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Fixed Wireless Not a Good Solution for Rural Areas; Usage Demand Outstrips Capacity

Morrow

Australia is learning a costly lesson finding ways to extend broadband service to rural areas in the country, choosing fixed wireless and satellite networks that will ultimately cost more than extending fiber optic broadband to rural customers.

Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) is tasked with supplying virtually all of Australia with internet access, using fiber/wired broadband in urban and suburban areas and fixed wireless and satellite internet access in the country’s most remote locations.

But just a few years after debuting satellite broadband and fixed LTE 4G wireless service in many parts of the country, demand has quickly begun to overwhelm capacity, forcing costly upgrades and punitive measures against so-called “heavy superusers.” The NBN has also scrapped plans to introduce higher-speed fixed wireless services, fearing it will only create additional demands on a network that was not envisioned to manage heavy broadband usage from video streaming.

NBN CEO Bill Morrow has elected to place most of the blame on his customers, specifically “superusers” that he characterized as “online gamers” who spend hours during the day and peak usage periods consuming large parts of the fixed wireless network’s available capacity.

“In the fixed wireless, there’s a large portion [of end users] that are using terabytes of data,” Morrow said. “We’re evaluating a form of fair use policy to say, ‘We would groom these extreme users.’ Now the grooming could be that, during the busy period of the day when these heavy users are impacting the majority, that they actually get throttled back to where they’re taking down what everybody else is taking down.”

Under the current NBN fair use policy, monthly downloads per household are capped at 400 GB, with maximum usage during peak usage periods limited to 150 GB a month, which is already significantly less than what most average American households consume each month. With expensive and unexpected early upgrades to more than 3,100 cell towers to manage rapidly growing usage, the cost of service is starting to rise substantially, even as usage limits and speed reductions make these networks less useful for consumers.

In areas where the NBN extends a fiber optic network, the fixed wholesale price for a 50/20 Mbps connection is $32.00 (U.S.) per month. (A 100/40 Mbps connection costs $46.25). For fixed wireless, prices are rising. A 50/20 Mbps fixed wireless connection (with usage cap) will now cost $46.25 a month.

Morrow took heat from members of Parliament over his claim that online gamers were chiefly responsible for slowing down the NBN’s fixed wireless network.

“With great respect to everything you said over the last 15 minutes, you have been saying to us the problem here is gamers,” said MP Stephen Jones (Whitlam).

Morrow clarified that online gamers were not the principal cause of congestion. The main issue is concurrency, which drags down network speeds when multiple family members unexpectedly use an internet connection at the same time. The worst congestion results when several family members launch internet video streams at the same time. Online video not only leads average users’ traffic, it can also quickly outstrip available cell tower capacity. High quality video streaming can quickly impact 4G LTE service during peak usage periods, driving speeds down for all users. The NBN now considers these newly revealed capacity constraints a limit on the feasibility of using wireless technology like LTE to supply internet access.

The current mitigation strategy includes limiting video bandwidth, discouraging video streaming with usage caps or speed throttles, capacity upgrades at cell towers, and public education requesting responsible usage during peak usage times. With capacity issues becoming more serious, Morrow canceled plans to upgrade fixed wireless to 100 Mbps speeds because of costs. The proposed upgrades would have cost “exponentially” more than wired internet access.

Hype vs. Reality: Most Australians reject fixed wireless and satellite internet as woefully inadequate. (Source: BIRRR)

Actual Fixed Wireless speeds

Actual Satellite Internet speeds

The concept of supplying fixed wireless or satellite internet access to rural areas may have made sense a decade ago, but there are growing questions about the suitability of this technology based on growth in consumer usage patterns, which increasingly includes streaming video. The cost to provide a sufficiently robust wireless network could easily rival or even outpace the costs of extending traditional fiber optic wired service to many rural properties currently considered cost prohibitive to serve. In Australia, fixed wireless and satellite has delivered sub-standard access for rural consumers, and requires the imposition of “fair usage” caps and speed throttles that inconvenience customers. For now, Morrow believes that is still the best solution, given that Australia’s national broadband plan relies heavily on wireless access in rural communities.

“[The benefit of a fair usage policy is] big enough to where if we did groom them during the busy time of the day, it would be a substantial [speed] lift for people,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a silver bullet in any of this – this is going to require us to think through a number of different areas.”

Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Rural Australia (a volunteer consumer group) shares horror stories about relying on satellite to solve rural broadband problems. (7:50)

 

AT&T Misled FCC About Pole Attachment Fees, Says Lincoln, Neb.

A complaint from AT&T that the city of Lincoln, Neb. charged “high fees” that have “delayed its residents the benefits of AT&T’s small cell deployments,” was false and misleading, city officials tell the Federal Communications Commission.

AT&T is one of the chief proponents of industry-friendly national pole attachment and zoning reform, urging the FCC to issue a national policy that would override state and local authorities on pole attachment fees, cell tower and antenna placement, environmental/historic/tribal impact reviews, and paperwork requirements.

In short, AT&T wants to improve its chances of getting fast and inexpensive approval to place its wireless infrastructure in localities with time limits on public input and local reviews.

But Lincoln city officials tell the FCC AT&T never even applied.

“A review of our records fails to reveal any permit applications filed by AT&T for such as deployment,” Lincoln officials wrote. “That means that AT&T either deployed without permission and unknown to the city, or AT&T provided misleading statements to the Commission. Lincoln has researched our rates, submitted them to national companies for evaluation, and as a result has signed small cell agreements with three different companies.”

Local officials around the country complain that the wireless industry is misrepresenting a handful of bad actors as indicative of rampant overcharging, and that a profitable, multi-billion dollar industry is seeking a government mandate to force preferential treatment for its infrastructure at below-market rates. Local government officials who hold a position on the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee issued a strong opinion that the wireless industry is getting a government-sanctioned benefit its competitors do not.

“It is unfair to prioritize one industry over all others in pricing the public rights-of-way and public infrastructure access,” the local officials advised. “Equal pricing of private access to public assets is especially a concern where there is no obligation for providers to serve all residents.”

Consumer, Industry Groups Slam T-Mobile/Sprint Merger Now Before FCC

“Devastating.”

“Too big to fix.”

“A bad, recurring dream.”

“An oligopoly.”

“A meritless merger.”

These were some of the comments from objectors to T-Mobile and Sprint’s desire to merge the two wireless carriers into one.

Consumer and industry groups filed comments largely opposed to the merger on the grounds it would be anti-competitive and lead to dramatic price increases for U.S. consumers facing a consolidated market of just three national wireless carriers.

Free Press submitted more than 6,000 signatures from a consumer petition opposed to the merger.

“This is like a bad recurring dream,” one of the comments said, reflecting on AT&T’s attempt to acquire T-Mobile in 2011.

The comments reflected consumer views that mergers in the telecom industry reduce choice and raise prices.

The American Antitrust Institute rang alarm bells over the merger proposal it said was definitively against the public interest and probably illegal under antitrust laws. It declared two competitive harms: it creates a “tight oligopoly of the Big 3 and [raises] the risk of anticompetitive coordination” and it “eliminates head-to-head competition between Sprint and T-Mobile.”

The group found the alleged merger benefits offered by the two companies unconvincing.

“The claim that two wireless companies need a merger to expand or upgrade their networks to the next generation of technology is well worn and meritless. The argument did not hold any water when AT&T-T-Mobile advanced it in 2011 and the same is true here,” the group wrote. “The FCC should reject it, particularly in light of the merger’s presumptive illegality and almost certain anticompetitive and anti-consumer effects. Both AT&T and T-Mobile expanded their networks in the wake of their abandoned merger. And T-Mobile became a vigorous challenger to its larger rivals. Sprint-T-Mobile’s investor presentation notes, for example ‘T-Mobile deployed nationwide LTE twice as fast as Verizon and three times as fast as AT&T.’”

“The Sprint-T-Mobile merger is one of those mergers that is ‘too big to fix,’” the group added. “Like the abandoned AT&T-T-Mobile proposal, it is a 4-3 merger. It combines the third and fourth significant competitors in the market, creating a national market share for Sprint-T-Mobile of about 32%. Next in the lineup is AT&T, with a share of about 32%. Verizon follows with a share of about 35%. These three carriers would make up the vast majority (almost 99%) of the national U.S. wireless market with smaller MVNOs accounting for the remaining one percent. These carriers include TracPhone, Republic Wireless, and Jolt Mobile, Boost Mobile, and Cricket Wireless, which purchase access to wireless infrastructure such as cell towers and spectrum at wholesale from the large players and resell at retail to wireless subscribers.”

A filing from the groups Common Cause, Consumers Union, New America’s Open Technology Institute, Public Knowledge and Writers Guild of America West essentially agreed with the American Antitrust Institute’s findings, noting removing two market disruptive competitors by combining them into one would hurt novel wireless plans that are unlikely to be introduced by companies going forward.

Rivals, especially AT&T and Verizon, have remained silent about the merger. That is not surprising, considering T-Mobile and Sprint have forced the two larger providers to match innovative service plans, bring back unlimited data, and reduce prices. A combined T-Mobile and Sprint would likely reduce competitive pressure and allow T-Mobile to comfortably charge nearly identical prices that AT&T and Verizon charge their customers.

Smaller competitors are concerned. Rural areas have been largely ignored by T-Mobile, and Sprint’s modestly better rural coverage has resulted in affordable roaming arrangements with independent wireless companies. Sprint has favored reciprocal roaming agreements, allowing customers of independent carriers to roam on Sprint’s network and Sprint customers to roam on rural wireless networks. T-Mobile only permits rural customers to roam on its networks, while T-Mobile customers are locked out, to keep roaming costs low. Groups like NTCA and the Rural Wireless Association shared concerns that the merger could leave rural customers at a major disadvantage.

Many Wall Street analysts that witnessed the AT&T/T-Mobile merger flop are skeptical that regulators will allow the Sprint and T-Mobile merger to proceed. The risk of further consolidating the wireless industry, particularly after seeing T-Mobile’s newly aggressive competitive stance after the AT&T merger was declared dead, seems to prove opponents’ contentions that only competition will keep prices reasonable. Removing one of the two fiercest competitors in the wireless market could be a tragic mistake that would impact prices for a decade or more.

The American Antitrust Institute reminded regulators:

In 2002, there were seven national wireless carriers in the U.S.: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, Nextel, AllTel, and Cingular. In a consolidation spree that began in 2004, Cingular acquired AT&T. This was followed by Sprint’s acquisition of Nextel in 2005—a merger that has been called one of the “worst acquisitions ever.” At the time of the merger, Sprint and Nextel operated parallel networks using different technologies and maintained separate branding after the deal was consummated. The company lost millions of subscribers and revenue in subsequent years in the wake of this costly and confused strategy.

In 2009, Verizon bought All-Tel. This was followed by AT&T’s unsuccessful attempt to buy T-Mobile in 2011 and T-Mobile’s successful acquisition of mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) Metro PCS. The DOJ and the FCC forced the abandonment of the AT&T-T-Mobile deal. Like Sprint-T-Mobile, it was also a 4-3 merger that would have eliminated T-Mobile, a smaller, efficient, and innovative player that set the industry bar high for the remaining rivals.

AT&T’s rationale that the merger with T-Mobile was essential for expanding to the then-impending 4G LTE network technology also did not pass muster. In August of 2014, two years after the abandoned attempt, Forbes magazine concluded that there would have been “no wireless wars without the blocked AT&T-T-Mobile merger.”

Missouri, California, Oklahoma, and Virginia Big Winners in Rural Broadband Fund Auction

Telecom companies in four states will receive almost 50% of the $1.488 billion the FCC has set aside in support to expand rural broadband service in unserved areas of 45 states.

Missouri ($254,773,117.90), California ($149,026,913.20), Oklahoma ($113,599,113.70), and Virginia ($108,923,612.60) were the only states to win more than $100 million each to expand internet access to a total of 257.436 residents, and many of the award winners are planning to offer fixed wireless service.

The FCC claims 713,176 homes and businesses will get internet service over the next six years from 103 different providers as a result of the auction, with half getting the option of 100 Mbps. An additional 19% will have gigabit service available. All but 0.25% will have at least 25 Mbps service available, meeting the FCC’s current broadband definition. Many of the providers will charge substantially for faster speed service, however. Some wireless ISPs offering fixed wireless service currently charge up to $999.95 a month for 100/100 Mbps service.

“The successful conclusion of this first-of-its kind auction is great news for the residents of these rural communities, who will finally be able to share in the 21st-century digital opportunities that broadband provides,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “By tapping the mechanisms of the marketplace, the Phase II auction served as the most appropriate and cost effective way to allocate funding for broadband in these unserved communities, bringing the highest-quality broadband services to the most consumers at the lowest cost to the ratepayer.”

The winners are a mix of phone, cable, satellite, and fixed wireless companies and several rural utility co-ops. The biggest recipient is Wisper ISP, a Mascoutah, Ill. company awarded over $220 million to expand its fixed wireless service in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Other significant auction winners include California’s Cal.net, a fixed wireless provider serving rural areas east of Sacramento as far as South Lake Tahoe and Commnet Wireless, LLC which provides cell service and fixed wireless in rural Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.

Providers must build out to 40 percent of the assigned homes and businesses in a state within three years and increase by 20 percent in each subsequent year, until complete buildout is reached at the end of the sixth year.

The Connect America Fund Phase II auction is part of a broader effort by the FCC to close the digital divide in rural America. In addition to the funding that will provided by this auction, the Commission is working toward the launch of a $4.53 billion Mobility Fund Phase II auction to expand 4G LTE wireless coverage throughout rural America. And the Connect America Fund is in the midst of providing over $9 billion over a six-year period for rural broadband in areas served by large carriers.

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AT&T Doesn’t Mind Slow Growth for FirstNet – Taxpayer-financed Upgrades Benefit Regular Customers

AT&T does not expect to see much initial growth of FirstNet, the government-sponsored first responder wireless network built by AT&T with $6 billion in taxpayer dollars.

FirstNet relies on AT&T’s wireless network, bolstered by taxpayer-financed upgrades that will prioritize public safety users during emergencies, but allow any AT&T customer to use the enhanced network the rest of the time. FirstNet has just 110,000 subscribers as of this summer — about a year after launch. AT&T will be expanding FirstNet over the next four years, adding new cell towers, frequencies and bandwidth.

First envisioned after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the network was designed to allow interoperability between all types of first responders, including law enforcement, fire departments, and ambulance crews. A major complaint after 9/11 was that different public safety agencies could not communicate with each other on the ground because of incompatible radio equipment. FirstNet allows agencies to deploy voice communications and data services on site, without the risk of congestion that occurs on publicly-available cell towers. All FirstNet users are given priority access, and during emergencies, the network will not allow public users to use FirstNet’s network resources.

Seventeen years later, the network is finally launching, but that is proving to be just the first hurdle. To use FirstNet, public safety agencies have to adopt AT&T as their communications provider, sign new contracts, and usually buy new equipment. A surprisingly large number of agencies are balking at changing providers, either because they dislike AT&T, its coverage, the cost, or require a rigorous bidding and procurement process.

AT&T FirstNet rate plans

Rural departments often favor Verizon Wireless, perceived to have better 4G LTE coverage and better performance in rural areas than AT&T. Ray Lehr, formerly with the Baltimore City Fire Department, is now a paid consultant for FirstNet, and admitted AT&T’s rural coverage isn’t as robust as it will be five years from now.

“Over the next five years, they have to have up to 99 percent rural coverage,” Lehr said. “There’s no reason why another carrier would do that. It just doesn’t make sense.”

For a lot of rural departments, there are coverage gaps with every wireless carrier and places where there is no coverage from any carrier. Those departments rely primarily on their existing radios for fireground communications and talking with dispatchers.

AT&T is relying on federal dollars to expand FirstNet in places where its own investment dollars are likely not being spent. AT&T also separately receives taxpayer support to build rural fixed wireless networks for consumers out of reach of traditional DSL and cable broadband.

Wall Street, which would ordinarily attack rural investment with no significant return on investment, has had little reaction to AT&T FirstNet, primarily because AT&T will be reimbursed by taxpayers for much of the construction costs, even though AT&T and its retail customers will benefit from the increased coverage and capacity FirstNet will offer most of the time.

“Investors aren’t expecting much, other than the reimbursement for the capital expenditure required to deploy the network,” Jonathan Chaplin, an analyst at New Street Research, told Communications Daily (sub. req’d.). “If public safety usage is low and AT&T can use the capacity for their core mobile users, that is probably fine.”

Other analysts agree, noting AT&T will get all the benefits offering government-paid FirstNet capacity to its retail customers, with none of the risk of losses if first responders do not flock to the new network, because it was not built with AT&T’s money.

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  • john doe: The market is kind of saturated. Whoever wanted internet have already subscribed to Comcast/Charter. Beside this Verizon strategy is doomed to failure...
  • Coin: While its possible the connections are being throttled, I think its more likely that the cell network is overwhelmed. I live in a hurricane prone are...
  • Dylan: Just isn’t that nice? I would drop them quickly if they told me that my plan was too “low” and I needed to upgrade and pay more for better service. Wh...
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  • Dylan: 20gigs? Abysmal. I would use that in a couple of hours. Even 50. I’m certainly fortunate to have unlimited internet with Spectrum....
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