usage Will Continue to Grow. There will be no slowdown in the growth of household broadband as homes add many more bandwidth-capable devices to their homes. Another few million customers will cut the cable TV cord and ratchet up bandwidth usage. Online programming will routinely first offer 4K video and we’ll see the first commercial 8K video online.

We’ll See First Significant Launches of LEO Satellites. There will be little public notice since the early market entries will not be selling rural broadband but will be supporting corporate WANs, cellular transport and the development of outer space networks between satellites.

25 New Online Programmers Emerge. There will be a flood of new online programming options as numerous companies jump into the market. We won’t see many, and possibly no failures this year, but within a few years the market reality will drive out companies that can’t gain enough market share.

Transport Price Pressure Tightens. Anybody selling transport to cellular companies will see big pressure to lower prices. Those who ignore the pressure will find out that the carriers are willing to build fiber to bypass high costs.

Big Companies Will Get Most New Spectrum. The biggest ISPs and cellular carriers will still gobble up the majority of new spectrum, meaning improved spectrum utilization for urban markets while rural America will see nearly zero benefits.

The DARPA Spectrum Challenge

darpaDARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has launched a grant challenge to find a way to more efficiently use spectrum in the US. The prize is called the Spectrum Collaboration Challenge (SC2) and DARPA is offering a $2 million reward to whoever comes up with the best way to adapt in real-time to congested spectrum conditions while maximizing the use of our spectrum. The winner of the challenge won’t be a solution that dominates the use of spectrum, but will instead be looking at solutions that collaboratively share spectrum in the best manner between multiple users.

DARPA assumes that it’s going to require artificial intelligence to be able to make real-time decisions about spectrum sharing. They realize there is no easy answer and so the competition will start in 2017 and last until 2020. What is probably the coolest thing about the challenge is that DARPA is creating a large wireless test-bed they are calling the Colosseum that is going to let participants try out their ideas. This will provide researchers with remote capabilities to conduct experiments in simulated real-life environments such as a busy urban street or a battlefield (which is primary the main reason they are interested in this).

It’s a great idea because our spectrum in this country is certainly a mess. There are certain bands of spectrum that are used very heavily and other spectrum that lies fallow and unused. Further, the FCC has chopped most spectrum up into discrete channels and provided buffers between channels that go largely unused.

What really makes spectrum a challenge is that different bands are ‘owned’ by different parties and the whole point of buying spectrum from the FCC is for the buyer to use it in almost any way that makes sense to them. But the consequence of spectrum ownership is that huge swaths of spectrum are unused or at least unusable by everybody except the spectrum owner. But one would think in a battlefield situation that just about any spectrum can be used without worrying about the rules.

And while any solution that is found will probably benefit the military more than anybody else, there is still a huge amount of good that could be done with better spectrum collaboration. Certainly spectrum owners could make some or all of the spectrum they control open to collaborative sharing, for some sort of compensation.

A lot of people might look at this idea and think that this could mean great things for cellphones and other mobile communications. But cellphones have a whole different issue that makes them a very poor candidate for sharing in too many different swaths of spectrum. A primary issue goal for cellphones is power conservation and it costs a lot of power to operate antennas in too many frequencies.

Most cellphone makers today limit a phone to only using a few different frequencies at once. This is one of the reasons for the huge variance people get in 3G and 4G data rates – many of the phones on the market only look at a few different frequencies, to the detriment of how much bandwidth can be downloaded at any one time. This is something that cellphone makers don’t talk about and you have to look deep into a cellphone’s specifications to understand the frequency capabilities of a given handset.

There are software defined radios today that are a lot larger than handsets and which can be easily tuned to different frequencies. But this is something that is incredibly challenging today to do on the fly and to do accurately. And of course, to do what DARPA has in mind means coordination and collaboration so that a given sender and receiver are using the same frequencies at the same time. It’s the kind of challenge that can make a wireless engineer’s head hurt and it probably will take an AI to be able to handle the complexities involved in truly sharing multiple spectrum bands in real time.

The 600 MHz Incentive Auction

001-Signal-Command-SSIThe FCC has again delayed the incentive auction for the 600 MHz spectrum. In a recent public notice the FCC in FCC 14-191, the agency is seeking comments on bidding procedures for the upcoming auction. Most of the document deals with the non-technical aspects of the auction such as bid pricing and procedures.

For those not familiar with this spectrum, today much of it is used by UHF television stations. The upcoming auction is being called an incentive auction because TV stations willing to give up their public spectrum or to be relocated within the spectrum will share in the proceeds of the sale of their spectrum.

But stations aren’t being mandated to leave this spectrum and the recent public notice discusses for the first time what might happen to stations that elect to remain on the public airwaves. The FCC proposes to ‘repack’ a stations frequency and to put it anywhere within the 600 MHz range in such a way as to optimize the 600 MHz frequency in a given market.

The controversial part of the idea is that stations could be placed into spectrum that is used by somebody else. For instance a TV station could be put into spectrum that is reserved today for wireless microphones. Or even more controversial, a station could be placed into what is called the duplex gap, which is a spectrum buffer that sits between major pieces of spectrum and that is used to reduce interference between different technologies. The easiest way to think of the duplex gap is to envision it as a buffer channel that nobody gets to use.

This FCC’s ideas aren’t pleasing anybody. TV stations are now worried that they will end up in parts of the spectrum that will be polluted by other traffic and that will mar transmission quality. And the wireless carriers are unhappy since the TV stations might end up interfering with cellular calls. It’s going to be interesting to read the comments that the FCC gets on this issue and to see how they can resolve it. The auction will quickly fall apart if the stations all decide to not participate.

There are many other interesting parts to this auction. The FCC would like to assign some of the 600 MHz band as unlicensed spectrum for use for WiFi. The 600 MHz band is one of the more useful spectrum bands around in terms of transmission characteristics. It can go long distances and can travel easily through walls and buildings (just think back to the ease of receiving UHF channels on your TV in the basement). The FCC also wants to create more room for ‘white space devices’ that can use the spectrum for high-speed wireless data transmission.

But not everybody is enthusiastic about the ways that the FCC plans to do this. The FCC’s plans are to very aggressively squeeze as much use as possible out of the spectrum and to allow white space devices to operate in the guard bands at power levels that might impair licensed spectrum. AT&T has said that it might not participate in the auction if it believes that the spectrum it buys will be compromised.

The fear expressed by radio engineers is that the current proposal will cause noticeable interference. For example, they say that a device using the white space, say a tablet, and a cellphone using a licensed portion of the 600 MHz might interfere with each other when used together in the same room.

There are already a lot of devices using this frequency today. In addition to the low power TV stations it’s used widely by wireless microphones, medical telemetry and radio astronomy, and there is fear that the repackaging is going to harm all of these uses.

I don’t know if the FCC has anything harder to solve than our shortage of spectrum. The demand for spectrum has grown rapidly and many of the existing bands get easily congested with traffic at peak times. The wireless carriers are clamoring for more spectrum while at the same time there are dozens of other uses of the spectrum including public safety and the military that must be considered in any wireless plan.

I don’t know if it would be possible to develop a good spectrum allocation plan if you started from scratch today, but it seems nearly impossible to satisfy everybody as we try to fit new uses of spectrum over top of a spectrum allocation that was made in a very different time. I don’t envy the FCC the task of figuring this out.

What Makes Cellphone Coverage Vary?

HTC-Incredible-S-SmartphoneIt seems I have been writing about cellphones for a few days, so I thought I would cover a question that I have been asked many times. I travel a lot and it’s not unusual to sit next to somebody and note that the two of you are having a very different cellular experience. One of you may be getting one bar for data and voice while the other might be getting four, sitting only a few feet apart. What explains this difference in cellular performance? I will start with the obvious explanations, but sometimes the differences are due to more subtle issues.

Who is your carrier? Both people might have an iPhone, but if one has Verizon and the other has AT&T the experience is different because both are connected to completely different technologies and totally separate networks. AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM (Global System for Mobile) technology, the technology that is used in most of the rest of the world. But Verizon and Sprint use CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) technology. These technologies are so different that a handset that is made only for one technology won’t work on the other. This is why you can’t take your Verizon handset to most of the rest of the world when you travel.

Who’s on the nearest tower? I’ve often been driving with somebody and hear them be glad to see an upcoming cell tower because they assume this means they’ll get better coverage. But you can’t assume this because not every carrier is on every cell tower. There are a large number of cell towers in the country. Some of these are owned by the wireless carriers but many are leased. The cellular companies look at available towers and then cobble together the combination of towers that make the most effective and cost-efficient network for them.

This task has gotten hard for the carriers because of the fact that cellphones now carry data. The original cell tower network with all of the giant towers was created back when cellphones only carried voice. But now that the networks are deploying data and using higher frequencies it turns out that a more ideal network would place the towers closer together than the traditional locations. This is causing massive reconfigurations of the networks as the carriers try to improve data reception.

Cell sites get busy. Or said another way, any one carrier on a tower might get busy while another carrier might not be busy. As cell sites get busy they do a couple of things to handle the excess traffic. Most carriers still give preference to voice over data, so as more voice calls are added to a network the amount of bandwidth allocated to data is often choked down (but not always). And eventually the tower site refuses to add new customers. But when sites get busy the performance normally degrades.

You might be roaming. Roaming is when a customer is riding a different network than the one to which they subscribe. If you are an AT&T customer and are roaming on a T-Mobile site, you will not get the same priority as a T-Mobile customer. This might mean getting slower data speeds if the site becomes busy, and it could also mean being booted from the site as it becomes full.

Spectrum is not created equal. There is not just one spectrum being used for cellular data. There are already nearly a dozen different slices of spectrum being used and the FCC is going to be auctioning more over the next two years. Every time you move to a different cell site you might be changing the frequency you are using. Carriers not only cobble together a network of the ideal cell sites, but they also play a chess game of deciding which spectrum to deploy at each tower. None of the carriers owns all of the different spectrum available, and the spectrums they own in different cities can be drastically different. This means getting four bars at your home might not give you the same experience as getting four bars when you are traveling.

What your phone allows. Perhaps one of the biggest differences in reception is that each cellphone maker decides what spectrum a given handset is going to receive. It costs a lot of energy, meaning battery time, for a phone to always search on all of the different frequencies. So different handsets allow different frequency bands. This is why LTE coverage differs so widely because there are many sets that don’t even see some of the LTE frequencies. All handsets look for the basic cellular bands, but only the most expensive sets are designed to look for almost everything out there. And as more cellular bands are allowed into the mix this will get more pronounced. Of course, you have to read very deep into the specifications of your phone to understand what it does and does not receive. Good luck asking that question at the cellphone store.

Plain old interference. Every cellular frequency has a different propagation characteristic. If you and the guy next to you are talking on different frequencies then you each will be dealing with a different set of interference. This is one of the reasons that cellular coverage is so wonky in complicated buildings like airports and hospitals. Each cellular frequency is likely to find a different set of problems in a complex environment and one frequency might get killed in a given part of the airport while another is fine. This is why you might find yourself walking around trying to find a signal while people around you are still talking.

The FCC Grants More Wireless Spectrum

FCC_New_LogoIn several actions on Monday the FCC granted for wireless spectrum for use as WiFi and cellular data.

In the WiFi arena the FCC freed up three new bands of spectrum for use as WiFi. The specific bands that are now available to the public include spectrum between 5470 – 5725 MHz and another band between 5725 – 5850 MHz. These two bits of spectrum were already surrounded by other WiFi spectrum and were referred to in the past as WiFi potholes. This now creates a continuous band between 5150 – 5250 MHz.

The two new bands are together 75 MHz of new WiFi spectrum and begin the process the Commission started in 2010 in the National Broadband Plan Order, when they said that they would find 500 new MHz of public spectrum.

Of course, there are not devices on the market capable of utilizing these two pieces of spectrum immediately, but one would expect that devices shipped fairly soon will have the capacity. Because these two pieces of spectrum were islands within a larger band of WiFi spectrum it will be easier to include them than it was to exclude them. These new pieces of spectrum will make it that much easier to use our insatiable use of WiFi for cellular offload and other mobile computing needs like watching video.

The FCC also announced that there will be an auction for new bandwidth that will be available to cellular carriers for 4G wireless. The three bands exist between 1695 – 1710 MHz, 1755 – 1780 MHz and 2155 – 2180 MHz. The FCC labeled this new spectrum as Advanced Wireless Services 3 (AWS-3)

There is a catch, though with these spectrum in that any cellular company that uses it has to share it with existing government wireless systems. Nationwide there are over 3,100 registered uses in this spectrum that range from the Department of Homeland Security for border surveillance to the US Army for tactical communication. The FCC is not planning to move most of these uses out of the spectrum but will instead expect any carrier that buys the spectrum to somehow coexist with the existing uses.

The major wireless carriers aren’t nuts about the idea but have agreed to run tests to see how they might share the frequency with the government. Obviously they would not share networks, but in areas of contention each would have authorized use of the spectrum somehow. Obviously the wireless carriers would love the spectrum cleared for their exclusive use, and there will be many markets where the spectrum is clear or mostly clear.

The FCC announced that it is going to auction off this spectrum in a mixture of large and small blocks, and in large and small geographic areas. They hope this will entice smaller regional carriers to go after spectrum for use in rural markets. They plan on auction rules that give an edge in these small markets to the small carriers plus T-Mobile. The proceeds from this auction are aimed at helping to pay for FirstNet, the nationwide emergency response network. Let’s just hope that by requiring bandwidth sharing that the big carriers show up and bid. They don’t always do so as evidence by the last auction where the only bidder was Dish Networks at the required minimum bid.

Certainly these announcements are good news for anybody with a cell phone, and having additional WiFi spectrum is going to make us that much more ready for the Internet of Things. As a country we have an insatiable demand for wireless spectrum and this is one more step towards making enough spectrum available to keep us humming along.