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Crown Castle Buys Lightower Fiber for $7.1 Billion; Sets Stage for 5G in Northeast

Phillip Dampier July 20, 2017 Consumer News, Wireless Broadband No Comments

Antenna tower operator Crown Castle International has announced it will buy privately held Lightower Fiber Networks for about $7.1 billion in cash to acquire the company’s extensive fiber assets across the northeastern United States that will be used to connect small cell 5G networks.

The acquisition will allow Crown Castle to market an extensive fiber backhaul network in large cities like New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia, as well as smaller cities particularly in upstate New York, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and northern New England. Crown Castle, which already owns many of the cell towers where AT&T and Verizon place their equipment, will now be able to market fiber backhaul connectivity for AT&T and Verizon’s forthcoming 5G networks.

LIghtower’s fiber footprint.

Lightower’s fiber network was originally focused on major markets like Boston, New York City, the District of Columbia, and Chicago. Its partner, Fibertech — acquired by Lightower in 2015, focused on 30 mid-sized cities from Indiana to the west to Maine in the east. The network’s customers are large companies and independent ISPs. In Rochester, where Lightower maintains a Network Operations Center, Greenlight Networks relies on a fiber backhaul network originally built by Fibertech to connect its fiber-to-the-home broadband service. That fiber is likely to soon be shared with AT&T, Verizon, and potentially T-Mobile and Sprint to power any 5G buildouts in the region.

“Lightower’s dense fiber footprint is well-located in top metro markets in the northeast and is well-positioned to facilitate small cell deployments by our customers,” said Crown Castle CEO Jay Brown in a statement. “Following the transaction, we will have approximately 60,000 route miles of fiber with a presence in all of the top 10 and 23 of the top 25 metro markets.”

This acquisition marks Crown Castle’s first major diversion outside of its core market — leasing out the cell towers it owns or acquires.

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.

Hong Kong Getting Four 1Gbps Connections for $59 a Month

Arena demonstrates four concurrent gigabit connections, now available with HKT’s new Netvigator offering.

Why share your gigabit broadband service with the rest of your family when each member can have their own, at a price lower than what most U.S. broadband providers charge for much slower service.

HKT, the largest telecom operator in Hong Kong, last week introduced its newest Netvigator product — four 1Gbps (1,000Mbps) connections for $59 a month. An even more aggressive special, available for a limited time only, offers two gigabit speed connections for $21.50 a month. Both offers require a two-year contract.

“This is a ground-breaking achievement,” Alex Arena, HKT Group’s managing director, told the South China Morning Post. “This new multi-use architecture allows segregated use of the circuits, which ensures a high level of service quality with guaranteed speed, as well as enhanced security to protect our customers from the growing threats of malware and viruses.”

Customers receive a new advanced multi-use modem which connects to HKT’s XG-PON optical network. Gigabit ethernet ports on the back offer up to four disparate connections of 1Gbps each, along with slower in home Wi-Fi service.

“The way we use social media and over-the-top streaming video services while working from home, people don’t want entertainment to mess up their home office’s [internet connection],” Arena said. “So I believe there is a huge market for this new service. How quickly this develops is a function of pricing on our part and customers investing in the latest personal computers and cloud computing services at home.”

Hong Kong remains a global leader in delivering superfast, affordable broadband to consumers. Yet many residents still lack access to fiber optic broadband. The Office of Hong Kong’s Communications Authority reports fiber connections have a 39.3% penetration rate. Only about one-third of Hong Kong residents subscribe to fiber service. The primary reason more do not is lack of availability. HKT has two major competitors – Hong Kong Broadband Network and Hutchtel HK. Neither competitor has a fiber network as extensive as HKT.

Still No Fiber for Southern N.J.: State Settles with Verizon Over Poor Service

South Jersey: The worst broadband problems are in the southernmost counties closest to Delaware.

Customers hoping New Jersey’s telecom regulator would compel Verizon to expand fiber to the home service across southern New Jersey are out of luck.

The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) approved a settlement between Verizon New Jersey, Inc., Cumberland County, and 18 southern New Jersey towns that alleged Verizon failed to properly maintain its wireline network in areas where it has chosen not to deploy FiOS — its fiber to the home service. But the settlement will only compel Verizon to maintain its existing copper network and offer token DSL and FiOS expansion in some unserved rural communities.

“We have heard our customers’ concerns in South Jersey and are pleased to have reached an agreement with the approval of all 17 towns on a maintenance plan going forward,” said Ray McConville, a Verizon spokesman. “We look forward to staying in regular communication with the towns to ensure our customers continue to receive the level of service they expect and deserve.”

“While the Board was fully prepared to proceed on this matter, the parties were able to reach a negotiated settlement which takes into consideration the needs of each community,” said Richard S. Mroz, president, N.J. Board of Public Utilities.

But some residents of those communities beg to differ.

“It’s another example of Chris Christie’s hand-picked regulators letting Verizon off the hook and sticking us in a digital divide,” complained Jeff Franklin, a Verizon DSL customer in Cumberland County. “Verizon should not be allowed to offer one half of the state modern broadband while sticking the rest of us with its slow DSL service.”

Franklin is upset that communities bypassed by Verizon’s FiOS network appear to have little chance of getting it in the future, now that regulators have agreed to allow Verizon to fix its own copper network.

“All the Board did was force Verizon to do what it should have been doing all along, taking care of its own network,” Franklin complained to Stop the Cap! 

Verizon did agree to expand its fiber network into the communities of Estell Manor, Weymouth Township, Corbin City, and Lower Alloways Creek Township, but only because of a 2014 agreement with Verizon compelling them to offer broadband to residents who read and complete a “Bona Fide Retail Request” (BFRR) form which stipulates homes and businesses in Verizon’s New Jersey territory can get broadband if they don’t have it now as long as these criteria are met:

  • Have no access to broadband service from a cable provider or Verizon;
  • Have no access to 4G-based wireless service; and
  • Sign a contract for at least one (1) year of broadband service and pay a $100 deposit.

“BFRR is a joke because it requires potential customers have no access to 4G wireless service,” claimed Franklin. “You have to go to the government’s National Broadband Map to determine eligibility, which is very tough because — surprise, surprise — Verizon itself contributed its 4G wireless coverage information for that map and as far as Verizon is concerned, their 4G coverage in New Jersey is beautiful, even though it really isn’t.”

If a single provider submits map data that shows a home address is already covered by 4G wireless service, even if that isn’t accurate on the ground, that customer is ineligible under the terms of BFRR. Even if they were able to subscribe to 4G broadband, most plans are strictly data capped or throttled.

Under the settlement, Verizon gets to choose what technology to deploy. Outside of the four communities getting FiOS, the rest of South Jersey will have to continue relying on Verizon’s DSL service. Verizon has agreed to extend DSL to 2,000 new residences and businesses in Upper Pittsgrove, Downe, Commercial, Mannington, Pilesgrove, and South Harrison. It will also fix some of its DSL speed congestion problems and monitor for future ones as part of the settlement.

But DSL won’t work if Verizon’s wireline network stays in poor shape. The company has agreed to deploy its “Proactive Preventative Maintenance Tool” (PPMT) to scan its copper network to identify and repair or replace defective cables. Verizon has also agreed to daily inspections of outside facilities and fix any detected problems within 30 days, as well as regularly reporting back on the condition of its infrastructure inside the towns affected under the settlement.

This agreement took a year and a half to reach and will keep the two parties out of court, but many are not satisfied being left with Verizon’s DSL service.

“Unfortunately, the BPU continues to allow Verizon to pick and choose which residents will receive modern telecommunications at an affordable cost,” Greg Facemyer, a Hopewell Township committeeman in Cumberland County, told NewsWorks. “The state legislature needs to recognize these inequities and step in and level the playing field for South Jersey. Otherwise, our region will continue to fall even farther behind and be less competitive.”

Verizon Commits to Spend $1 Billion on New Fiber Buildout for Its 5G Network

Verizon Communications announced a deal Tuesday with a leading optical fiber manufacturer to supply up to 12.4 million miles of fiber cable annually for a large buildout of Verizon’s fiber network to power its forthcoming 5G wireless service.

Verizon’s $1.05 billion agreement with Corning, Inc., of Corning N.Y., will guarantee Verizon will have an ample supply of optical fiber available from 2018-2020 at a time when the company noticed a fiber cable shortage was causing problems for its current FiOS/5G fiber buildout now underway in Boston.

“This new architecture is designed to improve Verizon’s 4G LTE coverage, speed the deployment of 5G, and deliver high-speed broadband to homes and businesses of all sizes,” Verizon said in a statement. But Verizon did not make it very clear the expansion will primarily benefit Verizon Wireless, not Verizon Communications’ FiOS fiber to the home service.

Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam, appearing exclusively on CNBC this morning, rejected the notion that the fiber buildout would represent a restart of Verizon’s long-suspended expansion of its FiOS fiber to the home service.

“When we deployed FiOS we would run a fiber cable into a neighborhood with six or eight strands in it,” McAdam said. “Now we’re going to drop off six or eight strands to every street light in every neighborhood so that allows you to deliver a gigabit of thruput into the home and allows you to do things like intelligent transportation, electric grid management, and water system management. You hear a lot about autonomous cars and things like that today that don’t work without 5G.”

Verizon’s Boston project represents the current CEO’s vision: a wireless-based network supported by an extensive fiber network. But instead of connecting fiber to homes, McAdam’s network connects fiber to tens of thousands of palm-sized “small cells” and other wireless infrastructure that will deliver services to individual neighborhoods instead of individual homes.

Critics still question whether Verizon’s 5G network will be able to sustain its speed and capacity claims outside of testing labs, especially as shared wireless network infrastructure faces future usage demands. Fiber to the home service does not require customers to share bandwidth the same way a wireless connection would and can manage much higher capacity.

Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam and Corning chairman and CEO Wendel Weeks appeared jointly on CNBC to discuss Verizon’s $1.05 billion agreement with Corning to guarantee up to 12.4 million miles of optical fiber a year from 2018-2020. (11:24)

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  • Lee: Tower improvements will be selective. First will be towers where AT&T bought the land the tower is on. Second will be fixed yearly rent land. Las...
  • Paul Houle: It makes more sense than some of the bundles I've heard about. I think many families subscribe to Netflix for the documentaries, and all of these ch...
  • Paul Houle: How many years is this for: 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020: If it is really is four years, this is $3230 per sub, which is in the range of what rural fiber...
  • Josh: Not the dumbest use of our money possible, but why the frak don't we just own the service we're paying for?...
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