Taking Advantage of the $9B 5G Fund

The FCC will be moving forward with the $9 billion 5G Fund – a new use of the Universal Service Fund – that will be providing money to expand cellular coverage to the many remote places in the US where 4G cell coverage is still spotty or nonexistent. There is a bit of urgency to this effort since the big cellular companies all want to shut down 3G within a year or two. This money will be made available to cellular carriers, but the funding still opens up possible benefits for other carriers and ISPs.

Some of this funding is likely to go towards extending fiber into rural places to reach cell towers, and that opens up the idea of fiber sharing. There are still a lot of places in the country that don’t have adequate fiber backhaul – the data pipes that bring traffic to and from the big hubs for the Internet. In the last six months alone I’ve worked with three different rural projects where lack of backhaul was a major issue. Nobody can consider building broadband networks in rural communities if the new networks can’t be connected to the web.

By definition, the 5G Fund is going to extend into rural places. If the FCC was maximizing the use of federal grant funds, they would demand that any fiber built with this new fund would be available to others at reasonable rates. This was one of the major provisions of the middle mile networks built a decade ago with stimulus funding. I know of many examples where those middle mile routes are providing backhaul today for rural fixed wireless and fiber networks. Unfortunately, I don’t see any such provisions being discussed in the 5G Fund – which is not surprising. I’m sure the big cellular companies have told the FCC that making them share fiber with others would be an inconvenience, so this idea doesn’t seem to be included in the 5G Fund plan.

I think there is a window of opportunity to partner with wireless carriers to build new fiber jointly. The cellular carriers can get their portion of new fiber funded from the 5G Fund and a partner can pick up new fiber at a fraction of the cost of building the route alone. This could be the simplest form of partnership where each party owns some pairs in a joint fiber.

This is worth considering for anybody already thinking about building rural fiber. The new routes don’t have to be backhaul fiber and could instead be a rural route that is part of a county-wide build-out or fiber being built by an electric cooperative. If somebody is considering building fiber into an area that has poor cellular coverage, the chances are that there will be 5G Fund money coming to that same area.

It has always been challenging to create these kinds of partnerships with AT&T and Verizon, although I am aware of some such partnerships. Both Sprint and T-Mobile have less rural coverage than the other carriers and might be more amenable to considering partnerships – but they might be consumed by the possibility of their merger.

There are a lot of other cellular carriers. The CTIA, the trade association for the larger cellular carriers, has thirty members that are facility-based cellular providers. The Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) has over one hundred members.

Ideally, a deal can be made to share fiber before the reverse auction for the 5G Fund. Any carrier that has a partner for a given route will have a bidding advantage since cost-sharing with a partner will lower the cost of building new fiber. It might be possible to find partnerships after the auction, but there could be restrictions on the newly built assets as part of the grants – we don’t know yet.

My recommendation is that if you are already planning to build rural fiber that you look around to see if one of the cellular carriers might be interested in serving the same area. Both parties can benefit through a cost-sharing partnership – but the real winners are rural customers that gain access to better cellular service and better broadband.

The Upcoming 5G Confusion

Until now the 5G industry has spread a lot of hype, but it hasn’t affected customers. That’s all starting to change as the cellular carriers are starting to offer 5G phones. Many customers who spend extra for 5G phones are going to quickly be frustrated and disappointed as they try to participate in the new 5G world.

Consider both AT&T and T-Mobile. Both companies are introducing both a low-band and a high-band 5G phone and customers who want 5G will have to choose one of the two options because the carriers don’t offer a phone that handles both new sets of spectrum.

In AT&T’s case, the low-band phone will introduce 850 MHz spectrum while the high-band phone will use millimeter wave spectrum. The T-Mobile low-band phone will use 600 MHz spectrum with the high-band phone will use millimeter wave spectrum.

Customers buying any of these phones are likely to be disappointed. The high-band phones only work outdoors and when a customer is within range of a handful of millimeter wave hotspots, which are mostly in downtown areas of major cities. Unless somebody has a job that keeps them outside within a small downtown urban footprint, the new high-band phones will default to 4G LTE. Even where a customer is within range of the millimeter wave spectrum it’s been reported that the signal gets easily blocked when a customer turns a corner around a building or even sometimes when the customer’s body blocks the path to the cell site.

Customers of the low-band phones are also likely to be disappointed. The two new low-band spectrums being used are great at penetrating buildings, and so data coverage might improve indoors. However, low-band spectrum, by definition, doesn’t carry a lot of bandwidth. A customer with a low-band 5G phone will likely get data speeds similar to 4G LTE. That is predicated upon living or working close to cell sites that have been upgraded to the new low-band spectrum – because many cell sites won’t yet carry the new spectrum.

There might be a short period of time where a customer with a low-band phone sees better performance – but that will be because they will be one of the few users of the new spectrum. As the more people use the new spectrum bands, the performance will look like that in similar bands of spectrum. I remember how early customers with 4G LTE praised the fast speeds, but those fast speeds fell back to normal within a short period of time.

The real bang with low-band spectrum will come in a few years after the cellular carriers perfect and integrate dynamic spectrum sharing into the 5G architecture. This is one of the new 5G features that let the cellular carriers combine multiple frequencies into a single data path to a customer. Today, a customer with one of the low-band phones will either be using the new low-band spectrum or traditional 4G LTE spectrum – but not both at the same time. The other benefit of the lower spectrum bands is that the spectrum will travel farther from a cell site, albeit at slower speeds.

The new phones will be confusing to customers for another reason – customers won’t be able to use these new phones to change carriers. A phone that can receive AT&T’s 850 MHz spectrum is not going to receive T-Mobile’s 600 MHz spectrum. A customer changing carriers with one of the new phones is going to only get traditional 4G LTE at a different carrier. This is going to become the new norm for the next decade as the carriers start using drastically different bands of spectrum.

Unfortunately, the cellular companies aren’t being straight with customers and are touting these new phones as high-performance 5G. The phones are not yet 5G since they don’t incorporate the best new features of the 5G standards – instead, they are 4G LTE phones that are adding new choices of spectrum. Perhaps the new phones can be labeled as 4.1 G, but I think even that would be generous.

The other big problem with the first generation of phones is that they will be obsolete once the carriers start adding the new 5G functions. 5G has a lot of great features coming including dynamic spectrum sharing (combines multiple frequencies), frequency slicing (gives each customer a data connection to match what they are trying to do), and the ability to connect to more than one cellular tower. This is going to be a problem between now and the time that 5G is mature – any 5G phone already in use won’t be able to handle any new feature as it’s introduced. Every 5G phone sold for the next decade will almost instantly be obsolete in terms of not being able to use new features.

I’m not sure why anybody would shell out extra to buy a 5G phones today. There might be a few people that have a specific reason to use the new spectrum and who happen to live in the right place to be able to use it. However, the vast majority of people are going to be disappointed since they are likely to have paid extra for a phone that’s still going to be 4G LTE. I know people like bragging rights by having the latest tech toy – but somebody buying a 5G phone is more of a sucker than an innovator. They will have bought into the carriers’ 5G hype – hook, line, and sinker.

T-Mobile Offering Broadband Solutions

As part of the push to get approval for the proposed merger with Sprint, T-Mobile pledged that it will offer low-cost data plans, give free 5G to first responders and provide free broadband access to underserved households with school students. These offers are all dependent upon regulators and the states approving the merger.

The low-price broadband plans might be attractive to those who don’t use a lot of cellular data. The lowest-price plan offers 2 GB of data for $15 monthly. The price is guaranteed for 5 years and the data cap grows by 500 MB per year to reach 4 GB in the fifth year. The second plan offers 5 GB for $25 and also grows by 500 Mb per year to reach 7 GB by the fifth year. I assume adding voice and texting is extra.

The offer for free phones for first responders is just that. T-Mobile will offer free voice, texting, and data to first responders for 10 years. There will be no throttling of data and data will always get priority. The company estimates that this would save $7.7 billion nationwide for first responders over the ten years if they all switch to T-Mobile. Not surprisingly the other carriers are already unhappy with this offer, particularly AT&T which is busy building the nationwide FirstNet first responder network. This may be a somewhat hollow offer. The FirstNet network has some major advantages such as automatically interconnecting responders from different jurisdictions. But at least some local governments are going to be attracted to free cellular service.

The offer for school students is intriguing. For the next five years, the company is offering 100 GB per month of downloaded data to eligible student households. The company will also provide a free WiFi hotspot that converts the cellular data into WiFi for home use. T-Mobile estimates that roughly 10 million households would be eligible. Studies have shown that cost is the reason that many homes with students don’t have home broadband. In urban areas, the T-Mobile effort could largely eliminate the homework gap, at least for five years. That would give the country five years to find a more permanent solution. While T-Mobile would also help in rural America, many rural homes are not in range of a T-Mobile tower capable of delivering enough broadband to be meaningful. However, in many cases, this offer would be bringing broadband for homework to homes with no other broadband alternatives.

If the merger goes through, T-Mobile plans to mobilize the big inventory of 2.5 GHz spectrum owned by Sprint as well as activating 600 MHz spectrum. These are interesting spectrum, particularly the 600 MHz. This spectrum is great at penetrating buildings and can reach deep into most buildings. The spectrum also carries far, up to 10 miles from a transmitter. However, compared to higher frequencies, the 600 MHz spectrum won’t carry as much data. Further, data speeds decrease with distance from a cell sites and the data speeds past a few miles are likely to be pretty slow.

This plan makes me wonder how allowing millions of students onto the cellular network for homework will affect cell sites. Will some cell sites bog down when kids are all connected to the school networks to do homework?

I further wonder if the promise to offer free broadband to students also comes with a promise to supply enough backhaul bandwidth to poor neighborhoods to support the busy networks. Without good backhaul, the free bandwidth might be unusable at peak hours. I don’t mean to denigrate an offer that might mean a broadband solution for millions of kids – but I’ve also learned over the years that free doesn’t always mean good.

I’ve seen where a few states like New York are still against the merger, so there is no guarantee it’s going to happen. It sounds like the courts will have to decide. I suspect these offers will be withdrawn if the decision is made by courts rather than by the states.

A New Cellular Carrier?

One of the most interesting aspects of the proposed merger of Sprint and T-Mobile is that the agreement now includes selling some of Sprint’s spectrum to Dish Networks to enable them to become a 5G cellular provider. This arrangement is part of the compromise required by the Department of Justice to preserve industry competition when the major wireless carriers shrink from four to three.

This agreement would have Dish Networks paying $5 billion for the spectrum assets, which complement the spectrum already owned by Dish. The agreement also includes an MVNO agreement between Dish Networks and T-Mobile that would let Dish enter the cellular market immediately before having to build any network. As part of that arrangement, Dish would purchase Boost Mobile from T-Mobile for $1.4 billion, providing them with an immediate base of cellular customers.

Dish already owns spectrum valued at several billion dollars. The company has been under pressure from the FCC to deploy that spectrum, and Dish recently began building a nationwide narrowband network to support IoT sensors. The company admits they are not happy with the IoT sensor business plan but didn’t want to lose their spectrum. Perhaps the best aspect of this deal from Dish’s perspective is that they are being given a new time clock to use existing spectrum in a more profitable way.

This deal has plenty of critics who don’t believe that Dish can turn into a viable competitor. This includes numerous consumer groups as well as a group of state Attorney Generals who have filed to block the merger. The merger is far from a done deal and is going to court, although it has crossed the major hurdles of getting DOJ approval and informal approval from the FCC.

Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen says the company is ready to become the fourth facility-based cellular carrier in the market. He thinks that launching with a new 5G network will provide some advantages over carriers that will be upgrading older networks. The company faces some significant challenges such as gaining access to tower space in crowded markets. The other cellular carriers have also been busy and have invested significant amounts of capital in building fiber to support cellular small cell sites.

The challenge of building a new nationwide cellular network from scratch is intimidating. As a satellite provider, the company does not already operate an extensive landline network. The logistics of hiring the needed talent and constructing the core network infrastructure is a major challenge. A few years ago Dish had estimated the cost to build a nationwide cellular network at $10 billion. The company says they have already released an RFI and an RFP to start the process of hiring contractors to build the new network.

Ergen says the company could build the core network in 2020 and could construct a network to cover 70% of the homes in the country by 2023. As far as being competitive, Dish says they would enter the market with ‘disruptive’ pricing to capture market share.

Dish needs something like this if it is to survive. The company lost over 1.1 million satellite TV customers last year, a little over 10% of its customer base. It looks like cord cutting is accelerating this year and one has to wonder how long they will remain as a viable business.

Interestingly, Dish won’t be the only new competitor in the cellular market. Comcast recently spent over $1.7 billion on spectrum. The company has been reselling cellular service and offering low-price broadband as part of its bundle for the last few years. The company reporting hitting 1.2 million cellular customers at the beginning of this year. While Comcast is not likely to tackle building a nationwide network, they could become a formidable competitor in the urban markets where they are already the cable provider. Other cellular companies like Charter and Altice are considering a similar path.

Cellular Broadband Speeds – 2019

Opensignal recently released their latest report on worldwide cellular data speeds. The company examined over 139 billion cellphone connections in 87 countries in creating this latest report.

South Korea continues to have the fastest cellular coverage in the world with an average download speed of 52.4 Mbps. Norway is second at 48.2 Mbps and Canada third at 42.5 Mbps. The US was far down the list in 30th place with an average download speed of 21.3 Mbps. Our other neighbor Mexico had an average download speed of 14.9 Mbps. At the bottom of the list are Iraq (1.6 Mbps), Algeria (2.1 Mbps) and Nepal (4.4 Mbps). Note that these average speeds represent all types of cellular data connections including 2G and 3G.

Cellular broadband speeds have been improving raoidly in most countries. For instance, in the 2017 report, Opensignal showed South Korea at 37.5 Mbps and Norway at 34.8 Mbps. The US in 2017 was in 36th place at only 12.5 Mbps.

Earlier this year Opensignal released their detailed report about the state of mobile broadband in the United States. This report looks at speeds by carrier and also by major metropolitan area. The US cellular carriers have made big strides just since 2017. The following table compares download speeds for 4G LTE by US carrier for 2017 and 2019.

2019 2017
Download Latency Download Latency
AT&T 17.8 Mbps 57.8 ms 12.9 Mbps 63.8 ms
Sprint 13.9 Mbps 70.0 ms 9.8 Mbps 70.1 ms
T-Mobile 21.1 Mbps 60.6 ms 17.5 Mbps 62.8 ms
Verizon 20.9 Mbps 62.6 ms 14.9 Mbps 67.3 ms

Speeds are up across the board. Sprint increased speeds over the two years by 40%. Latency for 4G is still relatively high. For comparison, fiber-to-the-home networks have latency in the range of 10 ms and coaxial cable networks have latency between 25 – 40 ms. The poor latency in cellular networks is one of the reasons why browsing the web on a cellphone seems so slow. (the other reason is that cellphone browsers focus on graphics rather than speed).

Cellular upload speeds are still slow. In the 2019 tests, the average upload speeds were AT&T (4.6 Mbps), Sprint (2.4 Mbps), T-Mobile (6.7 Mbps) and Verizon (7.0 Mbps).

Speeds vary widely by carrier and city. The fastest cellular broadband market identified in the 2019 tests was T-Mobile in Grand Rapids, Michigan with an average 4G speed of 38.3 Mbps. The fastest upload speed was provided by Verizon in New York City at 12.5 Mbps. Speeds vary by market for several reasons. First, the carriers don’t deploy the same spectrum everywhere in the US, so some markets have less spectrum than others. Markets vary in speed due to the state of upgrades – at any given time cell sites are at different levels of software and hardware upgrades. Finally, markets also vary by cell tower density and markets that serve more customers for each tower are likely to be slower.

Many people routinely take speed tests for their home landline broadband connection. If you’ve not taken a cellular speed test it’s an interesting experience. I’ve always found that speeds vary significantly with each speed test, even when run back-to-back As I was writing this blog I took several speed tests that varied in download speeds between 12 Mbps and 23 Mbps (I use AT&T). My upload speeds also varied with a top speed of 3 Mbps, and one test that couldn’t maintain the upload connection and measured 0.1 Mbps on the test. While landlines broadband connections maintain a steady connection to an ISP, a cellphone establishes a new connection every time you try to download and speeds can vary depending upon the cell site and the channel your phone connects to and the overall traffic at the cell site at the time of connection. Cellular speeds can also be affected by temperature, precipitation and all of those factors that make wireless coverage a bit squirrelly.

It’s going to be a few years until we see any impact on the speed test results from 5G. As you can see by comparing to other countries, the US still has a long way to go to bring 4G networks up to snuff. One of the most interesting aspects of 5G is that speed tests might lose some of their importance. With frequency slicing, a cell site will size a data channel to meet a specific customer need. Somebody downloading a large software update should be assigned a bigger data channel with 5G than somebody who’s just keeping up with sports scores. It will be interesting to see how Opensignal accounts for data slicing.

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.

City Authority in Rights-of-Way

The California Supreme Court just joined the fray in the battle over the placement of small cells and other wireless equipment in public rights-of-ways. Currently, there are numerous lawsuits challenging the FCC ruling that wireless carriers can put their devices anywhere in the public rights-of-way. The California lawsuit preceded that order and was asking if a City has the right to dictate the appearance of wireless electronics.

We’ve recently seen wireless carriers hanging some fairly hideous devices on poles. The FCC order allows them to hang devices as large as 28 cubic feet, and that’s large enough to hang devices that sprawl across the sightlines on poles. Cities look at some of the early examples of devices on poles and are fearful of the proliferation of similar devices as each large wireless carrier and others begin hanging small cells and 5G fixed wireless loop devices.

The original suit came from T-Mobile that claimed that San Francisco had no authority to set aesthetics requirements for wireless devices. It is an interesting challenge because government entities have been dictating aesthetics requirements for years – such as cell sites one sees all over Florida that are disguised to look like palm trees – but which never do.

My guess is that T-Mobile has been emboldened by the recent federal law that guarantees wireless carriers access to utility poles, light poles and other locations inside of public rights-of-way. The FCC order effectively tells municipalities that they can’t reject requests to place devices and I’m guessing T-Mobile hoped that meant that cities had no authority over them.

T-Mobile relied on language in section 7901 of the California public utilities code:

Telegraph or telephone corporations may construct lines of telegraph or telephone lines along and upon any public road or highway, along or across any of the waters or lands within this State, and may erect poles, posts, piers, or abutments for supporting the insulators, wires, and other necessary fixtures of their lines, in such manner and at such points as not to incommode the public use of the road or highway or interrupt the navigation of the waters. (I must admit that one of the reasons I like to read legal cases is the language used in laws. This one uses the term incommode which means to inconvenience or impede.)

T-Mobile interpreted that law to mean that they have the right to construct facilities as long as they don’t obstruct the transmission path. They further argued that San Francisco could not regulate anything that is not specifically allowed by this same language.

The courts disagreed with T-Mobile’s reading of the law. The courts said that a city has inherent local authority to determine the appropriate use of land within its jurisdiction. That authority includes the right to establish aesthetic conditions for land use. The Court said the case boiled down to whether Section 7901 somehow divested the city of that inherent authority.

The Courts also said that T-Mobile’s interpretation of the term incommode was incorrect, in that T-Mobile thought they could hang a wireless device anywhere as long as they didn’t impede public road use or the ability of other utilities to use the poles. The Courts said that incommoded generally means inconvenience and that the city could object to a pole placement if it inconvenienced the city in other ways such as generating noise, causing negative health consequences, or creating safety concerns.

While the California ruling was very specific and ruled that the City of San Francisco could require wireless carriers to meet aesthetic requirements, the ruling and the discussion in the decision can be interpreted as being directly in opposition of the FCC order that allows wireless carriers to place small cells anywhere they want, without city interference.

Lawsuits generally rely on precedents and judges often consider rulings made in other courts on similar issues. It seems likely that this California Supreme Court ruling is going to make it into the challenges to the FCC ruling that preempted local control over small cell placement. That FCC ruling loses its teeth if cities can consider things like public safety or the safety of technicians that work on poles.

Wireless carriers are currently acting as if the FCC order is a done deal, even as it is being challenged by numerous states and cities. I’ve heard several people refer to carrier behavior as a land grab, where the carriers are grabbing connection space on poles even when they have no immediate use for them – they are getting on poles before courts might make it harder to do so. This Supreme Court ruling makes it clear that the small cell issue is far from resolved and we’re probably going to be following this in courts for at least a few more years.

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.

5G vs. WiFi

The big cellular carriers envision a future where every smart device is connected to their cellular networks rather than to WiFi. They envision every home having to pay a monthly subscription to maintain connectivity for their wired devices. They envision every new car and truck coming with a subscription to cellular service.

I notice that the cellular providers talk about generating IoT revenues, but they’re never specific that the real vision is for everybody to buy additional cellular subscriptions. Most IoT applications will be low-bandwidth yet the carriers have been spreading the false message that 5G is all about faster broadband. I just saw another ludicrous article yesterday predicting how 5G was going to bring mobile gigabit broadband to rural America – a pure fantasy that is being fed by the public relations machines at Verizon and AT&T.

We aren’t seeing much press about the most important aspect of the new 5G specifications – that each cell site will be able to make up to 100,000 simultaneous connections. This isn’t being done for cellphones. It’s rare these days except in a few over-crowded places for a cellular call not to be connected. Placing a few small cell sites at the busiest places in most cities could solve most cellular bottlenecks without an upgrade to 5G.

The 100,000 connections give the wireless carriers the tool that can make a connection to every smart TV, smart washer and dryer, home video camera, burglar alarm sensor and every other wired device in a home. The big carriers are launching a direct challenge to WiFi as the wireless technology of choice for connecting our devices.

AT&T and Verizon envision every home having a new $10, $20 or $30 subscription to keep all of the devices connected. They also envision becoming the repository of all IoT data – moving them in front of Google and others in the chase for collecting the big data that drives advertising revenues. This is something they definitely don’t talk about.

It doesn’t take much of a thought exercise to understand that 5G is not about faster cellular service. Cellular subscribers will gladly take faster cellular broadband, but they probably aren’t willing to pay more for it. T-Mobile is already making that clear by announcing that they won’t charge more for 5G. The carriers are not going to spend tens of billions to implement 5G cellular technology that doesn’t drive the new revenues needed to pay for it. 5G is about IoT, plain and simple.

Today all of our home devices use WiFi. While WiFi is far from perfect, it seems to do an adequate job in connecting to the video camera at the front door, the smart TV, and the sensors in various appliances and devices around the home. WiFi has a few major advantages over cellular broadband – it’s already in our homes and connected to our devices and doesn’t require an additional monthly subscription.

I think people will resist another forced subscription. HP recently reported that the vast majority of their customers that buy 4G LTE-enabled laptops disable the cellular connection almost as soon as the new computer is out of the box. In this day of cellphones, very few car owners sign-up for the cellular subscription for OnStar when the free trial expires. I know that I personally would not buy a home device that eventually needed another cellular subscription to function.

The cellular carriers make a valid point in saying that WiFi is already growing inadequate for busy homes. But there are already short-term and long-term fixes on the way. The short-term fix is the upcoming migration to WiFi 6 using the 802.11ax standard. The new WiFi will better use MIMO antennas, frequency slicing and other techniques to allow for prioritization of devices and a more reliable connection to multiple devices.

The ultimate indoor broadband network will be a combination of WiFi and millimeter wave, or even faster spectrum. Higher frequency spectrum could provide bandwidth for the devices that use big bandwidth while keeping other devices on mid-range spectrum WiFi – getting the best from both sets of spectrum. That combination will allow for the easy integration, without interference for the connection of gigabit devices and also of tiny sensors that only communicate sporadically.

This is not the future that AT&T and Verizon want, because this is a world controlled by consumers who buy the wireless boxes that best suit them. I envision a future indoor-only wireless network that won’t require licensed spectrum or a cellular subscription since the millimeter waves and other higher frequencies won’t pass outdoors through walls.

The cellular carriers will have a monopoly on the outdoor sensor market. They will undoubtedly make the connections to smart cars, to smart agriculture, and to outdoor smart city sensors. But I think they will have a huge uphill battle convincing households to pay another monthly subscription for something that can be done better using a few well-placed routers.

The Slow Deployment of 5G

Somebody asked me a few days ago why I write so much about 5G. My response is that I am intrigued by the 5G hype. The major players in the industry have been devoting big dollars to promote a technology that is still mostly vaporware. The most interesting thing about 5G is how politicians, regulators and the public have bought into the hype. I’ve never seen anything like it. I can remember other times when the world was abuzz over a new technology, but this was usually a reaction to an actual technology you could buy like the first laptop computers, the first iPhone and the first iPod.

Anybody that understands our industry knew that it will take a number of years to roll out any major new technology, particularly a wireless technology since wireless behaves differently in the field compared to the lab. We’re only a year past the release of 5G standards, and it’s unrealistic to think those standards could be translated into operation hardware and software systems in such a short time. You only have to look back at the history of 4G, which started as slowly as 5G and which finally had the first fully-compliant 4G cell site late last year.  It’s going to take just as long until we see a fully functional 5G cell site. What we will see, over time, is the incremental introduction of some of the aspects of 5G as they get translated from lab to the field. That rollout is further complicated for cellular use by the timeline needed to get 5G-ready handsets into peoples’ hands.

This blog was prompted by a Verizon announcement that 5G mobile services will be coming to 30 cities later this year. Of course, the announcement was short on details, because those details would probably be embarrassing for Verizon. I would expect that the company will introduce a tiny few aspects of 5G into the cell sites in business districts of major cities and claim that as a 5G roll-out.

What does that a roll-out this year mean for cellular customers? There are not yet any 5G capable cellphones. Both AT&T and Verizon have been working with Samsung to introduce a 5G version of their S10 phone later this year. Verizon has also been reported to be working with Lenovo for a 5G modular upgrade later this year. I’m guessing these phones are going to come with a premium price tag for the early adaptors willing to pay for 5G bragging rights. These phones will only work as 5G from the handful of cell sites with 5G gear – and that will only be for a tiny subset of the 5G specifications. I remember when one of my friends bought one of the first 4G phones and crowed about how it worked in downtown DC. At the time I told him his great performance was because he was probably the only guy using 4G – and sure enough, his performance dropped as others joined the new technology.

On the same day that I saw this Verizon announcement I also saw a prediction by Cisco that only 3% of cellular connections will occur over a 5G network by the end of 2022. This might be the best thing I’ve seen that pops the 5G hype. Even for folks buying the early 5G phones, there will be a dearth of cell sites around the country that will work with 5G for a number of years. Anybody who understands the lifecycle of cellular upgrades agrees with the Cisco timeline. It takes years to work through the cycle of upgrading cell sites, upgrading handsets and then getting those handsets to the public.

The same is true for the other technologies that are also being called 5G. Verizon made a huge splash just a few months ago about introducing 5G broadband using millimeter wave spectrum in four cities. Even at the time of that announcement, it was clear that those radios were not using the 5G standard, and Verizon quietly announced recently that they were ceasing those deployments while they wait for actual 5G technology. Those deployments were actually a beta test of millimeter wave radios, not the start of a rapid nationwide deployment of 5G broadband from poles.

AT&T had an even more ludicrous announcement at the end of 2018 where they announced 5G broadband that involved deployment of WiFi hotspots that were supposedly fed by 5G. However, this was a true phantom product for which they had no pricing and that nobody could order. And since no AT&T cell sites have been upgraded to 5G, one had to wonder how this involved any 5G technology. It’s clear this was technology roll-out by press release only so that they could have the bragging rights of saying they were the first ones to have 5G.

The final announcement I saw on that same day was one by T-Mobile saying they would begin deploying early 5G in cell sites in 2020. But the real news is that they aren’t planning on charging any more for any extra 5G speeds or features.

I come back to my original question about why I write about 5G so often. A lot of my clients ask me if they should be worried about 5G and I don’t have an answer for them. I can see that actual 5G technology is going to take a lot longer to come to market than the big carriers would have you believe. But I look at T-Mobile’s announcement on price and I also have to wonder what the cellular companies will really do once 5G works. Will AT&T and Verizon both spend billions to put 5G small cells in residential neighborhoods if it doesn’t drive any new cellular revenues? I have to admit that I’m skeptical – we’re going to have to wait to see what the carriers do rather than listen to what they say.