AT&T and Verizon Fiber

If you look at the annual reports or listen to the quarterly investor calls, you’d think that AT&T and Verizon’s entire future depends upon 5G. As I’ve written in several blogs, there doesn’t seem to be an immediate financial business case for 5G and the big carriers are going to have to figure out how to monetize 5G – something that’s going to take years. Meanwhile, both companies have been expanding their fiber footprints and aggressively adding fiber-based broadband customers.

According to the Leichtman Research Group, AT&T added only 34,000 net broadband customers in the first quarter of this year – not an impressive number when considering that they have 15.7 million broadband numbers. But the underlying story is more compelling. One the 1Q investor call, the company says they added 297,000 fiber customers during the first quarter, and the smaller net number recognizes the decline of DSL customers. The overall financial impact was a net gain of 8% for broadband revenues.

AT&T is starting to understand the dynamics of being a multimedia company in addition to being a wireless carrier and an ISP. According to John Stephens, the AT&T CFO, the company experiences little churn when they are able to sell fiber-based Internet, a video product and cellular service to a customer.

The company views its fiber business as a key part of its growth strategy. AT&T now passes over 20 million homes and businesses with fiber and is aggressively pushing fiber broadband. The company has also undergone an internal consolidation so that all fiber assets are available to every business unit. The company has been expanding its fiber footprint significantly for the last few years, but recently announced they are at the end of major fiber expansion. However, the company will continue to take advantage of the new fiber being built for the nationwide FirstNet network for first responders. In past years the company would have kept FirstNet fiber in its own silo and not gotten the full value out of the investment.

Verizon has a similar story. The company undertook an internal project they call One Fiber where every fiber asset of the company is made available to all Verizon business units. There were over a dozen Verizon business units with separate fiber networks in silos.

Verizon is currently taking advantage of the One Fiber plan for expanding its small cell site strategy. The company knows that small cell sites are vital for maintaining a quality cellular network and they are also still weighing how heavily to invest in 5G wireless loops that deliver wireless broadband in residential neighborhoods.

Verizon has also been quietly expanding its FiOS fiber footprint. The company has gotten regulatory approval to abandon the copper business in over 100 exchanges in the northeast where it operates FiOS. In those exchanges, the company will no longer connect customers to copper service and says they will eventually tear down the copper and become fully fiber-based. That strategy means filling in neighborhoods that were bypassed by FiOS when the network was first built 20 years ago.

Verizon is leading the pack in terms of new fiber construction. They say that are building over 1,000 route miles of fiber every month. This alone is having a big impact on the industry as everybody else is having a harder time locating fiber construction crews.

Verizon’s wireline revenues were down 4% in the first quarter of this year compared to 2018. The company expects to start benefitting from the aggressive fiber construction program and turn that trend around over the next few years. One of the most promising opportunities for the company is to start driving revenues in markets where it’s owned fiber but had never fully monetized the opportunity.

The main competitor for all of the fiber construction by both companies are the big cable companies. The big telcos have been losing broadband customers for years as the cable company broadband has been clobbering DSL. The two telcos are counting on their fiber products to be a fierce competitor to cable company broadband and the companies hope to start recapturing their lost market share. As an outsider I’ve wondered for years why they didn’t do this, and the easy answer was that both companies sunk most of their capital investments into wireless. Now they are seeing that 5G wireless needs fiber, and both companies have decided to capitalize on the new fiber by also selling landline broadband. It’s going to be an interesting battle to watch since both telcos still face the loss of huge numbers of DSL customers – but they are counting on fiber to position them well for the decades to come.

Selling Transport to Small Cell Sites

A lot of my clients make money by selling transport to the big traditional cell sites. Except for a few of them that operate middle-mile networks, the extra money from cell site transport adds a relatively high-margin product into the last-mile network.

Companies are now wondering how hard they should pursue small cell sites. They keep reading about the real-estate grab in the major cities where a number of companies are competing to build small cell enclosures, hoping to attract multiple carriers. They want to understand the size of the potential market for small cells outside of the major metropolitan areas. It’s not an easy question to answer.

The cellular carriers are building small cell sites in larger markets because they have exhausted the capabilities of the traditional large cell sites. The cellular companies have pushed bigger data plans and convinced customers that it’s okay to watch video on cellphones, and now they find that they are running out of bandwidth capacity. The only two immediate fixes are to build additional cell sites (thus, the small cells) or else add more spectrum. They eventually will layer on full 5G capability that will stretch spectrum a lot farther.

There are varying estimates for the eventual market for small cell sites. For example, the CTIA, the lobbying group for the wireless industry, estimates that small cells will grow from 86,000 in 2018 to 800,000 by 2026. The Wall Street analyst firm Cowan estimates 275,000 small cells by the end of 2023.

The big companies that are in the cellular backhaul business are asking the same questions as my clients. Crown Castle is embracing the small cell opportunity and sees it as a big area of future growth. Its competitor American Tower is more cautious and only chases small cell opportunities that have high margins. They caution that the profit opportunity for small cells is a lot less than at big towers. Other companies like Zayo and CenturyLink are pursuing small cells where it makes sense, but neither has yet made this a major part of their growth strategy – they are instead hoping to monetize the opportunity by adding small cells where they already own fiber.

The question that most of my clients want to understand is if the small cell building craze that has hit major metropolitan areas will ever make it out to smaller cities. In general, the big cellular carriers report that the amount of data used on their cell sites is doubling every two years. That’s a huge growth rate that can’t be sustained for very long on any network. But it’s likely that this rate of growth is not the same everywhere, and there are likely many smaller markets where cell sites are still underutilized.

Metropolitan cell sites were already using a lot of broadband even before customers started using more data. We know this because the cellular carriers have been buying and using robust data backhaul to urban sites of a gigabit or more in capacity. One good way to judge the potential for small cell sites is to look at the broadband used on existing tall tower sites. If a big tower site is using only a few hundred Mbps of bandwidth, then the cell site is not overloaded and still has room to accommodate broadband growth.

Everybody also wants to understand the revenue potential. The analyst firm Cowan estimates that the revenue opportunity per small cell site will average between $500 and $1,000 per site per month. That seems like a high price outside of metropolitan areas, where fiber is really expensive. I’ve already been seeing the big cellular carriers pushing for much lower transport rates for the big cell sites and in smaller markets carriers want to pay less than $1,000 per big tower. It probably takes 5 – 7 small cells to fully replace a large tower and it’s hard to envision the cellular carriers greatly expanding their backhaul bill unless they have no option.

It’s also becoming clear that both Verizon and AT&T have a strategy of building their own fiber anyplace where the backhaul costs are too high. We’ve already seen each carrier build some fiber in smaller markets in the last few years to avoid high transport cost situations. If both companies continue to be willing to overbuild to avoid transport costs, they have great leverage for negotiating reasonable, and lower transport costs.

As usual, I always put pen to paper. If the CTIA is right and there will be 800,000 small cell sites within six years that would mean a new annual backhaul cost of almost $5 billion annually for the cellular companies at a cost of $500 per site. While this is a profitable industry, the carriers are not going to absorb that kind of cost increase unless they have no option. If the 800,000 figure is a good estimate, I predict that within that same 6-year period that the cellular carriers will build fiber to a significant percentage of the new sites.

Perhaps the most important factor about the small cell business is that it’s local. I have one client in a town of 7,000 that recently saw several small cell sites added. I have clients in much larger communities where the carriers are not currently looking at small cell sites.

The bottom line for me is that anybody that owns fiber ought to probably provide backhaul for small cells on existing fiber routes. I’d be a lot more cautious about building new fiber for small cell sites. If that new fiber doesn’t drive other good revenue opportunities then it’s probably a much riskier investment than building fiber for the big tower cell sites. It’s also worth understanding the kind of small cell site being constructed. Many small cells sites will continue to be strictly used for cellular service while others might also support 5G local loops. Every last mile fiber provider should be leery about providing access to a broadband competitor.

Protesting 5G

There were over 90 protests nationwide recently against the coming 5G technology, mostly related to health concerns. The protesters have some of the facts wrong about 5G and that makes it easier for policymakers to ignore them. It’s hard to fault anybody about getting the facts wrong about 5G since the carriers have purposefully filled the press with misleading 5G rhetoric. I would venture to say a lot of people in our industry have the same misunderstandings.

I watched a few news reports of the various protests, and protesters cited the following concerns about 5G. They say that it’s already being installed and will be active in most cities by next year. They say that in the near future that cellular speeds will be 100 times faster than today. They say that the FCC has blessed 5G as safe when it’s not. Let me address each of these issues:

What is 5G? Many of the protestors don’t realize that 5G is the marketing name of several different technologies. 5G can mean improved cellular service. 5G can mean high-speed wireless broadband loops like is being tested by Verizon in Sacramento. And 5G can mean gigabit radio connections made between two points, similar to traditional microwave backhaul. Protestors have conflated the claims for each technology and assume they apply to 5G cellular service.

Is 5G Being Installed Today? Cities everywhere are seeing permit requests for small cell sites and often believe these are requests to install 5G – I just talked to a fairly large city the other day who made this assumption. For now, the requests for small cell sites are to bolster the 4G cellular network. The cellular companies aren’t talking about it, but their 4G data networks are in trouble. People are using so much data on their phones that cell sites are getting overwhelmed. The amount of data being used by cellphones users is currently doubling every two years – and no data network can handle that kind of growth for very long. The cellular carriers are quietly beefing up the 4G networks in order to avoid the embarrassment of major network crashes in a few years. They are hoping that within 3 -5 years that 5G can relieve some of the pressure from cellular networks.

Will 5G Be Here Next Year? It might be a decade until we see a full 5G cellular installation. There are 13 major specifications for improvements between 4G and 5G and those will get implemented over the next decade. This won’t stop the marketing departments of the cellular carriers to loudly claim 5G networks after one or two of these improvements have been partially implemented.  What the cellular companies never bothered to tell the public is that the first fully-compliant 4G cell site was just implemented last year – 5G is going to require the same slow steady introduction of changes until full 5G gets here. Starting a year or two from now we might see some 5G improvements, with more 5G upgrades introduced each year thereafter. The carriers will loudly announce every time they make a 5G trial and will make the world think they are the improvements will be immediately installed everywhere.

Will Cellular Speeds be 100 Times Faster? The 5G specification calls for cellular speeds to be improved over time to 100 Mbps, about 6 times faster than 4G cellular speeds today. Speeds won’t improve overnight and this certainly isn’t going to be here in a year or two.

The public thinks that we’ll see gigabit cellular speeds for several reasons. First, Verizon recently introduced a trial for fast cellular using millimeter wave spectrum in small portions of a few downtown areas. Millimeter wave cellular is not going to make sense for wide deployment because the fast data speeds only carry perhaps 200 feet from the transmitter. Millimeter wave spectrum in this application is blocked by almost everything in the environment. This trial was mostly to grab headlines, not to portend a real product. Confusion also came when AT&T recently announced a 2 Gbps connection made to an outdoor hot spot. This is using point-to-point technology that can never apply to cellphones – but the AT&T announcement made this fuzzy on purpose.

What About the Health Impacts? Most 5G cellular service will use the same spectrum, or some new bands that are similar to today’s cellular spectrum. The primary concern for 5G cellular (and 4G) is the introduction of small cell sites into neighborhoods. It’s concerning to citizens when a cell site is on a pole at their curb instead of at the top of a tall tower outside the neighborhood. The neighborhood cell sites are going to be broadcast at a lower power level than the current big cell sites, so theoretically the amount of cellular radiation ought to be similar to today. But to give credit to the protesters, we’ll only know that’s really true after small cell sites have been installed.

The real health concern that is troublesome is not related to 5G cellular using the same frequencies as today, but rather about the use of  millimeter wave spectrum. A significant percentage of the world’s scientists that work in this area recently warned the United Nations that some past research of millimeter wave spectrum shows negative impacts for plant and animal life. The scientists admit that much more research is needed and they pleaded with the UN to not use the general public as guinea pigs. Belgium recently banned millimeter wave spectrum deployment until the health risks are understood. The FCC joins with almost every other country in allowing the deployment of millimeter wave spectrum and is in the process of licensing more of the spectrum.

As mentioned earlier, Verizon recently did a few trials of sending millimeter wave spectrum to cellphones. This was viewed mostly as a gimmick because this doesn’t seem to have real-life market potential due to the limitations for the spectrum and cellphones. I just saw an estimate that it would take over 300,000 small cell sites to blanket Los Angeles with small cells that are close enough to deploy millimeter wave spectrum – that doesn’t sound like a plausable or profitable business plan.

The technology where the protesters should be focused is millimeter wave spectrum wireless loops. Verizon deployed this to a few hundred homes in Sacramento and a few other cities, delivering about 300 Mbps broadband to homes. Verizon says they have plans to deploy this widely. This is the spectrum use that the scientists warned about. A deployment of millimeter wave loops means constantly bombarding residential neighborhoods with millimeter wave spectrum from poles on the curb. The other planned use of millimeter wave spectrum is for indoor routers that will transmit gigabit bandwidth inside of a room. People can clearly decide to not use millimeter wave routers, but have no say about a carrier introducing it into the neighborhood. Protesters have a valid concern for this technology.

Is There a Business Case for 5G Cellular?

Readers might think I spent too much time writing about 5G. However, I’m asked about 5G almost every day. Existing ISPs want to know if 5G is a real threat. Potential ISPs want to know if they should pause their business plans until they understand 5G’s impact. Cities want to know what to expect. The cellular companies have made such a huge deal about 5G that they’ve spooked the rest of the industry.

Today I ask perhaps the most fundamental question of all – is there a business case for 5G cellular? I’m not talking about 5G wireless loops to homes – I’m just asking if there is a financial justification for the cellular companies to upgrade their cell sites to 5G?

Before answering that question, it’s good to remember that the cellular companies badly need to implement 5G because their 4G networks are facing a crisis. After years of training customers to be stingy in using cellphone data, they are now encouraging users to stream video. The result of this shift is that total cellular data usage is now doubling every two years. Any network engineer will tell that that is deadly growth, particular for a cellular network. The existing 4G network can’t handle this growth for more than a few more years. While some of this growth can be temporarily mitigated by inserting small cell sites into the network, that doesn’t look like it is more than a band-aid fix if broadband keeps growing at this fast pace. Small cell sites will be overwhelmed almost as quickly as they are built.

The carriers need 5G because it will expand the capacity of each cell site by allowing many more customers to use a cell site simultaneously. By taking advantage of frequency slicing and the ability to mix and match multiple frequencies a 5G cell site will be a huge step-up in efficiency. The cellular carriers have not publicly admitted that they need 5G just to keep their networks running – but they really don’t have a choice.

The question, though, is if there is a new revenue stream to help pay for the 5G upgrades? To be honest, I can’t find any early 5G cellular application that will generate much revenue in the near future. The obvious new revenue source would be to charge a premium price to use 5G data on a cellphone. There might be some people willing to pay extra in the early stages of the 5G roll-out, but as 4G morphs over time into 5G, any willingness to pay more for data will melt away.

I also wonder if customers will really value faster cellular data speeds. First, we aren’t talking about a ton of extra speed. Forget the recent trials of millimeter wave 5G – that’s a gimmick for now that will not be available anywhere other than in dense urban centers. The 5G specification that matters to the real world is the goal for 5G speeds to increase over a decade to 100 Mbps.

Good 4G data speeds today are in the range of 15 Mbps and that is more than enough speed to stream data while performing any functions we want from a cellphone. Faster speeds will not stream video any faster. Over time perhaps our cellphones will be able to create augmented reality universes, but that technology won’t be here for a while. Faster data speeds are vitally important in a home where we run multiple large data streams simultaneously – but a cellphone is, by definition, one device for one user.

The real advantage of 5G is the ability to make large numbers of connections from a single cell site. It’s also hard to see an immediate path to monetize that. I talk to a friend many mornings as he commutes and he always gets disconnected at the Eisenhower bridge on the DC beltway – there are not enough cellular connections there to allow for handoffs between Maryland and Virginia. 5G will finally fix that problem, but I can’t see anybody paying extra to not be cut off on the bridge – they will finally be getting what they’ve always expected.

Eventually 5G will have big potential as the connection for outdoor sensors, IoT devices, smart cars, smart streetlights, etc. There is also likely to eventually be a huge market for wearables that might include fitness monitors, medical monitors, smart glasses, and even smart clothes. However, all of these applications will take time to come to market – there is a bit of chicken and egg in that these technologies will likely never take off until there is universal 5G coverage. There is very little revenue likely in the next few years for outdoor applications – although this might eventually be the primary new source of 5G revenue.

I look back to last fall when Ronan Dunne, an EVP of Verizon Wireless, made his case to investors for the potential for 5G. He included the outdoor sensors I mention above. He also cited applications like retail, where holograms might spring up near merchandise in stores. He talked about stock trading that takes advantage of the low latency on 5G. He mentioned gaming, which would benefit from lower latency. Most of these applications offer eventual potential for 5G. But none of these applications are going to produce giant revenues over the next three or four years. In the short run it’s hard to imagine almost any immediate revenue from these applications.

Predicting technology is always a crap shoot and perhaps new applications will arise that need 5G that even Verizon hasn’t imagined. The list of applications that Verizon gave to investors is underwhelming and reflects the fact that there is likely no 5G application that will significantly add to the bottom line of the cellular carriers in the immediate future.

This really brings home the idea that as a nation we are not in a worldwide 5G competition. The carriers need 5G soon to stop the collapse of the 4G data networks in busy neighborhoods. I have a hard time thinking they need it immediately for anything else – although eventually we will be surrounded by 5G applications.

What’s the Future for CenturyLink?

I don’t know how many of you watch industry stock prices. I’m certainly not a stock analyst, but I’ve always tracked the stock prices of the big ISPs as another way to try to understand the industry. The stock prices for big ISPs are hard to compare because every big ISP operates multiple lines of business these days. AT&T and Verizon are judged more as cellular companies than as ISPs. AT&T and Comcast stock prices reflect that both are major media companies.

With that said, the stock price for CenturyLink has performed far worse than other big ISPs over the last year. A year ago a share of CenturyLink stock was at $19.24. By the end of the year the stock price was down to $15.44. As I wrote this blog the price was down to $10.89. That’s a 43% drop in share price over the last year and a 30% drop since the first of the year. For comparison, following are the stock prices of the other big ISPs and also trends in broadband customers:

Stock Price 1 Year Ago Stock Price Now % Change 2018 Change in Broadband Customers
CenturyLink $19.24 $10.89 -43.4% -262,000
Comcast $32.14 $43.15 34.3% 1,353,000
Charter $272.84 $377.89 38.5% 1,271,000
AT&T $32.19 $30.62 -4.9% -18,000
Verizon $48.49 $56.91 17.4% 2,000

As a point of comparison to the overall market, the Dow Jones Industrial average was up 4% over this same 1-year period. The above chart is not trying to make a correlation between stock prices and broadband customers since that is just one of dozens of factors that affect the performance of these companies.

Again, I’ve never fully understood how Wall Street values any given company. In reading analyst reports on CenturyLink it seems that the primary reason for the drop in stock price is that all of the company’s business units are trending downward. In the recently released 1Q 2019 results the company showed a year-over-year drop in results for the international, enterprise, small and medium business, wholesale, and consumer business units. It seems that analysts had hoped that the merger with Level 3 would reverse some of the downward trends. Stock prices also dropped when the company surprised the market by cutting its dividend payment in half in February.

CenturyLink faces the same trends as all big ISPs – traditional business lines like landline telephone and cable TV are in decline. Perhaps the most important trend affecting the company is the continued migration of broadband customers from copper-based DSL to cable company broadband. CenturyLink is not replacing the DSL broadband customers it’s losing. In 2018 CenturyLink lost a lot of broadband customers with speeds under 20 Mbps, but had a net gain of customers using more than 20 Mbps. CenturyLink undertook a big fiber-to-the-home expansion in 2017 and built fiber to pass 900,000 homes and businesses – but currently almost all expansion of last-mile networks is on hold.

It’s interesting to compare CenturyLink as an ISP with the big cable companies. The obvious big difference is the trend in broadband customers and revenues. Where CenturyLink lost 262,000 broadband customers in 2018, the two biggest cable companies each added more than a million new broadband customers for the year. CenturyLink and other telcos are losing the battle of DSL versus cable modems with customers migrating to cable companies as they seek faster speeds.

It’s also interesting to compare CenturyLink to the other big telcos. From the perspective of being an ISP, AT&T and Verizon are hanging on to total broadband customers. Both companies are also losing the DSL battle with the cable companies, but each is adding fiber customers to compensate for those losses. Both big telcos are building a lot of new fiber, mostly to provide direct connectivity to their own cell sites, but secondarily to then take advantage of other fiber opportunities around each fiber node.

Verizon has converted over a hundred telephone exchanges in the northeast to fiber-only and is getting out of the copper business in urban areas. Verizon has been quietly filling in its FiOS fiber network to cover the copper it’s abandoning. While nobody knows yet if it’s real, Verizon also has been declaring big plans to to expand into new broadband markets markets using 5G wireless loops.

AT&T was late to the fiber game but has been quietly yet steadily adding residential and business fiber customers over the last few years. They have adopted a strategy of chasing pockets of customers anywhere they own fiber.

CenturyLink had started down the path to replace DSL customers when they built a lot of fiber-to-the-home in 2017. Continuing with fiber construction would have positioned the company to take back a lot of the broadband market in the many large cities it serves. It’s clear that the new CenturyLink CEO doesn’t like the slow returns from investing in last-mile infrastructure and it appears that any hopes to grow the telco part of the business are off the table.

Everything I read says that CenturyLink is facing a corporate crisis. Diving stock prices always put strain on a company. CenturyLink faces more pressure since the activist investors group Southeastern Asset Management holds more than a 6% stake in CenturyLink and made an SEC filing that that the company’s fiber assets are undervalued.

The company has underperformed compared to its peers ever since it was spun off from AT&T as US West. The company then had what turned out to be a disastrous merger with Qwest. There was hope a few years back that the merger with CenturyLink would help to right the company. Most recently has been the merger with Level 3, and at least for now that’s not made a big difference. It’s been reported that CenturyLink has hired advisors to consider if they should sell or spin off the telco business unit. That analysis has just begun, but it won’t be surprising to hear about a major restructuring of the company.

Millimeter Wave Cellular Service

Verizon is claiming to have the first real-world deployment of fast 5G cellular service. They launched an early version of what they are calling 5G in downtown Chicago and Minneapolis. This launch involves the deployment of millimeter wave spectrum.

A review of the cellular performance in FierceWireless showed exactly what was to be expected. This new service will only be available from a few cell sites in each city. For now the service can only be received using a Motorola Z3 handset that has been modified with a 5G Moto Mod adapter.

As would be expected, the millimeter wave broadband was fast, with peak speed measured at 500 Mbps. But also as expected, the coverage area is small, and millimeter wave spectrum is easily blocked by almost any impediment. Walking inside a building or around the corner of a building killed the broadband signal. The signal speed cut in half when received through a window. When not in the range of the millimeter wave signal the phone reverts to 4G, because Verizon is not yet close to implementing any actual 5G standards. This was not a trial of 5G technology – it’s a trial that shows that millimeter wave spectrum can carry a lot of data. That is especially easy to demonstrate when there are only one or two users on a given cell site.

Verizon announced a fee of $10 per month for the faster data speed, but almost immediately said the fee will be waived. This launch is another marketing gimmick letting Verizon get headlines proclaiming 500 Mbps cellular data speeds. The reviewer noted that the Verizon store in downtown Chicago was not ready to provide the product to anybody.

There are big issues with using millimeter wave spectrum for cellular service. I first ask what a cellphone user can do with that kind of speed. A cellphone can already be used to stream a video on a decent 4G connection. Other than software updates there isn’t any real need to download big files on a cellphone. It’s unlikely that the cellular carriers are going to let you tether speeds of that magnitude to a computer.

The other big issues will be the real-life limitations of millimeter wave spectrum outdoors. Since the frequency won’t pass through walls, this is strictly going to be an outdoor walking technology. As the FierceWireless review showed, it’s extremely easy to walk out of coverage. A cellular carrier will need to provide multiple cell sites in very close proximity in order to cover a given area.

It’s hard to think that there will ever be many subscribers willing to pay $10 more per month for a product with these limitations. How many people care about getting faster data speed outside, and only in areas of a city that are close to 5G transmitters? Would many cellular customers pay more so that they could save a few minutes per month to download software updates?

It’s hard to envision that the incremental revenues from customers will ever justify the cost of deploying multiple cell sites within close proximity of each other. T-Mobile already announced that they don’t plan to charge extra for 5G data when it’s available – there is no incentive to offer the product if there is no additional revenue.

What I found interesting is that Verizon also announced that they will be launching this same product in 20 additional urban markets soon, with 30 markets by the end of the year. The company will be using this launch to promote the new Galaxy S10 5G phone that will be able to utilize the millimeter wave spectrum. Verizon is touting the new service by saying that it will provide access to faster streaming, augmented-reality, gaming, and consumer and business applications.

If anything, this launch is a gimmick to sell more of the expensive 5G handsets. I wonder how many people will buy this phone hoping for faster service, only to realize that they have to stand outside close to a downtown millimeter wave cell site to use it. How many people want to go outside to enjoy faster gaming or augmented reality?

This is not to say that millimeter wave spectrum doesn’t have value, but that value will manifest when Verizon or somebody offers an indoor 5G modem that’s connected to a landline broadband connection. That would enable a cellphone to connect to faster gaming or augmented reality. That has some definite possibilities, but that is not cellular service, but rather an indoor broadband connection using a cellphone as the receiver.

I’m really starting to hate these gimmicks. Verizon and AT&T are both painting a false picture of 5G by making everybody think it will provide gigabit speeds everywhere – something that is not even listed as a goal of the 5G specifications. These gimmicks are pure marketing hype. The companies want to demonstrate that they are cutting edge. The gimmicks are aimed even more for politicians who the carriers are courting to support deregulation of broadband in the name of 5G. In the cease of this particular gimmick, Verizon might sell more Samsung 5G phones. But the gimmicks are just gimmicks and this trial is not a real product.

Verizon to Retire Copper

Verizon is asking the FCC for permission to retire copper networks throughout its service territory in New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, Virginia, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. In recent months the company has asked to kill copper in hundreds of exchanges in those states. These range from urban exchanges in New York City to exchanges scattered all over the outer suburbs of Washington DC and Baltimore. Some of these filings can be found at this site.

The filings ask to retire the copper wires. Verizon will no longer support copper in these exchanges and will stop doing any maintenance on copper. The company intends to move people who still are served by copper over to fiber and is not waiting for the FCC notice period to make such conversions. Verizon is also retiring the older DMS telephone switches, purchased years ago from the long-defunct Northern Telecom. Telephone service will be moved to more modern softs switches that Verizon uses for fiber customers.

The FCC process requires Verizon to notify the public about plans to retire copper and if no objections are filed in a given exchange the retirement takes place 90 days after the FCC’s release of the public notice to retire. Verizon has been announcing copper retirements since February 2017 and was forced to respond to intervention in some locations, but eventually refiled most retirement notices a second time.

Interestingly, much of the FiOS fiber network was built by overlashing fiber onto the copper wires, so the copper wires on poles are likely to remain in place for a long time to come.

From a technical perspective, these changes were inevitable. Verizon is the only big telco to widely build fiber plan in residential neighborhoods and it makes no sense to ask them to maintain two technologies in neighborhoods with fiber.

I have to wonder what took them so long to get around to retiring the copper. Perhaps we have that answer in language that is in each FCC request where Verizon says it “has deployed or plans to deploy fiber-to-the-premises in these areas”. When Verizon first deployed FiOS they deployed it in a helter-skelter manner, mostly sticking to neighborhoods which had the lowest deployment cost, usually where they could overlash on aerial copper. At the time they bypassed places where other utilities were buried unless the neighborhood already had empty conduit in place. Perhaps Verizon has quietly added fiber to fill in these gaps or is now prepared to finally do so.

That is the one area of concern raised by these notices. What happens to customers who still only have a copper alternative? If they have a maintenance issue will Verizon refuse to fix it? While Verizon says they are prepared to deploy fiber everywhere, what happens to customers until the fiber is in front of their home or business? What happens to their telephone service if their voice switch is suddenly turned off?

I have to hope that Verizon has considered these situations and that they won’t let customers go dead. While many of the affected exchanges are mostly urban, many of them include rural areas that are not covered by a cable company competitor, so if customers lose Verizon service, they could find themselves with no communications alternative. Is Verizon really going to build FiOS fiber in all of the rural areas around the cities they serve?

AT&T is also working towards eliminating copper and offers fixed cellular as the alternative to copper in rural places. Is that being considered by Verizon but not mentioned in these filings?

I also wonder what happens to new customers. Will Verizon build a fiber drop to a customer who only wants to buy a single telephone line? Will Verizon build fiber to new houses, particularly those in rural areas? In many states the level of telephone regulation has been reduced or eliminated and I have to wonder if Verizon still sees themselves as the carrier of last resort that is required to provide telephone service upon request.

Verizon probably has an answer to all of these questions, but the FCC request to retire copper doesn’t force the company to get specific. All of the questions I’ve asked wouldn’t exist if Verizon built fiber everywhere in an exchange before exiting the copper business. As somebody who has seen the big telcos fail to meet promises many times, I’d be nervous if I was a Verizon customer still served by copper and had to rely on Verizon’s assurance that they have ‘plans’ to bring fiber.

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 Impending Cellular Data Crisis

There is one industry statistic that isn’t getting a lot of press – the fact that cellular data usage is more than doubling every two years. You don’t have to plot that growth rate very many years into the future to realize that existing cellular networks will be inadequate to handle the increased demand in just a few years. What’s even worse for the cellular industry is that the growth is the nationwide average. I have many clients who tell me there isn’t nearly that much growth at rural cellular towers – meaning there is likely even faster growth at some urban and suburban towers.

Much of this growth is a self-inflicted wound by the cellular industry. They’ve raised monthly data allowances and are often bunding in free video with cellular service, thus driving up usage. The public is responding to these changes by using the extra bandwidth made available to them.

There are a few obvious choke points that will be exposed with this kind of growth. Current cellphone technology limits the number of simultaneous connections that can be made from any given tower. As customers watch more video they eat up slots on the cell tower that otherwise could have been used to process numerous short calls and text messages. The other big chokepoint is going to be the broadband backhaul feeding each cell cite. When usage grows this fast it’s going to get increasingly expensive to buy leased backbone bandwidth – which explains why Verizon and AT&T are furiously building fiber to cell sites to avoid huge increases in backhaul costs.

5G will fix some, but not all of these issues. The growth is so explosive that cellular companies need to use every technique possible to make cell towers more efficient. Probably the best fix is to use more spectrum. Adding an additional spectrum to a cell site immediately adds capacity. However, this can’t happen overnight. Any new spectrum is only useful if customers can use it and it takes a number of years to modify cell sites and cellphones to work on a new spectrum. The need to meet growing demand is the primary reason that the CTIA recently told the FCC they need an eye-popping 400 MHz of new mid-range spectrum for cellular use. The industry painted that as being needed for 5G, but it’s needed now for 4G LTE.

Another fix for cell sites is to use existing frequency more efficiently. The most promising way to do this is with the use of MIMO antenna arrays – a technology to deploy multiple antennas in cellphones to combine multiple spectrum together to create a larger data pipe. MIMO technology can make it easier to respond to a request from a large bandwidth user – but it doesn’t relieve the overall pressure on a cell tower. If anything, it might do the exact opposite and let cell towers prioritize those that want to watch video over smaller users who might then be blocked from making voice calls or sending text messages. MIMO is also not an immediate fix and also needs to work through the cycle of getting the technology into cellphones.

The last strategy is what the industry calls densification, which is adding more cell sites. This is the driving force behind placing small cell sites on poles in areas with big cellular demand. However, densification might create as many problems as it solves. Most of the current frequencies used for cellular service travel a decent distance and placing cell sites too close together will create a lot of interference and noise between neighboring towers. While adding new cell sites adds additional local capacity, it also decreases the efficiency of all nearby cell sites using traditional spectrum – the overall improvement from densification is going to be a lot less than might be expected. The worse thing about this is that interference is hard to predict and is very much a local issue. This is the primary reason that the cellular companies are interested in millimeter wave spectrum for cellular – the spectrum travels a short distance and won’t interfere as much between cell sites placed closely together.

5G will fix some of these issues. The ability of 5G to do frequency slicing means that a cell site can provide just enough bandwidth for every user – a tiny slice of spectrum for a text message or IoT signal and a big pipe for a video stream. 5G will vastly expand the number of simultaneous users that can share a single cell site.

However, 5G doesn’t provide any additional advantages over 4G in terms of the total amount of backhaul bandwidth needed to feed a cell site. And that means that a 5G cell site will get equally overwhelmed if people demand more bandwidth than a cell site has to offer.

The cellular industry has a lot of problems to solve over a relatively short period of time. I expect that in the middle of the much-touted 5G roll-out we are going to start seeing some spectacular failures in the cellular networks at peak times. I feel sympathy for cellular engineers because it’s nearly impossible to have a network ready to handle data usage that doubles every two years. Even should engineers figure out strategies to handle five or ten times more usage, in only a few years the usage will catch up to those fixes.

I’ve never believed that cellular broadband can be a substitute for landline broadband. Every time somebody at the FCC or a politician declares that the future is wireless I’ve always rolled my eyes, because anybody that understands networks and the physics of spectrum can easily demonstrate that there are major limitations on the total bandwidth capacity at a given cell site, along with a limit on how densely cell sites can be packed in an area. The cellular networks are only carrying 5% of the total broadband in the country and it’s ludicrous to think that they could be expanded to carry most of it.

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.