Tag Archives: mobile broadband

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”.

U.S. mobile bandwidth is rich world’s most expensive, and it could get worse

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Mobile broadband prices in the U.S. are the highest in the developed world, according to a report just published by a Finnish research company. A study by Rewheel concluded that even though there are four seemingly competitive mobile operators in the U.S., “gigabyte prices are not competitive”, and “the US has the 5th highest gigabyte prices in smartphone plans and is the most expensive market in mobile broadband among the 41” European Union and other developed countries (i.e. those that belong to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development).

One gigabyte of mobile data in the U.S. costs $6.77 on average. That’s higher than any other country, although perhaps there’s some comfort in knowing that Canada is second highest, at $6.18 per gigabyte. The European Union average is $2.33 per gigabyte, and the overall OECD average is $3.03 per gigabyte. (I’ve converted Rewheel’s cost figures from euros to dollars, using its benchmark rate of €30 equals approximately $35).

The story gets even bleaker when competition is factored in. Like many developed countries, the U.S. has four competing mobile operators, but that doesn’t translate into competitive prices. The average mobile broadband price in countries with four carriers is $2.97 per gigabyte, less than half the cost in the U.S. Countries with only three mobile operators have an average per gigabyte price of $3.73, which is still three bucks cheaper than in the U.S. market, which is theoretically more competitive.

Theoretically. And maybe not for long.

T-Mobile is trying to get permission from federal authorities and the California Public Utilities Commission to buy Sprint. Rewheel concludes that “the 4 to 3 US merger, if approved without the upfront entry of a new 4th [mobile network operator] will lessen the already weak competition”.

Despite the Alice in Wonderland claims made by the two companies, competition will not intensify if there are fewer mobile carriers in the U.S. market. Fewer competitors equals less competition. If that wasn’t obvious to the Federal Communications Commission, the federal justice department and the CPUC before Rewheel’s report came out, it should be now.

Race to 5G is ready to go, but don’t be distracted by false starts

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

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.

Will California earthquakes move faster than mobile networks?

by Steve Blum • , ,

Earthquakes happen quickly, but not instantly. The shaking can last anywhere from a few seconds to more than a minute for a major quake. The shock waves spread out from the epicenter at something like the speed of sound, so it can be a few minutes before everything stops moving everywhere. The initial underground movement can also be detected by instruments before it’s felt on the surface.

Data networks, on the other hand, run at nearly the speed of light. So the right sensors combined with fast, smart computers and ubiquitous broadband coverage can give a few seconds of warning to people via smart phones. In the case of a massive 9.1 magnitude quake in Japan, where such a system is already in place, Tokyo residents had a minute and a half to prepare.

There are a couple of early earthquake warning systems under development in California. One is about to be tested by the City of Los Angeles, which partnered with AT&T to develop it after the project was put out to bid last year. Another system, developed by a private company, Early Warning labs, and the U.S. Geological Survey, is also nearing the test phase in California.

But there is a big if in those assumptions: mobile networks have to perform flawlessly for it all to work. There’s concern that Californian wireless networks are not up to the job, according to a Los Angeles Times article by Rong Gong Lin

Another big challenge faced by the system is how slow cellphone networks and other communications can be in transmitting warnings to the public. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Wireless Emergency Alert system is not fast enough to support earthquake early warnings; there have been reports of tens of seconds to even minutes of delays in receiving such messages.

The government and phone carriers are working to improve speed, but an ideal fix could take years to implement.

5G technology, which is particularly designed to shorten data transmission times, will help. At least where it’s fully deployed. Communities that are lucky enough – affluent enough – to meet mobile carriers’ return on investment goals will see that happen over the next ten years. For everyone else, what you have is what you’ll get when the Big One hits.

Small WISPs handed a tougher business case by FCC spectrum decision

by Steve Blum • , , , , ,

The Federal Communications Commission sided with big, national mobile carriers over small, local wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) yesterday. Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on where you think the market for wireless broadband service is heading.

The issue was use of the 3.5 GHz band (3550 MHz to 3700 MHz), which is frequently used for wireless broadband service – fixed and mobile – internationally, and is particularly sought after for 5G deployments.

In the U.S., it was allocated to the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) in 2015. A complicated frequency sharing process was adopted, with existing users protected, and new users divided into “priority access license” and “general authorised access” categories. Existing users (there aren’t many) are protected from new ones; priority license holders take precedence over general access users, who don’t need to apply for a license but do have to coordinate their operations with everyone else.

Yesterday’s decision changed the way priority access licenses are assigned. The 2015 decision said that the licenses would be auctioned off census tract by census tract. The new rules say that assignments will be sold county by county instead.

That makes a big difference in California, where counties tend to be very large. If a local WISP wants a license, it’ll have to pay for county-wide coverage, even if only serves a limited area. Think of the largest Californian county, San Bernardino (it’s also the largest in the U.S.). It includes heavily urbanised areas north of I–10 near Los Angeles, many mid-sized desert communities stretching from Victorville in the west to Needles on the Arizona border, and vast stretches of sparsely populated desert between Barstow and the Nevada line. It would be a practical impossibility for a small company to come up with a business model that serves all of that.

Berdoo is an extreme case, but the same kind of county-level geographic and economic diversity can be found throughout California.

On the other hand, that’s not a hard problem for a mobile carriers with a national footprint. Because they already offer differentiated services across various types of communities and terrain, they urged the FCC to change the CBRS rules to suit their business model. The FCC complied yesterday.

There are concessions for the small guys: sub-leases and local bidding credits were allowed, for example. But the decision gives the four big mobile carriers – AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint – a big advantage. If they upgrade service for rural communities, and not just focus on affluent urban areas, prices should be lower and service levels higher than what local WISPs typically offer.

That’s a big if.

T-Mobile Sprint merger will eliminate thousands of California jobs, union says

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The Communications Workers of America (CWA), which is the largest telecoms union in California, asked to join the California Public Utilities Commission’s inquiry into T-Mobile’s proposed takeover of Sprint yesterday. In its “motion for party status”, CWA said it represents wireless industry workers at AT&T and “as members of T-Mobile Workers United, an organisation of T-Mobile and MetroPCS employees”.

Many could lose their jobs, according to the union’s motion…

The T-Mobile/Sprint merger will have a significant impact on CWA members, both as workers in the industry and as consumers of wireless services. CWA’s research shows that the merger will result in the loss of 3,185 retail jobs in California due to store closures and consolidation. In addition, the proposed transaction could increase concentration in the wireless industry labor market with negative impact on industry-wide wages…

CWA District 9 intends to actively participate in this proceeding.

It’ll be up to the CPUC administrative law judge handling the case to decide whether CWA can jump into the proceeding at this point, but such requests are typically granted. The commissioner in charge, Clifford Rechtschaffen, didn’t call out employment issues as a particular focus of the inquiry in the “scoping memo” he issued a couple of weeks ago, but he also stated that the list was “non-exhaustive”.

Reviewing labor implications would be completely consistent with past practice and California’s public utility law, which directs that utility mergers must “be fair and reasonable to affected public utility employees, including both union and nonunion employees”. It’s not 100% clear whether the T-Mobile Sprint transaction is big enough to require that kind of review, but there’s little doubt the CPUC can choose to do so.

Two other groups that are protesting the merger – TURN and the Greenlining Institute – also filed paperwork, saying they expect to ask to be compensated by the companies for their efforts, as California law also allows. They estimate that they’ll run up a combined bill of $152,000.

T-Mobile, Sprint merger review widens in California

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

It seems someone jumped the gun at the California Public Utilities Commission, and prematurely sent out a ruling defining the scope of California’s regulatory review of T-Mobile’s proposed purchase of Sprint. On Thursday, the commissioner in charge of the inquiry, Clifford Rechtschaffen, issued an amended version of the “scoping memo” he released the week before, saying the first one “was mailed in error”.

There are several wordsmithing changes in the updated version, and a few that are more substantive. One big change is a broad, up front statement making it clear that there are no particular limits to what the review will cover…

The scope of this proceeding includes all issues that are relevant to evaluating the proposed merger’s impacts on California consumers and determining whether any conditions should be placed upon the merged entity.

Additions to the specific, but “non-exhaustive” list of items that will be covered include consideration of potential new services the combined company might offer and – for both new and existing services – the impact on communities and regions, as well as California a whole.

The net result is that the focus (if you want to call it that) of Rechtschaffen’s investigation is even wider than before. It won’t be limited to a few specific and largely technical issues, as T-Mobile and Sprint had hoped.

The original schedule called for a final decision by next June. The core of the new schedule tracks with the original one, but the beginning of public hearings over the next two or three months, and the final wrap up next spring (or maybe summer?) are more indeterminate. Instead of the CPUC voting on a final decision in “June 2019”, the schedule calls for that to happen in “2nd Quarter 2019”. Given the way decisions are drafted, reviewed and then put on the commission’s agenda, June is still a reasonable bet. But it might happen sooner. Or later – CPUC timelines have been known to slip.

California’s regulatory review of T-Mobile-Sprint deal has light years left to run

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The proposed purchase of Sprint by T-Mobile will get a thorough workover by the California Public Utilities Commission, and a final decision on whether or not to allow it won’t come until next summer. The commissioner running the review, Clifford Rechtschaffen, laid out the issues that he’ll investigate in a ruling on Friday.

Rechtschaffen had to decide how wide ranging his inquiry will be. Sprint and T-Mobile wanted it to be very narrow, and focus on two particular issues: could a relatively small Sprint subsidiary that does some wireline business in California be sold to T-Mobile, and could T-Mobile take over Sprint’s California mobile carrier registration. Technically, that’s just a simple notice that it has a federal license, but transferring it requires CPUC sign-off. As they tried to argue, both were matters of minor paperwork. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for, move along, move along.

Protests came from the usual suspects. TURN (aka The Utility Reform Network), the Greenlining Institute and Media Alliance – non-profit advocacy groups that rely heavily on “intervenor compensation” handed out by the CPUC – objected. So did the CPUC’s internal advocacy unit, the office of ratepayer advocates. They wanted the commission to review the whole merger, and all its potential impacts on Californians.

Rechtschaffen resisted the Jedi mind trick and sided with the protestors. He listed fourteen questions that have to be answered before the CPUC makes a final decision. The timeline he laid out says that will happen in June 2019.

The topics of those questions range from the merger’s competitive impact on mobile service and the fiber backhaul markets in California, whether or not innovation will be helped or harmed, and what, exactly, are the wonderful “efficiencies” that Sprint and T-Mobile promise will come our way if they’re allowed to combine. He’ll also consider the need for and the nature of “conditions or mitigation measures to prevent significant adverse consequences” that the CPUC might impose.

The public will be involved. Rechtschaffen plans to hold a series of public hearings in November and December, which will presumably be held in several locations around California. After that, both sides will file position papers, present evidence at a formal hearing, and submit their arguments and counter-arguments. Once that’s done – by mid-March – it’ll take about three months to produce, review and vote on a final decision. That’s the planned schedule, anyway. Much can happen that might speed up or, particularly, slow down the proceeding.