AT&T’s 5GE scam is unravelling. Measurements taken by an independent testing company, OpenSignal, show that slapping a phony 5G label on upgraded 4G LTE service does not make the user experience any faster.
Some AT&T users in the U.S. have recently seen “5G E” appear on the status bar of their existing smartphones, replacing 4G. This move has sparked controversy because AT&T is using updated 4G network technologies to connect these smartphone users, not the new 5G standard…
Analyzing Opensignal’s data shows that AT&T users with 5G E-capable smartphones receive a better experience than AT&T users with less capable smartphone models…But AT&T users with a 5G E-capable smartphone receive similar speeds to users on other carriers with the same smartphone models that AT&T calls 5G E. The 5G E speeds which AT&T users experience are very much typical 4G speeds and not the step-change improvement which 5G promises.
If anything, AT&T’s attempt to jump the 5G gun seems about to backfire. The tests show that real 4G improvements have been made by AT&T, as well as Verizon and T-Mobile. Combining upgraded LTE infrastructure with current generation smartphones produces significantly faster download speeds. But instead of trying to capitalise on 4G success, AT&T is positioning itself as an evolved 5G failure.
To a large extent, AT&T’s future is built on expanding its portfolio of 4G systems. It’s using federal subsidies to build a 4G-based national public safety network and to deploy its 4G-based wireless local loop technology to replace rural copper networks. It will be building true 5G systems over the next five to ten years in urban markets where money and customers are thicker on the ground, but not in rural communities where 5G equipment will be relegated to an “infill” role, if it’s deployed at all.
Slapping a 5G label, with or without the microscopic E, on everything is an attempt – doomed, hopefully – by AT&T to disguise the growing divide between digital haves and have nots.
In the wake of a federal appeals court victory, AT&T moved quickly to consolidate control over the Time-Warner media companies it now owns. The apparent strategy is to meet Netflix head on as a content competitor. The initial signs are not encouraging.
As well reported by Jessica Toonkel in The Information, the top executives of HBO and Turner, two of the three Time Warner divisions acquired by AT&T (the third is the Warner Bros. studio), are gone. According to Toonkel’s article, AT&T wants to crank up the content production pace…
HBO is one of Time Warner’s crown jewels, the top ranked premium cable channel long known for hit shows ranging from “The Sopranos” to “Game of Thrones.” But the growth of Netflix has spotlight how little HBO has evolved in recent years. The company makes a handful of shows, compared to the hundreds made by Netflix. It resisted small changes, such as putting all episodes of its shows on the air at once, unlike Netflix. Shortly after the AT&T takeover, AT&T executives began signalling they wanted HBO to make more shows.
I worked with HBO in the mid-nineties, as the company I was working for – U.S. Satellite Broadcasting – was launching what eventually became DirecTv, another AT&T acquisition.
HBO has evolved over the past 25 years, but its core remains unchanged: it’s a video packaging and distribution company that produces a relative handful of marquee jewels, but relies on the broader industry for most of its content. The same might be said of Netflix, except that its hand is a lot bigger and its tolerance for imperfect gems is a lot higher.
Netflix produces excellent films and series, but that’s fuelled by a blockbuster budget – $13 billion in 2018 by one estimate – that’s higher than any mainstream studio. It also has a reputation for giving producers and directors a free hand, with little interference from the suits.
Money and creative freedom are two of three essential ingredients to success in Hollywood. The third is personal relationships, something the old HBO excelled at building and maintaining. The business doesn’t work like a car factory. You can’t just add a second shift and send in the bean counters. With neither the budget or the corporate culture to match Netflix, AT&T is taking a huge risk by disrupting those relationships.
With the acquisition of Time Warner’s movie and TV production companies, AT&T theoretically has the assets to become a vertically integrated content creation, packaging and delivery behemoth. But not all of its assets – including its management team – are necessarily well suited to the task.
AT&T’s challenge is to avoid outrunning its ability to manage three very different types of businesses: entertainment production, subscription-based linear video distribution and a huge heterogeneous telecoms network. Two of those businesses – subscription video and telecoms – are changing rapidly, and AT&T needs both vision and capital to stay in the game.
So far, it appears to be short on both. There’s a limit to what you can do with a satellite video network. DirecTv will never be interactive, so it can’t leverage its distribution investment to create on demand services that mimic over the top (OTT) providers in the same way cable companies can.
AT&T’s telecom business is also showing the strain. It’s holding back on 5G and fiber upgrades, and increasingly relying on its existing 4G infrastructure and technology. AT&T is replacing copper networks in rural and other less lucrative communities with 4G-based fixed wireless service , in part by relying on federal public safety and universal service fund subsidies. It’s also investing in marginal 4G upgrades and labelling it 5G. Well, 5Ge. But, as AT&T intends, it’s easy to miss the little e.
Outside of the limited areas where it’s investing in fiber upgrades, AT&T’s networks are taking a back seat to more specialised players in its footprint. Cable companies can deliver faster broadband service more widely and have a plausible chance of creating OTT-like video services that are only available inside a provider’s own network, via fast lanes that are isolated from the public Internet. OTT companies are sucking up consumer viewing hours and pure play, or near pure play, mobile companies could move more quickly towards true 5G service (although Verizon has put its early and much hyped pre–5G deployments on hold).
It will take an exceptionally talented and diverse executive team to pull these ill-fitting assets together into a unified programming and telecoms juggernaut. AT&T’s “fix” for HBO, for example – simply telling everyone to start producing more great stuff – and its disingenuous, if not downright deceitful, mislabelling of 4G service indicates that it doesn’t yet have the management and vision it needs to prevail over the long run.
For AT&T, success might end up defined as simple survival.
AT&T subscribers will get 5G on their smartphones soon. No, not 5G service. Just a “5” and a “G” and a little bitty “E” at the top of their screens, where it now says “4G”. It’s a branding move, and not a particularly honest one. About a year ago, AT&T announced it was relabelling its 4G upgrades as 5G Evolution (that’s what the little E stands for).
AT&T…introduced the “5G Evolution” marketing label to cover markets where it offers advanced LTE network technologies…AT&T has argued that such technologies pave the way for eventual 5G services, though critics have argued that AT&T’s “5G Evolution” marketing moves only serve to sow confusion among consumers.
AT&T’s decision to change its “LTE” indicator to “5G E” has precedence. Sprint branded its WiMAX network as a 4G offering, while T-Mobile (and then later AT&T) both branded HSPA+ as 4G before the arrival of LTE. Those moves were notable considering the wireless industry widely regards LTE as the official 4G technology.
For the record, Sprint had a legitimate reason for characterising its WiMAX service as 4G. At the time, the WiMAX and LTE standards were fighting it out to be the industry’s 4G choice. LTE won by a knockout, but WiMAX was a legitimate contender for the title. The 3G upgrade hyped by T-Mobile was not.
This new tech does mean better 4G service, although AT&T’s carefully worded and highly conditional press release makes it seem more than it is. The 4G upgrade “enables a peak theoretical wireless speed of 400Mbps for capable devices”, according to the company, with an average 40 Mbps “based on real world experiences”.
I presume the real world they’re referring to is Earth, but they didn’t actually say that. Read it as you will.
It’s a lot like spring training. Mobile 5G service is moving into the “proof of concept” stage, according to a joint press release from Samsung and Verizon. They trotted out a design they intend to offer to consumers “in the first half of 2019” at a Qualcomm meeting this week.
Both Verizon and AT&T plan to light up very limited 5G (or in Verizon’s case, near–5G) networks in several U.S. cities by the end of the month. Those, too, will be demonstration and testing platforms, rather than full-on, consumer facing service. And it’ll be fixed – not mobile – service, delivered to people in homes and businesses via WiFi “pucks” (as AT&T describes them).
Those are workouts, not regular season games, and they’re necessary. It’s one thing to develop standards and design new systems, it’s quite another to deploy them in the wild. Paying customers will evaluate the service based on their expectations, not on design specs. Cell sites will go where terrain, access and capital budgets allow. Smartphones – the critical link in the system – have to fulfil those expectations while working within network constraints.
It’s no surprise that Apple plans to sit out this next round in the 5G deployment saga. According to a story in Bloomberg, the company is sticking to its playbook and waiting for the dust to settle before adopting the new standard…
As with 3G and 4G, the two previous generations of mobile technology, Apple will wait as long as a year after the initial deployment of the new networks before its main product gets the capability to access them, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing the company’s plans.
Apple’s previous calculations – proven correct – were that the new networks and the first versions of rival smartphones would come with problems such as spotty coverage, making consumers less compelled to immediately make the jump.
With its 5G smartphone still just a proof of concept product, Samsung is unlikely to get enough into the market next year to make much of a dent in demand, but it will earn a place in the spotlight for being first. We won’t see 5G service deployed to a meaningful degree in 2019 but, like Cactus League baseball, it’ll still be a lot of fun to watch.
The FCC’s primary broadband metric is now the 80/80 benchmark: the minimum speed that 80% of users experience, 80% of the time during primetime viewing hours. When evaluated against that benchmark, cable modem and fiber-to-the-home systems do a reasonably good job of delivering service at advertised speeds. Among Californian providers, only Comcast fell noticeably short, with actual download speeds hitting around 90% of what they promise.
Telco DSL-based service doesn’t do so well. According to the FCC’s latest field tests, AT&T’s and Frontier Communications’ legacy DSL services – the kind you often find in rural California – deliver speeds that are about 60% of what they promise. AT&T’s advanced DSL systems – the upgraded kind that go into high potential neighborhoods – score around 90%.
On the upload side, cable and fiber providers generally meet or exceed their promised speed levels, but telco copper systems do even worse, again with the exception of AT&T’s upgraded systems.
People use Internet service differently now than they did seven years ago, so the Federal Communications Commission added consistency metrics to its annual report on broadband performance in the U.S. It’s an acknowledgement that a steady stream of data, to support online video viewing, is more important than the occasional bursts of speed that old school web browsing requires…
We found that for most ISPs, actual speeds experienced by subscribers nearly meet or exceed advertised service tier speeds. However, since we started our MBA program, consumers have changed their Internet usage habits. In 2011, consumers mainly browsed the web and downloaded files; thus, we reported average speeds since they were likely to closely mirror user satisfaction. By contrast, by September 2016, the measurement period for this report, many consumers streamed video for entertainment and education. Both the median measured speed and how consistently the service performs are likely to influence the perception and usefulness of Internet access service.
The FCC bundled all of its telecoms and media research – wireline and mobile broadband, and video – into one giant data dump. The report includes a well-deserved shout out to the CalSpeed mobile broadband speed testing program. It’s run by the California Public Utilities Commission and even the FCC considers it a valuable and independent source of information about what mobile carriers (and, soon, wireline ISPs) actually deliver.
In some ways, Pai is remarkably open about FCC deliberations compared to his predecessors. He routinely releases draft decisions three weeks before commissioners vote. In the past, drafts were kept out of the public eye, although lobbyists with sufficiently deep pockets always seemed to know what was coming. But Pai is also cagey about what he releases, holding back this latest round of broadband data, as well as details regarding the millions of apparently bogus emails uploaded to FCC servers during the net neutrality debate.
AT&T doesn’t plan to deploy 5G networks in rural California. According to AT&T staff lobbyist Alice Perez, small cell sites will be used for “infill” purposes in rural communities, to supplement big macro sites.
Those infill small cells might even be limited to 4G capability, and not use 5G technology. Her comments came while she was dampening 5G expectations. Any kind of cell site can be small, and she was quite keen about 4G systems, such as AT&T’s planned public safety network – FirstNet – and “voice over LTE”, which AT&T still hopes will be a replacement for copper-based Plain Old Telephone Service in rural areas.
For the record, 5G is not an “infill” technology. It certainly can be used for that purpose, like you can use a semi-truck to drive to the store to pick up a six pack. But 5G is about increasing broadband capacity many times over via densified networks and newer technology. And it’s about creating a platform that can support many different types of applications and system architectures on a single network, aka “network slicing”. Without a critical mass of 5G infrastructure, none of that is possible. All you’ll accomplish is to knock a couple of dead spots out of 4G coverage.
AT&T will deploy genuine 5G networks over time, but only in communities with a sufficient number of high potential customers. Perez underscored that reality when she listed the communities where AT&T is in the process of negotiating agreements to attach small cells, of whatever sort, to streetlight poles and other municipal property: all were comfortably within the Sacramento region’s urban/suburban core.
It should not be a surprise that AT&T has no intention of putting true 5G infrastructure in rural areas. As Perez pointed out, decisions about where to build are based on AT&T’s expected return on investment.
Concentrated 5G cellular networks, and the equally dense fiber deployments needed to support them, will only happen where customers are concentrated and the money to be had is equally dense.
AT&T and Frontier Communications were fined $2.2 million and $823,000, respectively, by California Public Utilities Commission, for “chronic” service failure, primarily in rural California. Sorta. Kinda.
At its meeting in Fresno last week, the CPUC voted unanimously to allow Frontier and AT&T to skip the fines, which were mostly for taking too long to restore telephone service for customers who experienced outages. In return, the companies promised to make “incremental” investments in improving service quality. The amount of those supposedly incremental investments are claimed to be twice the amount of the fines. Which is allowed under a baffling and irregular decision made two years ago by the commission.
The resolution regarding the AT&T fines noted the difficulty in figuring out what’s incremental and what’s money that would have been spent anyway. CPUC staff asked AT&T for list of what it planned to spend on “construction and rehabilitation projects”. AT&T responded with a list of repair work it was doing, rather than “planned projects focused on the rehabilitation of poor performing central offices”. That was because AT&T claimed not to know what it would have spent normally, because “they do not budget for specific projects; all project work is identified on a rolling basis and reprioritised based on the ability to reduce high maintenance costs”.
Translation: we can tell you anything we want and you have to believe us because you can’t prove differently.
After some back and forth, CPUC staff accepted AT&T’s story and recommended that commissioners accept AT&T’s claims and give the company two years to demonstrate “the results of their proposed projects to measurably improve service quality in its network”.
Frontier’s explanations are similarly wooly.
After the vote, which was on a consent agenda – a bunch of resolutions bundled together – commissioner Clifford Rechtscaffen said the policy of letting telephone companies fine themselves and keep the money needs a second look…
These are a set of resolutions we just approved under a new program we initiated a couple of years ago as an amendment to general order 133-D, and in particular they allow telephone companies who have been found to have violated our service quality requirements to substitute paying a penalty by making investments to improve service quality that are at least twice the amount of the penalty. I understand that this investment option was a creative way to try to address longstanding service quality deficiencies.
At the time the resolution was adopted a couple of commissioners expressed concerns and reservations about it, including commissioner Randolph, who asked the question of whether or not we would really be able to tell whether or not the investments that were made were incremental to what telephone companies would be doing in the normal course of business.
We’ve approved these three investment alternatives, but in practice we can now see that it is difficult, in fact, to determine whether or not the investments are incremental. This required a lot of staff time working with the companies to figure out what was new, what was not new and where the best places for the investments would be. I commend the staff for reaching good conclusions here. I continue to have some reservations about this option. I think we want to look carefully and see whether or not the investments really do improve service quality and whether or not this option makes sense in terms of our larger enforcement objectives.
The option doesn’t make sense. There’s no indication that either AT&T or Frontier offered any two year budgets, which is the only way to even begin determining whether their proposed spending-in-lieu-of-fines is, in truth, extra money on top of what they’d spend anyway. Or whether they’re just shifting money from one line item to another.
Letting Frontier and AT&T pay fines to themselves was a bad decision in the first place, and the details behind last week’s commission vote proves it.
The easiest way to win the race to 5G is to simply declare victory. It’s what mobile carriers did a decade ago with 4G, and what they’re doing now. That’s causing confusion, as an editorial by FierceWireless’ Monica Alleven describes…
One of the problems with defining 5G is, practically speaking, there’s no single judge currently determining what is or isn’t 5G. Is it ITU’s job, or 3GPP’s? Mostly, it’s the individual marketing departments at carriers and vendors, or “all of the above"…
Verizon is probably the most justified to date to actually call its 5G Home service a 5G service. It’s not using equipment built on 3GPP’s 5G standard, it’s using the Verizon Technical Forum specification for 5G. But it’s close enough to pass the test for most in-the-know analysts, and we’re told it’s a relatively easy upgrade to the real deal when that’s ready. (That’s not to say that I think Verizon’s fixed wireless access version of 5G is really all that mind-blowing. It’s not. But that’s a different discussion.)
Verizon’s proto–5G fixed wireless service is still just a test bed. The technology is intended as an upgrade to mobile networks, even though it can serve as a platform for fixed wireless too. But it’s nearly there and, as Alleven points out, Verizon should get credit for it.
Other carriers are jumping in as well, with marketing claims that are running ahead of the state of the art. AT&T laid down a notorious smokescreen last year, when it pasted its “5G Evolution” branding on its 4G network.
T-Mobile has hung back a bit so far, but keep an eye on them: it’ll be easy for them to dust off their 4G playbook and run the same deception again. Back when all they had was a 3G network, the marketing department decided it was so excellent that it should be called 4G too.
T-Mobile’s 3G service was good then. So is AT&T’s 4G network now. But that doesn’t justify a phoney promotion to the next generation of technology. Policy makers – at the federal, state and local level – have a lot of work ahead of them, to prepare for the day that true 5G mobile networks are deployed, 5G phones are on the market and customers – of all kinds – get the full benefit of the technology.
It’s urgent work, but not the crisis that mobile companies often make it out to be.
Four organisations – TURN, the Greenlining Institute the Center for Accessible Technology and the CPUC’s office of ratepayer advocates – asked commissioners to reconsider the decision, pointing out that the let telcos keep the money alternative was never on the table during the years while evidence was gathered. It first appeared in a draft decision, after the record was closed.
The commission’s response, adopted in a closed door meeting last week, was to 1. argue that vague comments and complaints made by telcos early in the proceeding were a sufficient “factual record basis”, and 2. refuse to reconsider the decision.
Next week, commissioners are scheduled to vote on proposals to let Frontier and AT&T off the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of fines they’ve incurred because of poor telephone service in rural California. The 2016 decision says that’s okay if they spend at least twice the amount on “a project” that “improves service quality” in the next two years. That doesn’t necessarily mean building new infrastructure. It could go toward salaries or other operating expenses too. It just has to be an “incremental expenditure”.
There’s no way to know if they would have spent that money anyway. Corporate budgets shift year to year and quarter to quarter. We won’t even know what they’re spending the money on, or what service quality improvements to expect: the CPUC plans to keep that information secret, because of its “sensitive nature”.