Tag Archives: mobile broadband

T-Mobile’s purchase of Sprint has to clear a Californian hurdle

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T-Mobile, the third largest U.S. mobile carrier, needs the California Public Utilities Commission’s blessing to buy Sprint, the fourth largest. Sorta.

The Federal Communications Commission has jurisdiction over mobile carriers and is doing the heavy lifting in the regulatory review of the transaction. But Sprint has a subsidiary – Sprint Communications Company, or “Sprint Wireline” as it’s referred to – that sells services to business customers in California. As a result, the company has a certificate of public convenience and necessity (CPCN) granted by the CPUC, and needs its approval to transfer ownership to T-Mobile.

In the joint application submitted by the two companies, Sprint Wireline’s business is described as limited “exclusively to enterprise and carrier customers”. It’s no big deal, they claim…

This transfer will not have any impact on the provision of [competitive telecoms] service or competition in that market. T-Mobile does not currently provide such services and neither it, nor any of its California operating subsidiaries, are certificated [competitive telecoms service] providers. Moreover, because this is a parent-level only transaction, with no change in day-to-day operations of Sprint Wireline, the Commission will retain exactly the same regulatory authority over Sprint Wireline that the Commission possessed immediately prior to the Transaction. In addition, the Transaction is transparent to Sprint Wireline’s customers as Sprint Wireline will continue to honor its existing contractual obligations.

The key question is whether the CPUC looks at all the business that Sprint does in California – including mobile – or focuses on the much smaller wireline portion. Going large means closer scrutiny and, perhaps, conditions attached to the sale. A narrow focus on just the wireline business would likely be much less fraught.

In the past, the CPUC has either sidestepped the question, as it did with CenturyLink’s purchase of Level 3 Communications, or based its review on the big picture, and the tougher standards that entails, as it did with Charter Communications’ acquisition of Time Warner Cable’s Californian systems.

The T-Mobile/Sprint deal is different, because there’s a clearer regulatory distinction between wireline and mobile companies, and the certifications and licenses they’re required to have. The CPUC has to decide whether it’s a big enough difference to justify waving the deal through.

U.S. senate looks at mobile broadband service standard for rural areas

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The Federal Communications Commission will set a national mobile broadband speed standard by running tests in the 20 largest metro areas in the U.S., if a bill that’s heading toward a full vote by the U.S. senate makes it into law. The goal is to establish a benchmark for judging whether or not there’s adequate mobile broadband service in rural communities.

Although the language is vague, the bill’s intent appears to be to use that new standard to decide where federal broadband subsidies will go.

The U.S. senate commerce, science and transportation committee approved senate bill 2418 last week, after its primary author, senator Maggie Hassan (D – New Hampshire), added language that requires the FCC to report back to congress every six months, on progress made toward ensuring…

Mobile broadband service available in rural areas is reasonably comparable to mobile broadband service provided in urban areas…

A rural area shall be considered underserved, with respect to mobile broadband service, if tests show that the average speed and signal strength of mobile broadband service available in the area do not meet or exceed the average speed and signal strength of mobile broadband service provided in the 20 most populous metropolitan statistical areas in the United States.

There is some uneasiness about the bill. The FCC’s minimum level for “advances services” capability is 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds. That applies to any type of broadband, wireline or wireless. The fear is that creating a mobile broadband standard based on urban service levels will water down that standard.

Anything is possible, but the FCC still uses 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up as a minimum standard for subsidised rural service. There’s already a gap between what the FCC considers good enough for rural communities and what’s necessary for full access to the online world. And the FCC doesn’t reckon mobile broadband to be a substitute for high speed, fixed service. Maintaining the distinction between mobile and wireline service is good policy. So is upping the game for mobile users.

T-Mobile, Sprint combo is anti-competitive, but that’s the feds’ call

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The $26.5 billion dollar proposed purchase of Sprint by T-Mobile can’t go forward unless it’s given a pass by anti-trust watchdogs. As a practical matter, that means the federal justice department’s anti-trust unit sits on its hands and doesn’t challenge it in court, and the Federal Communications Commission signs off on the license transfers involved.

In theory, the California attorney general could jump in. In practice, that’s unlikely. So let’s set it aside for now. Unless there’s some obscure wireline telephone asset involved – anything is possible, but I don’t think so – the California Public Utilities Commission isn’t in the game either.

It’s down to the feds. And the likeliest source of opposition is the justice department’s anti-trust unit. It took on AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner, although its lawsuit appears to be on the ropes.

The question is whether combining T-Mobile and Sprint into one company makes the U.S. mobile telecoms market significantly less competitive. Right now, they are two of the four mobile carriers that are worth worrying about (the other two are AT&T and Verizon, but you knew that).

T-Mobile has 17% of the U.S. mobile broadband market; Sprint has 13%. Both are in the habit of making significant market gambles – unlimited data plans, for example – that the big boys, with roughly a third of the U.S. market each, are forced to match. That’s a significant benefit to consumers, even if it doesn’t warm shareholders’ hearts.

When you’re in imminent danger of falling off a market share cliff at any moment, you assess risk differently than someone with a comfortable third of the pie. Which is what the new T-Mobile would have. Allowing it that level of comfort would decrease the competitive pain of its new peers, as well as consumer’s competitive market pleasure. We’ll see if the federal justice department arrives at the same answer.

T-Mobile, Sprint about to turn U.S. mobile market into a threesome

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Update: the deal is done.

The competitive mobile broadband market might not be as red in tooth and claw in the near future. According to several media outlets, T-Mobile and Sprint, the number three and four mobile carriers in the U.S., are on the verge of announcing a merger. It’s the second time they’ve gone down this path. According to CNBC, this time it’s because the competition is too much for the smaller Sprint…

Talks most recently broke off late last year after SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son decided he didn’t want to lose control of a combined company. Deutsche Telekom will own more than 40 percent of the new company, with SoftBank’s ownership just below 30 percent.

Several things changed over the last few months that led Son to change his mind, including greater synergies from lower corporate taxes, an increased understanding of how much 5G deployment will cost Sprint, and a rapidly changing competitive wireless landscape that now includes cable providers.

The big question – besides will they do it – is whether the federal government’s antitrust watchdogs will allow it. They scuppered AT&T’s 2011 attempt to buy T-Mobile because they deemed it anticompetitive. Duh.

This deal is more complicated. Arguably, a combined T-Mobile and Sprint would be a more formidable opponent for Verizon and AT&T, number one and two in market share with 35% and 33% respectively. Combined, T-Mobile and Sprint would have 30%, and be worth $26 billion.

On the other hand, it was the unlimited rate plans offered by the two smaller companies that forced the big boys to follow suit last year. Whether the merged company, with a market nearly even with the leader, would share have the same manic drive to catch up or would simply relax into a comfortable oligopoly is the key antitrust issue.

The marriage announcement, if it comes, is expected later today.

U.S. mobile capacity still trailing demand

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U.S. mobile network speeds dropped during 2017 when operators went all in with unlimited data plans, according to an analysis done by OpenSignal, a London-based mobile metrics consultancy. Carriers responded well, although speeds weren’t back up to pre-unlimited levels. But you can forget about mobile as a replacement for wireline service.

In the first half of 2017, AT&T and Verizon responded to competition from T-Mobile and Sprint and went back to offering unlimited data plans. Over the next few months, the average download speeds on their networks dropped. According to OpenSignal’s latest report, they’ve managed to reverse that trend…

A half year later, there’s both good news and bad news for AT&T and Verizon. The good news is Ma Bell and Big Red seem to have stanched the bleeding created by unlimited plans. After six straight months of tracking decreases in LTE speeds, in September speeds for both operators leveled out in our measurements, and in Verizon’s case, speeds started creeping back upward. The bad news is in November, both AT&T and Verizon were still well short of their 4G speed highs established in February. Meanwhile, Sprint and T-Mobile speeds have steadily increased over the same 11-month period.

OpenSignal also released some market-specific data, including four markets in California: San Francisco-Oakland (which doesn’t apparently take in Silicon Valley), Los Angeles (including Orange County), San Diego and the Inland Empire. In every one of those markets, Verizon had the greatest 4G availability and the fastest download speeds. AT&T had the best network latency performance in L.A. and the northern Bay Area and tied with T-Mobile in San Diego. There was a three way latency tie in the Inland Empire, between Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T.

The numbers show that U.S. operators are responding to growing consumption of mobile bandwidth, but struggling – successfully, it appears – to keep up with demand. It also gives credence to Ericsson’s prediction that mobile traffic will grow seven-fold in North America over the next five years.

Mobile carriers need to continuing expanding the capacity of their networks and they will. 5G upgrades begin in earnest next year (2018 is the year of 5G pilots) and will continue over the next decade. But they are running as fast as they can just to keep up with mobile data demand. Any suggestion that mobile networks will meaningfully supplant wireline broadband service is nonsense.

Truth is the first casualty of small cell deployments

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Mobile broadband companies are increasingly getting it when it comes to aesthetics, but pledges made on the front end aren’t always fulfilled by construction and operations staff or backed up by management. Wireless lobbyists and public relations people understand that they need to speak the right words to massage away concerns about how small cell installations will look as they proliferate along urban and suburban streets. But those oh-so-sincere promises, accompanied by beautifully rendered conceptual drawings, don’t always survive the descent into contract language, let alone appear on poles.

The City of Santa Rosa learned this lesson from Verizon – the hard way, according to an article by Christi Warren in the Press Democrat

The equipment — including large metal in-ground utility boxes about 5 feet tall — varies greatly in design from anything the city was previously shown by Verizon, the wireless provider installing the antennas, said Eric McHenry, director of Santa Rosa’s Information Technology Department.

While the city had no role in the equipment design, Santa Rosa officials went through a significant amount of back-and-forth with representatives of the wireless carrier on what the units would look like on city-owned streetlights, McHenry said. Officials took pains to make sure the antennas would be as unobtrusive as possible, he said.

“We frankly as a city were also surprised by what these first ones looked like,” he said, referring to the units Verizon is installing on utility poles. “They look nothing like what we had discussed with Verizon for our city streetlights or even the pictures that we shared with the council (of the installations) on wooden poles.”

The mobile companies have figured out that talking a good aesthetics game is tactically wise, but it’s a position that changes rapidly as rhetorical fights cool down. And once burned, city governments are very reluctant to make the same mistake twice.

That means there’s very little trust between cities and mobile companies, with good reason: the truth can be in short supply. The people tasked with making the case for wireless facilities might just be repeating what the boss said to say. City staff and policy makers can’t assume that companies will ultimately keep those promises because, as Santa Rosa found out, they often don’t.

Is it time for mobile carriers to scrap unlimited plans and bring back caps?

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Pricing has a major impact on mobile data usage, and when marginal bits are free – as with unlimited plans – traffic jumps significantly. That’s the conclusion of a study by NPD Group, a market research firm that covers a number of industries, including telecommunications.

Subscribers with unlimited plans use 67% more mobile data than subs who have caps. Interestingly, though, people with capped plans consume 8% more data overall, when WiFi offloading is factored in. The press release about the study doesn’t offer much detail – presumably, that’s what you’d get in a paid report – but it does offer one interesting data point: more and more data, particularly video, is streaming through smartphones, one way or the other…

The average U.S. smartphone user consumes a total of 31.4 GB of data on a monthly basis (including Wi-Fi and cellular consumption). This is up 25 percent from one year prior, when the total monthly data consumption averaged 25.2 GB per user…

Streaming video remains the number one driver of cellular and Wi-Fi data consumption on mobile and fixed networks, accounting for 83 percent of the total data used by smartphone owners. In Q3 2017, 67 percent of all smartphone users reported accessing video content via an app at least once a month, up from 57 percent in Q2 2017.

For the sake of playing around with numbers, take Ericsson’s estimate that the average North American smartphone currently consumes 7 GB of data a month and egregiously assume that there’s a 50/50 split between unlimited and capped plans in the market. In very round numbers, that implies that people with capped plans use about 5 GB a month and those with unlimited plans burn through 9 GB a month.

Whether those are the actual numbers or not, it’s an illustration of the dilemma facing mobile carriers. Do they stick with unlimited plans and hope that they can increase base rates quickly enough to pay for added capacity to meet demand – Ericsson predicts average North American consumption will be 48 GB by 2023 – or try to limit it with usage based pricing and reduce the need for capital spending on network expansion?

5G mobile tech finally moves from marketing hype to a hard standard

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A formal, implementable set of specifications for 5G mobile broadband technology and service is now final. The international organisation responsible for the standard – 3GPP – reached agreement on an initial set of specs at a meeting in Portugal on Thursday.

That means that equipment manufacturers can start making gear – first fixed, because that’s easiest, and then mobile – that meets an agreed upon 5G standard. Carriers can implement pilot projects that won’t be orphaned as the technology develops. Superseded perhaps, but not rendered useless from either a technological or a network management perspective.

All four of the big U.S. mobile carriers signed on, along with most of the world’s other heavyweights

AT&T, BT, China Mobile, China Telecom, China Unicom, Deutsche Telekom, Ericsson, Fujitsu, Huawei, Intel, KT Corporation, LG Electronics, LG Uplus, MediaTek Inc., NEC Corporation, Nokia, NTT DOCOMO, Orange, Qualcomm Technologies, Inc., Samsung Electronics, SK Telecom, Sony Mobile Communications Inc., Sprint, TIM, Telefonica, Telia Company, T-Mobile USA, Verizon, Vodafone, and ZTE have made a statement that the completion of the first 5G NR standard has set the stage for the global mobile industry to start full-scale development of 5G NR for large-scale trials and commercial deployments as early as in 2019.

It’s significant from a broadband development perspective because there is now a firm, widely – virtually universally – standard to measure claims of 5G technology against. It keeps us out of the trap we fell into a decade ago when 4G services were coming to market. Because 4G could mean LTE, which became the de facto standard, or WiMAX, or whatever the marketing department said it was, there was no easy way to debunk false claims of 4G service made by mobile Internet service providers. 5G will be different because there is a commonly accepted standard.

That won’t stop mobile carriers from making false claims. But they’ll only be able to get away with it if we let them.

App challenge: what if you knew an earthquake will hit 5 seconds from now?

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The biggest natural disaster threat to Californians comes from earthquakes, wild fires notwithstanding. One quake can take out more homes, businesses and infrastructure in a few seconds than all of this year’s fires combined. There’s no scientifically valid way of predicting earthquakes, so most people assume they strike without warning.

Not so. Earthquakes run for many seconds, even minutes. The first vibrations that ripple out are called P-waves, which seldom do damage but carry critical information about location and intensity several seconds ahead of the big shake. The U.S. Geological Survey and west coast research universities have a pilot program in place to monitor P-waves, and send out alerts. It’s in the early stages right now, and only a few agencies are connected. BART, for example, is using it to slow down trains before the main force of an earthquake hits.

The next step is to figure out how to push that information out to the public in time for it to be useful. The City of Los Angeles has a request for proposals out, looking for a developer who can develop a mobile app that’ll deliver meaningful and useful information to the public within ten seconds of the first alert from the USGS system. The first step will be to develop an app that can beta tested by city employees. It’s intended to be an open source project. The code has to be published on GitHub and published on an open source platform.

The technical work is the easy part. The harder question is, what will people do with the information? USGS says that “the warning time would range from a few seconds to a few tens of seconds”. If ten seconds or more are eaten up processing and delivering the alert, and a few more seconds are needed for people to pick up and read their phones, there’s not much time to react and take useful action. Solving that problem will be the truly difficult, and interesting, challenge.

City of Los Angeles Informal Procurement: Los Angeles Earthquake Early Warning Mobile Application

Mobile industry group calls for less 5G hype while standards are established

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A European trade group wants more 5G coordination and less marketing misdirection, while at the same time AT&T is running as fast as it can in the opposite direction. On the one hand, it’s an interesting contrast between the technocratic central planning that European telecoms companies often take comfort in (and often ignore, when it suits them), and the Wild West, grab-it-while-you-can ethic of the U.S. mobile industry.

On the other, it’s a useful reminder that the overheated press releases and aggressive lobbying by U.S. mobile companies, and AT&T in particular, does more than just confuse consumers and policy makers. It also creates needless distractions and delays for technology and infrastructure that relies on international standards and a global supply chain.

The 5G Infrastructure Association is a creature of the European Commission, one of the main governing branches of the European Union. It’s job is to coordinate development, trials and, eventually, full roll out of 5G mobile technology and networks across Europe. It released its latest road map earlier this week, showing true commercialisation of 5G technology coming sometime after 2020, and warning carriers that “it is very important to avoid premature ‘5G’ launch announcements and the subsequent potential fragmentation among the different countries, which would hurt both industry and consumers”.

It’s no shock that an E.U.-sponsored group is calling for more coordination and consumer protection – it’s what they do. Nor is it a surprise that AT&T is completely ignoring them – it’s what they do. The tension between the two helps maintain a balance between innovation and cooperation, both of which are indispensable to the telecommunications industry.

What’s not necessary, though, is misleading hype. More industry groups should follow the 5G Infrastructure Association’s lead and insist on clarity and truth in labelling. Facts are important.