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Communities Prepare for Onslaught of New Wireless Networks in Public Rights-of-Way

Phillip Dampier June 12, 2017 Public Policy & Gov't, Wireless Broadband 1 Comment

AT&T’s idea of a small cell deployment on an existing utility pole in Oakland, Calif. (Image courtesy: Omar Masry, a city planner living in the area, who warns other city planners: “Don’t let this happen to you.”)

Some of America’s biggest wireless telecom companies are spending millions lobbying Washington and state legislatures for the right to place a myriad of new wireless transmitters and small cells in the public rights-of-way without local communities having much say about where they go and what they look like.

Utility Traffic Jam

Over the next five years, tens of thousands of new “small cell” devices are expected to be placed on utility poles to manage forthcoming wireless services, and that represents a conservative estimate. Every major wireless carrier is contemplating new line-of-sight 5G communications networks that will require a massive deployment of new wireless antennas that will serve a smaller audience of devices than traditional cell towers have. But wireless companies will not be alone. Cable operators are also expected to enter the wireless business, not only to resell other providers’ cellular services but also to deploy new low power, line of sight networks to manage the Internet of Things (IoT), which will wirelessly connect devices ranging from home appliances and heating/cooling systems to vehicles on the road, utility meters, shopping carts, for sale and street vendor signs, traffic signals, and much, much more.

It’s an entirely new world for local governments tasked with approving permit requests to place cellular and wireless infrastructure on private and public lands. With billions to be made managing machine-to-machine communications, smart cars, and expanded wireless internet, every player has a vested interest in making sure local governments don’t impede their potential profits.

That is why companies like AT&T are pushing hard for new limitations on local government objections to their sprouting wireless infrastructure. Their idea is to override local control and shift to their proposed statewide or federal guidelines conveniently favoring them by putting time limits on communities to contemplate an application, eliminating certain rights for local governments to object to those applications, and making certain wireless companies don’t have to pay what they consider excessive fees or taxes to local authorities for the right to use the public space.

For local governments, responsiveness to citizens who have to live next to wireless infrastructure is important, and not only because of pseudo-scientific fears of the health impacts of wireless signal radiation. Aesthetic issues alone often make or break current wireless antenna applications.

The POTs and PANs Blog notes that time is short for local communities to get their wireless infrastructure policies in place for the incoming boom of mini-cell sites and IoT networks.

Pole Refrigerators and 100-Foot Fake Pine Trees

Traditional cell towers are easy to spot because they are tall and very visible with wireless antennas often serving multiple carriers fixed up and down across the tower. The next generation of wireless networks will be powered by much smaller antennas attached to utility and light poles. In some cases where nearby trees can block signals, providers propose new 100-foot tall monopoles, sometimes disguised to resemble a tree — albeit a very, very tall one.

Some early generation “small cells” resemble a compact refrigerator and weigh several hundred pounds. These are usually mounted approximately half to two-thirds up a utility pole and are very visible. Some have loud cooling fans, others need additional infrastructure like external power that will busy-up the utility pole with more cables and supports. In a storm strong enough to take out a utility pole, you would not want to be underneath a falling “small cell.”

The Tree Trimming Flat-Top Haircut is Back

Arborists warn that some early 5G installations have taken a serious toll on nearby trees also in the right-of-way because the technology requires a direct line-of-sight to the antenna. This has resulted in aggressive tree-trimming to keep foliage far away from the small cell, and that trimming sometimes includes reducing the height of nearby trees.

A University of Surrey study found that small cells mounted 10 meters up a pole faced at least a 30% chance of having their signals blocked by trees. At 15 meters, that chance of signal blockage is reduced to 10%. At 25 meters, it is less than 1%. But that would require an 82-foot high utility pole in the neighborhood. The standard utility pole in the United States is about 40 ft (12 m) long. Either aggressive tree trimming or tall utility pole placement to avoid trimming is likely to create controversy in suburban residential neighborhoods.

City planners are being urged to contemplate what kind of enforceable policies they want to permit in the public space set aside for infrastructure, because as author Doug Dawson noted, it’s going to get busy up there:

I doubt that any city is prepared for the possible proliferation of wireless devices. Not only are there four major cellular companies, but these devices are going to be deployed by the cable companies that are now entering the cellular market along with a host of ISPs that want to deliver wireless broadband. There will also be significant demand for placement for connecting private networks as well as for the uses by the cities themselves. I remember towns fifty years ago that had unsightly masses of telephone wires. Over the next decade or two it’s likely that we will see wireless devices everywhere.

Spectrum Auction: T-Mobile Runaway Winner, But Dish Buy Puzzles Investors

T-Mobile’s 600MHz coverage map — assuming it builds out its full spectrum purchase.

One of the most consequential and visible spectrum auctions ever is over, and it will have a significant impact on broadcasters, wireless carriers, and the future competitive landscape of the wireless industry.

The world’s first “incentive auction” paid television stations to voluntarily vacate or move their assigned channels to make room for the wireless industry’s desire for more spectrum to power wireless data services. Up for bid was 70MHz of spectrum currently used by UHF television stations. A total of 50 winning wireless bidders collectively agreed to pay $19.8 billion to acquire that space. The biggest winner was T-Mobile USA, which is paying almost half the amount of total proceeds to acquire 45% of the spectrum available in the current auction. T-Mobile managed to acquire enough spectrum to cover 100% of the United States and Puerto Rico with an average of 31MHz of available spectrum nationwide, quadrupling its current inventory of important “low-band” spectrum, which is excellent for covering rural areas and inside buildings.

Consumers are likely to benefit as early as later this year when T-Mobile begins lighting up cellular service utilizing the newly available spectrum. Unfortunately, customers will have to buy new devices compatible with the new bands of frequencies.

Having the spectrum alone is not enough to beef up T-Mobile’s network. The company will have to invest in a large number of new cell sites, particularly in outlying areas, to eventually rival the coverage of AT&T and Verizon Wireless. But with an ample supply of 600MHz spectrum, T-Mobile could soon challenge AT&T and Verizon Wireless’ perceived network and coverage superiority. After this auction, AT&T continues to hold the largest portfolio of <1GHz spectrum — 70.5MHz. Verizon is second with 46.2MHz and T-Mobile has moved up in its third place position with 41.1MHz.

Although the FCC claims the current auction was among the highest grossing ever conducted by the FCC, industry observers claim companies got the new frequencies at a bargain price. A 2015 spectrum auction attracted $44.9 billion in bids, more than double the amount bid this year. The average price wireless companies paid per megahertz per person this year was just shy of 90¢, compared with $2.72 in 2015.

Where bargains are to be had, Charles Ergen and his Dish Network satellite company are sure to follow.

Few companies have as much unused wireless spectrum in their portfolio as Dish. Ergen loves to bid in auctions and has also picked up excess spectrum available on the cheap from other satellite companies that have since gone dark or bankrupt. Dish spent $6.2 billion on spectrum during the latest auction, puzzling investors who drove Dish’s share price down wondering what the company intends to do with the frequencies.

Investors were hoping Dish would eventually sell its spectrum portfolio at a profit, something that could still happen if other wireless carriers see a deal to be made. But some Wall Street analysts fear Dish might actually build a large wireless network of its own to offer wireless broadband service. Wall Street dislikes big spending projects and the competition it could bring to the marketplace, potentially driving down prices.

The other possibility is that Dish is making itself look more attractive to a possible buyer like Verizon, which could acquire the satellite company to win cheaper cable programming prices for its FiOS TV and an attractive amount of wireless spectrum for Verizon Wireless. The nation’s biggest wireless carrier notably did not participate in this spectrum auction.

Another unusual bidder was Comcast. Craig Moffett from Wall Street firm MoffettNathanson called Comcast’s $1.7 billion bid “half-hearted” and said it was unlikely to be enough spectrum for the company to begin offering its own wireless service. Comcast plans to rely on Verizon Wireless to power its wireless service, at least initially.

Comcast targeted its bids only in cities where it already provides cable service, which also nixes the theory Comcast and Charter might have been working together to form a cellular joint venture. Moffett expected Comcast would seek at least 20MHz of spectrum across most of the country. It ended up with 10MHz and only in select cities. Moffett thinks that may signal Comcast’s interest in buying an existing wireless carrier is still on the table.

11 Cities Getting Verizon 5G Beta Test; No Details on Speed or Pricing Yet

Verizon will invite several thousand customers in 11 cities to participate in a “pre-commercial” beta test of its newly built 5G wireless network during the first half of 2017.

The fixed wireless, home broadband replacement will be provided over a limited coverage area in these cities: Ann Arbor, Atlanta, Bernardsville, N.J., Brockton, Mass., Dallas, Denver, Houston, Miami, Sacramento, Seattle and Washington, D.C.

Verizon’s announcement only generally promotes the future potential of 5G service without being too specific about what it intends to offer. We expect the service will be marketed as a wireless home broadband service, not for those on the go. There is no finalized standard for 5G service yet, so Verizon’s adaptation isn’t necessarily going to be the final standard and could change before the wireless provider expands the service to other customers.

“The 5G systems we are deploying will soon provide wireless broadband service to homes, enabling customers to experience cost-competitive, gigabit speeds that were previously only deliverable via fiber,” said Woojune Kim, vice president, Next Generation Business Team, Samsung Electronics.

Verizon’s ability to offer gigabit speeds will depend on several factors:

  • Backhaul connectivity: Verizon will likely choose areas where fiber connectivity is already installed, either as part of its FiOS project or through its fiber connections to cell towers. Because of the very high frequencies involved, 5G connectivity will be line-of-sight and the coverage area will be very limited, within a mile or less of the tower or small cell infrastructure Verizon will depend on to provide service to each neighborhood.
  • Distance and signal quality: 5G service will be distance sensitive and fixed wireless will require the installation of an antenna either pointed out a window or installed externally on a building. The further away, the slower the speed.
  • Shared network: Total available bandwidth on a 5G tower or small cell is shared among all users connected to it. During the initial beta test, speeds are likely to be very high. That may not stay the case as Verizon adds customers to its service.

Verizon has avoided mentioning specific speed tiers, pricing, whether service is unlimited or usage capped, equipment costs, and contract terms. We are also not aware if the service will be marketed by Verizon Communications, the wireline company that also markets FiOS or Verizon Wireless, the mobile operator side of Verizon.

Several of the test cities represent Verizon’s first home broadband invasion on other providers’ turf. Frontier Communications is likely unhappy to learn it faces direct competition from Verizon in Dallas. Verizon sold its landline and FiOS network in Texas to Frontier. Most of the other test cities seem to avoid direct competition with Charter Communications, as almost all are serviced by Comcast. The new 5G service will also compete directly with AT&T in Michigan, Georgia, Texas, Florida, and California.

Google Fiber’s CEO Out of a Job; Fiber Expansion on Hold Indefinitely in Many Cities

Down the rabbit hole

Down the rabbit hole

Google has quietly announced an indefinite suspension of further fiber expansion as it prepares to downsize fiber division employees and re-evaluate its fiber business model.

In a blog post tonight from Craig Barratt, senior vice president of Alphabet and CEO of Google’s Access division, it becomes clear Google is rethinking its entire fiber strategy and is likely moving towards fixed wireless technology going forward:

Now, just as any competitive business must, we have to continue not only to grow, but also stay ahead of the curve — pushing the boundaries of technology, business, and policy — to remain a leader in delivering superfast Internet. We have refined our plan going forward to achieve these objectives. It entails us making changes to focus our business and product strategy. Importantly, the plan enhances our focus on new technology and deployment methods to make superfast Internet more abundant than it is today.

Barratt outlines the immediate implications of Google’s dramatic shift:

  • In the cities where we’ve launched or are under construction, our work will continue;
  • For most of our “potential Fiber cities” — those where we’ve been in exploratory discussions — we’re going to pause our operations and offices while we refine our approaches. In this handful of cities that are still in an exploratory stage, and in certain related areas of our supporting operations, we’ll be reducing our employee base.
Barratt

Barratt

Barratt himself is jumping ship (or was pushed). He announced in his blog entry he is “stepping away” from his CEO role, but will remain as an “adviser.”

Observing Google’s recent fiber efforts and acquisitions, it seems clear Google no longer thinks fiber-to-the-home service is an economically viable solution in light of competitors like AT&T rolling out increasing amounts of fiber and the cable industry is on the cusp of launching DOCSIS 3.1, which will dramatically boost internet speeds without a substantial capital investment.

Google’s investors have been lukewarm about the company’s economic commitments relating to its fiber broadband networks. Often built from the ground up, Google’s fiber construction complexities also include trying to navigate costly roadblocks established by their competitors (notably Comcast and AT&T), dealing with bureaucracies and red tape even in states where near-total-deregulation was supposed to make competition easy. Google Fiber has also not proved to be a runaway economic success, and now faces more challenges in light of upgrades from their competitors. Cable companies have slashed prices for customers threatening to cancel and have added free services or upgrades to persuade customers to stay, and Google’s proposition of selling consumers $70 gigabit access has proved tougher than expected.

It is highly likely the future of Google’s Access business will be deploying wireless broadband solutions powered by Webpass, a company Google acquired earlier this year. Webpass uses a high-speed point to point wireless transmission system the company claims can deliver gigabit broadband access to customers in multi-dwelling buildings and other urban areas. Webpass sells access for $60 a month (discounted to $550/yr if paid in advance) for 100Mbps-1,000Mbps speed depending on network density and capacity in the customer’s building. So far, Webpass has not been able to guarantee speed levels, and some customers report significant variability depending on their location and network demand.

Webpass’ wireless infrastructure costs a fraction of what Google has coped with building fiber to the home networks, and the installation of point-to-point wireless antennas on participating buildings has been less of a regulatory nightmare than digging up streets and yards to lay optical fiber.

webpassBut despite Webpass’ claim its performance is comparable to fiber, its inability to guarantee customers a certain speed level and its tremendous performance variability from 100 to 1,000Mbps exposes one of the weaknesses of fixed wireless networks. At a time when capacity is king, only fiber optic networks have shown a consistent ability to deliver synchronous broadband speeds that do not suffer the variability of shared networks, poor antenna placement/signal levels, or harmful interference.

There is room for wireless technology to grow and develop, as evidenced by the wireless industry’s excitement surrounding future 5G networks and their ability to offer a home broadband replacement. The emergence of 5G competition is almost certainly also a factor in Google’s decision. But even AT&T and Verizon acknowledge a robust 5G network will require a robust fiber backhaul network to support both speed and user demand. The more users sharing a network, the slower the speed for all users. No doubt Webpass has made the same assumption that cable operators did in the early days of DOCSIS 1 — current internet applications won’t tax a network enough to create a traffic logjam that would be noticed by most customers. The phone companies also learned a similar lesson trying to serve too many DSL customers from inadequate middle mile networks or traffic concentration points. (Some phone companies are still learning.)

Whether it was yesterday’s peer-to-peer file sharing or today’s online video, capacity matters. That is why fiber broadband remains the gold standard of broadband technology. Fiber is infinitely upgradable, reliable, and robust. Wireless is not, at least not yet. But technology arguments rarely matter at publicly-traded corporations that answer to Wall Street and investors, and it appears Google’s backers have had enough of Google Fiber.

Stop the Cap!’s View

tollAt Stop the Cap!, we believe these developments further the argument broadband is an essential utility best administered for the public good and not solely as a profit-motivated venture. The path to fiber to the home service in rural, suburban, and urban communities has and will continue to come from a mix of private and public utilities, just as local public and private gas and electric companies have served this country for the last century. Where there is a business model for fiber to the home service that investors support, there is a for-profit fiber provider. Where there isn’t, now there is often no service at all. So far, the FCC in conjunction with Congress has seen fit to solve broadband availability problems by bribing private providers into offering service (usually low-speed DSL that does not even meet the FCC’s definition of broadband) with cash subsidies, tax write-offs, or occasional tax abatement schemes. Imagine if we followed that model with the nation’s public roads and highways. We would today be paying tolls or a subscription to travel down roads built and owned by a private company often financed by tax dollars.

Not every product or service needs to earn Wall Street-sized profits. Nobody needs to get rich selling water, gas, and electricity… or broadband. Public broadband networks can and should be established wherever they are needed, and they should be priced to recover their costs as well as expenses that come from support, billing, and ongoing upgrades. Naysayers like to claim municipal broadband is socialism run wild or an instant economic failure, yet the same model has provided Americans with reliable and affordable gas, electricity, and clean water for over 100 years.

Maine was made for municipal broadband.

Maine was made for municipal broadband.

In New York, publicly owned/municipal utilities often charge a fraction of the price charged by investor-owned utilities. In Rochester, where Stop the Cap! is headquartered, one need only ask a utility customer if they would prefer to pay the prices charged by for-profit Rochester Gas & Electric or live in a suburb where a municipal provider like Fairport Electric or Spencerport Electric offers service. RG&E has charged customers well over 10¢ a kilowatt-hour when demand peaks (along with a minimum connection charge of over $21/mo and a “bill issuance charge” of 72¢/mo). Spencerport Electric charges 2.9¢ a kilowatt-hour and a connection charge of $2.66 a month, and they issue their bills for free. There is a reason real estate listings entice potential buyers by promoting the availability of municipal utility service. The same has proven true with fiber-to-the-home broadband service.

The economic arguments predicting doom and gloom are far more wrong than right. Municipal utilities are often best positioned to offer broadband because they already have experience providing reliable service and billing and answer to the needs of their local communities. Incompetence is not an option when providing reliable clean water or electricity to millions of homes and customers have rated their public utilities far superior to private phone or cable companies.

Google’s wireless future may prove a success, but probably only in densely populated urban areas where a point-to-point wireless network can run efficiently and profitably. It offers no solution to suburban, exurban, or rural Americans still waiting for passable internet access. Clearly, Google is not the “free market” solution to America’s pervasive rural broadband problem. It’s time to redouble our efforts for public broadband solutions that don’t need a seal of approval from J.P. Morgan or Goldman Sachs.

Successful Results for Helium Balloon Broadband Test Off Coast of the Azores

Phillip Dampier October 3, 2016 Rural Broadband, Wireless Broadband No Comments

Researchers from Portugal’s Institute of Systems and Computer Engineering, Technology and Science (INESC TEC) report success delivering high-speed internet access powered by helium balloons attached to buoys, vessels, or even windmills.

The Bluecom+ Project demonstrates the viability of delivering internet access using a broadband mesh network operating in the 500MHz band, currently occupied by UHF television channels 19-34. Researchers created a wireless internet network from shore that achieved more than 100 kilometers of coverage offshore, providing access to Wi-Fi and 4G technology-powered internet in the Azores, an archipelago in the mid-Atlantic.

bluecom

The islands, an autonomous region of Portugal, were selected to test the capability of providing affordable enhanced communications for vessels at sea. Currently, most ships rely on satellite-based communications services, which come at a high cost.

The relatively low frequencies used are capable of penetrating buildings and achieving longer distance coverage, which make them especially suitable for wireless broadband. In the United States, mobile providers are seeking additional spectrum now used by UHF television stations to further expand their wireless networks. In rural areas like the Azores, there is plenty of open channel space to support wireless broadband, as there would be in rural communities currently not served well by DSL or cable broadband.

The project hopes to achieve complete coverage of the Azores, as well as offshore areas around the islands, within the next five years. Bluecom+ is a jointly funded project of Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein through European Union grants.

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