5G deployment possible by 2020 – not a rural panacea

I’ve heard a lot of talk about 5G playing a role in broadband deployment. The implications are exciting but it won’t be a panacea and it is still being tested. It sounds like it will be a good last mile technology for densely populated areas. It will also be good for the Internet of Things. It will help keep driverless cars from crashing into each other.

It will help bring a George Jetson looking world to cities. It’s fast with low latency, but the reach is small and the cost (more infrastructure such as fiber required) so the ROI requires densely populated areas.

Finley Engineering put out a nice flier on 5G; here are some of the highlights:

What is the goal of 5G?

There are many 5G network goals, but the priorities include the ability to provide much higher bandwidth, much lower latency, congestion avoidance, and support for emerging IoT applications.

What does 5G mean?

To understand 5G today, you have to separate the marketing term 5G from the technology term 5G. While there has been significant discussion and announcements regarding 5G and its capabilities, the actual technology and the standards it will follow have yet to be determined. There is ongoing 5G technology and standards work from global organizations, including the ITU, GSMA, and 3GPP, among others, to formally define the technology and its capabilities. True 5G standards aren’t expected to emerge until at least 2020.

What are the limitations?

  • True 5G standards aren’t expected to emerge until at least 2020.
  • This initial 5G spectrum is concentrated in the so called millimeter wave (mmWave) band. The mmWave reach is two miles.
  • More infrastructure is required for 5G.

Is there a role for 5G in rural areas?

It sounds like 5G will increase the need for fiber, maybe provide another partner to share fiber costs. Also it can support call centers, data centers, manufacturers – applications where the need is condensed.

Here’s what Finley says…

Beyond the wireless broadband opportunity for wireless carriers, 5G presents many opportunities for wireline as well. The most obvious is leveraging fi ber networks for backhaul. This is an attractive business today, but will only get better with 5G. The network densifi cation required by 5G will mean many more sites will need fi ber backhaul, and it’s not just traditional wireless towers. Hundreds of sites, including the use of small cells and DAS sites, will be needed to cover a 5G area that may have only needed 20 to 30 towers in a 4G environment. These sites will more likely than not require optical wavelength services over traditional Ethernet, due to low latency requirements. These low latency requirements may drive additional rural carrier opportunities including increased demand for edge computing in the form of localized small scale data centers. One millisecond or less response times generally means servers for these applications need to be within 150 miles, traveling over fiber. That may drive demand for more edge computing infrastructure in rural markets.

Urban broadband is a cable game – rural broadband is DSL: how can that help us plan?

The FCC recently released the Industry Analysis and Technology Division Wireline Competition Bureau. It’s the culmination of FCC Form 477 filled out by providers.

I think there’s an interesting look at speeds by technology and location (metro vs rural) of technology. First location – the following graph tracks ratio of subscribership by household density, or who serves urban areas and who serves rural areas. The answer is DSL is a big player in rural areas; cable is the biggest player in towns and cities. Fixed wireless and satellite are players in rural areas and almost non-existent in urban areas. This graph does not track speed – just technology.


Now it’s helpful to look at what speeds. When we look at access by speeds or 10/1 we see representation of all technologies.


When we look at speeds of 25/3, DSL is no longer represented.


Here’s another way to look at it:


DSL has a larger share of slower connections. DSL has a larger share of rural connections. The Minnesota legislature has defined speed goals or 25/3 by 2022 and 100/20 by 2026. They have dedicated funds to making it happen through the border to border grants. So there’s a recognized need for support, but the question is how to increase speeds in rural areas.

Do tools used in urban areas help rural connectivity? Do policy makers understand that there’s a significant difference in the two markets based on population density, distance to customers, limitations of transport technology and regulations and expectations of technologies based urban scenarios.

Right now Minnesota connectivity rates are well below the legislative goals (and the report only indicates download speeds):

  • 200 kbps – 99.5 percent connect
  • 3 Mbps – 93.0 percent connect
  • 10 Mbps – 75.2 percent connect
  • 25 Mbps – 54.2 percent connect
  • 100 Mbps – 13.4 percent connect

Got community WiFi? Facebook help promote that in the future!

According to VentureBeat, Facebook is testing a feature that will highlight nearby public WiFi hotspots…

Facebook has begun early testing of a feature designed to highlight places where you can access free and public Wi-Fi near you. The social networking company confirmed that its Wi-Fi discovery feature is being rolled out now, though it appears to only be in select countries.

“To help people stay connected to the friends and experiences they care about, we are rolling out a new feature that surfaces open Wi-Fi networks associated with nearby places,” a Facebook spokesperson shared with VentureBeat.

It seems like a feature that would be useful enough (and a way to hone advertising, so profitable to Facebook) to get traction. It also seems like easy marketing for businesses and communities that have hotspots.

Several of the Blandin Broadband Communities have built public hot spots for the community to help people without broadband at home to get access. Many have done clever advertising locally to promote the WiFi and the businesses that host it – this might be a way to spread the word to travelers who might choose to stop based on access.

Maybe it seems like a great idea because tomorrow I’ll be driving home from Chicago – but all things being equal I will always choose a pit stop with WiFi so that my kids can quickly download whatever videos they want and I can upload whatever work I’m doing without pushing our data cap fee to four digits. And part what I save on the data cap gets spent on lunch or treat or headphones or other road trip emergencies.

mmWave from AT&T brings Gig access to MDUs in Uptown Minneapolis

att-0What would make me climb out on the roof in Minneapolis in November? Unseasonably warm weather and the chance to see the dishes for AT&T’s fixed-wireless millimeter wave service for apartment buildings.

It’s a slick way to bring real broadband speeds to apartment buildings (well any building) faster, cheaper and with less construction than deploying fiber. The idea is to bring fiber to a basecamp building – then use line of sight, licensed spectrum wireless connection to share that capacity with neighboring buildings. It’s point to point so the basecamp needs a separate dish to serve each remote building but the speeds apparently maintain up to two miles.

The demonstration I saw was in Uptown Minneapolis, which is a sea of apartment buildings. The idea is that once installed the wireless broadband connects to the building network and is distributed to the individual apartments (or businesses). It makes the case for good wiring for any new buildings.

They are running the test in Minneapolis at Gig access – but could easily upgrade to faster speeds should demand increase. There is the base camp building and two remote buildings. Currently the peak speeds are closer to half of capacity and they provide service to about 350 apartments.

For the end user, the solution is pretty plug and play and the speeds I saw on the test laptop were more than 700Mbps up and down. And in the model apartment, they had the choice of several plug and play broadband providers.

So again, it’s slick but with a two-mile limit, it’s really an urban or densely-populated suburban solution. Great news for those areas and it’s good to see people get good broadband and better competition (they bundle with video from Direct TV and have mobile options) but it really makes the point that as urban options get faster and faster, the divide between urban and rural gets deeper.

AT&T launches fixed wireless trial, targets apartment complexes

Good news for Minneapolis as I’ve heard from local AT&T folks that they are testing in Minneapolis too…

AT&T has begun a hybrid millimeter wave (mmWave) wireless and wireline technology trial, targeting apartment complexes outside of its wireline service area to deliver up to 100 Mbps in areas where it has not been able to reach potential broadband users.

But 100 Mbps is just the start of its bandwidth ambitions. AT&T indicated that it plans to make faster speeds available, including a possible 500 Mbps tier that it will test through this fixed-wireless solution.

To deliver the service to each user, AT&T is using mmWave wireless technology to send a multi-gigabit signal from a central building connected to fiber to neighboring locations, and then is connecting each unit over the existing in-building wiring. When a neighboring building receives the multi-gigabit mmWave wireless signal, AT&T converts it to a wired internet connection. The telco then uses existing or new wiring in the property to offer internet access directly to each unit.

When customers that reside in these properties sign up for service, they can plug their Wi-Fi router into an existing wall outlet to get internet service in their apartment.

AT&T did not specify what millimeter wave spectrum band it is using for this trial.

Perhaps not surprisingly, AT&T is keen on being able to offer a bundle of internet, DirecTV and wireless services to apartment complexes and multifamily communities in a variety of metro areas.

AT&T said residents in these trial properties will be able to access its DirecTV service. By using a single satellite dish on the building to send a video signal to a centralized distribution system for the property, AT&T can offer DirecTV service in every unit without satellite dishes on balconies.

While the service provider did not specify exactly the first market that could get the service, AT&T did cite some large cities like Boston and Washington, D.C., as potential candidates.

“We’re evaluating the expansion of this fixed-wireless millimeter wave solution to connect additional properties outside of our traditional wireline service area,” AT&T said in a statement. “Additional areas under consideration where we might connect more properties include, but are not limited to, Boston, Denver, New Jersey, New York City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Seattle and Washington D.C.”

AT&T’s mmWave goals aren’t just relegated to apartment buildings.

In September, the service provider unveiled Project AirGig, an initiative to extend gigabit wireless internet speeds over existing power lines.

The telco plans to use the technology to potentially deliver multi-gigabit speeds in urban, rural and underserved markets by distributing bandwidth over low-cost plastic antennas and devices located along or near the power line to regenerate mmWave signals that can be used for 4G LTE and 5G multi-gigabit mobile and fixed deployments. But there’s no direct electrical connection to the power line that’s required.

Does CAF 2 extend or upgrade the network? Are we investing for the future?

Doug Dawson (POTs and PANs) recently wrote about AT&T’s plans to spend CAF 2 funding on extending its current network. I nearly said “upgrading” but the point is that they aren’t upgrading, they are extending the network to areas that didn’t have it before but not upgrading…

So it looks like AT&T will use the CAF II money to upgrade cell sites to LTE (something they were certainly going to do anyway). They also might build a few new rural cell sites and build some fiber to feed them. Finally, they will buy the customers the LTE receivers. My guess is that they are going to have a very hard time showing that they spent all of the CAF II money and so I expect some overinflated reporting of CAF II costs to the FCC. But these upgrades are far less costly than the rural DSL upgrades being contemplated by CenturyLink and Frontier.

AT&T promises that the bandwidth will meet the 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up speeds required by the FCC’s CAF II order. They also promise that there will be no monthly data caps smaller than 150 gigabits, also a threshold set by the CAF II rules. They have not yet specified specific prices, but say that prices will be at ‘market rate’ for broadband.

Even though we’ve seen this coming, this is a giant disappointment. Already today a 10/1 Mbps connection is inadequate for a large percentage of households. Cisco recently published statistics showing that the average home in the US today wants 24 Mbps to meet their needs, just a hair under the FCC definition of broadband. Cisco predicts that by 2020 that the average household demand is going to grow to 54 Mbps. That means the 10/1 speeds are going to feel really slow even by the end of the CAF II period ending in 2021.

I’ve heard worry about this sort of incremental improvement in communities. People in the impacted areas are happy to see better speeds than they have – but for how long? Doug points out that these changes may stick around for a long time…

These upgrades will improve broadband in the affected areas, but only by a small amount. Some residents in these areas today can get very slow DSL, under 1 Mbps. There are also numerous WISPs operating in the area offering speeds under 5 Mbps. And everybody always has the option of satellite broadband, which is universally disliked due to the latency and data caps.

The really bad news for these areas is that this upgrade is going to be in place for a long time. The FCC is probably not going to think about the CAF II areas again until well past the end of the CAF timeline, perhaps not until 2025.

It’s kind of like buying the crappy dishwasher for the home you thought you were going to leave and then having to use it for 10 years. It seems better than washing by hand, except after a while you really have to wash the dishes pretty well before you run the cycle. So it’s really not that much better.

FCC decision on Business Data Services impacts pricing for rural wireless

Sometimes rural broadband policy gets a little wonky. So I find it’s helpful to start with the consequences policy or the why should I care. Telecompetitor recently ran a story on the potential impact of the FCC’s ruling on business data services. Here’s a glimpse of why you might care based on comments from others…

  • The Ad Hoc Telecommunications Users Committee estimates that BDS prices would have been 22% lower in markets that were de-regulated prematurely if de-regulation had not occurred. A compromise proposal from Verizon and competitive carrier association Incompass calls for a 15% reduction in BDS costs in those areas.

  • Colleen Boothby, a representative for The Ad Hoc Telecommunications Users Committee, cited what she called a “stunning” study of the e-rate program that covers some of a school’s broadband costs. The study, conducted by an e-rate consulting firm, found that often schools received only one very high bid in response to broadband proposals and that those bids often came from competitive carriers. Digging into it, however, the study found that prices sometimes were high because the competitive carrier was buying the underlying access from the incumbent which represented 95% of the total price quoted.

And here’s a little bit on the question at hand…

The FCC is considering whether to impose price controls on BDS providers in areas that the commission previously deemed to be competitive, but which BDS purchasers say are not competitive. BDS purchasers include business and government users of data services, including schools and libraries, as well as carriers and others. The FCC business data services decision could call for decreasing BDS pricing in markets where costs have increased since the markets were deregulated.

And the details…

Although wireless carriers sometimes build their own backhaul networks, Katz estimates that at least 50% of the time they lease connectivity from another carrier – and in the majority of cases, it’s the incumbent local carrier. According to an analysis of BDS data collected by the FCC, 73% of locations are served by a monopoly BDS provider and 97% by no more than two providers, Katz said. When there are only two providers, the cost of BDS services drops only about 10%, according to Katz.

Backhaul costs represent almost 30% of a rural wireless carrier’s total network costs and 6% of a wireless carrier’s opex, according to the Telecom Advisory Services study. Analyzing historical data, the Telecom Advisory Services study found that 85% of regulator-mandated cost reduction in carrier operational expenditures (opex) could instead be used for capital expenditures (capex).

The study looked at the impact of various levels of price reduction under three different scenarios – one in which a carrier spends 2.25% of opex on backhaul, another in which that number is 4.3% and another in which that number is 6%. Levels of price reduction studied included 10%, 20% and 30%. Results showed that a carrier spending a relatively low 2.25% of its opex on backhaul and getting just a 10% reduction in BDS costs could have an additional $40,000 for its capex budget.