The Challenges of Fixed Gigabit Wireless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speed              Cost                 Data Cap         Price with no Cap

10 Mbps          $125                   1 TB                $375

20 Mbps          $250                   2 TB                $750

50 Mbps          $500                   5 TB                $1,500

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

250 Mbps                                                           $2,500

500 Mbps                                                           $4,000

1 Gbps                                                                $5,500

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

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

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

Getting Access to Conduit

innerduraFuturePathGroupThere is an interesting case at the California Public Utilities Commission where Webpass is fighting with AT&T over access to conduit. You may have seen that Webpass was just recently bought by Google Fiber and I would think this case will be carried forward by Google.

The right for competitive providers to get access to conduit comes from the Telecommunications Act of 1996. In that Act, Congress directed that competitive telecom providers must be provided access to poles, ducts, conduits, and rights-of-way by utilities. A utility is defined as any company, except for electric cooperatives and municipalities, which owns any of those facilities that are used in whole or in part for communications by wire. Under this definition telcos, cable companies, commercial electric companies, gas companies, and others are required by law to make spare conduit available to others.

If a utility allows even one pole or piece of conduit to be used for communications, including for its own internal purposes, then the whole system must be made available to competitors at fair prices and conditions. About half of the states have passed specific rules governing those conditions while states without specific rules revert to the FCC rules.

Webpass tried to get access to AT&T conduits in California and ran into a number of road blocks. It seems like there are a few situations where AT&T has provided conduit to Webpass, but AT&T denied the majority of the requests for access.

This is not unusual. Over the years I have had several clients try to get access to AT&T and Verizon conduit and none of them were successful. AT&T, Verizon, and the other large telcos generally have concocted internal policies that make it nearly impossible to get access to conduit. When a competitor faces that kind of intransigence their only alternative is to take the conduit owner to court or arbitration – and small carriers generally don’t have the resources for this kind of protracted legal fight.

But even fighting the telcos is no guarantee of success because the FCC rules provide AT&T with several reasons to deny access. A utility can deny access on the basis of safety, reliability or operational concerns. So even when a conduit owner is ordered to provide access after invoking one of these reasons, they can just invoke one of the other exceptions and begin the whole fight again. It takes a determined competitor to fight through such a wall of denial.

Trying to get conduit reminds me of the battles many of my clients fought in trying to get access to dark fiber fifteen years ago. I remember that AT&T and Verizon kept changing the rules of the dark fiber request process so often that a competitor had a difficult time even formulating a valid request for dark fiber. Even when Commissions ordered the telcos to comply with dark fiber requests, the telcos usually found another reason to deny the requests.

This is a shame because getting access to conduits might be one of best ways possible to promote real competition. AT&T and Verizon both claim to have many hundreds of thousands of miles of fiber, much of it in conduit. I am sure there are many cases where older conduit is full. But newer conduits contain multiple empty tubes and one would have to think that there is a huge inventory of empty conduits in the telco networks. The same is true for the cable companies and the large electric companies, and I can’t recall any small carriers who has ever gotten access to any of this conduit. I think some of the large carriers like Level3 or XO probably have gotten some access to conduit, but I would imagine even they probably had to fight very hard to get it.

I remember talking to a colleague the day that we first read the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that ordered the telcos to make conduit available to competitors. We understood immediately that the telcos would adopt a strategy of denying such access – and they have steadfastly said no to conduit requests over the years. I am glad to see Webpass renewing this old fight and it will be interesting to see if they can succeed where others have failed.