Tag Archives: wireless broadband

Microsoft’s rural broadband gamble might have millions of winners

by Steve Blum • , , ,

The rural/urban broadband divide is deep, according to a report by Microsoft. For people living and working in rural areas, it’s confirmation of what they already know, but it’s valuable nonetheless. Microsoft’s critique of the available data – and the 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speed standard – is a useful corporate counterweight to the claims made by AT&T and Frontier, which are the telcos receiving the lion’s share of federal broadband subsidies for 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up service in rural California.

The report highlights the annual coverage data submitted to the Federal Communications Commission by Internet service providers. The latest numbers show that 25 million people in the U.S. lack access to what Microsoft calls “a broadband-speed connection to the internet”, i.e. 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up. Of those, 19 million people live in rural communities – 31% of the U.S. rural population.

California has 1.2 million unserved rural residents, representing 54% of our rural population, according to Microsoft.

But the FCC data probably overstates broadband availability, Microsoft says…

Data that Microsoft collects as part of our ongoing work to improve the performance and security of our software and services for customers provides additional evidence that the FCC overestimates broadband usage in the United States. While the FCC reports that 92 percent of Americans have access to broadband, our data indicates that the number of people who connect to the internet at 25 Mbps is probably closer to 49 percent. Largely rural states including West Virginia, Alaska, New Mexico, Arkansas, and Mississippi that rank among the lowest for broadband access according to the FCC are also among the lowest in our data.

Microsoft’s solution is its “Airband Initiative” which, the company says, is aimed at “harnessing unassigned broadcast spectrum known as TV white spaces to bring broadband connectivity to 2 million unserved rural Americans”.

That spectrum is in the 700 MHz range, which is better able to propagate over rural distances and cut through foliage and other obstructions, but also carries less data than more finicky higher frequency bands. That’s the reality of wireless engineering trade offs: there are no magic solutions, only different – and valuable – tools in the kit.

So far, Microsoft has invested in eight companies – including Cal.net in California – that plan to eventually reach about 1.1 million unserved people via fixed wireless service. Microsoft is not releasing actual subscriber or availability data, or disclosing how much it’s investing, though.

The initiative is not philanthropy on Microsoft’s part (nor should it be). The investments might or might not generate a direct return, but the “royalty-free access to…patents and sample source code related to TV white spaces technology” that Microsoft is also contributing could be significant. Using white spaces without interfering with TV broadcasts requires a central frequency coordinator, such as Microsoft or Google, another contender for that role.

The more rural households that Microsoft’s partners serve, then the greater the adoption of Microsoft’s core technology and the better the chance it has of cornering the top spot in that market. If that strategy works, everyone wins. If it doesn’t, Microsoft loses.

Just so.

U.S. broadband is expensive, even more so where bundles aren’t available

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Us ave broadband price 2feb2018

The U.S. is in the bottom half of the broadband price league table, according to a report by the Federal Communications Commission. It was published last February, but I just unearthed it and had a chance to take a hard look at the numbers. When you take both standalone and bundled Internet service packages into account, and weight it by the FCC’s market share figures of 25% standalone and 75% bundled subscriptions, the average monthly price ranges from $38 per month to $74 per month, depending on speed.

As you can see from the table above, bundled prices are noticeably cheaper than standalone rates. That implies that broadband service is significantly more expensive in rural areas, where bundle-happy cable operators do not go and expensive Internet-only wireless providers are common.

The FCC used three methods to compare broadband prices in the U.S. to other developed countries. Two were relatively straightforward comparisons, that show that broadband costs more in the U.S. than in most of the other countries studied…

For fixed broadband prices, under the first method comparing unweighted average prices, the United States ranks 18th out of 23 countries that offer fixed standalone broadband plans with download speeds of at least 25 Mbps and less than 100 Mbps, and 26th out of 28 countries that have fixed standalone plans with download speeds of 100 Mbps or greater. When taking into account fixed broadband bundled with video service, the United States ranks 10th out of 20 countries with download speeds of at least 25 Mbps and less than 100 Mbps. For the highest speed bundle plans with download speeds of 100 Mbps or greater, fixed broadband in the United States ranks 23rd out of 25 countries that offer such plans. Using the second approach, the fixed broadband price index analysis, the United States ranks 21st out of 29 countries aggregating both standalone and bundled broadband products.

The third method – a more complicated regression analysis – bumped the U.S. up the charts to number 7. It tries to account for cost differences between countries, and reckons that because customers have so much more online content available in the U.S., broadband is really cheaper because it’s worth so much. Or something like that. On a cash out of pocket basis, it’s still expensive, though.

FCC wants to open 1,200 MHz of spectrum to unlicensed users, and that’s a lot

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The Federal Communications Commission is considering a radical overhaul of the way licensed spectrum is managed, and shared with unlicensed users. Besides upping the stakes for wireless Internet service providers this week, the FCC began considering a plan to open up a massive 1,200 MHz slice of spectrum in the 6 GHz range to WiFi, Internet of things (IoT) and other new and unlicensed uses.

It’s a lot of bandwidth. The 2.4 GHz band originally used for WiFi is only 83 MHz wide, and the newer 5 GHz band is 150 MHz.

Two methods are proposed. In 850 MHz of sub-bands assigned to “fixed” uses, where transmitters and receivers stay in one place – links between TV studios and transmitters, for example – unlicensed users would be able to transmit at standard power levels, so long as they avoid interfering with license holders, via a hardware-based coordination system yet to be established. There are a lot of details to be worked out, but the idea is that unlicensed equipment would be automatically prevented from interfering with a nearby, licensed user.

A similar system is in place for coordinating fringe frequencies – aka white space – assigned to TV stations, and another is specced for managing wireless broadband service in the 3.5 GHz band, but neither involve the huge swath of spectrum in the 6 MHz plan.

Other sub-bands – a total of 350 MHz – are assigned to transmitters that move around, such as TV news trucks. Coordination would be too complicated. Unlicensed users in those ranges would be restricted to low power, indoor equipment – WiFi or Bluetooth for example – that couldn’t, or shouldn’t, cause interference.

The FCC and its predecessor, the Federal Radio Commission, have been setting aside bands for particular purposes, and giving exclusive licenses for specific frequencies in those bands to individual users for 90 years. It made sense in the analog era. But the widespread adoption of digital transmission technology changed the game. The same bandwidth that was needed to broadcast one low definition, analog television channel can support many high definition, digital ones.

And television is just one example. Existing users in the 6 MHz band include utilities, railroads and telecoms companies. With digital technology, they don’t need anywhere near the amount of spectrum they now control. At least not to do the same things they were doing in the analog days. Arguably, they can do more now, and often need to, but technology has come a long way: spectrum sharing is technically feasible. The FCC has to figure out the best way to implement it, so no great harm is done, but it is doing the right thing.

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.

FCC looks at shifting satellite spectrum to wireless broadband

by Steve Blum • , , ,

C-band satellite frequencies will be rolled up over time, and turned over to ground-based wireless broadband operators, if the Federal Communications Commission moves ahead with a plan it will consider at its July 2018 meeting.

The satellite industry got it start with C-band back in the 1970s. Those birds sparked a revolution in the television business, allowing the development of cable networks, like HBO and CNN. They also enabled a new wave of satellite TV entrepreneurs, who sold big, back yard dishes to people who lived outside the bounds of cable systems.

Technology marches on, though. Commercial Ku-band satellites, which operate in higher frequency bands, were launched in the 1980s and were, in most respects, more cost effective. Higher frequencies meant more bandwidth and smaller dishes. C-band satellites are still in use, but are are more limited in terms of applications.

The C-band segment that interests the FCC is the 500 MHz between 3.7 MHz and 4.2 MHz. That’s just above new “mid-band” wireless broadband frequencies that the FCC is bringing online. The plan is to start at the low end at that range – 3.7 MHz – and progressively move surviving C-band traffic to higher and higher slices of that spectrum. Existing C-band licenses would be grandfathered in and protected to an extent, although that’s not completely helpful. Most C-band dishes aren’t licensed – it’s not generally required if all you’re doing is receiving signals. As most C-band dishes do. New C-band satellites already face restrictions, which would be increased if the FCC moves ahead with its plan.

The first step would be to start collecting data on how many C-band satellites are still in use, and how long they’re expected to last. Simple putting a freeze on new launches would end the business after maybe fifteen years or less – that’s the typical lifespan of a communications satellite.

U.S. senators want cities to act fast on small cell permit applications

by Steve Blum • , , ,

There’s bad news and maybe a little good news for cities in a draft U.S. senate bill that aims to speed up wireless broadband deployments. Senate bill 3157 was introduced last week by senators John Thune (R – South Dakota) and Brian Schatz (D – Hawaii). It’s a bipartisan and significant pairing – Thune chairs the senate’s commerce committee and Schatz is the ranking democrat on its communications subcommittee.

The bad news is that the bill would reduce the amount of time local governments have to process permit applications for wireless facilities. In cities with populations of more than 50,000 people, an application for a new “small personal wireless service facility” would have to be granted or denied within 90 days, or else it’s automatically “deemed granted”. Permits for adding more equipment to an existing facility – a collocation – would have to acted on in 60 days. Smaller cities would get more time, up to 5 months in some cases.

Under current California law and Federal Communications Commission rules, it’s a 60 or 90 day limit for collocations and 5 months for new sites, also with automatic approval if the shot clock runs out.

The good news, such as it is, is that the bill specifically allows cities and states to “regulate the placement, construction, and modification of small personal wireless service facilities” on aesthetic, concealment, safety and structural engineering grounds.

The National League of Cities isn’t happy with the bill, according to Politico.com

“We are disappointed that the Commerce Committee did not fully address our concerns about local preemption, and imposing a new federal one-size-fits-all mandate for small cell deployments won’t work for all cities,” said Tom Martin, a spokesman for the league. The National League of Cities had objected to the original draft proposal circulated last October, arguing its provisions would be unfair to municipalities.

Thune wants to hold a hearing on the bill later this month. Thune and Schatz teamed up on the bill proposed last year. This time around it’s a bit less tilted toward mobile carriers and it could have enough support to make it into law.

U.S. senate looks at stomping local wireless property rights and permits

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

A draft bill bouncing around the U.S senate would preempt state and local ownership of public property when wireless companies want to use it, and would put tight limits on state and local authority to issue permits for wireless facilities on private property. It’s a bipartisan effort, led by senators John Thune (R – South Dakota) and Brian Schatz (D – Hawaii), both of whom are major congressional broadband policy players.

In a lot of ways, it resembles senate bill 649, which was approved by the California legislature this year then vetoed by governor Jerry Brown, who wanted a “more balanced solution”. This bill ain’t it. As drafted, the bill

  • Requires state and local government to make the public right of way, and poles and any “other facility owned by the state or local government” available “to support equipment for use by providers of wireless services”.
  • Says compensation for use of poles, right of way and other property must be “based on actual and direct costs”. Utility poles – as opposed to, say, street light poles – are exempted, in a double-reverse sort of way. Rates for attachments to utility poles are governed by existing state and federal laws, and are similarly restricted to actual costs. The formulas used to determine those rates will be the presumptive method for figuring out the actual and direct cost of attaching wireless transmitters and antennas to street lights and other publicly owned assets. In California, that rate is around $25 per year, give or take a few bucks, per foot of pole used. That’s even less than SB 649, which allowed actual cost plus $250 a year.
  • Creates a shot clock of 60 days to “act on” collocation permit applications and 90 days for any other request to “to place, construct, or modify wireless service facilities”. Current federal shot clock rules are more complicated, and range from 60 days to 150 days.
  • Provides that if the shot clock expires without a decision, the permit application would be automatically “deemed granted”. California already has a similar “deemed approved” law, that’s tied to the various 60 to 150 day shot clocks.
  • Extends all the related courtesies and privileges of telcos to cable companies, without any of the associated regulatory obligations.

So far, the bill hasn’t been formally introduced. That’s not such a big deal in the federal congress, where final bill language regarding any topic can materialise at the last moment and be tacked on to completely unrelated legislation. This draft reads like it was written by wireless and cable lobbyists, who wouldn’t be at all interested in giving it a fair and open hearing. As the year winds down, anything could happen.

FCC wants to give “citizens broadband” spectrum to big mobile

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Some citizens are more equal than others.

The Federal Communications Commission says it wants to assign frequencies in the so-called Citizens Broadband Radio Service using a more traditional, industry-centric approach than previously planned. It’s a significant chunk of spectrum, 150 MHz located between 3.550 GHz and 3.700 GHz in what’s referred to as the “mid-band”.

It’s not pristine territory. Government and other legacy licensees are still operating in that band, and they would be protected. New operators, running under whatever new rules that the FCC eventually adopts, will have stay out of the way of those existing users and coordinate use among themselves.

Maybe.

There’s little doubt that the FCC will protect legacy users, but it’s considering allocating channels in the traditional way, with long term, renewable licenses that would be auctioned off in one way or another. That’s a model that big mobile carriers love – they have enough engineering expertise and capital to crowd out smaller competitors – but it’s a departure from the relative free for all that was originally envisioned.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel doesn’t like that approach. She’s a democratic appointee with a track record of critical thinking (for the record, I would put republican chairman Ajit Pai in that category too). In her dissent, she said it would be a step backward…

This rulemaking takes what was most innovative about our existing 3.5 GHz model and casts it aside in favor of existing business models. This is short sighted. The success of our future auctions depends on growing a new class of spectrum interests—who can innovate and join the ranks of those who bid on airwaves and support the Internet of Things. This is important. Because as our national providers grow bigger and fewer in number, the power of using auctions as a tool for distribution is compromised. Simply put, we need more entities interested in opportunities in our airwaves.

At this point, the FCC is just floating a trial balloon – a notice of proposed rulemaking in its jargon. The first round of comments will be due a month after it’s officially published, which likely means sometime in December.

Bipartisan bill limits federal environmental review of telecoms projects

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Just don’t disturb the ground.

A bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. senate aims to put some common sense into environmental law, at least where wireless facilities are concerned. Co-authored by U.S. senators Roger Wicker (R – Mississippi) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D – Nevada), senate bill 1988, aka the Speed act, would exempt a “communication facility installation” from federal environmental and historic reviews, if there’s already infrastructure in place in the project area.

Wireless infrastructure gets additional exemptions. Federal, state and local agencies would be barred from conducting reviews otherwise called by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or requiring others to do so if the proposed wireless facility is:

  • In an existing public right of way, and
  • Any ground disturbance is limited to that right of way, and
  • The structure is no more than 50 feet tall or 10 feet higher than existing structures already in that right of way, whichever is higher, and has no guy wires.

There’s no blanket preemption of local and state authority in the bill. The exemptions are limited to federal law. It specifically says that “nothing in this section shall be construed to affect…the authority of a State or local government to apply and enforce the zoning and other land use regulations of the State or local government to the extent consistent with” federal law.

Its effect in California will be limited. Here, NEPA generally applies only when federal agencies or land is involved in a project. Usually, it’s the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) that governs environmental reviews and it would not be affected by the bill as currently written.

I would not give S-1988 much of a chance of making it into law as is, though. The big reason is that telecoms bills – even widely supported bipartisan ones – have gotten stuck in congressional gridlock over the past couple of years. If it gets unstuck, telecoms lobbyists will try to add perks, particularly ones that would similarly preempt state and local laws. Some or all of the language could also get rolled into other bill, such as happened with dig once legislation, which was incorporated into, and then cut from, the still-stalled Mobile Now act.

Frontier preps to pull a wireless bait and switch on Californians

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Frontier Communications is backtracking on pledges made to the California Public Utilities Commission as it successfully sought permission to take over Verizon’s copper and fiber systems in California. During that process, it claimed to be a “dedicated wireline service provider” as it was trying to convince the CPUC that it could do a better job than Verizon…

Frontier is strategically focused solely on wireline telecommunications and has a long and successful history providing those services. Unlike Verizon and other large telecommunications carriers that have multiple business divisions—such as wireless and international—that compete for capital resources and management attention, all of Frontier’s capital and human resources are concentrated on wireline communications services.

Not any more. In a recent filing with the Federal Communications Commission, Frontier (along with Windstream and Consolidated) said it’s moving ahead with plans to spend federal subsidies on wireless service, rather than wireline upgrades (h/t to Trish Steel at the Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County for the heads up)…

Frontier, for example, has already begun testing fixed wireless in very rural [Connect America Fund-subsidised] areas. As Frontier’s Chief Financial Officer has explained, Frontier believes that this could be a “good solution” to the deployment challenge “in very rural America[,] and if it works the way [Frontier is] expecting it to work…[Frontier] will deploy more of that next year.”

On the face of it, Frontier’s plans for fixed wireless broadband service are similar to AT&T’s. Both companies are required to offer service at a minimum of 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds in federally subsidised areas, and putting up an access point with wide coverage is one way to claim they’re meeting that obligation, even though the service is unlikely to be accessible to all, or even most, of the people under that umbrella.

There’s one key difference between Frontier and AT&T, though. Because it’s also a mobile carrier, AT&T already has wireless sites, licensed spectrum and a deep reservoir of wireless engineering talent. Frontier has none of it.