5G Needs Fiber

I am finally starting to see an acknowledgement by the cellular industry that 5G implementation is going to require fiber – a lot of fiber. For the last year or so the industry press – prompted by misleading press releases from the wireless companies – made it sound like wireless was our future and that there would soon not be any need for building more wires.

As always, when there is talk about 5G there is a need to make sure which 5G we are talking about, because there are two distinct 5G technologies on the horizon. One is high-speed wireless loops send directly to homes and businesses as a replacement for a wired broadband connection. The other is 5G cellular providing bandwidth to our cellphones.

It’s interesting to see the term 5G being used for a wireless microwave connection to a home or business. For the past twenty years this same technology has been referred to as wireless local loop, but in the broadband world the term 5G has marketing cachet. Interestingly, a lot of these high-speed data connections won’t even be using the 5G standards and could just as easily be transmitting the signals using Ethernet or some other transmission protocol. But the marketing folks have declared that everything that uses the millimeter wave spectrum will be deemed 5G, and so it shall be.

These fixed broadband connections are going to require a lot of fiber close-by to customers. The current millimeter radios are capable of deliver speeds up to a gigabit on a point-to-point microwave basis. And this means that every 5G millimeter wave transmitter needs to be fiber fed if there is any desire to offer gigabit-like speeds at the customer end. You can’t use a 1-gigabit wireless backhaul to feed multiple gigabit transmitters, and thus fiber is the only way to get the desired speeds to the end locations.

The amount of fiber needed for this application is going to depend upon the specific way the network is being deployed. Right now the predominant early use for this technology is to use the millimeter wave radios to serve an entire apartment building. That means putting one receiver on the apartment roof and somehow distributing the signal through the building. This kind of configuration requires fiber only to those tall towers or rooftops used to beam a signal to nearby apartment buildings. Most urban areas already have the fiber to tall structures to support this kind of network.

But for the millimeter technology to bring gigabit speeds everywhere it is going to mean bringing fiber much closer to the customer. For example, the original Starry business plan in Boston had customers receiving the wireless signal through a window, and that means having numerous transmitters around a neighborhood so that a given apartment or business can see one of them. This kind of network configuration will require more fiber than the rooftop-only network.

But Google, AT&T and Verizon are all talking about using millimeter wave radios to bring broadband directly into homes. That kind of network is going to require even more fiber since a transmitter is going to need a clear shot near to street-level to see a given home. I look around my own downtown neighborhood and can see that one or two transmitters would only reach a fraction of homes and that it would take a pole-mounted transmitter in front of homes to do what these companies are promising. And those transmitters on poles are going to need to be fiber-fed if they want to deliver gigabit broadband.

Verizon seems to understand this and they have recently talked about needing a ‘fiber-rich’ environment to deploy 5G. The company has committed to building a lot of fiber to support this coming business plan.

But, as always, there is a flip side to this. These companies are only going to deploy these fast wireless loops in neighborhoods that already have fiber or in places where it makes economic sense to build it. And this is going to mean cherry-picking – the same as the big ISPs do today. They are not going to build the fiber in neighborhoods where they don’t foresee enough demand for the wireless broadband. They won’t build in neighborhoods where the fiber construction costs are too high. One only has to look at the hodgepodge Verizon FiOS fiber network to see what this is going to look like. There will be homes and businesses offered the new fast wireless loops while a block or two away there will be no use of the technology. Verizon has already created fiber haves and have-nots due to the way they built FiOS and 5G wireless loops are going to follow the same pattern.

I think the big ISPs have convinced politicians that they will be solving all future broadband problems with 5G, just as they made similar promises in the past with other broadband technologies. But let’s face it – money talks and these ISPs are only going to deploy 5G / fiber networks where they can make their desired returns.

And that means no 5G in poorer neighborhoods. It might mean little or limited 5G in neighborhoods with terrain or other similar issues. And it certainly means no 5G in rural America because the cost to build a 5G network is basically the same as building a landline fiber network – it’s not going to happen, at least not by the big ISPs.

The Challenges of Fixed Gigabit Wireless

webpass_logoWe got a preview this week of what fixed wireless service might look like in urban environments. Google announced it is aggressively expanding the footprint of Webpass, the wireless ISP that Google purchased last year. The company has been operating in six cities and will now be expanding to nine more markets. These will all be downtown urban deployments.

The deployment uses high-capacity microwave links to serve high-rise buildings. Webpass already has 20,000 residential customers in the six markets, all which live in downtown high-rises. The company focuses more on serving business customers. This business plan has been around for years and I was actually helping to launch a business years ago with the same plan that died with the 2000 telecom crash.

The network consists of microwave shots to each building on the network. The first hurdle in getting this to work is to get enough quality radio sites to see buildings. As I noted in a blog last week, access to this kind of real estate is at a premium in urban areas, as cellphone providers have found when trying to deploy small cell sites.

The radios required to make the links are not gigantic, but you need one full radio and a dish at both ends of every link. This means that from any one given hub building there will be a limited number of links that can be made to other buildings, just due to space limitations. If you imagine half a dozen companies trying to this same thing (this will be the same basic deployment method for urban 5G), then you can picture a proliferation of companies fighting over available radio space on roofs.

Webpass in the past has limited their deployment to buildings that are either already wired with category 5 cable or fiber. They face the same issue that any broadband provider faces in bringing broadband into older buildings – only they are starting on the roof rather than from a basement wiring closet like other ISPs. There are very few ISPs yet willing to tackle the rewiring effort needed in large older buildings that serve residences. As you will see from the pricing below, Webpass and other ISPs are a lot more willing to tackle business buildings and absorb some rewiring costs.

The primary thing for the public to understand about this new roll-out is that it’s very limited. This won’t go to single family homes. It will go to downtown residential high-rises, but only to those that are pre-wired or easy to wire. And even in those buildings Webpass won’t go unless they get at least 10 customers. However, they will contract with landlords to serve whole buildings.

The Webpass pricing is interesting. For residential customers the price is $60 per month regardless of the speed achieved. Webpass says they deliver speeds between 100 Mbps and 500 Mbps, but in reading numerous reviews, there are complaints that speeds can get slower at peak evening time in some buildings (as one would expect when there are a lot of customers sharing one radio link).

Webpass’ pricing for businesses varies according to the number of other customers they get in a building. For example, if there are 10 or more business customers in a building they will sell a 100 – 200 Mbps connection for $250 per month with a 10 TB monthly data cap. But prices are much higher for customers in buildings with fewer than 10 customers:

Speed              Cost                 Data Cap         Price with no Cap

10 Mbps          $125                   1 TB                $375

20 Mbps          $250                   2 TB                $750

50 Mbps          $500                   5 TB                $1,500

100 Mbps        $1,000                10 TB              $2,000

250 Mbps                                                           $2,500

500 Mbps                                                           $4,000

1 Gbps                                                                $5,500

From a technical perspective Webpass is deploying in line with the way the technology works. The radios are too expensive to deploy to smaller customers or to smaller buildings. A building also need to be within a mile of the base transmitter (and hopefully closer) to get good speeds. That is largely going to mean downtown deployments.

We know there are a number of other companies considering a similar plan. Starry announced almost two years ago that they were deploying something similar in Boston, but has yet to launch. We know AT&T and Verizon are both exploring something similar to this Google product using 5G radios. But all of these companies are going to be fighting over the same limited markets.

The cellular companies keep hinting in their press releases that they will be able to use 5G to bring gigabit speeds. When they say that, this is the kind of deployment they are talking about. The only way they are going to be able to bring gigabit wireless speeds to single family homes and to suburbs is if they can develop some sort of mini transmitters to go onto utility poles. That technology is going to require building fiber close to each house and the radios are going to replace fiber drops. The above deployment by Webpass is not hype – they already have customers in six markets. But this technology is not the panacea for fast broadband for everyone that you might believe from reading the press releases.

Google Looking at Wireless Drops

Wi-FiIn an interview with Re/code Craig Barrett, the CEO of Access for Alphabet said that Google is looking at wireless last mile technologies. Google is not the only one looking at this. The founder of Aereo has announced a new wireless initiative to launch this summer in Boston under the brand name of Starry. And Facebook says it is also investigating the technology.

The concept is not new. I remember visiting an engineer in Leesburg, Virginia back in the 90s who had developed a wireless local loop technology. He had working prototypes that could beam a big data pipe for the time (I’m fuzzily remembering a hundred Mbps back when DSL was still delivering 1 Mbps). His technology was premature in that there wasn’t any good technology at the time for bringing fast broadband to the curb.

As usual there will be those that jump all over this news and declare that we no longer need to build fiber. But even should one of these companies develop and perfect the best imaginable wireless technology there is still going to have to be a lot of fiber built. All of these new attempts to develop wireless last mile technologies share a few common traits that are dictated by the nature of wireless spectrum.

First, to get good the kind of big bandwidth that Google wants to deliver, the transmitter and the customer have to be fairly close together. Starry is talking about a quarter mile deliver distance. One characteristic of any wireless signal is that the signal weakens with distance. And the higher the frequency of the spectrum used, the faster the signal deteriorates.

Second, unless there is some amazing breakthrough, a given transmitter will have a fixed and limited number of possible paths that be established to customers. This characteristic makes it very difficult to connect to a lot of customers in a densely populated area and is one of the reasons that wireless today is more normally used for less densely populated places.

Third, the connection for this kind of point-to-multipoint network must be line of sight. In an urban environment every building creates a radio ‘shadow’ and block access to customers sitting behind that building. This can be overcome to a small degree with technologies that bounce the signal from one customer to another – but such retransmission of a signal cuts the both the strength of the signals and the associated bandwidth.

However, Google has already recognized that there are a lot of people unwilling or unable to buy a gigabit of bandwidth from them on fiber. In Atlanta the company is not just selling a gigabit connection and is hitting the street with a 100 Mbps connection for $50. A good wireless system that had access to the right kind of spectrum could satisfy that kind of bandwidth to a fairly reasonable number of customers around a given transmitter. But it would be technically challenging to try to do the same with gigabit bandwidth unless each transmitter served fewer customers (and had to be even closer to the customer). A gigabit wireless network would start looking a lot like the one I saw year ago in Virginia where there was a transmitter for just a few nearby customers – essentially fiber to the curb with gigabit wireless local loops.

But if Starry can do what they are shooting for – the delivery of a few hundred Mbps of bandwidth at an affordable price will be very welcome today and would provide real competition to the cable companies that have monopolies in most urban neighborhoods. But, and here is where many might disagree with me, the time is going to come in a decade or two where 200 Mbps of bandwidth is going to become just as obsolete as first generation DSL has become in the twenty years since it was developed.

Over the next twenty years we can expect the full development of virtual and augmented reality so that real telepresence is available – holographic images of people and places brought to the home. This kind of technology will require the kind of bandwidth that only fiber can deliver. I think we’ll start seeing this just a few years from now. I can already imagine a group of teenagers gathering at one home, each with their own headset to play virtual reality games with people somewhere else. That application will very easily require a gigabit pipe just a few years from now.

I welcome the idea of the wireless last mile if it serves to break the cable monopoly and bring some real price competition into broadband. It’s a lot less appealing if the wireless companies decide instead to charge the same high prices as the incumbents. It sounds like the connections that Starry is shooting for are going to fast by today’s standards, but I’m betting that within a few decades that the technology will fall to the wayside – like every technology that doesn’t bring a fast wire to the home.

Starry Shooting for Wireless Last Mile

StarryChet Kanojia, the man behind Aereo, is back with another industry play. He has founded Starry, a company that promises to deliver very fast internet speeds – up to a gigabit – wirelessly. Where his last play took on cable TV competition, he is now going after broadband providers.

Starry intends to tackle this by combining multiple frequencies to provide a direct link between a customer and a tower. It’s a really intriguing idea, but I can think of a number of challenges the company has to overcome:

  • This is going to require a complicated antenna array capable of receiving a bunch of different frequencies. But so did Aereo, although this is lot more complicated.
  • The company says it will be using ‘millimeter’ frequencies and short frequencies don’t travel very far. The company says they will need to have towers that are no more than a kilometer apart, and to support this kind of bandwidth those towers will need to be fiber fed. That sounds like a challenge in a world where people fight against new towers. But this might work well in a downtown with plenty of highrises to use as transmitter locations. Starry says they are shooting to cover 20% of the public and that infers only bringing service to major metropolitan areas.
  • Those kinds of frequencies and bandwidth don’t travel well through walls or much of anything else. The Starry website shows their receiver will sit in a window. These kinds of frequencies will require a direct line-of-sight and in an urban area that can get problematic since it’s easy for a building to be in a radio ‘shadow’ if there is another building between it and the tower. Starry is going to rely on customer self-installation and I foresee a number of customers who go through the process only to find out that they can’t see the transmitter. Rooftop outdoor antennas would enable a lot more customers to get service, but would also require a fleet of technicians.
  • Distance really matters with very high frequencies and a customer close to a tower will be able to get much faster speeds than one only a relatively short distance further away (like a quarter-mile).

This is obviously only an urban solution because the network needs multiple fiber-fed transmitters. The first market is going to be Boston. The company says that they will sell broadband for significantly less than the competition but has not yet announced the pricing. The company will require customers to buy a $350 proprietary router that enables the technology. Their only product for now is broadband so this is going to be aimed at those who want a lot of speed and aren’t dependent on the cable company bundle for cable TV. If they can make this work they ought to get a lot of interest.

I saw a few other articles about Starry that worried that their would be regulatory pushback from the cable companies. But as long as Starry uses frequencies in ways that the FCC has approved, then there doesn’t seem to be any potential way to push back against this. Their biggest regulatory hurdle will be getting cities to agree to the many needed towers, but there are no state or federal rules that I can think of that can be used to stop such a wireless deployment. The country is already full of WISPs and they are relatively free to deploy wherever they want.

The company has some significant financial backers including FirstMark Capital and Barry Diller’s IAC, Tiger Global, KKR, HLVP and Quantum Strategic Partners. So certainly they have convinced those investors that the technology works. The concerns I listed above are mostly about deployment and if the company can find a make this easy to use for enough customers then they might have something.

Certainly nobody is going to be upset (other than the cable companies) to see another broadband competitor in urban markets. It’s something the country badly needs. We have entered an era where the big ISPs are competing on speed but not on price. In fact, the introduction of data caps is threatening to jack up the prices a lot more for large data users. It would be good to see a low cost alternative as a way to bring some price competition into the market.