Tag Archives: mobile broadband

T-Mobile’s merger with Sprint could get even closer scrutiny in California

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Californian opponents of T-Mobile’s proposed takeover of Sprint want more hearings and another round of written evidence and rebuttals, before the California Public Utilities Commission moves ahead with approving or rejecting it. Prior to last week’s hearings, the CPUC in-house consumer advocacy unit – the public advocates office (PAO) – asked the administrative law judge hearing the case to, in effect, slow the proceeding down to give them time to review four thousand pages of testimony and evidence that T-Mobile and Sprint dropped on them. The PAO is recommending that the CPUC not allow the merger to take place.

After the hearings, other opponents – two private consumer advocacy groups, TURN and the Greenlining Institute, and the Communications Workers of America (CWA), a telecoms labor union – endorsed the request for more testimony and hearings. As CWA put it

Justifying an application for the first time with 4,000 pages of “rebuttal testimony” is entirely improper and violates intervenors’ due process rights. The Commission has held that “[p]roviding the basic justification in rebuttal is unfair, since parties are not generally given the opportunity to respond to rebuttal with testimony of their own.”

Sprint and T-Mobile naturally don’t agree. They submitted more than 250 pages of additional material that argues that there was nothing in the 4,000 pages that was particularly new or didn’t directly respond to points previously made by opponents to the deal. The companies particularly object to adding more hearings and filings because doing so “would substantially disrupt the schedule adopted by the Commission – adding at least six weeks of unjustified delay”.

The Federal Communications Commission is also reviewing the proposed merger. Assuming there isn’t another federal government shutdown, it’s scheduled to reach a decision by the end of May. Even if the CPUC’s review remains on its original track, it could run even longer than that.

Collected documents from the CPUC’s review of the proposed merger of Sprint and T-Mobile.

T-Mobile tries to make California merger case with soft engineering and hard hype

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Ebbc mobile broadband availability 2012

T-Mobile and Sprint claim that if they are allowed to merge, then California will see “enormous public-interest benefits”. That’s what the companies told the California Public Utilities Commission in testimony submitted as part of the regulatory review of their proposed deal. That claim is founded in large part on T-Mobile’s description of a glorious 5G future that includes download speeds of up to half a gigabit and coverage that reaches deep into the most rural areas of California.

The catch is that this wonderfulness is “projected” and not promised. Even if the infrastructure is built, T-Mobile’s president, Michael Sievert, is careful to add a footnote in small print that reminds us…

Average data rate is not equivalent to the actual user experience. The user experience will be affected by a number of variable factors, including received signal strength, location of the mobile device and base station, and whether the device is in motion, among others.

His testimony is supplemented with an impressive collection of county by county maps offered by his chief technology officer, Neville Ray, that show how much better 5G service will be if T-Mobile can scoop up Sprint. It appears that Ray is assuming that Sprint won’t grow much – his projections for Sprint’s 5G coverage area look a lot like its current 4G and below footprint.

The real problem is that this sort of modelling produces coverage predictions that far outstrip actual results. An example is shown above. It’s two mobile broadband coverage maps for the east San Francisco Bay Area posted by the CPUC in 2012. The one on the left is an aggregate of the availability reports generated by the four major mobile carriers using predictive modelling, the one on the right is based on actual mobile download tests conducted by the CPUC, and then run through the same process. The carriers claimed nearly everything was green, the color of good and great. The CPUC’s measurements showed that service in most of the region is brown to yellow, the color of, well, you get the picture.

Oral testimony in the case begins today in a CPUC courtroom in San Francisco. We can only hope that it won’t be as larded with marketing hype as T-Mobile’s and Sprint’s written statements.

Collected documents from the CPUC’s review of the proposed merger of Sprint and T-Mobile.

T-Mobile-Sprint merger gets a hard look in California this week

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

California’s review of the proposed merger of T-Mobile and Sprint goes into high gear on Wednesday. The California Public Utilities Commission will hold a hearing to allow lawyers for the two companies and the organisations that oppose the deal to cross examine experts, and others, who submitted written testimony about it. Three days have been blocked out, although it might not go that long.

The best supported and most coherent opposition to the merger comes from the CPUC’s in-house watchdog unit, the public advocates office (formerly known as the office of ratepayer advocates). It submitted lengthy arguments and a tall stack of data that shows why tipping the mobile broadband market into oligopoly status is a very bad idea

The Commission should deny the proposed transaction because of the irreparable damage to competition in the wireless market and the low-income customer markets as well as the absence of specific, measurable, and verifiable benefits to the merger. The loss of a competitive player in these markets would create significant risk of parallel conduct and higher pricing for consumers. This pricing risk is demonstrated by the two largest players in the wireless market today, AT&T and Verizon, which generally offer higher-priced plans than T-Mobile and Sprint. New T-Mobile would rival or exceed these companies in market share, creating a strong incentive for oligopolist behavior. New T-Mobile would also comprise nearly 60 percent of the wireless prepaid market that predominantly serves low-income customers, pacing excessive market power under the control of a single company and creating a virtual monopoly over these services. Because [T-Mobile and Sprint] are not under [traditional wireline telephone rate] regulation, protections cannot be implemented that are adequately enforceable and verifiable to address these risks.

Just so. The CPUC has little authority over mobile carriers, and none where mainstream consumer pricing is concerned. It can impose conditions on any approval of the merger – the public advocates office suggests some as a fall back position – but those would provide only temporary and limited protection to Californian consumers.

The best way – the only way in this case – to fix a problem is to not cause it in the first place.

Other groups with a stake in the outcome have also jumped in. The California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) and the Greenlining Institute expressed concern about the proposed merger’s impact on low income and minority communities, but didn’t particularly object to it so long as money and other benefits were required as mitigation. It’s worth noting that CETF’s primary source of funding is money extracted from companies that have had mergers or similar consolidations under review at the CPUC, and Greenlining relies on so called intervenor compensation from the CPUC, and companies appearing before it, as a reward for raising such issues.

The Communications Workers of America also has a dog in the fight. At this point, the union wants the merger blocked, claiming it would “would result in the loss of 3,432 jobs in California”, but it also left the door open to a settlement. In the past, CWA has opposed telecoms mergers, but then flipped and supported them once its needs were met.

T-Mobile and Sprint naturally objected to all these statements, filing detailed rebuttals, and scheduling time for cross examination at this week’s hearing. I intend to write a future post about those rebuttals, but if you want to read them yourself, you can find it all here:

Collected documents from the CPUC’s review of the proposed merger of Sprint and T-Mobile.

Eight essential characteristics of 5G networks defined by Verizon CEO

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Vestberg keynote ces 8jan2019

Hans Vestberg, Verizon’s CEO, did a rockstar, black t-shirt keynote at CES in Las Vegas yesterday. Vestberg took over the top spot at Verizon last year. As he often did in his former job as head of Ericsson, Vestberg offered a clear and credible explanation of what 5G networks and technology – particularly, Verizon’s – will deliver.

According to Vestberg, the five “currencies”, or defining characteristics, of 5G are…

  • Peak data rate of 10 gigabits per second. This is what the technology can deliver, the question will be whether the infrastructure and resources are deployed to support it in any given location.
  • Mobile “data volume”, aka network capacity, of 10 terabits per second per square kilometer. Again, depends on whether a given network is fully built out and provisioned.
  • Mobility. Users can connect while travelling at 500 kilometers per hour. That’s roughly 300 miles per hour and good enough for high speed trains. Not quite airliner speeds, though.
  • One million connected devices per square kilometer. That’s versus a similarly theoretical maximum of 100,000 connected devices per square kilometer for 4G networks.
  • End to end latency of 5 milliseconds. That’s at least ten times faster than what 4G networks deliver. The plain meaning of the words implies a roundtrip (end to end to end) latency of 10 milliseconds, which was also a spec Vestberg mentioned on stage.
  • Reliability of 99.999%. It’s the traditional and often attained “five nines” goal of copper phone networks.
  • Service deployment of 90 minutes. To logically configure a bespoke network, that is. One of the touted benefits of 5G technology is “network slicing”, the ability to easily create subnetworks for specialised uses such as, say, for first responders or internal organisational networks.
  • Energy efficiency of 10% of current consumption. It’s not clear if Vestberg means that individual 5G small sites will use 10% of the energy that a 4G macro site uses, which is credible, or if he’s talking about the entire network, which would be difficult to take on faith.

Verizon will only be able to hit these benchmarks, assuming it can, where 5G infrastructure is fully deployed. That means deploying a lot of small cell sites and stringing a lot of fiber to connect them.

Five consumer technology challenges will decide who owns the future

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Vegas cocktail

The innovation capital of Earth is Las Vegas for the coming week, as hundreds of thousands of technology makers and breakers, and buyers and sellers converge on the event formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show. Most of what’s on display is as boringly mainstream as clock radios and console televisions were at the first CES in 1967.

But there will be a handful of technologies and prototypes amidst the chaos that will offer clues to what our world will be in 2067, and that’s what I’ll be looking for…

  • New smartphone form factors – It’s an accident of history that networked, pocket-sized super computers are called phones. Advances in materials science and chipmaking will enable a breakout from the rigid rectangle that’s restrained the design of these truly personal computers since the introduction of the iPhone. Flexible screens are only the first step.

  • Handsfree interfaces – As the shape of mobile technology changes, so will the way data goes back and forth between people and machines. Voice recognition is good, but a faster, more discreet input method – just think? – is necessary. So is an alternative to transferring visual information via a flat, handheld screen. Forget about the demise of Moore’s law and fears of artificial intelligence. The human body is technology’s most intractable constraint.

  • Ingestibles and Implantables – The inner world of the human body is next level in general interface development and, specifically, personal health monitoring and maintenance. Getting there requires more discipline and regulatory aptitude than we’re used to seeing in the tech world, but the first glimmer of bio-adapted products are starting to appear. Real time, full body monitoring and analysis will be wonderfully disruptive to the medical industry. The big prize is faster and truer links between the biological and digital realms.

  • Personal transportation – From electric scooters to self driving cars to Elon Musk’s tunnels and hyperloops, a once-in-a-century transportation revolution is slowly coming to a boil. Part technology, part business model and part policy, this revolution will make snapshots of jammed streets and highways as quaint as horse and buggy daguerreotypes. Most of the pieces are already on the table. We’re just waiting for someone to put the puzzle together.

  • Power – The ultimate energy storage and charging solutions have yet to appear. A couple of wireless charging gizmos have been touted in the run up to CES, but so far there hasn’t been any movement toward an industry standard. Once we have the wireless equivalent of USB charging and power cells with the energy density of a tank of gas, for both low and high voltage devices, the market for wearables and Internet of things/home automation products will explode, and the adoption rate of electric vehicles, of all kinds, will hit escape velocity.

There are two more items on the list and always present at CES: the unknown and the unexpected. The challenge is to know it when you see it. Wish me luck.

AT&T’s theory of Evolution assumes its customers aren’t highly Evolved

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Att customer evolution

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).

According to a story in Fierce Wireless by Mike Dano…

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.

5G smartphones, systems ready for 2019 exhibition season

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

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.

AT&T rep says 5G is only for infill in rural California, and she’s probably telling the truth

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Salinas windmill cell site

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.

Perez spoke last Thursday at Valley Vision’s Capital Region Broadband Summit in Rancho Cordova. So did I, presenting an analysis of broadband infrastructure in Sacramento County.

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.

Partisan shift in Congress could influence anti-trust reviews of T-Mobile’s takeover of Sprint

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The flip from a republican majority to a democratic one in the federal house of representatives has opened a window of opportunity for, among others, those opposed to T-Mobile’s planned takeover of Sprint. A coalition of fourteen labor organisations and a wide range of advocacy are urging the presumed incoming chairmen of the house judiciary, and energy and commerce committees to investigate the “likely effects” of the deal.

In a letter sent yesterday (h/t to a story by Harper Neidig in the Hill for the pointer), the groups reminded representatives Jerry Nadler (D – New York) and Frank Pallone (D – New Jersey) that they spoke out against the merger when democrats were the minority party, that they should follow through now that they’re in the majority…

Representative Pallone, on April 30th you and Representative Doyle wrote to Chairman Walden and Chairman Blackburn requesting a hearing on the proposed Sprint/T-Mobile merger. You correctly pointed out that due to its “primary jurisdiction over the wireless industry, [the Energy and Commerce Committee has] a responsibility to understand the potential effect of this merger on consumers, workers, and the communications market.” You added that “the merger would create a new wireless behemoth by shrinking the number of nationwide wireless providers from four to three.” You went on to say that the Committee should explore the merged entity’s foreign ownership; whether 5G deployment is helped by the proposed merger, despite the fact that both T-Mobile and Sprint have invested in 5G already; and the state of wireless competition.

We agree. We hope you will now announce your intent to schedule exactly this kind of hearing.

The groups include the Greenlining Institute and the Communications Workers of America, which are also opposing the merger at the California Public Utilities Commission.

Congress has no direct role when it comes to reviewing mergers. At the federal level, that job falls to the justice department and the Federal Communications Commission. But they do have to answer to congress, at one level or another.

T-Mobile not worried about speed or result of CPUC review of Sprint deal

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

T-Mobile doesn’t seem to be too worried about getting approval from the California Public Utilities Commission for its proposed takeover of Sprint. The company’s chief financial officer, Braxton Carter, spoke at an investment conference in Barcelona last week, and offered an optimistic timeline to complete the transaction…

The goal, we believe, is still to close this transaction…in the first half, probably in the second quarter of ’19. You look at the shot clock with the FCC, it’s really implying a very early April end of that shot clock at this point, and that’s why I’m more pointing to the second quarter is more probable. It can still be first quarter, but it’s going, we think, exceedingly well. But I think by the end of the year, we’ll be in a much better position.

Braxton’s focus is on regulatory approval from the federal justice department and the Federal Communications Commission – he didn’t mention state-level reviews at all – so he might or might not be factoring the CPUC’s process into his estimate. The timeline for the CPUC’s review calls for a decision to be reached in the second quarter of next year, too, but earlier indications were that means sometime in the summer of 2019, perhaps June.

The CPUC’s review potentially includes a wide range of issue – no particular limits were set on the extent of the inquiry – but big question is the impact the merger will have on competition in California’s mobile marketplace. Overall, U.S. consumers already pay the highest prices for mobile bandwidth in the developed world. Going from four national competitors down to three would mean a significantly less competitive environment for mobile customers. T-Mobile’s counter argument, according to Braxton, is that it’s really about “two going to three, the creation of a third, more-scaled national player to compete against a predatory duopoly that controls 85% of the cash flows in the marketplace”.