5G Claims for Rural America

There are a few hot-button topics that are the current favorite talking points at the FCC. T-Mobile and Sprint are pressing both the 5G and the rural broadband buttons with their merger request. The companies are claiming that if they are allowed to merge that they can cover 96% of America with a ‘deep, broad, and nationwide’ 5G network.

There are multiple technologies being referred to as 5G – wireless broadband loops and 5G cellular – and their claim doesn’t hold water for either application. In making the claim the companies want regulators to think that they are talking about wireless 5G loop like the technology that Verizon recently test-drove in Sacramento. That technology is delivering 300 Mbps broadband to those living close to the transmitters located on poles. The carriers are smart and know this is the kind of claim that will perk up the ears of regulators and politicians. A ubiquitous 300 Mbps rural broadband product would solve the rural digital divide.

T-Mobile and Sprint are not talking about 5G wireless loops. That technology requires two things to have any chance of success – sufficient neighborhood housing density and fiber backhaul. Rural areas with poor broadband generally lack fiber infrastructure built close to neighborhoods, so a 5G provider would have to build the needed fiber. I can’t imagine why anybody that builds fiber close to a neighborhood would then choose a squirrely wireless link that delivers less than a gigabit of speed instead of a direct fiber connection that can deliver 10 Gbps using today’s readily-available technology.

The other missing element in rural America is customer density. I read an article that says that each Verizon 5G wireless loop transmitter in Sacramento can see at least 20 potential customers. There are a number of industry analysts who think that even that is a hard business case to justify, so how can wireless loops ever work in rural American where a given transmitter will likely see only a few homes? I can foresee the 5G loop technology perhaps being used to deliver broadband to small rural subdivisions or small towns where the wireless link might be cheaper than stringing fiber. However, most of rural America is characterized by low density and homes that are far apart.

What T-Mobile and Sprint are really talking about is 5G rural cellular service. Sprint brings a unique asset to the merger – they are the only US cellular carrier using nationwide spectrum in the 850 MHz and the 2.5 GHz bands. T-Mobile is the only carrier currently using 600 MHz spectrum. The combined companies would have by far the biggest inventory of spectrum – giving them a big advantage in urban America.

But is there an advantage this spectrum can bring to rural broadband? The short answer is no. I say that because I don’t see 5G cellular being that important in rural America? There are several reasons why the T-Mobile and Sprint announcement makes little sense.

The biggest issue is that there is not going to be fully-functional 5G cell sites anywhere in the country for years. It’s likely to take most of the coming decade until we see cell sites that comply with all 13 of the major improvement goals listed in the 5G specifications. There will be a natural progression from 4G to 5G as the carriers implement upgrades over time – the same upgrade path we just saw with 4G, where the first fully-compliant 4G cell sites were finally implemented in late 2017.

The bigger question is if most rural cell sites need 5G. The new technology brings several major improvements to cellular. First will be the ability of one cell site to make up to 100,000 simultaneous connections to devices, up from several thousand connections today. This improvement will be mostly accomplished using frequency slicing. This allows a cell site to tailor the size of the broadband connection to each customer’s demand. For example, a connection to an IoT device might be set at a tiny fraction of a full cellular channel, thus freeing up the rest of that channel to serve other customers. Many rural cell sites won’t need this extra capacity. A rural cell site that serves a few hundred people at a time will continue to function well with 4G and won’t need the extra capacity.

5G also can be used to increase the speed of cellular broadband, with the goal in the standard to bring speeds to as fast as 100 Mbps. That is also unlikely to happen to any great degree in rural America. Speeds of 100 Mbps will be accomplished in urban areas by having multiple cell sites connect to a single cellphone. That will require densely packed small cell sites, which is something we are already starting to see in the busy parts of downtowns. It’s incredibly unlikely that the cellular companies are going to introduce small cell sites through rural America just to boost handset broadband speeds. Speeds are not likely to be much faster than 4G when a customer can see only a single tower.

The T-Mobile and Sprint claim is pure bosh. These companies are not going to be investing in fiber to bring 5G wireless loops to rural America. While a combined company will have more spectrum than the other carriers there is no immediate advantage for using 5G for rural cellular coverage . The T-Mobile and Sprint announcements are just pushing the 5G and the rural broadband hot-buttons because the topics resonate well with politicians who don’t understand the technology.

Another Rural Wireless Provider?

T-Mobile announced the start of a trial for a fixed wireless broadband product using LTE. The product is being marketed as “T-Mobile Home Internet”. The company will offer the product by invitation only to some existing T-Mobile cellular customers in “rural and underserved areas”. The company says they might connect as many as 50,000 customers this year. The company is marketing the product as 50 Mbps broadband, with a monthly price of $50 and no data cap. The company warns that speeds may be curtailed during times of network congestion.

The company further says that their ultimate goal is to offer speeds of up to 100 Mbps, but only if they are allowed to merge with Sprint and gain access to Sprint’s huge inventory of mid-range spectrum. They said the combination of the two companies would enable them to cover as many as 9.5 million homes with 100 Mbps broadband in about half of US zip codes.

There are positive aspects the planned deployment, but also a number of issues that make me skeptical. One positive aspect is that some of the spectrum used for LTE can better pass through trees compared to the spectrum used for the fixed wireless technology that is being widely deployed in the open plains and prairies of the Midwest and West. This opens up the possibility of bringing some wireless broadband to places like Appalachia – with the caveat that heavy woods are still going to slow down data speeds. It’s worth noting that this is still a line-of-sight technology and fixed LTE will be blocked by hills or other physical impediments.

The other positive aspect of the announced product is the price and lack of a data cap. Contrast this to the AT&T fixed LTE product that has a price as high as $70 along with a stingy 160 GB monthly cap, and with overage charges that can bring the AT&T price up to $200 per month.

I am skeptical of a number of the claims made or implied by the announcement. The primary concern is download speeds. Fixed LTE will be the same as any other fixed wireless product and speeds will decrease with the distance of a customer from the serving tower. In rural America distances can mount up quickly. LTE broadband is similar to rural cellular voice and works best where customers can get 4 or 5 bars. Anybody living in rural America understands that there are a lot more places with 1 or 2 bars of signal strength than of 4 or 5 bars.

The 50 Mbps advertised speed is clearly an ‘up-to’ speed and in rural America it’s doubtful that anybody other than those who live under a tower could actually get that much speed. This is one of the few times when I’ve seen AT&T advertise truthfully and they market their LTE product as delivering at least 10 Mbps speed. I’ve read numerous online reviews of the AT&T product and the typical speeds reported by customers range between 10 Mbps and 25 Mbps, with only a few lucky customers claiming speeds faster than that.

The online reviews of the AT&T LTE product also indicate that signal strength is heavily influenced by rain and can completely disappear during a downpour. Perhaps even more concerning are reports that in some cases speeds remain slow after a rain due to wet leaves on trees that must be scattering the signal.

Another concern is that T-Mobile is touting this as a solution for underserved rural America.  T-Mobile has far less presence in rural America than AT&T and Verizon and is on fewer rural cellular towers. This is evidenced by their claim that even after a merger with Sprint they’d only be seeing 9.5 million passings – that’s really small coverage for a nationwide cellular network. I’m a bit skeptical that T-Mobile will invest in connecting to more rural towers just to offer this product – the cost of backhaul to rural towers often makes for a lousy business case.

The claim also says that the product will have some aspects of both 4G and 5G. I’ve talked to several wireless engineers who have told me that they can’t see any particular advantage for 5G over 4G when deploying as fixed wireless. A carrier already opens up the available data path fully with 4G to reach a customer and 5G can’t make the spectrum perform any better. I’d love to hear from anybody who can tell me how 5G would enhance this particular application. This might be a case where the 5G term is tossed in for the benefit of politicians and marketing.

Finally, this is clearly a ploy to keep pushing for the merger with Sprint. The claim of the combined companies being able to offer 100 Mbps rural broadband has even more holes than the arguments for achieving 50 Mbps. However, Sprint does have a larger rural presence on rural towers today than T-Mobile, although I think the Sprint towers are already counted in the 9.5 million passings claim.

But putting aside all my skepticism, it would be great if T-Mobile can bring broadband to any rural customers that otherwise wouldn’t have it. Even should they not achieve the full 50 Mbps claim, many rural homes would be thrilled to get speeds at half that level. A wireless product with no data caps would also be a welcomed product. The timing of the announcement is clearly aimed at promoting the merger process with Sprint and I hope the company’s deployment plans don’t evaporate if the merger doesn’t happen.