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AT&T’s 5G Trials and Tribulations: Fast Speeds for Some, Zoning Concerns for Others

AT&T is continuing its 5G wireless trials in several cities around the country, attempting to determine if there is a business case for wireless home broadband offering speeds up to a gigabit on a shared, next-generation wireless network. While some trial participants are getting blazing fast speeds, some may be out of luck if their homeowner association or apartment owner bans outdoor antenna equipment from being attached to the side of buildings for aesthetic reasons.

More than a year ago, AT&T launched an enterprise 5G trial in Austin to learn more about millimeter wave spectrum and how it could be used to deliver very high-speed fixed wireless internet access. In late 2017, AT&T expanded 5G trials to Waco, Tex., Kalamazoo, Mich., and South Bend, Ind., to test whether the service would work in residential and suburban neighborhoods where tree-lined streets and yards could theoretically block the extremely high and very line-of-sight frequencies AT&T’s 5G service uses.

“My team spent countless hours collecting data and talking to real people who elected to join the trial,” wrote Melissa Arnoldi, president, technology and operations for AT&T, in a blog post. “What worked? What didn’t? What did we need to change? Why was this happening here and not there? Would mmWave spectrum really work to deliver 5G? Did we really just hit that speed in South Bend?”

Part of AT&T’s 5G wireless service trial is taking place in the River Park neighborhood of South Bend, Ind.

What AT&T also learned is to talk about the successes and keep the failures to themselves. In a more recent blog post, Arnoldi shared how the Rubbelke family is benefiting from AT&T’s 5G wireless service at their home in the River Park neighborhood, just to the southeast of downtown South Bend:

Well, for one – it’s providing them with ultra-fast wireless speeds. Just how fast?  At the Rubbelke household, they’re seeing peak wireless speeds nearing 1 Gbps and latency rates less than 20 milliseconds.

Using this emerging technology, Rebecca can easily stream their 3-year-old daughters’ favorite TV show on the tablet. Her husband, Michael, can download textbooks and research materials in an instant for his graduate program. And they can connect with family over video chat without noticeable buffering.

And they can use all of these bandwidth-heavy applications simultaneously and seamlessly—something that would be nearly impossible with current LTE technologies.

Arnoldi’s summary of AT&T’s experiences with 5G are all positive, all the time:

Waco, Texas
Participants: Small and mid-sized businesses

  • Provided 5G mmWave service to a retail location more than 150 meters away from the cell site and observed wireless speeds of approximately 1.2 Gbps in a 400 MHz channel.
  • Observed latency rates at 9-12 milliseconds.
    • Latency impacts things like the time between pressing play and seeing a video start to stream or hitting a web link and seeing a webpage begin to load. For context, MIT researchers discovered the human brain “latency” is 13 milliseconds.
  • Supported hundreds of simultaneous connected users using the 5G network.

Kalamazoo, Michigan
Participants: Small businesses 

  • Observed no impacts on 5G mmWave signal performance due to rain, snow or other weather events.
  • Learned mmWave signals can penetrate materials such as significant foliage, glass and even walls better than initially anticipated.
  • Observed more than 1 Gbps speeds under line of sight conditions up to 900 feet. That’s equal to the length of 3 football fields.

South Bend, Indiana
Participants: Small business and residential customers

  • Observed a full end-to-end 5G network architecture, including the 5G radio system and core, demonstrating extremely low latency.
  • Successfully provided gigabit wireless speeds on mmWave spectrum in both line of sight and some non-line of sight conditions.

But it isn’t all great news.

Line of Sight vs. Zoning and HOA Restrictions

AT&T’s millimeter wave trials are taking place in the 28 and 39 GHz bands that are way above even the 5 GHz Wi-Fi your home router may be equipped with. Anyone who has compared the older 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi band with the newer, but less congested 5 GHz band knows that while 5 GHz can deliver faster speeds with less interference, it is also more distance sensitive than the lower frequency alternative. The more obstacles between your Wi-Fi enabled router and your wireless device, the poorer the results.

A simulated small cell antenna as part of a light pole. (Image courtesy of Crown Castle)

AT&T claims its beta tests are showing “better than expected” results from its 5G service in both line of sight and non-line of sight conditions, but won’t say how much speeds are affected in more marginal reception conditions. AT&T’s 5G antennas are located outdoors, which should offer a clearer path between the transmitter and the receiver, and AT&T claims the signal “performs well” despite foliage and buildings blocking the line of sight between the antenna and a subscriber’s home.

But AT&T itself must not be totally satisfied with the results, because the company told Ars Technica it has begun testing adaptive beamforming and beam tracking to “enable non-line-of-sight 5G services in our trials.” ‘Enable’ in this context suggests that without these adaptive technology add-ons to overcome foliage and building blockages, 5G service did not work well.

Other blockages, those AT&T cannot outwit with technology, are zoning controversies over small cell antennas and homeowner association agreements that restrict outdoor antennas, even though fixed wireless antennas are protected by a FCC ruling allowing them. Despite the fact these antennas are small and unobtrusive — usually installed on an exterior wall near the roof-line — some requests have created controversy in neighborhoods for aesthetic or dubious health and safety concerns.

Even more controversial are the small cell antennas that must be installed inside neighborhoods within 200-800 feet of customers. Some local authorities and homeowner associations may object less to the antenna than to its power supply and battery backup equipment, usually housed inside large-sized metal cabinets placed nearby on the ground or on the pole itself.

In South Bend, AT&T Fiber is on the way in many parts of the city, offering wired gigabit speed service without the limitations of marginal signal reception or fussy HOA agreements and paranoid neighbors. That fact has not been lost on AT&T’s executive management, who remain uncertain about the business case of offering fixed 5G wireless home broadband in areas that will also be served by AT&T Fiber, the company’s fiber to the home service.

In the case of South Bend, AT&T’s trial is taking place in a relatively dense city neighborhood that would normally be a prime target for AT&T Fiber. The cost to provision fiber to the home service in areas already wired for AT&T Fiber may prove a better value for AT&T than contemplating the cost of installing nearly 60 small cells to serve each square mile of South Bend.

AT&T Debuts WatchTV and Two New Unlimited Plans Next Week

AT&T’s ultra-slim TV package WatchTV arrives next week and is free of charge, if you are willing to switch to one of two new unlimited plans that bundle “unlimited” talk, text, and data with your choice of content.

AT&T WatchTV includes more than 30 networks and over 15,000 on-demand movies and TV shows. The lineup:

A&E, AMC, Animal Planet, Audience, BBC World News, BBC America, Boomerang, Cartoon Network, CNN, Discovery, Food Network, FYI, Hallmark Channel, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, HGTV, History Channel, HLN, IFC, Investigation Discovery, Lifetime, Lifetime Movies, OWN, Sundance TV, TBS, Turner Classic Movies, TLC, TNT, Tru TV, Velocity, Viceland, and WE. The service also promises to add a small suite of Viacom networks: BET, Comedy Central, MTV2. Nicktoons, Teennick, and VH-1 shortly after launch.

AT&T’s new “unlimited plans” appear to add to the confusion over exactly what “unlimited” means. Full details of both plans will be on AT&T’s website next week.

AT&T Unlimited &More

  • Option to add WatchTV
  • $15 monthly credit toward DIRECTV NOW
  • Up to 4G LTE unlimited data

AT&T Unlimited &More Premium

  • Option to add WatchTV
  • Option to add one of these premium services: HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, or Starz, as well as music streaming from Amazon Music Unlimited and Pandora Premium or gaming service VRV.
  • $15 monthly credit toward DIRECTV, DIRECTV NOW and U-verse TV
  • 15GB of high-speed tethering
  • High-quality video

AT&T has not disclosed pricing, but the fine print does mention: “AT&T may slow data speeds when the network is congested. Video may be limited to SD.”

AT&T’s marketing language suggests customers will have the option of getting these services, which means you may have to opt-in to get them. If you are not interested in changing your wireless plan or if you are not an AT&T customer, AT&T WatchTV will be available shortly on a standalone basis for $15 a month. Details on that option “are coming soon.”

Is Dish Networks Really Preparing to Finally Build Its Wireless Network?

Among the major wireless companies with spectrum holdings worth billions, few would suspect that the fifth largest (behind Sprint, AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile) is the satellite television company Dish Networks.

After spending nearly $20 billion over the last ten years acquiring nearly 95 MHz of extremely valuable low and mid-band spectrum in markets across the United States, Dish is the largest wireless company that isn’t actually providing wireless service. Critics have questioned whether Dish co-founder Charlie Ergen was ever really interested in getting into the wireless business when he could make an even bigger killing warehousing spectrum until it grows in value and can be profitably sold to someone else. One Wall Street analyst thinks there is a strong case for exactly that. Cowen and Company estimates Dish’s holdings are now worth $30.2 billion — a $10 billion profit possible from keeping spectrum off the market until a buyer is willing to make an offer Dish cannot refuse.

Unfortunately for Ergen, spectrum is public property and ultimate ownership rights can never be sold or transferred. Instead, the FCC licenses companies to use the public airwaves, and has provisions to take them back if a company does not put that spectrum to good use. For Dish Networks, the first important deadline is March 2020, by which time the FCC expects Dish to achieve at least 70% market coverage of its 700 MHz “E-Block” and 2000-2020/2180-2200 MHz AWS-4 licenses.

Dish’s “E-Block” spectrum was formerly known as UHF channel 56. Dish has already begun testing the next-generation TV standard ATSC 3.0 on its E-Block spectrum in Dallas, as part of a joint venture with TV station owners Sinclair, Nexstar, and Univision. Dish proposed to use this spectrum, which covers 95% of the United States, as a potential tool for broadcasters. Among the services Dish could offer are broadcast data applications made possible with the ATSC 3.0 standard.

Because time and money is on the line, Dish needs to either build its network quickly or sell/lease its spectrum to other companies before facing possible spectrum forfeiture in less than two years. Analysts say one of the cheapest and easiest ways of placating the FCC is to deploy a modest, narrowband wireless network designed for machine-to-machine communications. These networks rely on short bursts of data to communicate information. Possible applications include exchanging irrigation and crop data collected from wireless sensors and various remote weather and climate measurement tools.

Coincidentally, that is exactly the kind of network Ergen initially envisions, largely operating on the sparsely used AWS bands. Officially called “NB-IoT” in wireless industry parlance, the ‘narrowband Internet of Things’ network would be the first chapter of Dish’s wireless story. It’s a network done on the cheap — constructed with a relatively low investment of $500 million to $1 billion through 2020, adequate enough to keep the FCC off Dish’s back.

Ergen reports the radios have been ordered and in a sign of serious intent, Dish has now signed master lease agreements with cell tower companies that will allow Dish to place its transmission equipment on tens of thousands of cell towers around the country. The company has also hired experts in tower permitting and network design and planning. Those contracts are an important indicator for some skeptics on Wall Street who believed Ergen would not show seriousness of intent until he signed paid, binding commitments to begin network buildout.

Ergen would disagree that Dish has been foot-dragging its wireless network deployment, despite a decade of accumulating wireless spectrum that has gone unused.

“It’s all about timing; too early you are roadkill, if you get it just right you have a chance,” Ergen said. “We missed the 4G shift because of the regulatory reasons. The next big paradigm shift is 5G.”

Ergen

Unfortunately for Ergen, he will be late to that paradigm shift, admitting his dream of a national 5G network isn’t possible right now.

“We’re […] going to spend at least $10 billion or more on a 5G network,” Ergen said, while also admitting, “we don’t have that kind of capital on our balance sheet today.”

Ergen promised that sometime in the future, Dish will begin a “second phase” that will “build a complete 5G network.” But Ergen’s vision of 5G is somewhat different from Verizon and AT&T, which are focused on the consumer and business voice and data markets. Ergen envisions a robust 5G network designed to support IoT applications like smart cities, artificial intelligence, and autonomous vehicles, and does not seem interested launching a fifth national cell provider.

Ergen quit in December 2017 as CEO of Dish’s aging satellite TV business to refocus on Dish’s mobile future, and to recast the venture as a glorified startup, much like his early days in the home satellite television business where he got into the business manufacturing 10-foot C-band satellite dishes for consumers and then sold the programming to watch on those dishes. From money earned in that business, Ergen launched Dish Networks, which relies on today’s familiar small satellite dishes and competes with DirecTV.

Ergen’s satellite TV venture only had to compete with one other satellite provider. His wireless network will have to compete with at least four established national wireless companies, plus emerging competition from the cable industry and regional cellular providers. Ergen tried to turn that obvious business challenge into an opportunity:

“We have two disadvantages; We don’t [have many] customers and we are not as knowledgeable as other people in the business, but we don’t have the legacy of 2G, 3G, 4G networks,” Ergen said. “We have a clean sheet of paper with 5G. It reminds me of 1990 when we decided to reinvent ourselves from the big dish business to small dish. It took five years to design and build that system with not one penny of revenue, and we obsoleted the business we were in. When we got into satellites, we didn’t know anything about it, but neither did anyone else. It is the same with 5G/IoT. We are not the world’s experts, but neither is anyone else.”

What Ergen lacks in experience he makes up for in enthusiasm, laying out plans for Dish’s wireless future. By the time he activates 5G service, Dish expects to use its combined 95 MHz of spectrum in the 600 MHz and 2 GHz range for that network. That will take until at least July 2020, because many of the 600 MHz frequencies he needs are still occupied by UHF television stations that are in the process of migrating to a more compact UHF band.

Dish has spectrum holdings that reach almost every corner in the U.S.

Ergen may also consider acquiring additional millimeter wave spectrum if he deploys small cell technology. He has even decided to keep small cell and larger traditional “macrocells” found on traditional cell towers on different frequencies, claiming sharing the frequencies would create interference issues.

Ergen also hopes to convince the FCC to repurpose little-known Multichannel Video Distribution and Data Service (MVDDS) spectrum located between 12.2-12.7 GHz for 5G wireless applications. That solid block of 500 MHz of spectrum could be an important asset to power small cell 5G networks, because it can support faster speeds than the typical smaller blocks of frequencies most companies control. MVDDS also lacks a significant constituency to protect it, having been woefully underutilized in the United States. Only tiny Cibola Wireless, an ISP in Albuquerque, N.M., licenses MVDDS technology for its wireless internet service, selling Albuquerque residents up to 50 Mbps speed for $79.99 a month. Users claim the service does not suffer the latency problems of traditional satellite internet access, but can still slow down if too many users are online at the same time.

Back in 2010, MVDDS technology was seen as a potential competitor to companies like Dish and DirecTV, as well as satellite internet providers which share similar spectrum. Like satellite internet, MVDDS can transmit and receive data over a small dish. But instead of pointing it to a satellite 44,000 miles away, MVDDS systems target a ground-based transmission tower much closer nearby. The technology never attracted much attention, and will now likely be displaced by 5G in the United States, although it has done modestly better abroad, serving a limited customer base in the United Arab Emirates, Ireland, France, Vietnam, Greenland and Serbia.

Comcast Will Sell You Mesh Wi-Fi to Boost Their Inadequate Wireless Gateway

Comcast customers receiving inadequate Wi-Fi coverage while using a company-provided wireless gateway can now buy a mesh-style wireless solution starting at $119.

XFINITY xFi Pods work only with Comcast’s internet service and provide extended Wi-Fi coverage when paired with either the xFi Wireless Gateway or the xFi Advanced Gateway — both available in Comcast store locations.

“Our gateway devices are incredibly powerful, but we know that some homes have a unique layout or are constructed of materials that can disrupt Wi-Fi coverage in some rooms,” said Eric Schaefer, senior vice president and general manager, Broadband, Automation and Communications, Comcast Cable. “Wi-Fi is the oxygen for the digital home and our xFi Pods can blanket a home with great coverage and are simple to install and easy to use.”

Comcast claims its xFi Pods continually evaluate local signal environments to adjust Wi-Fi channels and bands to assure a superior signal. By creating a mesh network, Comcast claims the Pods help eliminate Wi-Fi dead spots in a larger home.

Customers use the xFi mobile app to get new Pods up and running and continually monitor the in-home mesh network. Each individual Pod plugs into a standard home electrical outlet. Customers who do not need to use all of them in a home or apartment setting can share the extras with friends and family, as long as they also have Comcast internet service and the appropriate gateway.

The hexagon-shaped, xFi Pods are sold in three-packs for $119, or in six-packs for $199, plus shipping and handling. They can be purchased online at www.xfinity.com/xfipods, from the xFi app, or from some XFINITY retail stores. Some purchases can be added to the customer’s Comcast bill. Later this year, customers will also be offered a monthly payment plan for the Pods.

SPECS

Color: White
WiFi Capacity: AC1200
Size: D:2.05in./L:2.52in./H:2.227in.
Ethernet: Single GbE Ethernet
Power supply: 100-240VAC, 50-60Hz, 5W Max

Comcast claims xFi Pods are superior to traditional Wi-Fi extenders because they communicate with each other and pass traffic between them, allowing for multiple areas of enhanced Wi-Fi coverage around a home.

But there are some caveats:

  1. The Pods have a maximum throughput of 200 Mbps, and that was in a lab setting. Comcast said its Pods are intended to expand in-home coverage, not deliver speed to every corner of the home. That means while connected to a xFi Pod, expect maximum download speeds between 100-175 Mbps.
  2. The Pods only work with Comcast’s app and gateway. If you own your own modem or router (for Wi-Fi), the Pods will not work. If you switch providers, the xFi Pods will stop working.
  3. Your Wi-Fi network must share a single Wi-Fi network name and password. You cannot have Wi-Fi guest networks or different SSIDs for 2.4 and 5 GHz channels.

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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