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T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless Achieve Top Scores in Mobile Performance Report

Mobile broadband performance in the United States remains nothing to write home about, achieving 43rd place worldwide for download speeds (between Hong Kong and Portugal) and a dismal 73rd for upload speed (between Laos and Panama). With this in mind, choosing the best performing carrier can make the difference between a tolerable experience and a frustrating one. In the first six months of 2018, Ookla’s Speedtest ranked T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless the two top carriers in the U.S.

From January through the end of June, 2,841,471 unique mobile devices were used to perform over 12 million consumer-initiated cellular network tests on Speedtest apps, giving Ookla insight into which carriers consistently performed the best in different cities around the country. The results showed average download speed of 27.33 Mbps, an increase of 20.4% on average since the same period in 2017. Upload speed achieved an average of 8.63 Mbps, up just 1.4%.

Achieving average speeds of 36.80 Mbps, first-place Minnesota performed 4 Mbps better than second place Michigan. New Jersey, Ohio, Massachusetts and Rhode Island were the next best-performing states. In dead last place: sparsely populated Wyoming, followed by Alaska, Mississippi, Maine, and West Virginia.

T-Mobile’s heavy investment in 4G LTE network upgrades have clearly delivered for the company, which once again achieved the fastest average download speed results among the top-four carriers: 27.86 Mbps. Verizon Wireless was a close second at 26.02 Mbps. Verizon’s speed increases have come primarily from network densification efforts and equipment upgrades. Further behind was AT&T, achieving 22.17 Mbps, and Sprint which managed 20.38 Mbps, which actually represents a major improvement. Sprint has been gradually catching up to AT&T, according to Ookla’s report, because it is activating some of its unused spectrum in some markets.

Your Device Matters

Which device you use can also make a difference in speed and performance. In a match between the Apple iPhone X and the Samsung Galaxy S9, the results were not even close, with the Samsung easily outperforming the popular iPhone. The reason for the performance gap is the fact Samsung’s latest Galaxy phone has four receive antennas and the iPhone X does not. The iPhone X is also compromised by the total amount of LTE spectrum deployed by each carrier and the fact it cannot combine more than two spatial streams at a time. Until Apple catches up, iPhone X users will achieve their best speeds on T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless, in part because Verizon uses more wideband, contiguous Frequency Division Duplex (FDD) LTE spectrum than any other carrier, which will allow iPhone users to benefit from the enhanced bandwidth while connected to just two frequency blocks. The worst performing network for iPhone X users belongs to Sprint, followed by AT&T.

 

Rural vs. Urban

For customers in the top-100 cities in the United States, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless were generally the best choices, with some interesting exceptions. AT&T and Verizon Wireless generally performed best in areas where the companies also offer landline service, presumably because they are able to take advantage of existing company owned infrastructure and fiber networks. Verizon Wireless performed especially well in 13 states in the northeast, the upper midwest (where it acquired other cellular providers several years ago), Alaska, and Hawaii. AT&T was fastest in four states, especially the Carolinas where it has offered landline service for decades, as well as Nebraska and Nevada. Sprint outperformed all the rest in Colorado, while T-Mobile’s investments helped make it the fastest carrier in 31 states, notably in the southeast, southwest, and west coast cities.

The story rapidly changes in rural areas, however. Almost uniformly, speeds are considerably slower in rural areas where coverage and backhaul connectivity problems can drag down speeds dramatically. In these areas, how much your wireless provider is willing to spend makes all the difference. As a result, T-Mobile’s speed advantage in urban areas is dramatically reduced to near-equivalence with Verizon Wireless in rural communities, closely followed by AT&T. Sprint continues to lag behind in fourth place. No speed test result means a thing if you have no coverage at all, so rural customers need to carefully consider the impact of changing carriers. Always consider a 10-14 day trial run of a new provider and take the phone to places you will use it the most to make sure coverage is robust and reliable. Sprint and T-Mobile’s roaming agreements can help, but in areas with marginal reception, the two smaller carriers still favor their own networks, even if service is spotty.

MSA-Metropolitan Service Area; RSA-Rural Service Area

Network Upgrades and the Future

In the short term, most wireless upgrades will continue to enhance existing 4G LTE service and capacity. True 5G service, capable of speeds of a gigabit or more, is several years away for most Americans.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile has invested in thousands of new cell sites in over 900 cities and towns to quash its reputation of being good in cities but poor in the countryside. Many, but not all of these cell sites are in exurban areas never reached by T-Mobile before. The company is also deploying its 600 MHz spectrum, which performs well indoors and has a longer reach than its higher frequency spectrum, which will go a long way to end annoying service drops in marginal reception areas. These upgrades should make T-Mobile’s service stronger and more reliable in suburbs and towns adjacent to major roadways. But service may remain spotty to non-existent in rural states like West Virginia. Most of T-Mobile’s spectrum is now dedicated to 4G LTE service, with just 10 MHz reserved for 3G legacy users. T-Mobile has set aside only the tiny guard bands for LTE and UMTS service for legacy GSM channels handling some voice calls and 2G services.

T-Mobile is also introducing customers to Carrier Aggregation through Licensed Assisted Access (LAA). This new technology combines T-Mobile’s current wireless spectrum with large swaths of unlicensed spectrum in the 5 GHz band. Because the more bandwidth a carrier has, the faster the speeds a carrier can achieve, this upgrade can offer real world speeds approaching 600 Mbps in some areas, especially in urban locations.

Verizon Wireless

Verizon Wireless is suffering a capacity shortage in some areas, causing speeds to drop during peak usage times at congested towers. Verizon’s solution has been to add new cell sites in these mostly urban areas to divide up the traffic load. In many markets, Verizon has also converted most or all of its mid-band spectrum to LTE service, compacting its legacy CDMA network into a small section of the 850 MHz band. With 90% of its traffic now on LTE networks, this week Verizon confirmed it will stop activating new 3G-only devices and phones on its network, as it prepares to end legacy CDMA and 3G service at the end of 2019. Once decommissioned, the frequencies will be repurposed for additional LTE service.

In the immediate future, expect Verizon to continue activating advanced LTE features like 256 QAM, which enables customers’ devices and the network to exchange data in larger amounts and at faster speeds, and 4×4 MIMO, which uses an increased number of antennas at the cell tower and on customers’ devices to minimize interference when transmitting data. How fast this technology arrives at each cell site depends on the type of equipment already in place. At towers powered by Ericsson technology, a minor hardware upgrade will quickly enable these features. But where older legacy Alcatel-Lucent equipment is still in use, Verizon must first install newer Nokia Networks equipment to introduce these features. That upgrade program has moved slower than anticipated.

Older phones usually cannot take advantage of advanced LTE upgrades so Verizon, like other carriers, may have to convince customers it is time to buy a new phone to make the most efficient use of its upgraded network.

AT&T

AT&T customers are also dealing with capacity issues in some busy markets. AT&T has a lot of spectrum, but not all of it is ideal for indoor coverage or rural areas. The company, like Verizon, is trying to deal with its congestion issues by deploying new technologies in traffic-heavy metropolitan markets. AT&T is using unlicensed spectrum in parts of seven cities, accessible to customers using the latest generation devices, to increase speeds and free up capacity for those with older phones. For most customers, however, the most noticeable capacity upgrade is likely to come from AT&T’s nationwide public safety network. This taxpayer-supported LTE network will be reserved for first responders during emergencies or disasters, but the rest of the time other AT&T customers will be free to use this network with lower priority access. This will go a long way towards easing network congestion, and customers will get access automatically as available.

At the same time, AT&T, like Verizon, is trying to deploy additional advanced LTE features, but has been delayed as it mothballs older Alcatel-Lucent equipment at older cell sites, replaced with current generation Nokia equipment.

Sprint

Sprint has done the most in 2017-2018 to improve its wireless network, especially its traditionally anemic download speeds. While still the slowest among all four national carriers, things have gotten noticeably better for many Sprint customers in the last six months. Sprint recently activated LTE on 40-60 MHz of its long-held 2.5 GHz spectrum, which has improved network capacity. Carrier Aggregation has also been switched on in several markets.

Unfortunately, Sprint’s 2.5 GHz spectrum isn’t the best performer indoors, and the company has also had to adjust frame configuration in this band. Sprint is the only Time Division Duplex (TDD) LTE carrier in the country. This technology allows Sprint to adjust the ratio of download and upload capacity by dedicating different amounts of bandwidth to one or the other. Sprint tried to address its woeful download speeds by devoting 30% more of its capacity to downloads. But this also resulted in a significant drop in upload speeds, which are already anemic. Sprint has been able to further tweak its network in some areas to boost upload speeds up to 50%, assuming customers have good signals, to mitigate this issue.

Sprint is also restrained by very limited cell site density and less lower frequency spectrum than other carriers. That means more customers are likely to share a Sprint cell tower in an area than other carriers, and the distance between those towers is often greater, which can cause more instances of poor signal problems and marginal reception than other carriers. Sprint’s best solution to these problems is a merger with T-Mobile, which would allow Sprint to contribute its 2.5 GHz spectrum with T-Mobile’s more robust, lower frequency spectrum and greater number of cell sites, instead of investing further to bolster its network of cell sites.

Charter Spectrum Launches Mobile Phone Service Today

Charter Communications today launched Spectrum Mobile, a new no-contract mobile phone service for existing Spectrum internet customers offering two simplified plans, including a “pay per gigabyte” plan that will allow customers to get unlimited calling, texting and 1 GB of data for $14 a month.

Spectrum Mobile relies on Verizon Wireless’ 4G LTE network to assure strong network coverage, and phones sold are also designed to simplify connections to home Wi-Fi and Spectrum’s nationwide network of Wi-Fi hotspots. But Spectrum Mobile appears to limit speeds of certain Verizon Wireless network traffic, notably videos, which “typically stream at 480p.”

The plans and website are remarkably similar to Comcast’s XFINITY Mobile, except Spectrum’s “pay per gig” plan costs $2 more ($14) than the one on offer from Comcast ($12).

Spectrum Mobile also does not currently permit customers to bring their own devices — customers must buy new devices from Spectrum’s store, which as of today only offers five Android phones from Samsung (Galaxy S8, S8+, S9, S9+)  and LG (K30). Phones can be purchased up front or financed for 24 months at 0% interest at prices ranging from $7.50 a month for the LG phone to $35.42/month for the Galaxy S9+. A separate trade-in program is available to reduce the cost of investing in a new phone. Spectrum accepts most phones from Apple, Samsung, HTC, Google and LG as long as they meet trade-in standards.

Customers are given the option of two plans, based on anticipated data consumption. Customers who typically use 3 GB or more per month should sign up for the unlimited plan:

Unlimited $45

  • Unlimited talk
  • Unlimited texting (does not count against 20 GB threshold)
  • “Unlimited” data: After 20 GB of usage per month, speeds may be throttled for the rest of the billing cycle.
  • Customers can switch a line from Unlimited to By the Gig at the end of your billing cycle, charged $14/GB.

By The Gig $14

  • Unlimited talk
  • Unlimited texting (does not count towards data usage)
  • $14/GB for data
  • Customers can switch a line from By the Gig to Unlimited at any time during the billing cycle, assuring you won’t pay more than $45 a month for a plan.

Spectrum’s initial assortment of smartphones is extremely limited.

There are various fine print terms and conditions to be aware of if considering switching to Spectrum Mobile:

  • New Spectrum internet customers with fewer than 30 days of service are limited to up to two lines. Devices associated with these lines are shipped to the internet service address on file. After 30 days of Spectrum internet service, customers may be eligible for more lines, up to a total of five, based on credit rating.
  • Equipment, taxes and fees (including regulatory recovery fees, surcharges and other applicable charges) extra and subject to change.
  • There are no additional fees for using your phone as a mobile hotspot. After 5 GB of mobile hotspot data use in the bill cycle, mobile hotspot speeds are reduced to a maximum of 600 kbps for the rest of the bill cycle. Mobile hotspot data counts toward your 20 GB high-speed data allowance.
  • DVD-quality video streaming is supported. Video typically streams at 480p.
  • If a residential Spectrum internet subscription isn’t maintained, an additional $20 per-line monthly charge will be applied and Spectrum Wi-Fi speeds will be limited to 5 Mbps. You can change your rate plan, but you won’t be able to add additional lines.
  • Spectrum Mobile is not currently considered part of your Spectrum service bundle, so no bundling discounts are available.
  • Spectrum will not pay any early termination fees you might encounter if you cancel service with your old carrier and have a service contract.
  • Auto-pay with a credit or debit card is required.

Telcos Pile Up Debt From Mergers & Acquisitions While Stalling Fiber Upgrades

Spending priorities: mergers & acquisitions, not upgrades.

Since 2012, two of the country’s largest phone companies spent enough money — $281.4 billion — to wire at least three-quarters of the  nation with fiber-to-the-home service and deliver vastly improved rural internet access to the rest of the country. Instead of doing that, AT&T and Verizon used the money to buy their competitors and content creators including AOL and Yahoo.

A 2017 Deloitte Consulting analysis estimates the United States will need between $130 and $150 billion in investment over the next 5–7 years to upgrade at least 75% of homes and businesses to fiber to the home service, with the remaining 25% serviced by technologies including 5G that are capable of delivering broadband speeds greater than the federal minimum standard of 25/3 Mbps.

AT&T could almost deliver the country a major broadband upgrade all by itself, having spent $138 billion on mergers and acquisitions in the past six years. Verizon could have easily handled the entire cost, but instead spent its $143.4 billion on business deals, including $130 billion to buy out former Verizon Wireless partner Vodafone. Among independent phone companies, things look equally bad. Frontier Communications is saddled with so much debt after acquiring former AT&T customers in Connecticut and Verizon customers in more than a dozen states, it has been forced to suspend its shareholder dividend and has been only able to make token investments in network upgrades for its mostly copper wire infrastructure in its original “legacy” service areas and a mixture of copper and fiber in acquired service areas. Both CenturyLink and Windstream have refocused many of their business activities on the commercial services marketplace, including the sale of hosting, business IT services, and cloud server networks.

More recently, both AT&T and Verizon have raced into content company acquisitions, buying up AOL, Yahoo, and Time Warner to offer their respective customers additional content. The phone companies are diversifying their business interests away from simply offering phone lines and internet access. At the same time, many of these acquisitions are depleting resources that could be spent on critical network upgrades.

The article in Light Reading claims the telecom industry’s traditional financial model of borrowing money to build networks and upgrade others is broken, because telecom companies now prefer to spend money acquiring other companies instead. Although AT&T has, in recent years, been more aggressive than Verizon in deploying fiber to home service, both companies have resisted committing large amounts of capital to a territory-wide fiber buildout, preferring to spend smaller sums to incrementally upgrade their networks in selected areas over the next decade. But the merger and acquisition teams at both companies are far less cautious, given the go ahead to pay handsomely for companies that often have little to do with providing telephone or internet service.

Light Reading reports AT&T’s debt climbed from $59 billion in 2010 to $126 billion at the end of 2017. Verizon’s debt increased from $45 billion to $114 billion. But those acquisitions have done little to attract new customers. Both companies’ operating cash flows have barely budged — $39 billion annually at AT&T (up from $35 billion) and Verizon’s actually declined from $33 billion in 2010 to $25 billion in 2017.

Mergers and Acquisitions (2011-2018)

AT&T

  • 2012: AT&T buys $1.93 billion worth of spectrum from Qualcomm.
  • 2013: AT&T buys Leap Wireless (Cricket) for $1.2 billion.
  • 2014: AT&T pays $49 billion for the DirectTV, issuing $17.5 billion in debt in April.
  • 2015: AT&T buys out assets from bankrupt Mexican wireless business of NII Holdings for around $1.875 billion.
  • 2018: AT&T pays $207 million to acquire FiberTower.
  • 2018: AT&T is cleared to merge with Time Warner in a deal valued at more than $84 billion.

Verizon

  • 2011: Verizon acquires Terremark for $1.4 billion.
  • 2014: Verizon buys out Vodafone’s 45 percent stake in Verizon Wireless, valued at $130 billion, with a mixture of stock and debt.
  • 2015: Verizon buys AOL for a deal valued around $4.4 billion.
  • 2017: Verizon acquires Yahoo Internet assets for $4.5 billion.
  • 2017: Verizon buys spectrum holder Straight Path Communications for $3.1 billion roughly double rival AT&T’s offer, to build up 5G spectrum and footprint.

The more debt (and debt payments) that pile up at the two companies, the less money will be available to spend on fiber upgrades. In fact, there is evidence these companies are hoping to further cut costs in their core landline network operations. Some regulators have noticed. Verizon was forced to make a deal with New York regulators requiring the company to spend millions replacing failing copper-based facilities and upgrade them to fiber and remove or replace tens of thousands of deteriorated utility poles. Verizon faced similar action in Pennsylvania.

AT&T has spent millions lobbying the federal government to permanently decommission rural America’s landline network and replace it with a wireless alternative, while also working to replace the current regulated telephone network with deregulated alternatives like internet and Voice over IP phone service.

Wall Street analysts have occasionally questioned or at least expressed surprise over some of the phone companies’ odd acquisitions:

  • Verizon acquired Terremark to beef up its cloud-based and server-hosting businesses. But shortly after acquiring the company, Verizon began replacing top management, sometimes repeatedly, and ultimately divested itself of its data center portfolio, including Terremark, just five years later.
  • AT&T bought DirecTV to help it reduce wholesale TV programming expenses for its U-verse TV subscribers. But DirecTV has lost more than one million satellite TV customers since AT&T acquired it in 2014, despite new marketing efforts to convince would-be U-verse TV customers to choose DirecTV instead.
  • Verizon saw value in web brands that were major players more than 18 years ago but are mostly afterthoughts today. The company spent almost $9 billion to acquire Yahoo and AOL, and their low quality content portfolios, which rely heavily on clickbait headlines, advertiser-sponsored content, and articles designed to maximize mouse clicks to boost the number of ads you see.

“The telcos are trying to diversify into content when they should instead be focused on their core business — building networks and charging for value-added technology,” said Scott Raynovich, founder and principal analyst at Futuriom. “It’s clear they see content as part of the value-add but customers so far don’t seem to be reacting that way. It’s clear they are allergic to paying higher prices for bundled content.”

AT&T and Verizon’s customers are not clamoring for more content deals. When surveyed, most want better internet service at more affordable prices.

Spectrum Enters the Wireless Business on June 30; Pricing Mirrors XFINITY Mobile

Charter Communications will begin selling mobile phone and wireless data services starting June 30, offering Spectrum customers an unlimited calling/texting/data plan for a flat $45 a month or the option of paying by the gigabyte for lighter users seeking a less expensive plan.

A source familiar with Charter’s wireless plans told DSL Reports the new service will be called “Spectrum Mobile,” and is part of the company’s foray into a wireless business currently dominated by AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

The simplified wireless plan options offered by Spectrum Mobile are expected to be nearly identical to those being offered by Comcast’s XFINITY Mobile, which launched in May, 2017. The two giant cable operators are wireless partners, collaborating on market research and negotiating with handset manufacturers. Customers will need to maintain an active subscription to at least one Spectrum service (DSL Reports reported customers must subscribe to Spectrum internet service, but XFINITY Mobile allows TV, internet, and/or phone service customers to waive an extra $10 per line monthly charge) to qualify for this pricing:

By the Gig ($12/GB):

  • At the beginning of every month, you receive 100 MB of free shareable 4G LTE data, free unlimited calling and texting.
  • Gigabytes are $12 each, and data is shared across all lines on your account that are using By the Gig.
  • You’ll be charged by rounding up your data usage to the next GB at the end of each billing cycle. This means that if you use 2.2 GB of data, you’ll be charged for 3 GB, or $36. Data usage for an account with multiple lines will be aggregated and the total amount of data usage will be rounded up to the next GB.
  • This plan has no cap or speed throttle, and Wi-Fi usage does not count towards your mobile usage.

“Unlimited Data” (20 GB of 4G LTE data for a flat rate of $45 per line)

  • Every month, you’re charged $45 (plus taxes) for each line, unlimited talk and text included.
  • “Unlimited data” means 20 GB of 4G LTE data at full speed. After 20 GB, download and upload speeds will be reduced to 1.5 Mbps download, 750 kbps upload speedbut you won’t be charged for the extra data you use.
  • Wi-Fi data usage does not count toward your 20 GB allowance.

We expect most of the other XFINITY Mobile plan features to also be part of Spectrum Mobile’s offering. XFINITY Mobile claims its customers save up to $400 a year. Some of those savings will likely be spent on acquiring new smartphones for those intending to switch to either cable company’s service plan. Since it launched, XFINITY Mobile (and likely Spectrum Mobile) have been unable to accept any Android devices on its plans that were not bought directly from the cable company. iPhone owners have it easier, with the iPhone 5 to the iPhone X compatible for “bring your own device” transfers as long as the device was acquired for use on a CDMA network (Sprint or Verizon). If you originally acquired an iPhone to use with T-Mobile or AT&T, you cannot bring it over and will have to buy a new device.

Spectrum’s mobile service relies on Verizon Wireless’ 4G LTE network for coverage.

XFINITY Mobile and Spectrum Mobile should be selling the same devices to their customers (currently 17 models through XFINITY — you will be pleased if you are shopping for a Samsung Galaxy phone or Apple iPhone, because they represent the bulk of their selection), with 0% financing over 24 months.

The cable industry has been looking for a less expensive way to enter the mobile/wireless business for more than a decade, with some companies like Cox aborting plans to build their own traditional cellular networks in favor of contracting with existing wireless companies AT&T, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile or Sprint to resell access to their networks.

Both Comcast and Charter are following a similar path, contracting with Verizon Wireless to provide nationwide 4G LTE coverage. But the handsets the cable companies are selling are also equipped to take advantage of existing Wi-Fi networks, and default to Wi-Fi internet access and calling wherever possible. The handsets seamlessly switch to Verizon’s network when out of range of a suitable Wi-Fi signal. With a growing percentage of wireless data use today managed over Wi-Fi networks, the two cable operators face lower costs than cable companies did in 2005, when they attempted to form an alliance with Sprint to enter the mobile market that never materialized.

But Comcast’s early entry into the mobile business has not come cheap. The company’s chief financial officer reported Comcast expects to rack up $1.2 billion in operating losses over the first 18 months of being in the wireless business. In 2017, XFINITY Mobile lost $480 million. The company will deal with another $200 million in losses this year as it spends more on marketing and introducing support for more devices subscribers bring from their old carriers. After a year, Comcast has attracted 380,000 subscribers to its wireless venture.

Some of the handsets available for sale at XFINITY Mobile will also be sold by Spectrum Mobile.

Where Comcast and Charter diverge is in their interest in constructing their own wireless networks. Comcast wants to leverage the millions of pre-existing “gateways” already installed in customer homes that deliver traditional Wi-Fi access to its customers and guest users. Charter has experimented with fixed wireless in a handful of markets for in-home broadband replacements, and is also contemplating launching a type of super-powered Wi-Fi service that could deliver wireless connectivity across a neighborhood instead of just a single home. If Charter builds a wireless network utilizing frequencies in the 3.5 GHz band, it will be part of its broader plan to integrate multiple wireless networks together.

“Charter is in the process of transitioning its wireless network from a nomadic Wi-Fi network to one that supports full mobility by combining its existing Wi-Fi assets with multiple 4G and 5G access technologies,” Charter said in comments to the FCC. “In navigating this technological transition, Charter is concentrating on an ‘Inside-Out’ strategy, initially focusing on advanced wireless solutions inside the home and office, and eventually expanding outdoors.”

Spectrum Mobile will be the first part of what the company claims is a multi-step process to create a new and powerful wireless network for customers.

“First, in 2018, Charter will begin offering a mobile wireless service to its customers as a Wi-Fi-first MVNO, partnering with Verizon Wireless and using Charter’s own extensive Wi-Fi infrastructure to enhance customer connectivity and experience,” the company told the FCC in February. “In the second phase, Charter plans to use the 3.5 GHz band in conjunction with its Wi-Fi network to improve network performance and expand capacity to offer consumers a superior wireless service.”

The FCC Four: The Top Special Interests Lobbying the FCC

March was a big month for lobbyists visiting the Federal Communications Commission, which opened the doors to wireless special interest groups for “ex parte” meetings with agency staffers that, in turn, brief the three Republicans and two Democrats that serve as FCC commissioners.

Last month’s ex parte filings reveal strong evidence of a coordinated, well-financed campaign by America’s wireless operators and cable companies to get the FCC to ease off regulations governing forthcoming 5G networks, particularly with respect to where tens of thousands of “small cell” antennas will be installed to deliver the service.

Four industry trade groups and companies are part of the concerted campaign to scale back third party control over where 5G infrastructure will end up. Some want to strip local governments of their power to oversee where 5G infrastructure will be placed, while others seek the elimination of laws and regulations that give everyone from historical societies to Native American tribes a say where next generation wireless infrastructure will go. The one point all four interests agree on — favoring pro-industry policies that give wireless companies the power to flood local communities with wireless infrastructure applications that come with automatic approval unless denied for “good cause” within a short window of time, regardless of how overwhelmed local governments are by the blizzard of paperwork.

Here are the big players:

The Competitive Carriers Association (CCA)

The CCA is primarily comprised of rural, independent, and smaller wireless companies. In short, a large percentage of wireless companies not named AT&T or Verizon Wireless are members of CCA. The CCA’s chief goal is to protect the interests of their members, who lack the finances and political pull of the top two wireless companies in the U.S. CCA lobbyists met ex parte with the FCC multiple times, submitting seven filings about their March meetings.

CCA’s top priority is to get rid of what they consider burdensome regulations about where members can place cell towers and antennas. They also want a big reduction in costly environmental, tribal, and historic reviews that are often required as part of a wireless buildout application. CCA lobbyists argue that multiple interests have their hands on CCA member applications, and fees can become “exorbitant” even before some basic reviews are completed. The CCA claims there have been standoffs between competing interests creating delays and confusion.

Costs are a relevant factor for most CCA members, which operate regional or local wireless networks often in rural areas. Getting a return on capital investment in rural wireless infrastructure can be challenging, and CCA claims unnecessary costs are curtailing additional rural expansion.

NCTA – The Internet & Television Association

The large cable industry lobbyist managed to submit eight ex parte filings with the FCC in March alone, making the NCTA one of the most prolific frequent visitors to the FCC’s headquarters in Washington.

The NCTA was there to discuss the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band, which is of particular interest to cable companies like Charter Communications, which wants to get into the wireless business on its own terms. Cable lobbyists, under the pretext of trying to avoid harmful interference, want to secure a large percentage of the CBRS band for their licensed use, at the expense of unlicensed consumers and their wireless industry competitors.

The cable industry wants CBRS spectrum to be wide, spacious, and contiguous for its cable industry members, which should open the door to faster speeds. The lobbyists want to make life difficult for unlicensed use of the band, potentially requiring cumbersome use regulations or costly equipment to verify a lack of interference to licensed users. They also want their traffic protected from other licensed users’ interference.

CTIA – The Wireless Association

The wireless industry’s largest lobbying group made multiple visits to the FCC in March and filed 10 ex parte communications looking for a dramatic reduction in local zoning and placement laws for the next generation of small cells and 5G networks.

The CTIA has been arguing with tribal interests recently. Tribes want the right to review cell tower placement and the environmental impacts of new equipment and construction. The CTIA wants a sped-up process for reviewing cell tower and site applications with a strict 30-day time limit, preferably with automatic approval for any unconsidered applications after the clock runs out. Although not explicitly stated, there have been grumblings in the past that tribal interests are inserting themselves into the review process in hopes of collecting application and review fees as a new revenue source. Wireless companies frequently question whether tribal review is even appropriate for some applications.

Sprint has had frequent run-ins with tribal interests demanding several thousand dollars for each application’s review under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), which is supposed to protect heritage and historical sites.

In Houston, Sprint deployed small cells around the NRG Stadium, but found itself paying fees to at least a dozen Indian Tribal Nations as part of the NHPA. The NHPA opens the door to a lot of Native Americans interests because of how the law is written. Any Tribal Nation can express an interest in a project, even when it is to be placed on public or private property that is not considered to be tribal land. In Houston, Sprint found itself paying $6,850 per small cell site, not including processing fees, which raised the cost to $7,535 per antenna location. Those fees only covered tribal reviews, not the cost of installation or equipment. Some tribes offered better deals than others. The Tonkawa Tribe has 611 remaining members, mostly in Oklahoma. But they sought and got $200 in review fees for the 23 small cell sites deployed around the stadium. The Kiowa Indian Tribe of Oklahoma, not Texas, charged $1,500 for the 23 applications it reviewed.

Sprint complains it has paid millions in such fees over the last 13 years and no tribe to date has ever asked to meet with Sprint or suggest one of its towers or cell sites would intrude on historic or tribal property.

“Tribal Nations are continuing to demand higher fees and designate larger and larger areas of interest,” says Sprint. “At present, there are no constraints on the amount of fees a Tribal Nation may require or the geographic areas for which it can require payment for review. The tribal historic review process remains in place even in situations—such as utility rights-of-way—where the Commission has exempted state historic review.”

The CTIA wants major changes to the NHPA and other regulations regarding cell tower and antenna placement before the stampede of 5G construction begins.

Verizon

Verizon has been extremely busy visiting with the FCC during the month of March, filing 10 ex parte communications, also complaining about the tribal reviews of wireless infrastructure.

Verizon argues it wants to expand wireless service, not effectively subsidize Native American tribes.

“The draft order’s provisions to streamline tribal reviews for larger wireless broadband facilities will likewise speed broadband deployment and eliminate costs, thus freeing up resources that can, in turn, be used to deploy more facilities,” Verizon argued in one filing.

Verizon has also been carefully protecting its most recent very high frequency spectrum buyouts. It wants the FCC to force existing satellite services to share the 29.1-29.25 GHz band for 5G wireless internet. Verizon has a huge 150 MHz swath of spectrum in this band, allowing for potentially extremely high-speed wireless service, even in somewhat marginal reception areas.

“Verizon assured the commission that even when sharing with other services, we would be able to make use of the 150 MHz of spectrum in this block to provide high-speed broadband service to American consumers,” said one filing.

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  • Michael sherwood: Spectrum charged me an overdue amount and I haven't even been with them for a month...
  • Josh: He’s not wrong, for once. The cell phone stuff keeps blathering s out speeds and how great it is, then can’t actuslly provide unlimited service or an...
  • Dylan: Yeah, Spectrum definitely needs this. I know here in New York, we have National Grid as our electric and gas provider and they definitely tell you abo...
  • FRED HALL: I wish Spectrum had this (and it was accurate). Whenever there's an outage, their tech support is either too stupid or too lazy to let the customer r...
  • Bob61571: TDS Telecom is a sub of Telephone & Data Systems(TDS). US Cellular is also a sub of TDS. TDS Telecom owns a number of smaller small town/rural t...
  • D H: If you want to really feature someone serious for the Governorship. I would suggest Larry Sharpe instead who is actually doing a grassroots campaign....
  • David: Well, I dropped them for earthlink DSL which is slower and buggier but I don't regret it since I don't accept getting pushed around. If earthlink keep...

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