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Will the FCC’s Spectrum Auction Improve Your Service? Let’s Look at the Coverage Maps

Four large telecom companies won the bulk of the available licenses to operate their wireless services on the upcoming 600MHz band, once UHF TV channels occupying part of it vacate. But what exactly did AT&T, Comcast, Dish, and T-Mobile buy and where? Mosaik, a mapping firm, produced maps (courtesy Fierce Wireless) showing exactly where the four companies won 600MHz spectrum in the recent auction. The differences are striking. T-Mobile effectively won the right to launch new service almost everywhere in the country, in part because it acquired a huge number of cheap, low-demand licenses in largely rural areas.

Dish’s plans for its spectrum remain a complete mystery, while Comcast’s winning bids are entirely within areas where it provides cable service. AT&T, although already holding a large supply of low band frequencies, apparently needs more capacity in larger cities, and paid handsomely to get it.

AT&T

Most of AT&T’s winning bids cover larger cities where it already operates an extensive cellular network. Among the areas where AT&T can expand service: Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore, St. Louis, Birmingham, Mobile, Tampa, Atlanta, Dallas, Phoenix, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Minneapolis and Little Rock. But AT&T also grabbed licenses for rural western Massachusetts, central Ohio, and southern Michigan.

Comcast

Comcast’s winning bids consisted of 10MHz of spectrum, except in Nashville where it nabbed 20MHz. Comcast grabbed enough spectrum to cover every city in Florida except Tampa (where Charter provides cable service). The cable company focused heavily on east and west coast bids, winning spectrum across much of the Pacific Northwest, the Boston-NYC-DC corridor, and Illinois and Indiana. The only downside is that 10MHz is not a lot of spectrum to support a large wireless service, but then Comcast does not require that at this time, because it will rely primarily on a shared arrangement with Verizon Wireless to power Xfinity Mobile.

Dish Network

What Dish intends to do with its spectrum remains a complete mystery, but it grabbed a significant amount of it in New York City and its nearby suburbs, including Connecticut. It also won respectable quantities of frequencies in Alaska, California, Florida, Puerto Rico, Seattle and Portland, and several midwestern and south-central cities.

T-Mobile USA

T-Mobile published a similar map as part of its press package claiming victory in the spectrum auction. This map better highlights T-Mobile’s extensive spectrum wins in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. If T-Mobile uses it all, it will command similar coverage areas comparable to Verizon and AT&T. T-Mobile will manage this without any need to merge with anyone else, as AT&T and Sprint have historically argued in their past failed efforts to acquire T-Mobile.

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)

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.

FCC Considering Making It Easier for Telcos to Kill Landline/DSL Service

The FCC has circulated a draft rulemaking that proposes to make it easier for phone companies to end landline and DSL service in areas they are no longer interested in maintaining existing infrastructure.

“We propose eliminating some or all of the changes to the copper retirement process adopted by the Commission in the 2015 Technology Transitions Order,” according to the draft, which would allow phone companies to end service “where alternative voice services are available to consumers in the affected service area.”

The proposed new policy would depart significantly from the one put in place during the Obama Administration because it would end assurances that competing providers would have reasonable and affordable access to wholesale broadband and voice services after phone companies mothball their copper wire networks in favor of wireless or fiber alternatives. If the FCC proposal passes, incumbent phone companies like Verizon and AT&T could end rural landline and DSL service and not make provisions for competitors to have access to the technology alternatives the phone companies would offer affected customers.

Verizon immediately praised the FCC proposal, saying it was “encouraged the FCC has set as a priority creating a regulatory environment that encourages investment in next-generation networks and clears away outdated and unnecessary regulations,” wrote Will Johnson, senior vice-president of federal regulatory and legal affairs at Verizon. “This action is forward-looking, productive and will lead to tangible consumer benefits.”

Previous attempts by Verizon to discontinue landline and DSL service did not lead to “tangible consumer benefits” as Verizon might have hoped. Instead, it led to a consumer backlash, particularly in areas affected by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Verizon elected not to rebuild its copper wire infrastructure in affected coastal communities in New York and New Jersey. Instead, it introduced a wireless landline replacement called Voice Link that proved unpopular and caused a revolt among residents on Fire Island. The wireless replacement did not support data, health monitoring, credit card transaction processing, faxing, and was criticized for being unreliable. Verizon eventually relented and opted to expand its FiOS fiber to the home network on the island instead.

Verizon also attempted to market Voice Link to New York residents in certain urban and rural service areas affected by extended service outages in lieu of repairing its existing infrastructure. Under the proposed changes, the FCC would ease the rules governing the transition away from copper-based services, which include traditional landline service and DSL, in favor of wireless technology replacements and fiber optics.

Because telephone companies like AT&T and Verizon have made mothballing rural wireline infrastructure a priority, the FCC strengthened its rules in 2015 by doubling the notification window from 90 to 180 days, giving more time for affected customers to make other service arrangements or complain to regulators that there were no suitable alternatives. The FCC wants to roll back that provision to its earlier 90-day notification window in response to telephone company complaints that maintaining copper wire infrastructure is expensive and diverted investment away from next-generation networks.

AT&T has been lobbying for several years to win permission from state legislatures to abandon copper wireline infrastructure, mostly in rural areas, where the company has chosen not to upgrade to fiber optic networks. AT&T claims only about 10% of their original landline customer base still have that service.

Both Verizon and AT&T have shown an interest in moving rural consumers to more proprietary wireless networks, preferably their own, where consumers would get voice and data services. But consumer advocates complain customers could lose access to competitive alternatives, may not have a guarantee of reliable service because of variable wireless coverage, could pay substantially more for wireless alternatives, and may be forced to use technology that either does not support or works less reliably with home security systems, medical monitoring, faxing, and data-related transactions like credit card processing.

Other consumer groups like AARP and Public Knowledge have complained that shortening the window for a transition away from basic landline and DSL service to alternative technology could disproportionately affect the customers most likely to still depend on traditional wireline service — the elderly, poor, and those in rural areas.

Here’s What You Need to Know About Comcast’s Xfinity Mobile

Comcast, the nation’s largest cable television operator, will compete for wireless customers with a new no-contract wireless plan that combines Verizon Wireless’ mobile network with Comcast’s installed base of 16 million hotspots installed in customer homes and businesses.

Xfinity Mobile will offer two plans — a pay as you go option for $12/GB and an unlimited calling, texting, and data plan that ranges from $45-65 a month. Customers spending about $150 or more on a Comcast X1 bundle of services will pay the lesser amount, while those with a more basic package will pay more. Customers must at least subscribe to Xfinity Internet service to qualify for the new wireless plan and live in a Comcast service area.

Comcast is powering its cell phone service with its MVNO agreement with Verizon Wireless, which grants the cable company the right to resell Verizon’s wireless network under the Xfinity brand. But Comcast hopes customers will use their devices the most while connected to an Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspot, available in most Comcast customer homes and an extensive network of businesses. To make sure that happens, devices acquired from Comcast will come pre-configured to automatically connect to Comcast’s Wi-Fi, where available.

Comcast’s “unlimited” $65 plan — likely to be the most popular option, is between $15-25 less than what Verizon and AT&T charge their customers for a comparable plan, at least for accounts with just a single device attached. Like other “unlimited” plans, Comcast has a fine print data cap: 20GB of wireless data usage per month, after which it will throttle the customer’s connection until the next billing cycle begins. Comcast intends to always impose the speed throttle once 20GB is reached, not just in areas with congested cell towers. But throttled speeds will be a less maddening 1.5Mbps instead of the usual 128kbps most carriers use to punish their data-heavy users.

Overall, the plan may deliver some savings to current Comcast customers unfazed by signing up for a “quad play” bundle of wireless, phone, TV, and internet access, especially for those bringing a single wireless line to Comcast. Customers with multiple wireless devices on a family plan may want to do the math before signing up with Comcast. Unlike other wireless carriers, Comcast does not offer a discount for additional lines. For most, the price will be $65 a month for each line. For an account with four lines, that would amount to $260 a month — $75 more than what AT&T charges for a similar four-line plan.

Comcast may also attract some interest from light users or those with devices like tablets. Comcast’s $12/GB data plan has no limits or minimum charges. If a customer doesn’t use the plan, there are no charges. If a customer on this plan approaches 4GB of usage in a billing cycle, they can upgrade to Xfinity’s unlimited wireless plan ($45-65) mid-month and then use up to 20GB of data with no extra charges or speed throttles. Customers can put some devices on an unlimited plan and others on a pay-as-you-go plan on the same account.

Early adopters ready to sign up when the service launches this May or June will need to buy new devices from Comcast. The company will sell current generation Apple iPhones, Samsung Galaxy smartphones, and a budget option from LG Electronics. Customers can pay for devices upfront or receive interest-free financing.

Comcast’s interest in entering the wireless business represents the latest effort to keep customers locked into Comcast’s suite of products and services. The more services a customer bundles with Comcast, the more disruptive it will be to switch to another provider.

“The economics really work,” Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said in January. “The goal of the business is to have better bundling with some of our customers who want to save on some of their bill and get a world-class product.”

Because Comcast will rely entirely on Verizon Wireless to provide cellular connectivity, the cost of getting into the mobile business is relatively low. Comcast struck a deal with Verizon several years ago giving the cable company “perpetual” access to Verizon Wireless, as well as any upgrades Verizon makes to its network in the future. However, Verizon still has the right to raise prices on Comcast, potentially slowing or stopping Xfinity Wireless from ever growing large enough to threaten Verizon’s profits.

Charter Communications is planning to introduce a similar wireless product in 2018.

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