Regulation - What is it Good For?

Right to Place Telecom Infrastructure

There was an interesting legal decision recently from the United States District for the Eastern District of New York that found that the Village of Flower Hill, NY had the right to deny ExteNet, an agent of Verizon Wireless, from placing small cell sites within the Village. The decision raises some interesting legal and other issues about telecom infrastructure.

The facts are straightforward. ExteNet was hired by Verizon Wireless to place 66 small cells site in and around the Village, including 18 within the Village, for the stated purpose of strengthening the existing 4GLTE network. ExteNet and the Village went through several rounds of negotiations on the appearance of the small cell sites, but ultimately, the Village denied the request. One of the primary reasons for the denial is that the Village didn’t see any evidence of current gaps in 4GLTE cellular coverage.

As has happened with many similar suits, the case boiled down to language included in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 – language that has been described in some cases as ambiguous. ExteNet cited the provisions of the Act that says that no state or local government shall prohibit the ability of an entity to provide any interstate or intrastate telecommunications service. The Village countered with language also from the Act that says that the FCC cannot preempt the rights of state or local governments to manage the public rights-of-way in a competitively neutral and nondiscriminatory manner.

The Court ultimately decided in favor of the Village using additional language from the Act that says that any denial for the placement of telecommunications infrastructure must be supported by substantial evidence. The Court ultimately decided that one of the reasons given by the Village to deny the permitting request could be construed as substantial evidence – that there was already sufficient 4G cellular coverage in the Village.

Interestingly, it doesn’t seem like the case invoked what I think are the strongest arguments for the Village. The case was decided because the Court decided that there was no evidence that Verizon needed the new network to bolster cellular voice traffic – a telecommunications service.

What the case didn’t say, and I’m sure that ExeNet wasn’t allowed to raise by Verizon, is that the purpose of the new small cell sites is not to improve voice service – the network expansion is to introduce and bolster Verizon’s cellular broadband FWA network so that the company can provide commercial broadband to homes and businesses. The reason ExteNet wouldn’t want to raise that issue is that broadband is currently not considered a telecommunications service due to the actions of the Ajit Pai FCC that eliminated Title II regulation over broadband.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 does not provide any rights to expand broadband networks since it only gives those rights for expanding telecommunications services. Had this issue been raised, the Court would have had an easier time denying the expansion of the Verizon network.

This raises all sorts of uncomfortable issues for the industry. First, Verizon would have been better off in this case if the Ajit Pai FCC had not eliminated broadband regulation. If broadband was still a telecommunications service, and if Verizon claimed the new network was to bolster broadband, I don’t think the Court would have had any choice other than to rule in favor of ExteNet and Verizon. This case is another example of the trickle-down impact of declaring that broadband is not a telecommunications service. With this court ruling, communities across the country can feel emboldened to deny the placement of small cell networks built to bring broadband.

But this raises an even more uncomfortable issue. Are local communities able to deny the construction of any new broadband infrastructure? That could mean fiber or the wireless infrastructure in this example. If broadband is not a telecommunications service, then all of the parts of the Act that allow for access to rights-of-ways would not be operative. A community would just need to declare that the community already has sufficient broadband to deny permitting requests. I hate to even think where that line of reasoning might go.

Of course, the opposite is also true and the above arguments all get reversed if the current FCC is able to somehow reinstitute Title II authority for broadband, something that Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel says the FCC has the power to do (if it seats the fifth Commissioner).

As I’ve argued many times, it does the country no good to be on this regulatory yoyo where broadband is declared to be telecommunications and then not, depending upon the philosophy of the party with the most votes at the FCC. That is no way to regulate such a giant industry. For now, there is a gaping hole in the ability of ISPs to know they have the right to build broadband in a community – this case says that the community can deny them if there is evidence to support the denial. The evidence could be something as simple as not wanting construction that disturbs the paved streets.

The Industry

The Quiet Growth of the Quad Play

A few years ago, some of the largest cable companies announced they were getting into the cellular business. At the time, this got a tiny amount of press but overall the press didn’t take these companies seriously or consider them to be potential major players in the cellular business.

Comcast Charter and Altice have quietly been adding cellular customers over the last three years.

  • Comcast recently reported that the company added 216,000 cellular lines during the first quarter of 2020, bringing their total lines to 2.3 million.
  • Charter added 290,000 customers in the first quarter, bringing the company to 1.4 million mobile lines.
  • Altice added 41,000 customers in the first quarter, bringing them to 110,000 mobile lines.

These growth and total customer numbers may not sound spectacular but consider that in the first quarter saw AT&T add a small number of net customers and Verizon lose a small number of net customers. These three cable companies are definitely eating into the market growth of the big carriers. Craig Moffett, the leading analyst for the communications sector declared last December that the cable companies must be considered as serious players in the cellular space.

For now, all three companies are acting as MVNOs and are purchasing wholesale cellular minutes and data from the big cellular carriers. But that won’t last forever. Comcast has made it clear that the company is in the wireless game for the long-haul. The company purchased $1.7 billion in white space spectrum in the Philadelphia market in 2017 and said that it will be bidding in the upcoming CMRS auction.

A company like Comcast doesn’t need to worry about rolling out a big national network like Dish Networks is tackling. Comcast can improve margins on the cellular business by selectively deploying cell sites in parts of markets where they have the highest traffic volumes. Comcast should be able to deploy small cells selectively in their major urban markets and be able to peel a lot of minutes off the MVNO arrangements where it makes sense. That would significantly increase their margins.

The cable companies have something in their favor that the cellular companies can’t match – the ability to bundle inexpensive cellular service in with products that customers value like home broadband. Each of the three cable companies is only offering cellular to existing customers.

Consider the Comcast plan. It’s only available to Comcast broadband customers. Customers have a choice of four data plans 1 GB for $15 per month, 3 GB for $30 per month, $10 GB for $60 per month, or unlimited data for $45 per phone. All of these plans include unlimited calling and texting. A customer can add up to 5 devices for a plan, and that can include phones for multiple family members, tablets, etc.

I have a friend who bought the Comcast plan when it first came out and it cut her family’s cellphone bills in half. The quality is as good as when they were AT&T subscribers, and their usage is likely still riding the AT&T network.

The big cellular companies have stopped growing. They’ve seen cellular prices drop over the last two years and their revenue per customer is dropping. AT&T and Verizon will start feeling real pain if the cellular companies continue to take more than half a million customers per quarter. The two companies are faced with T-Mobile greatly expanding its number of cell sites to meet the terms of the merger with Sprint. And both companies have to worried about seeing Dish Networks hit the market in two years or so with the most modern 5G network that will be software-driven.

Americans love bundles and it’s likely that the word will continue to spread that cable companies can save them money on their cellular plan. As word of mouth continues to spread that the cable companies are in the business to stay, these companies are likely to accelerate customer acquisition. The FCC was worried about losing Sprint from the market and made the T-Mobile merger contingent upon having Dish enter the cellular business. I’m guessing they didn’t take the competition from the cable companies seriously – but over time we are likely to see real competition for our cellular business.

Technology The Industry

Do Cable Companies Have a Wireless Advantage?

The big wireless companies have been wrangling for years with the issues associated with placing small cells on poles. Even with new FCC rules in their favor, they are still getting a lot of resistance from communities. Maybe the future of urban/suburban wireless lies with the big cable companies. Cable companies have a few major cost advantages over the wireless companies including the ability to bypass the pole issue.

The first advantage is the ability to deploy mid-span cellular small cells. These are cylindrical devices that can be placed along the coaxial cable between poles. I could not find a picture of these devices and the picture accompanying this article is of a strand-mounted fiber splice box – but it’s s good analogy since the size and shape of the strand-mounted small cell device is approximately the same size and shape.

Strand-mounted small cells provide a cable company with a huge advantage. First, they don’t need to go through the hassle of getting access to poles and they avoid paying the annual fees to rent space on poles. They also avoid the issue of fiber backhaul since each unit can get broadband using a DOCSIS 3.1 modem connection. The cellular companies don’t talk about backhaul a lot when they discuss small cells, but since they don’t own fiber everywhere, they will be paying a lot of money to other parties to transport broadband to the many small cells they are deploying.

The cable companies also benefit because they could quickly deploy small cells anywhere they have coaxial cable on poles. In the future when wireless networks might need to be very dense the cable companies could deploy a small cell between every pair of poles. If the revenue benefits of providing small cells is great enough, this could even prompt the cable companies to expand the coaxial network to nearby neighborhoods that might not otherwise meet their density tests, which for most cable companies is to only build where there are at least 15 to 20 potential customers per linear mile of cable.

The cable companies have another advantage over the cellular carriers in that they have already deployed a vast WiFi network comprised of customer WiFi modems. Comcast claims to have 19 million WiFi hotspots. Charter has a much smaller 500,000 hotspots but could expand that count quickly if needed. Altice is reportedly investing in WiFi hotspots as well. The big advantage of WiFi hotspots is that the broadband capacity of the hotspots can be tapped to act as landline backhaul for cellular data and even voice calls.

The biggest cable companies are already benefitting from WiFi backhaul today. Comcast just reported to investors that they added 204,000 wireless customers in the third quarter of 2019 and now have almost 1.8 million wireless customers. Charter is newer to the wireless business and added 276,000 wireless customers in the third quarter and now has almost 800,000 wireless customers.

Both companies are buying wholesale cellular capacity from Verizon under an MVNO contract. Any cellular minute or cellular data they can backhaul with WiFi doesn’t have to be purchased from Verizon. If the companies build small cells, they would further free themselves from the MVNO arrangement – another cost savings.

A final advantage for the cable companies is that they are deploying small cell networks where they already have a workforce to maintain the network. Bother AT&T and Verizon have laid off huge numbers of workers over the last few years and no longer have the fleets of technicians in all of the markets where they need to deploy cellular networks. These companies are faced with adding technicians where their network is expanding from a few big-tower cell sites to vast networks of small cells.

The cable companies don’t have nearly as much spectrum as they wireless companies, but they might not need it. The cable companies will likely buy spectrum in the upcoming CBRS auction and the other mid-range spectrum auctions over the next few years. They can use the 80 MHz of free CBRS spectrum that’s available everywhere.

These advantages equate to a big cost advantage for the cable companies. They save on speed to market and avoid paying for pole-mounted small cells. Their networks can provide the needed backhaul for practically free. They can offload a lot of cellular data through the customer WiFi hotspots. And the cable companies already have a staff to maintain the small cell sites. At least in the places that have aerial coaxial networks, the cellular companies should have higher margins than the cellular companies and should be formidable competitors.

Regulation - What is it Good For? What Customers Want

When Customers Use Their Data

In a recent disturbing announcement ,Verizon Wireless will be disconnecting service to 8,500 rural customers this month for using too much data on their cellphones. The customers are scattered around 13 states and are a mix those with both unlimited and limited data plans.

Verizon justifies this because these customers are using data where Verizon has no direct cell towers, meaning that these customers are roaming on cellular data networks owned by somebody else. Since Verizon pays for roaming the company say that these customers are costing them more in roaming charges than what the company collects in monthly subscription fees.

Verizon may well have a good business case for discontinuing these particular data customers if they are losing money on each customer. But the act of disconnecting them opens up a lot of questions and ought to be a concern to cellular customers everywhere.

This immediately raises the question of ‘carrier of last resort’. This is a basic principle of utility regulation that says that utilities, such as traditional incumbent telephone companies, must reasonably connect to everybody within their service territory. Obviously cellular customers don’t fall under this umbrella since the industry is competitive and none of the cellular companies have assigned territories.

But the lines between cellular companies and telcos are blurring. As AT&T and Verizon take down rural copper they are offering customers a wireless alternative. But in doing so they are shifting these customers from being served by a regulated telco to a cellular company that doesn’t have any carrier of last resort obligations. And that means that once converted to cellular that Verizon or AT&T would be free to then cut these customers loose at any time and for any reason. That should scare anybody that loses their rural copper lines.

Secondly, this raises the whole issue of Title II regulation. In 2015 the FCC declared that broadband is a regulated service, and that includes cellular data. This ruling brought cable companies and wireless companies under the jurisdiction of the FCC as common carriers. And that means that customers in this situation might have grounds for fighting back against what Verizon is doing. The FCC has the jurisdiction to regulate and to intervene in these kinds of situations if they regulate the ISPs as common carriers. But the current FCC is working hard to reverse that ruling and it’s doubtful they would tackle this case even if it was brought before them.

Probably the most disturbing thing about this is that it’s scary for these folks being disconnected. Rural homes do not want to use cellular data as their only broadband connection because it’s some of the most expensive broadband in the world. But many rural homes have no choice since this is their only broadband alternative to do the things they need to do with broadband. While satellite data is available almost everywhere, the incredibly high latency on satellite data means that it can’t be used for things like maintaining a connection to a school server to do homework or to connect to a work server to work at home.

One only has to look at rural cellular networks to understand the dilemma many of these 8,500 households might face. The usable distance for a data connection from a cellular tower is only a few miles at best, much like the circles around a DSL hub. It is not hard to imagine that many of these customers actually live within range of a Verizon tower but still roam on other networks.

Cellular roaming is an interesting thing. Every time you pick up your cellphone to make a voice or data connection, your phone searches for the strongest signal available and grabs it. This means that the phones of rural customers that don’t live right next to a tower must choose between competing weaker signals. Customers in this situation might be connected to a non-Verizon tower without it being obvious to them. Most cellphones have a tiny symbol that warns when users are roaming, but since voice roaming stopped being an issue most of us ignore it. And it’s difficult or impossible on most phones to choose which tower to connect to. Many of these customers being disconnected might have always assumed they actually were using the Verizon network. But largely it’s not something that customers have much control over.

I just discussed yesterday how we are now in limbo when it comes to regulating the broadband practices of the big ISPs. This is a perfect example of that situation because it’s doubtful that the customers being disconnected have any regulatory recourse to what is happening to them. And that bodes poorly to rural broadband customers in general – just one more reason why being a rural broadband customer is scary.

Technology What Customers Want

WiFi to Challenge Cellular?

It’s a rather new phenomenon, but we are seeing the beginning of a shift to making more voice calls on WiFi networks than on cellular networks. As Americans have become more conscious about making data connections on WiFi they have opened the door to using WiFi for their voice usage.

The trend of using WiFi for voice, as it matures, could really shake up the cellular industry. The AT&T and Verizon cellphone plans are among the most profitable products sold by any corporation and that makes them a target for competitors, and a place for consumers to save money.

It’s funny how the industry has changed so much. I remember twenty years ago going to state commissions and asking, and being rejected, for $2 rate increases in local telephone rates because the regulators feared that people couldn’t afford to pay it. And yet a decade later families went from having a $30 home phone to paying three and four times that much for cell phone plans.

There are several companies that have been selling WiFi calling for the last few years. FreedomPop, which started in 2012, offers a product that uses a network of over 10 million hot spots in places like McDonald’s or Starbucks. FreedomPop’s phones will automatically join WiFi networks much like a normal cellphone automatically connects to a cell tower. Their rates are really low and for $5 a month a customer can have a WiFi-only plan that connects to the network of WiFi hot spots. There are other slightly more expensive plans that use a combination of WiFi hot spots and Sprint’s cellular network when WiFi isn’t available.

Republic Wireless has a similar set of products. For $5 a month, customers can make calls or connect to the Internet solely over WiFi. For $10 a month, they can use both WiFi and Sprint’s cellular network. Republic Wireless has developed a technique that lets customers roam between hot spots (but this roaming is more suited to walking than driving in a car).

Scratch Wireless has an even more aggressive plan and using their WiFi network for voice, text, and data is free as long as you buy their $99 Motorola Photon Q phone. They then sell pay-as-you-go access to voice on Sprint’s cellular network starting as low as $1.99 per month.

These companies are growing rapidly. FreedomPop says it is doubling its customer base roughly every four to six months; Republic Wireless says its customer base is growing 13 percent a month. But both companies are still really tiny compared to the big carriers and are mostly catering to those who live mostly around WiFi and who are cost conscious. From what I can see, both companies get rave reviews from their customers.

Cablevision recently announced a WiFi-only plan for $30 a month for non-cable customers but only $10 for bundled customers. I don’t understand their pricing, which obviously is not going to be very attractive to non-Cablevision customers. Cablevision operates an extensive network of hot spots in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

The real disruptor might be Google. They announced that they are going to be offering cellular phone plans and the industry seems to think that they will be WiFi-based. Certainly in the markets where they have fiber networks they could saturate the market with outdoor WiFi hotspots and offer a true competitor to cellular. Google has always said that they think bandwidth ought to be ubiquitous, and since they don’t own cellular spectrum, they are going to have to go the WiFi route and also make a deal for off-network minutes from Sprint or T-Mobile.

One also has to think that Comcast has their eye on this. They certainly are rolling out a huge WiFi network as they turn customer routers into public hot spots.

And so the phenomenon is starting to grow. The large cellular companies say they aren’t worried about this, but one has to think that in the Boardrooms they are keeping an eye on this trend. For now there are issues with using these products. One is data security as it’s fairly well known that public WiFi hot spots are loaded with danger for users. This has to be the case whether you are hitting a hot spot with a PC or a cellphone.

I know that personally I will probably stick to a bigger company plan. When I travel it is more often to out-of-the-way places than to big cities. And those kind of places generally have coverage of some sort by the big carriers, but are often uncovered by smaller carriers like Sprint and T-Mobile. I would not like to find myself in a small town for a few days with no cellphone coverage. Other than that travel, I work at home and could easily use my own WiFi rather than pay for cellular.

For the product to be competitive, it’s also going to have to be usable on the major phones being sold. Not having this product for the iPhone or Samsung Galaxy limits the target audience. For now the small carriers like Republic load their own proprietary software on the phones they sell to users. But as that turns into a downloadable app I could see this product picking up a lot of traction in cities.

AT&T and Verizon are right to not be worried about this today. But if you look forward a few years this could grow into a significant competitor to cellular. Which, even if it doesn’t mean a loss of a lot of customers for the big companies, will mean overall lower prices for cellphone plans. That is something they ought to be worried about.


The Industry

The Battle to Track Your Cellphone

We all know that advertising is what drives the Internet today. There is a sophisticated system in place to track desktop users through cookies and numerous other techniques that let companies amass information on who you are and how you use the internet. But these same tracking tools are largely not available for cellphones. The slimmed down operating systems for cell phones have created an environment that is very unfriendly to cookies and the other kinds of tools that are used to track desktop users.

Tracking and profiling customers is now key to advertisers. They are only willing to spend big bucks on web advertising if they can send directed ads to consumers. I live in Florida and I’ve barely been able to visit any web site in the last month where I didn’t get an ad about the Florida governor’s race. The tracking tools for web sites are good enough to know where I live and then give me ads appropriate to where I live and to my interests. The rest of the year my ads are directed more to me specifically and I get very different ads on my computer compared to what my wife gets.

You can’t blame the advertisers. The real value in web advertising is through the ability to direct ads that try to match the advertisement and the offers made to the person receiving the offer. They don’t want to try to sell a sports product to a non-sports fan or a cooking application to someone who has no interest in food. And so directed advertising is helping them to narrow the target audience to improve their chance of success. One of the main drivers behind developing big data techniques is to hone the ability to track people over time, across multiple devices and multiple web sites to form profiles on each of us.

Advertisers are desperate to be able to direct ads as accurately on cellphones as they do on desktops. This is incredibly important to advertisers because ad space on cellphones is so much more limited, and thus more valuable. On a cellphone you can’t do popups or even insert ads in any meaningful way onto the smaller screens when a cellular customers looks at a cellular version of a website. When I visit the typical commercial website on my laptop probably 20% or more of each page has been made available for the insertion of ads. And there is a huge industry that has sprung up to fill the space on those millions of web pages.

Recently both Verizon and AT&T have been experimenting with a new way to track wireless users. They have been inserting tracking numbers into the headers that identify individual cellphones. Apparently these headers have been very successful for advertisers and several of them have announced that they have had great success tracking phones through these identifying headers.

Several years ago the manufacturers of smartphones tried building an identifying number into each cellphone they made. But there was a huge outcry from the public and from privacy critics and these device IDs were either eliminated or somehow encoded and protected so that outsiders could not use them to identify an individual cellphone.

But the cellphone companies are desperate to find something that will enhance advertising revenues and so they now are putting identification in the headers. This means that every time that a cellphone visits any website, when that web site scans who is making a request they can gather these identifying numbers.

Verizon and AT&T say that these numbers are not for advertising and that they regularly rotate the numbers, in the same manner that they are supposed to change IP addresses for landline Internet connections. But we know in practice that in this age when people no longer log off the Internet that homes sometimes maintain the same IP address for months at a time. The wireless carriers don’t say how often the identifying headers are changed at a given cellphone.

AT&T notified customers in 2013 that it would be inserting these identifiers as part of a ‘test’ of future advertising products, and they offered their customers the ability to opt out of the program. But it’s been reported by those who opted out (and who are savvy enough to track this sort of thing) that they are being given these tracking numbers today and that there is apparently no way to elect out of the process.

The real proof that the tracking numbers are effective is the buzz that this has created in the wireless advertising world. Numerous advertising firms are now touting advertising programs that can help their clients track cellular customers in ways similar to desktop users.

Interestingly, Google has proposed a new Internet protocol they are calling SPDY that would eliminate and prevent these kinds of advertising headers. However, since Google makes the vast majority of their revenue from directed advertising these days, one has to think that this just means that they have found a different way to achieve the same results and want to eliminate one of the tools of their competitors.

Let’s face it. Our cellphones and other devices are amazing tools that bring us all a lot of benefits. But with those benefits it is just assumed that the carriers and advertisers are going to find a way to track us. It seems that if we want the benefits these devices bring us that the cost is our privacy.

The Industry

Wireless Net Neutrality

While the FCC has not yet found a set of network neutrality rules that will stand up to a court challenge, all of the attempts they have made so far were aimed at net neutrality for landline data networks. But lately the question has been raised if the same network neutrality concepts should also be applied to wireless data.

There are several reasons why this might now make sense. There are now a substantial number of people whose only connectivity is through their wireless devices. Further, I’ve seen estimates that by sometime next year the number of data transactions from cell phones will exceed transactions from landline sources. It’s obvious that wireless data is now a major component of the general Internet and not some specialized niche like it once was. Landline data will continue to carry the vast majority of web video, but it appears that smartphones are carrying a lot of everything else.

This question has come more to the forefront lately due to some of the actions taken by cell phone providers. For example, Verizon Wireless recently announced that it would be throttling the speeds of customers who are still on its unlimited data plans on 4G LTE networks. The Verizon announcement said that starting October 1 at congested cell sites that Verizon would be throttling the speeds for unlimited plan data customers in favor of customers who buy data by the gigabyte.

This announcement seems to have angered Tom Wheeler, the FCC Chairman who sent a letter to Verizon warning them that this better be done for network management purposes and not as a play to enhance their revenues. Verizon has been trying for years to drive customers from older unlimited data plans and this just seems like another way to make life miserable for those customers to convince them to convert to more costly data plans.

The CEO of Verizon Wireless probably added fuel to the fire by comments he made at CTIA. He said that the wireless industry is still in its ‘infancy’ and needs a light regulatory touch. That’s a little hard to buy in a country where there are now as many active cell phones as there are people. He went on to say that wireless companies should be allowed to determine how they generate revenue and not regulators. He said “If a company chooses to pay us for priority access on our network, that is not a regulatory decision. It’s a business decision.”

And cell phone providers are now starting to offer blatant priority access plans. Virgin Mobile, a subsidiary of Sprint just announced plans that let customers use social media without having it count against their data plans. For example, a customer can buy a data plan for $12 per month that gives them unlimited access to any one service consisting of Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram or Twitter. Or for $10 more they can subscribe to all four. And for $5 per month extra they can add one streaming music source.

These are exactly the kinds of plans that were predicted when the courts rejected network neutrality. I read many predictions that service providers would begin giving priority to some content providers over others. To some, the Virgin Mobile plan might sound like an expansion of choice, but the fear is that customers are being herded towards a handful of big-money web services at the expense of the rest of the web.

While the Virgin Mobile plan sounds like a way for a customer to save money, in the long run going to a la carte services is going to allow wireless carriers to charge more for data than they do today. One of the concerns about lack of net neutrality is that plans like the Virgin one will kill creativity on the web by only given access to content from a handful of large providers. A customer who spends most of their time on one service like Facebook might save money with this kind of plan. But this kind of plan restricts people from trying new things on the web and will drive users towards those services that are willing to pay the wireless carriers for priority access. These plans are just starting to appear on cellphones, but how long will it be before they appear at the big ISPs?

Technology The Industry

The Skinny on U.S. 4G Data Speeds

I am a statistic freak and I read any and all statistics I can find about the telecom industry. A lot of statistics are interesting but require a lot of heavy lifting to see what is going on beneath the numbers. But I ran across one set of statistics that sums up the problems of wireless 4G data in this country in a few simple numbers.

A company called OpenSignal has an app that people can use to measure the actual download speeds they see on LTE 4G networks. This app is used worldwide and so we can also compare the US to other parts of the world. In 2014 the comparisons were made from readings from 6 million users of the app.

The first interesting statistic is that the US came in 15th in the world in LTE speeds. In 2014 the US average download speed was a paltry 6.5 Mbps across all US downloads using 4G. At the top of the chart was Australia at 24.5 Mbps, Hong Kong at 21 Mbps, Denmark at 20.1 Mbps, Canada at 19.3 Mbps, Sweden at 19.2 Mbps and South Korea at 18.6 Mbps. Speeds drop pretty significantly after that, and for example Japan was at 11.8 Mbps. So beyond all of the hype from AT&T and Verizon touting their network speeds, they have not done a very good job in the US.

But the second statistic is even more telling. The speeds in the US dropped from 9.6 Mbps in 2013 to 6.5 Mbps in 2014. The US was the only country on the list of the top fifteen countries that saw a significant percentage drop from one year to the next. Sweden did have a drop, but they went from 22.1 Mbps to 19.2 Mbps

So what does this all mean? First, the drop in speed can probably best be explained by the fact that so many people in this country are using wireless data. Large amount of users are obviously overwhelming the networks, and as more people use the wireless data networks the speeds drop. Our wireless networks are all based upon the total bandwidth capacity at a given cell site, and so to the extent that more people want data than a cell site is designed for, the speeds drop as the cell site tries to accommodate everybody.

But for the average 4G speed for the whole year to only be 6.5 Mbps there has to be a whole lot more to the story. One might expect Canada to be faster than the US simply because we have a lot more large cities that can put strains on wireless networks. But you wouldn’t expect that to make the Canadian 4G experience three times faster than the US experience. And there are very few places on earth as densely populated as Hong Kong and they have the second fastest 4G networks in the world.

It’s obvious from these numbers that the US wireless carriers are not making the same kinds of investments per customer as other countries are doing. It’s one thing to beef up urban cell sites to 4G, but if those cell sites are too far apart then too many people are trying to use the same site. I would have to guess that our main problem is the number and spacing of cell sites.

But we also have a technology issue and regardless of what the carriers say, there are a lot of places that don’t even have 4G yet. I don’t have to drive more than 2 miles outside my own town to drop to 3G coverage and then only a few more miles past that to be down to 2G. A few weeks ago I was in Carlsbad California, a nice town halfway between LA and San Diego and right on I-5. I couldn’t even find a 2G network there at 5:00 in the evening, probably due to all of the traffic on the interstate.

I hope the FCC looks at these kinds of statistics because they debunk all of the oligopoly hype we get from the wireless carriers. I laugh when people tell me they are getting blazing fast speeds on 4G, because it’s something I look at all of the time when I travel and I have never seen it. When I hear of somebody who claims that they are getting 30 Mbps speeds I know that they must be standing directly under a cell tower at 3:00 in the morning. I like speed, but not quite that much.

The Industry

A Little Bit Closer to OTT

We keep inching closer and closer to the day when customers will have a viable access to real time over-the-top programming. The first company to make any progress in this area was Aereo who is sending the network channels to people’s cellphones and tablets in major markets. But Aereo has an upcoming day in court and the US Supreme Court could put them out of business.

It’s not like there isn’t any programming available on the web, because there are mountains of old TV shows and movies available on NetFlix and AmazonPrime and the many other companies that have deals to put content on the web. And many customers of the major cable providers have TV anywhere where the cable company lets them watch some of the channels they subscribe to on remote devices.

But what is still missing, and what will finally give a lot of people the impetus to cut the cord is when they can get the programming they most want in real-time on devices other than televisions. I have largely cut the cord and watch the programming available on NetFlix and AmazonPrime. But I would be very happy if I could buy ESPN and the Big10 Network a la carte. And maybe some news network like CNN.

There were two announcements this past week that inch us closer to an OTT alternative. The CEO of Verizon Wireless, Lowell McAdam announced that he has had discussions with content providers about launching an OTT service for customers using the Verizon LTE network and also possibly for those using other broadband providers.

The second announcement came from Dish Networks who announced a major deal with Disney that would allow them to distribute Disney and ESPN wirelessly. The agreement was complex and also resolved a number of issued between Disney and Dish for satellite carriage. Last week I reported on the spectrum that Dish has been buying, and this announcement demonstrates that they have plans to use some of that spectrum to offer an OTT product.

When the Verizon CEO was asked about the Dish Networks announcement his response was that he thought Verizon has a huge head start and that it would take Dish at least a year to construct a wireless network. So I think we can expect Verizon to roll something out soon to take advantage of the existing network.

Both announcements make it sound like customers will be able to buy the OTT programming without having to subscribe elsewhere to a landline version of the same channels. This would be the first time that such live content like sports has been made available this way. I wrote last year that there are only a handful of channels with enough market power to pull off OTT programming, and that very short list includes ESPN. I know that I would gladly pay $20 for ESPN a la carte rather than have to buy a $60 package to get it. And I don’t think I am that unusual. Just in the last week I have had conversations with several other sports fans who say the same thing.

I had cable service several years ago with all of the channels and all of the movies. And I found that I would go weeks, and sometimes even months without turning on the TV (especially outside of football season). I am really hoping that these announcements are the first little crack in the programming monopoly and that the first pieces of OTT are here. But I won’t believe it until I can buy it. It’s possible that Dish and Verizon Wireless will be forced to also sell bundles of programming including a lot of things I won’t want. But I can’t see them getting into the OTT business if they aren’t going to let customers buy the smaller packages they really want. I will be watching.

The Industry

Cellular is Not the Rural Broadband Solution

I’m often asked why we can’t let cellular 4G bandwidth take care of the bandwidth needs for rural America. When you look at the ads on TV by Verizon and AT&T you would assume that the cellular data network is robust and is being built everywhere. But there are a lot of practical reasons why cellular data is not the answer for rural broadband:

Rural areas are not being upgraded. The carriers don’t make the same kinds of investments in rural markets that they do in urban markets. To see a similar situation in a related industry, consider how the large cable companies are upgrading cable modems in the metropolitan areas years before they upgrade rural areas. It seems that urban cellular technology is being upgraded every few years while rural cell sites might get upgraded once a decade.

Rural networks are not built where people live. Even where the cellular networks have been upgraded, rural cellular towers have been historically built to take care of car traffic, referred to in the industry as roaming traffic. Think about where you always see cellular towers and they are either on the top of tall hills or else along a highway not close to many homes and businesses. This matters because like all wireless traffic, the data speeds drop drastically with distance from the tower. Where a 3G customer in a City might get 30 Mbps download speed because they are likely less than a mile from a transmitter, a customer who is 4 miles from a tower might now get 5 Mbps. And in a rural area 4 miles is not very far.  

The carriers have severe data plans and caps. Even when customers happen to live close to a rural transmitter and can get good data speeds, the data plans for the large carriers are capped at very skimpy levels. One HD movie uses around 1.5 gigabits, meaning that a cap of 2 to 4 gigabits is a poor substitute for landline broadband. There are still a few unlimited data plans around but they are hard to get and dwindling in availability. And it’s been widely reported that once a customer reaches a certain level of usage on an unlimited plan that the speeds are choked to go very slow for the rest of the month.

Voice gets a big priority on the network. Cellular networks were built to deliver vice calls to cell phones and voice calls still get a priority on the network. A cell phone tower is limited to a finite amount of bandwidth. And so, once a few customers are downloading something big at the same time, the performance for the rest of the cell site gets noticeably worse. 3G networks are intended to deliver short bursts of fast data, such as when a cell phone user downloads an app. But there is not enough bandwidth at a cell phone tower to support hundreds of ‘normal’ data customers who are watching streaming video and using bandwidth like we use in our homes and businesses.

The plans are really expensive. Cellular data plans are not cheap. For example, Verizon will sell you a data plan for an iPad at $30 per month and a 4 gigabit total usage cap. Additional gigabits cost $10 to $15 each. To get the same plan for an iPhone is $70 per month since the plan requires voice and text messaging. Cellular data is the most expensive bandwidth in a country that already has some of the most expensive bandwidth in the world. 

There are no real 4G deployments yet. While the carriers are all touting 4G wireless, what they are delivering is 3G wireless. By definition the 4G wireless specification allows for gigabit data download speeds. What we now have, in engineering terms can best be described as 3.5 G and real 4G is still sometime in the future. There are reports of current cellular networks in cities getting bursts of speed up to 50 Mbps, which is very good, but is not close to being 4G. But most realized speeds are considerably slower than that.

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