Tag Archives: wireless

Fight begins over who gets spectrum assigned to self driving cars

by Steve Blum • , , ,


The automotive industry might pay a high price for sitting on spectrum for 20 years, without using it. Ironically, it comes when an automotive use for the 75 MHz in the 5.9 GHz band allocated to Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) is right around the corner.

Lobbyists for Charter Communications, Comcast and other monopoly model cable companies want the frequencies reassigned and used to expand one of the unlicensed bands that’s commonly used for WiFi (although being unlicensed, it can be used for pretty much anything else, too). There’s a lot to be said for making more unlicensed spectrum available, and extending an existing band is simpler, from a user perspective, than creating a new one.

The trade off is that the spectrum won’t be available to support self-driving cars, as automotive technologists are assuming. Or at least they’ll have to share it with other users, which might or might not be practical.

Autonomous vehicles will have at least a gigabit worth of data, and maybe more, circulating on their internal networks. The major source will be high resolution video cameras that the cars use for eyes. Most of the processing will happen onboard, but there are also plans to share video between vehicles. For example, your car could be looking through a video camera on the car in front of it, to get a better view of what’s heading down the road.

There are other uses for vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication. Mobile carriers would prefer that all of it be done via their networks, for a price of course. That’s a problem, though, and not just because it would, in effect, let them impose a private tax on passengers. The networks that the four major carriers are building out in the U.S. won’t have the capacity to support just the connectivity that car makers need even if they have access to a dedicated automotive band.

Part of the problem is regulatory disconnect. The Federal Communications Commission assigned the band to DSRC twenty years ago, with particular applications in mind. Those applications never materialised, but new, self driving car technology, which was never anticipated, developed instead. At the same time, federal transportation officials are trying to come up with a solution based on the older, unused service model.

Right now, everyone is playing the District of Columbia’s typical zero sum game – one bunch of lobbyists gets the spectrum, another loses it. There should be a win-win solution that lets self driving cars communicate with each other and increases the bandwidth available for people, too. To figure it out, the FCC has to focus on technology and the future, not politics and the present. That might be a hopelessly tall order for the current batch of commissioners.

California’s telecom right of way rules are detailed but not tidy

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

I was asked yesterday about California’s public right of way (ROW) rules, as they apply to telecoms companies. There’s no one stop handbook that I know of (but if anyone else does, please chime in). The rules are fluid, and are mostly determined by CPUC decisions, with some court rulings thrown in.

In California, it starts with section 7901 of the public utilities code

Telegraph or telephone corporations may construct lines of telegraph or telephone lines along and upon any public road or highway, along or across any of the waters or lands within this State, and may erect poles, posts, piers, or abutments for supporting the insulators, wires, and other necessary fixtures of their lines, in such manner and at such points as not to incommode the public use of the road or highway or interrupt the navigation of the waters.

That’s interpreted to mean that local agencies can’t prohibit or charge a fee – either one-time or ongoing rents – for ROW use. Local agencies can regulate “time, place and manner” of access and charge one time permit fees based on processing costs, but can’t block use.

The fundamental CPUC decision setting the rules was issued in 1998. It’s been modified, directly and indirectly, many times since. The most recent changes were in 2016 to explicitly include mobile carriers and allow them to attach wireless facilities to utility poles, and last month to extend the same privilege to wireline telephone companies. In 2015, the commission narrowed the gap between broadband providers and traditional telephone and cable companies in a pair of rulings, one involving Google Fiber and the other a California Advanced Services Fund subsidy for a fiber to the home project.

Typically, the text of new decisions summarise the current state of the rules, and are a good starting point for figuring what’s what.

There’s also a case pending at the California supreme court – T-Mobile vs. City and County of San Francisco – regarding aesthetic standards. It’s a challenge to an appeals court ruling that allowed San Francisco to regulate wireless facilities on aesthetic grounds, up to a point.

The documents are all posted here:

Conduit, right of way, pole attachment, dark fiber and franchise agreement documents

I’ll update that page as I get new information.

Market competition pushes down San Jose light pole lease rates

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The City of San Jose will finalise a light pole lease agreement with AT&T. The San Jose city council approved a set of deal points on a nine to one vote last week. AT&T will pay $1,500 per year each to attach small cell equipment to city-owned light poles, plus pay $1,850,000 toward fees and a permit streamlining program.

That’s less than half of what San Jose was trying to charge.

“We have a fast changing landscape”, San Jose mayor Sam Liccardo said. “I’Il be talking with Verizon tomorrow and that’s one of several companies – we’re having challenges nailing them down on prices that are moving very rapidly, in some cases, the wrong direction”.

San Jose’s rate card had a top rate of $3,500 per year for the smallest of small cell attachments, with higher rates for bigger or more powerful equipment. Besides being too expensive, San Jose couldn’t predictably approve permit applications, which led AT&T to invest elsewhere, Dolan Beckel, San Jose’s director of civic innovation, told the council…

In September of 2016, AT&T submitted 17 small cell permit applications. Over a year later in November of 2017…none of those 17 small cell permits were approved. AT&T could not justify further investment in our small cell infrastructure – we are too expensive, we are too slow and we could not generate any predictability. They are pulling their capital investment in small cells out of the city and directing it to other cities.

Whether AT&T would have walked away from San Jose for good is an open question. Probably not – it can’t afford to concede the biggest city in northern California and Silicon Valley to its rivals. But even AT&T’s capital isn’t infinite. Choices have to be made and, for now at least, investment will follow the path of least resistance.

The lower fees and faster permits – the city will try to get permits processed in two months – will lead to an initial build of 170 small cell sites, with 1,000 or more promised in a later phase, Beckel said.

The deal also gives AT&T direct responsibility for dealing with complaints or objections by residents, on a fast track basis. AT&T would snail mail notices to people who live within 300 feet of proposed small cell sites. Recipients would have 20 calendar days to “contact…AT&T with their concerns and questions”. It would be up to AT&T to resolve problems they can and let the city know about the ones they can’t. What happens after that is still undefined.

California opens up utility poles to mobile infrastructure companies

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

It’s a small change, but one that might speed up mobile broadband deployment in California. Wireline telephone companies can now install pretty much any kind of wireless equipment on utility poles, thanks to a decision by the California Public Utilities Commission.

The primary beneficiary will be mobile infrastructure companies – Crown Castle, Wave, Extenet for example – that build cell sites, large and small, and operate them for licensed mobile carriers, such as AT&T, Verizon and whatever T-Mobile and Sprint eventually become. A couple years ago, the CPUC allowed mobile carriers to attach cellular equipment to utility poles under the same, open-to-all rules that apply to wireline telcos and electric companies. The only difference is that wireless companies have to pay pole owners more, because they take up more space.

But that 2016 ruling only applied to federally licensed mobile carriers. The infrastructure companies that serve them operate under wireline rules – they are competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs) blessed by the CPUC. So they couldn’t demand the same kind of access.

Now they can.

There were, and still are, workarounds. One-on-one deals can be done and paperwork can be – expensively – shuffled to make it look like the licensed mobile carrier is doing the work. But that can mean delays and extra costs, with no practical benefit to the companies involved or the public.

Not everything is fair game, though. There’s a particular set of rules that govern utility poles, which are typically made out of wood and shared by electric, telephone and cable companies. Those rules don’t completely preclude local permits and don’t apply to other vertical assets in the public right of way, such as street light poles – cities that own them can still negotiate fair market leases. Nor do they apply to 120-foot steel masts, such as those proposed by Mobilitie, another infrastructure company that has tried to play fast and loose with right of way privileges.

San Jose cuts $1,500-plus light pole lease deal with AT&T

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The City of San Jose and AT&T have a new agreement to put “small cells on city-owned assets in the public right of way”. A formal contract is still to be negotiated, but assuming the San Jose city council signs off on the deal points, AT&T will install “approximately” 170 small cell sites to upgrade mobile broadband coverage on city-owned light poles and other vertical infrastructure.

AT&T will pay the city an annual lease rate of $1,500 per small cell site, plus $1,850,000 to process the immediately necessary paper work and streamline future requests. $850,000 covers permit fees; $1,000,000 goes toward “improved permitting process reliability and speed for any permittee through organisational, process, and technology improvements”.

That’s considerably more than the $250 per year rate that AT&T and others tried to ram through the California legislature last year, but it’s less than San Jose’s current price tag for wireless facility leases. The rate card approved in 2015 was based on the perceived desirability of locations – a small cell installation (30 cubic feet and 20 watts or less) costs $3,500 a year in the high traffic central part of the city, and less – as little as $2,625 per year – in outlying areas. Bigger and/or higher powered facilities cost more.

The summary memo prepared for the city council implies, but doesn’t exactly say, the same size and power limits apply. Presumably, that detail will be fleshed out in the actual contract. AT&T’s “photo simulation” of what it’s saying it’ll install is above.

The memo does point out that the current rate card is too pricey for the market…

While this lease rate structure was appropriate for the nascent small cell market in 2015, three years later, the structure does not reflect current market conditions, the current state of wireless technology nor the City’s Broadband Strategy.

The retail lease rates…combined with the private sector burden of remediating the City’s poles had resulted in the City being unable to secure the necessary private sector investment in our broadband infrastructure. At the time the broadband strategy was approved on November 13, 2017 the City had not approved a single small cell permit nor collected any small cell lease revenue largely due to the existing Usage Fee Structure and a lack of centralized broadband governance.

The San Jose city council is scheduled to review the deal at its meeting tomorrow.

Cities get better deals from wireless companies in a free market

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

One of the working groups spun off by the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband deployment advisory committee (BDAC) – an industry dominated body – looked at how much it costs telecoms companies to attach wires and wireless gear to poles. The results of that study are here. It was based on information that participants voluntarily submitted – the study kindly describes it as a “convenience sample” – so there’s a limit to its reliability. Even so it paints an interesting picture.

Nationally, fees for attaching wires to utility poles run in the $16 to $18 per year range, on average. That’s a little more than in California, where a cost sharing formula established by the California Public Utilities Commission results in fees typically in the $20 to $25 range. It’s not surprising that costs here tend to be higher than other parts of the U.S.

There’s a greater variance when wireless facilities are involved. That’s mainly because there’s greater variety in the methods used to arrive at those fees. In some cases, for example utility poles in California, the wireline attachment formula is used to calculate a per foot fee. So if a telco is charged $20 per pole per year to attach a cable, which typically occupies a foot of space, a wireless facility that takes up 5 feet of pole space would cost $100.

In other cases, the rate is set by negotiation. One of the problems with the study is that it throws utility poles and street light poles into the same bucket. Those are owned, managed and regulated differently, and aren’t directly comparable. That said, the study shows that there’s a wide variance in wireless facility attachment costs, with a mean rate of $506 but a median of $57.

There’s a brief discussion of streetlight lease fees, which in some cases run from $400 to $15,000 per year when market forces are at play. In other cases, state legislatures have preempted local ownership and set much lower rates. That was tried last year in California, but governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill – senate bill 649 – that would have capped streetlight (and other municipally owned, non-utility pole) lease rates at $250.

FCC considers clearing a path through federal reviews for small cells

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Small cell sites and similarly sized wireless facilities will be able to skip federal environmental and historic preservation reviews if, as expected, the Federal Communications Commission okays new rules at its meeting later this month. As drafted, the FCC report and order would exempt “small wireless facilities” from studies and paperwork required by the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act. Those requirements were established many years ago, when the assumption was that a cell site was a big tower with lots of big antennas – what’s called a macro cell site today.

The FCC’s definition of a small wireless facility is specific – and generous – in some respects, but vague in others. Poles could be at least 50 feet, but if taller then no more than 10% higher than existing structures. Any single antenna could be no more than three cubic feet – suitcase size – but there’s no limit on the number of antennas. Nor on the amount of other equipment that can be installed, except that it can be “no larger than necessary for the operation of the small wireless facility”.

Facilities that fall within these specs would only be exempt from federal environmental and historical reviews – the FCC carefully notes that “small wireless facilities deployments would continue to be subject to currently applicable state and local government approval requirements”. That includes the California Environmental Quality Act as well as city and county permitting criteria.

That’s just for now, though. The FCC is listening to mobile carriers and big telcos and cable companies, which dominate its broadband deployment advisory committee. They’re meeting again next month, and could finalise recommendations for preempting state and local reviews, as well as a de facto ban on municipal broadband systems. The FCC isn’t obligated to accept those recommendations, but at least one member of the commission’s republican majority – Michael O’Rielly – is positively giddy at the prospect.

Eliminating unnecessary reviews is an excellent idea, and the FCC’s draft does a good job of injecting some common sense into federal regulations. Which is what the FCC is supposed to do. State and local governments have their own jobs to do, too. The FCC should leave them to it.

Mobile phone radiation limits are safe, FDA concludes following ten year study

by Steve Blum • , ,

Mobile phones don’t significantly increase the risk of cancer, given current safety limits. That’s the federal Food and Drug Administration’s assessment of two long term studies recently completed by the National Institutes of Health.

Rats and mice were exposed to higher-than-allowed levels – up to six-times as much – of radio frequency radiation for nine hours a day for two years. According to the NIH, only one significant negative effect was observed, and only in male rats…

High exposure to radio frequency radiation (RFR) in rodents resulted in tumors in tissues surrounding nerves in the hearts of male rats, but not female rats or any mice, according to draft studies from the National Toxicology Program (NTP)…

“The levels and duration of exposure to RFR were much greater than what people experience with even the highest level of cell phone use, and exposed the rodents’ whole bodies. So, these findings should not be directly extrapolated to human cell phone usage,” said John Bucher, Ph.D., NTP senior scientist. “We note, however, that the tumors we saw in these studies are similar to tumors previously reported in some studies of frequent cell phone users.”

Based on those findings, the FDA concluded that “we have not found sufficient evidence that there are adverse health effects in humans caused by exposures at or under the current radio frequency energy exposure limits”.

Research will continue into the possible effects of holding a mobile phone up against a human head for extended periods of time, as it should. But there’s an important distinction to be made: the level of radiation from a mobile phone in direct contact with skin is thousands (millions?) of times greater than the RF energy that same skin would absorb from a big cell tower or a small cell facility mounted closer to the ground.

By all the evidence, that risk is zero.

NTP technical report on the toxicology and carcinogenesis studies in B6C3F1/N mice exposed to whole-body radio frequency radiation at a frequency (1,900 MHz) and modulations (GSM and CDMA) used by cell phones.

NTP technical report on the toxicology and carcinogenesis studies in Hsd:Sprague Dawley SD rats exposed to whole-body radio frequency radiation at a frequency (900 MHz) and modulations (GSM and CDMA) used by cell phones.

The planning-optional Trump administration has no plan to nationalise U.S. telecoms

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The proposal to build a national, federally owned and operated 5G network grabbed a lot of attention early yesterday morning – it was a better wake-up jolt than a double espresso – but as the day went on it became clear that it was an out of the box analytical exercise by low level staff and not an actual plan. Axios broke the news on Sunday night, posting a slide deck and white paper prepared by national security staff that made the argument for clearing off 500 MHz of spectrum in the 4 GHz range and deploying a coast-to-coast, made-in-America 5G network that’s presumably more secure than off the shelf infrastructure made abroad.

The core argument was that China has the lead in 5G and artificial intelligence technology, and the U.S. needs to do something about it. Side benefits included quicker rural broadband upgrades – the paper assumed the network could be completed in three years – and an end to city by city bickering over permits and access to right of ways and poles.

Industry reaction largely amounted to huh? AT&T’s corporate statement urged gratitude for “multi-billion dollar investments made by American companies”, but forgot to mention the multi-billion dollar subsidies private telecoms companies are getting from federal and state governments. Weird.

The most robust defence of the telecoms industry came from the Federal Communications Commission. Four out of the five commissioners slammed the plan – Jessica Rosenworcel declined to rise to the bait.

But a nationalised wireless system can’t be ruled out in an administration that lurches from one random policy to another. The project was touted as an information age version of the Interstate highway system that was launched in the 1950s and largely completed within 25 years. It was pushed through on national defence grounds by president Dwight Eisenhower, who had been thinking about a unified federal highway network since 1919, when he spent two months in an Army convoy averaging 6 miles an hour, travelling from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco. Maybe president Donald Trump had a similar seminal experience: trying to tweet from the back nine at Mar-a-Lago perhaps?

5G now a matter of national security, Trump administration decides

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Telecommunications is one of the sorts of infrastructure that the Trump administration wants to improve, but its interest seems limited to upgrading wireless infrastructure for eventual 5G service. That support might only include regulatory reform, particularly federal preemption of state and local laws and property rights, rather than money.

It’s hard to tell exactly what the Trump administration means when it puts out statements about spending plans, telecommunications or otherwise. And it’s impossible to know what congress will ultimately do. That said, the National Security Strategy paper released last week links telecommunications infrastructure upgrades with security policy, although the intended funding source could be telecoms companies and state and local governments, and not necessarily the feds…

Federal, state, and local governments will work together with private industry to improve our airports, seaports and waterways, roads and railways, transit systems, and telecommunications. The United States will use our strategic advantage as a leading natural gas producer to transform transportation and manufacturing. We will improve America’s digital infrastructure by deploying a secure 5G Internet capability nationwide. These improvements will increase national competitiveness, benefit the environment, and improve our quality of life.

It’s possible to read this as evidence that the Trump administration is swallowing the nonsense that mobile carriers are peddling about 5G being the ultimate replacement for all things broadband. That’s a stretch, but shouldn’t be completely dismissed, either. It’s worth keeping an eye on.

The big impact is that tying wireless infrastructure to national security gives a political boost to the Federal Communications Commission as it speeds toward even greater preemption of state and local control over wireless site permits and, perhaps, municipal property such as light poles. It also puts a veneer of respectability on even more radical recommendations made by industry-centric committees that are advising the FCC, including a de facto ban on municipal broadband systems() and confiscation of city-owned dark fiber.

The FCC will have bulletproof cover to hide behind, and a strong argument to make during the inevitable court challenges to any new wireless policy it makes. National security is, if you’ll pardon the expression, a trump card in domestic policy debates.