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Wall Street Grumbling About Estimated $130 Billion Needed for National 5G Fiber Buildout

Wall Street analysts are warning investors that mobile providers like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint will have to spend $130-150 billion on fiber optic cables alone to make 5G wireless broadband a reality in the next 5-7 years.

A new Deloitte study found providers will have to spend a lot of money to deploy next generation wireless service across the United States, money that many may be unwilling to spend.

“5G relies heavily on fiber and will likely fall far short of its potential unless the United States significantly increases its deep fiber investments,” the study notes. “Increased speed and capacity from 5G will rely on higher radio frequencies and greater network densification (i.e., increasing the number and concentration of cell sites and access points).”

Unlike earlier cellular technology, which worked from centralized cell towers that covered several miles in all directions, 5G technology is expected to be deployed through “small cell” antennas attached to utility and light poles with coverage limited to just 300-500 feet. To reach city residents, providers will need countless thousands of new antenna installations and a massive fiber network to connect each antenna to the provider.

Telecom providers seeking financing for such networks will face the same criticism Verizon Communications took from Wall Street over the expense of its FiOS fiber-to-the-home upgrade as well as doubts about the viability of other fiber projects like Google Fiber.

Goldman Sachs told its investors back in 2012 that throwing money at Google Fiber or Verizon FiOS was not going to give them a good return on their investment. That year, Goldman was “Still Bullish on Cable, But Not Blind to the Risks.” That report, written by analyst Jason Armstrong, noted Google’s fiber upgrades would cost billions and only further dilute industry profits from increasing competition.

Goldman Sachs steered investors back to the cable industry, which gets significant praise from Wall Street for its ability to repurpose 20-year-old wired infrastructure for enhanced broadband without having to spend huge sums on a complete system rebuild.

In 2013, Alliance Bernstein continued to slam Google Fiber’s buildout as an unwise business investment:

We remain skeptical that Google will find a scalable and economically feasible model to extend its build out to a large portion of the US, as costs would be substantial, regulatory and competitive barriers material, and in the end the effort would have limited impact on the global trajectory of the business.

For example, making the far from trivial assumption that Google can identify 20 million homes in relatively contiguous areas with (on average) similar characteristics as Kansas City when it comes to the most important drivers of network deployment cost, homes per mile of plant and the mix of aerial, buried and underground infrastructure, and that Google decides to build out a fiber network to serve them over a period of five years, we estimate the [total capital expenditure] investment required to be in the order of $11 billion to pass the homes, before acquiring or connecting a single customer.

Some analysts are even questioning the relevance of 5G when providers investing in the massive fiber expansion required for 5G wireless could simply extend fiber cables directly into homes, assuring customers of more bandwidth and reliability. In many cases, fiber to the home technology is actually cheaper than 5G deployment will be.

VantagePoint released a report in February that called a lot of the excitement surrounding 5G “hype” and cautioned it will not be the ultimate broadband solution:

Undoubtedly, 5G wireless technologies will result in better broadband performance than 4G wireless technologies and will offer much promise as a mobile complement to fixed services, but they still will not be the right choice for delivering the rapidly increasing broadband demanded by thousands or millions of households and businesses across America.

Previous analysis of 4th generation (4G) wireless networks clearly demonstrated how these networks, even with generous capacity assumptions for the future, will have limited broadband capabilities, and inevitably will fail to carry the fixed broadband experience that has been and will be demanded by subscribers accustomed to their wireline counterparts. Although there is understandably much anticipation today about phenomenal possible speeds for 5G wireless networks tomorrow, they will continue to have technical shortcomings that will, like their predecessor wireless networks, render them very useful complements but poor substitutes for wireline broadband. These technical challenges include:

  • Spectral limitations: 5G networks will require massive amounts of spectrum to accomplish their target speeds. At the lower frequencies traditionally used for wide area coverage, there is not enough spectrum. At the very high frequencies proposed for 5G where there may be enough spectrum, the RF signal does not propagate far enough to be practical for any wide area coverage. This is particularly important in rural areas where customer concentration is far, far less than what can be expected in densely populated urban areas where 5G may offer greater promise.
  • Access Network Sharing: This is not a good solution for continuous-bit-rate traffic such as video, which will make up 82% of Internet traffic by 2020.
  • Economics: When compared to a 5G network that can deliver significant bandwidth using very high, very short-haul frequencies, FTTP is often less expensive and will have lower operational costs. This is particularly true when one consider how much fiber deployment will be needed very close to each user even just to enable 5G.
  • Reliability: Wireless inherently is less reliable than wireline, with significantly increased potential for impairments with the very high frequencies required by 5G.

In 2014, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP released a report urging telecom executives to shift their thinking about telecom capital spending away from one that focuses on upgrades to deal with increasing traffic and demand and move instead to a hardline view of only spending on projects that meet Return On Investment (ROI) objectives for investors.

“The predominant task of management is to take a considered view of the future, allocate capital towards strategies that maximize value for the providers of that capital, and manage the execution of those strategies through to the delivery of returns for those investors,” wrote PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. “For too long, telecoms have been on auto-drive for much of their capex. Departments assume if they had the money last year, they are going to get it again this year, under the premise of increasing traffic. But rarely do telecoms truly analyze that spending for its ROI or ask whether the investment should be made at all.”

In short, if a project is not certain to quickly deliver significant ROI, serious questions should be asked about whether that investment is appropriate to undertake. That reluctance is at the heart of Deloitte’s new study.

Deloitte notes if providers cannot overcome Wall Street’s reluctance to support major spending on fiber infrastructure, lack of investment will be even more costly.

It predicts falling short on fiber deployment will cause a dwindling number of broadband provider choices for consumers. Today, fewer than 33% of U.S. homes have access to fiber broadband and only 39% have the option of choosing more than one provider capable of meeting the FCC’s minimal definition of broadband – 25Mbps. As competition declines, the need to further expand is reduced while prices can freely rise.

PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP also recommends cable and phone companies partner with content providers like Netflix or Google, and let those companies take an ownership interest in return for capital investments for fiber upgrades. Those type of solutions also protect Wall Street from a feared price war should alternative providers launch in markets that are barely competitive, if at all.

Microsoft’s TV White Space Rural Broadband Solution Expands in America

Microsoft is indirectly getting into the internet access business with its support for white-space wireless internet access for two million rural Americans by 2022.

The project will involve a partnership putting Microsoft’s financing together with rural telecommunications companies that want a rural broadband solution for their customers.

Microsoft has spent at least a decade promoting “white space” wireless broadband, which works over unused UHF TV channels. An internet provider markets the service as a next generation Wi-Fi network, capable of serving customers over a much larger distance than traditional in-home or business Wi-Fi. The service transmits from strategically placed antenna towers that are capable of delivering internet access to dozens of families in an immediate area.

Pilot projects not associated with Microsoft are already up and running in selected rural areas with mixed results. None of the projects have lived up to their pre-launch hype, but most have been a significant improvement over satellite internet access. Speed variability and capacity has proven difficult technical challenges, and finding ongoing financial resources to maintain the wireless network once constructed has also been a challenge.

Rural community politics is never too far away. Thurman, N.Y.’s white space broadband project Stop the Cap! wrote about two years ago has turned into a political football. Only about three dozen residents subscribe to the white space internet service and vocal opponents of the project and controversy over other spending initiatives caused the town’s CEO and one board member to resign. Town meetings have deteriorated into shouting matches as recriminations are fired back and forth. One of the project designers resigned after the town refused to honor an invoice for a cost overrun. The white space project was funded with a grant that required local matching funds. With only a few dozen customers using the service, some taxpayers object to underwriting its expenses.

The technology has not been a runaway success in the U.S., but Microsoft has had better luck funding internet access to 185,000 people in 20 wireless projects, many in the developing world.

Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith today introduced Microsoft’s plan to expand white space internet in the U.S., pointing to a white paper laying out Microsoft’s rural broadband strategy, which will leverage several wireless technologies.

A combination of technologies can substantially reduce the total cost of extending broadband coverage. Specifically, a technology model that uses a combination of the TV white spaces spectrum, fixed wireless, and satellite coverage can reduce the initial capital and operating costs by roughly 80 percent compared with the cost of using fiber cables alone, and by approximately 50 percent compared with the cost of current LTE fixed wireless technology.

One key to deploying this strategy successfully is to use the right technology in the right places. TV white spaces is expected to provide the best approach to reach approximately 80 percent of this underserved rural population, particularly in areas with a population density between two and 200 people per square mile. […] Satellite coverage is expected to be the most cost-effective solution for most areas with a population density of less than two people per square mile, and LTE fixed wireless for most areas with a density greater than 200 people per square mile. This mixed model for expanding broadband coverage will likely bring the total national cost of closing the rural broadband gap to roughly $10 billion.

To cover the costs, Microsoft has agreed to front its own money and recover it later. The Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corp. received $250,000 from Microsoft. Another $500,000 originated with the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission and another $250,000 came from the telecom company. Mid-Atlantic hopes to expand white space internet access to 1,000 local customers by the end of the year.

Mid-Atlantic today offers residents in Charlotte and Halifax counties, two rural regions in southern Virginia, free internet access to a limited number of education-related sites with speeds of 3-4Mbps. Customers can pay to access the entire web at those speeds for about $10 a month. A premium tier raises speeds to 8-10Mbps for $40 a month. About 90% of subscribers have chosen the free service, an alarming percentage for any company trying to sell internet access and recoup its investment. It currently costs around $1,000 to hook up each customer, a number local officials hope to reduce to $100 eventually.

Microsoft argues the technology is still cheaper than the alternatives – 80 percent less costly than fiber to the home service and half the price of 4G LTE wireless.

To guarantee the technology will work, Microsoft wants to preserve unlicensed frequencies not currently in use by licensed television stations for “white space” broadband.

“The Incentive Auction reduced the number of available channels that can be used for TV white spaces technologies,” Microsoft noted in its white paper. The company is referring to the FCC’s auction of UHF TV licenses, freeing up channels to be repurposed for wireless data expansion by the country’s mobile phone operators. “To make the significant investments necessary to reach economies of scale, potential TV white spaces network operators and device and chip manufacturers have converged on the need for a minimum of three usable TV white spaces channels in every market, with additional TV white spaces available in smaller markets.”

In other words, Microsoft wants the FCC to ensure at least three unused UHF channels in each city in the country are kept available for unlicensed spectrum users, like white space internet. That brought a scathing response from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) who called Microsoft’s request “nonsense on its face”:

The proposal is either unnecessary, because there will be plenty of spectrum, or it is harmful, because there will not be enough. If you were playing musical chairs with someone and he told you, “you must reserve that chair for me, but don’t worry, there are plenty of chairs for everyone,” you would rightly be suspicious. The post-auction repack is essentially a game of musical chairs for displaced low power stations. Microsoft is telling the Commission: (1) it needs to have a chair reserved for unlicensed use, but that (2) there will be no effect from that reservation on anyone else. One of those assertions is untrue.

Microsoft also claims that only the reservation of spectrum can provide the regulatory certainty that Microsoft needs to increase investment in white space technology. But the truth is the Commission just held a lengthy auction of the very spectrum Microsoft claims it so urgently desires. If Microsoft were interested in increasing investment, it had an unprecedented opportunity to get guaranteed access to 600MHz spectrum with a nationwide footprint. Instead, Microsoft is trying to convince the Commission to give Microsoft a backdoor frequency allocation with exclusive access to that spectrum for free, and on better terms than winning auction bidders received.

Certain parts of the northeastern U.S. are signal-crowded, with no available white space channels.

The NAB objects to Microsoft requesting spectrum without directly paying for it, but Microsoft’s actual request is that those frequencies be reserved for unlicensed users of all kinds, not just for white space internet. The NAB accuses Microsoft of potentially increasing interference for licensed TV stations on a newly crowded, repacked UHF dial, a theory that seems unlikely in the most rural parts of the country where over the air television reception is problematic or non-existent. There are urban areas of the country, particularly in the Boston-New York-Washington corridor where open channel space is either not available or severely limited, but white space internet was designed to resolve rural broadband problems, not urban ones.

To find out what is true and what is theoretical Microsoft announced 12 new white space pilot projects in 12 U.S. states, including Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, New York, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin that will be up and running over the next year. Few details are available about the specific communities involved or the types of access to be offered. Microsoft only said if it gets its way, it could be providing internet access to two million more Americans by July 4, 2022.

Most customers are likely not going to get the FCC’s definition of broadband (25Mbps) from the current generation of white space broadband technology. Speeds are often comparable to DSL and just as variable, depending on reception conditions. The NAB questions whether this technology will really make much difference.

“Microsoft has been making promises about white spaces technology for well over a decade,” the NAB wrote on a blog post, noting it estimates fewer than 300 customers are getting white space internet access in the U.S. “There remain few tangible consumer benefits associated with white spaces deployments across the U.S.”

For states like New York, embarked on their own efforts to achieve 100% broadband penetration, Microsoft’s project may be too little, too late. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo launched the final phase of the New NY Broadband Program in March, seeking to deliver a final round of funding to secure access to high-speed internet for all New Yorkers by the end of 2018, four years sooner than Microsoft’s target date for its project. New York’s rural broadband expansion program relies primarily on incumbent providers and helps subsidize expansion of their networks to reach customers deemed too expensive to serve without supplemental funding.

A Deal With Charter, Comcast Could Further Burden Sprint’s Poor-Performing Network

With Sprint and T-Mobile reportedly far apart in prospective merger talks, Sprint has given a two-month exclusive window to Charter Communications and Comcast Corp. to see if a wireless deal can be made between the wireless carrier and America’s largest cable operators. But any deal could initially burden Sprint’s fourth place network with more traffic, potentially worsening performance for Sprint customers until additional upgrades can be undertaken.

The two cable companies are reportedly seeking a favorable reseller arrangement for their forthcoming wireless offerings, which would include control over handsets, SIM cards, and the products and services that emerge after the deal. Both Charter and Comcast also have agreements with Verizon Wireless to resell that network, but only within the service areas of the two cable operators. Verizon’s deal is far more restrictive and costly than any deal Charter and Comcast would sign with Sprint.

Such a deal could begin adding tens of thousands of new wireless customers to Sprint’s 4G LTE network, already criticized for being overburdened and slow. In fact, Sprint’s network has been in last place for speed and performance compared with AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon for several years. A multi-year upgrade effort by Sprint has not delivered the experience many wireless customers expect and demand, and Sprint has seen many of its long-term customers churn away to other companies — especially T-Mobile, after they lost patience with Sprint’s repeated promises to improve service.

PC Magazine’s June 2017 results of fastest mobile carriers in United States shows Sprint in distant fourth place.

At least initially, cable customers switching to their company’s “quad-play” wireless plan powered by Sprint may find the experience cheaper, but underwhelming.

Sprint chairman Masayoshi Son was initially aggressive about upgrading Sprint’s network with funds advanced by parent company Softbank. But it seems no matter how much money was invested, Sprint has always lagged behind other wireless carriers. In recent years, those upgrades seem to have diminished. Instead, Son has been aggressively trying to find a way to overcome regulator and Justice Department objections to his plan to merge Sprint with third place carrier T-Mobile USA. Likely part of any deal with Charter and Comcast would be a substantial equity stake in Sprint, or some other investment commitment that would likely run into the billions. That money would likely be spent bolstering Sprint’s network.

A deal with the two cable companies could also give Sprint access to the cable operators’ large fiber networks, which could accelerate Sprint’s ability to buildout its 5G wireless network, which will rely on small cells connected to a fiber backhaul network.

Less likely, according to observers, would be a joint agreement between Charter and Comcast to buy Sprint, which is currently worth $32 billion but also has $32.6 billion in net debt. Sprint’s talks with Charter and Comcast do not preclude an eventual merger with T-Mobile USA. But any merger announcement would likely not come until late this summer or fall, if it happens at all.

Wall Street is downplaying a Sprint/T-Mobile combination as a result of the press reports indicating talks between the two companies appear to have gone nowhere.

“We didn’t give a Sprint/cable deal high odds,” wrote Jonathan Chaplin of New Street Research.  “While a single cable company entering into any transaction with Sprint has a strong likelihood of regulatory approval, a joint bid raises questions that add some uncertainty. However, the deal corroborates our view that Sprint isn’t as desperate as many thought and T-Mobile didn’t have the leverage that most seemed to assume.”

Malone

“An equity stake or outright acquisition is less likely in our view, but not out of the realm of possibility,” said Mike McCormack of Jefferies. “In our view, this likely suggests major hurdles in any Sprint/T-Mobile discussions and could renew speculation of T-Mobile and Dish should Sprint talks falter.”

Marci Ryvicker of Wells Fargo believes Comcast will be “the ultimate decision maker” as to which path will be taken. Amy Yong of Macquarie Research seems to agree. “We note Comcast has a strong history of successfully turning around assets and could contribute meaningfully to Sprint; NBCUniversal is the clearest example. But she notes Charter is likely to be distracted for the next year or two trying to integrate Time Warner Cable into its operations.

Behind the cable industry’s push into wireless is Dr. John Malone, Charter’s largest shareholder and longtime cable industry consigliere. Malone has spent better than a year pestering Comcast CEO Brian Roberts to join Charter Communications in a joint effort to acquire a wireless carrier instead of attempting to build their own wireless networks. But both Roberts and Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge have been reluctant to make a large financial commitment in the wireless industry at a time when the days of easy wireless profits are over and increasing competition has forced prices down.

For Malone, wireless is about empowering the cable industry “quad play” – bundling cable TV, internet, phone, and wireless into a single package on a single bill. The more services a consumer buys from a single provider, the more difficult and inconvenient it is to change providers.

Malone also believes in a united front by the cable industry to meet any competitive threat. Malone favored TV Everywhere and other online video collaborations with cable operators to combat Netflix and Hulu. He also advocates for additional cable industry consolidation, in particular the idea of a single giant company combining Charter, Cox, and Comcast. Under the Trump Administration, Malone thinks such a colossal deal is a real possibility.

AT&T Fixed Wireless Expands to 8 New States; Up to 10Mbps, 160GB Usage Cap

AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet, intended for rural areas, is now available in eight new states in the southern U.S., joining Georgia:

  • Alabama
  • Florida
  • Kentucky
  • Mississippi
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Louisiana

More than 70,000 locations can now subscribe to the fixed wireless service at prices ranging from $50-70 a month. AT&T said it was on track to expand the service to over 400,000 locations by the end of 2017 and over 1.1 million locations by 2020. Later this year, the service will be introduced in rural areas of Arkansas, California, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin.

“We’re committed to connect hard-to-reach locations to the internet. This changes lives and creates economic growth for these areas,” said Cheryl Choy, vice president of wired voice and internet products at AT&T. “We’re excited to bring this service to even more underserved locations.”

An exact list of communities served isn’t available, but AT&T allows potential customers to enter their zip code on its website to determine availability.

AT&T introduced the fixed wireless service in parts of rural Georgia earlier this spring. The plan offers up to 10Mbps of speed with a 160GB monthly data cap. If a customer exceeds that amount, their account is charged $10 for each additional 50GB increment, up to a maximum overlimit fee of $200 a month.

Customers with a DirecTV and AT&T mobile phone subscription can get AT&T’s Fixed Wireless service for $50 a month. Those who don’t have a satellite package but are willing to sign a one-year contract will pay $60 a month. If you want to skip the contract, the price rises to $70 a month. An installation fee of $99 also applies, unless a customer also signs up for DirecTV.

Wall Street’s Sprint/T-Mobile Merger Drum Circle

Wall Street wants a deal between T-Mobile and Sprint rich with fees and “synergies,” but nobody counting the money cares whether consumers will actually get better service or lower prices as a result of another wireless industry merger.

Recently, more players have entered the T-Mo/Sprint Drum Circle, seeming in favor of the merger of America’s third and fourth largest wireless carriers. Moody’s Investor Service wouldn’t go as far as Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure in playing up the deal’s “synergy savings” won from cutting duplicate costs (especially jobs) after the merger, but was willing to say the combination of the two companies could cut their combined costs by $3 billion or more annually. Based on earlier mergers, most savings would come from eliminating redundant cell sites, winning better volume pricing on handsets, dramatic cuts in employees and back office operations, and spectrum sharing.

“Imagine if you had a supercharged maverick now going after AT&T and Verizon to stop this duopoly,” Claure told an audience in Miami.

Wells Fargo called Sprint’s large spectrum holdings in the 2.5GHz band undervalued, and could be an important part of any transaction.

Sprint has more high-band spectrum than any other carrier in the U.S. Much maligned for its inability to penetrate well indoors and for its reduced coverage area, most carriers have not prioritized use of these frequencies. But forthcoming 5G networks, likely to offer a wireless alternative to wired home broadband, will dominate high frequency spectrum, leaving Sprint in excellent condition to participate in the 5G splash yet to come.

Wall Street banks can expect a small fortune in fees advising both companies on a merger deal and to assist in arranging its financing. Any deal will likely be worth more than the $39 billion AT&T was willing to pay for T-Mobile back in 2011. With that kind of money at stake, any merger announcement will likely be followed by millions in spending to lobby for its approval. Washington regulators ultimately rejected AT&T’s 2011 buyout, arguing it was anti-competitive. Reducing the U.S. marketplace to three national cellular networks is likely to again raise concerns that reduced competition will lead to higher prices.

A merger is also likely to be disruptive to customers, particularly because Sprint and T-Mobile run very different operations and systems. Moody’s predicted it could take up to five years for any merger to fully consummate, giving AT&T and Verizon considerable lead time to bolster their networks and offerings. Moody’s notes Sprint also has a history with bad merger deals, notably its acquisition of Nextel, which proved to be a distracting nightmare.

“If [another merger] stalls or is derailed by operational missteps, the downside is catastrophic,” Moody’s noted.

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