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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.

FCC Looks to Press More Spectrum Into Service for 5G Wireless

The Federal Communications Commission is pushing hard to free up additional spectrum in some unlikely extremely high frequency ranges — some at 95 GHz or higher, for the next generation of wireless services.

Just a year ago in 2017, the FCC wrapped up its latest spectrum auction for the higher end of the UHF TV band, to be repurposed for mobile service use. But now the agency is seeking to find and reassign underused spectrum in much higher frequency bands that could be used for services like 5G wireless, machine-to-machine communications, intelligent road and vehicle networks, and other uses yet to be invented or envisioned.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel made it clear that smart spectrum allocation was critical for next generation wireless services.

“The point is the list is long — and we are looking at midband and millimeter wave to power the 5G future,” Rosenworcel said. “The propagation challenges are real, but so is the potential for capacity with network densification. Of course, what we need to do next is get these airwaves to market and unconditionally hold an auction this year.”

The FCC is contemplating auctions covering these frequencies in 2018:

3.5 GHz

Widely expected to draw the most interest, the Citizens Broadband Radio Service band was originally intended primarily for unlicensed users, but the wireless industry has lobbied heavily to get much of this spectrum reassigned for traditional long-term licensed use. Although very high frequency, the 3550-3700 MHz “innovation band” will have plenty of wide range of frequencies open for wireless data and mobile services. The wireless industry wants to deploy LTE service on this band, but they will likely compete with cable operators that are seeking their own stake of frequencies to launch their own wireless services.

This band will likely support last mile wireless connections at gigabit speed, fixed wireless broadband, and even in-home Wi-Fi that is significantly better than what you have now.

Because the band is so attractive, several different users are competing over who will be portioned what spectrum. The cable and phone companies want more for themselves, but other users, including consumers, want to reserve enough spectrum for unlicensed applications. The concern is deep pocketed companies may crowd out innovators and start-ups.

3.7 to 4.2 GHz

Some consumers may have accessed services on these frequencies without ever realizing it. This is the home of the “C-Band,” recognizable to any home satellite dishowner of the 1980s and 1990s. This range of frequencies is set aside for line-of-sight, very low powered satellite television — the kind that used to require a 10-12 foot wide satellite dish in the backyard to receive. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wants to open the band up to be shared with 5G wireless broadband, which has caused considerable controversy among satellite users who fear devastating interference.

There are proposals and counter proposals from the satellite industry and wireless companies over how to manage sharing this band. Most are coalescing around the idea of sequestering 100 MHz of spectrum at the low-end of the band and using 3700-3800 MHz for high-speed wireless broadband. Some want satellite operators to clear out of this section of frequencies voluntarily, others propose compensation similar to what was given to television stations to relocate their channel positions. Google is pushing for a plan that would offer mobile 5G service in large urban areas and 25 Mbps – 1 Gbps fixed wireless broadband in rural and residential areas.

But satellite companies and many satellite users are fearful of the impact of interference. Because satellite signals use very low power transponders on the satellite, ground based wireless broadband interference could wipe out satellite reception.

Tom Taggart, who owns several radio stations in West Virginia, says sharing spectrum was tried before and did not work well.

“This band, years ago, was shared with AT&T and other telcos for point-to-point long-distance links. Fixed, licensed paths that could be plotted and protected against for satellite installations,” Taggart told Radio World. “Our studios are 1,500 feet from an old MCI tower, at one time we had a metal screen behind our satellite dish to protect against ‘back-scatter’ from a path aimed away from us. Still, we had to convince MCI to shut down one channel so we could pick up a program from Premiere [a radio network distributing programming on satellite].”

Some industry plans propose registering C-Band satellite dishes, at a cost of $600-$1,600 per site, which would allegedly protect them from interference by requiring wireless broadband services to steer clear of the area.

“But I am not even sure what kind of broadband services are proposed,” Taggart said. “One might assume these would be omnidirectional sites, like a typical cell site. Even with some clever computer-engineered directional patterns, reflections off hillsides, billboards, buildings would be enough to overwhelm the tiny satellite signal. However, other articles described these services as ‘mobile.’ Even if my dish is registered, how can I resolve interference problems from a mobile device?”

The debate rages on because the frequencies involved, next to the even more popular CBRS band, are highly coveted.

4.9 GHz

After the events of 9/11 in 2001, the FCC has prioritized public safety communications, in hopes of improving the interoperability of different first responders’ portable radios. At that time, fire agencies could not easily talk to police, ambulance crews, or in some cases other fire crews arriving from different departments miles away.

Many agencies contemplating use of this band discovered equipment that supported 4.9 GHz was hard to find and extremely expensive. Most public safety agencies seeking grants or other funding to improve their communications equipment opted to transition to digital P25 networks that operate on much lower frequencies and use equipment that is now widely available and, in comparison, much cheaper. Many agencies are conservative about using new technology as well, concerned a communications failure could cost the life of a fire or police responder. As a result, of the 90,000 organizations certified for licenses in this band, only 3,174 have been granted. That represents a take rate of just 3.5%. The band, as one might expect, is effectively dead in most areas, underutilized in others.

“As the demand for wireless services continues to grow, it is imperative that the FCC takes steps to ensure underutilized spectrum bands are used efficiently,” said FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. “This is as true for spectrum allocated to public safety as it is for the bands used to support commercial wireless broadband services.”

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly is convinced wireless companies like AT&T and Verizon could use the frequencies more efficiently.

“It has been 16 years since the 4.9 GHz band was allocated to the public safety community, and it is still woefully underutilized,” said O’Rielly. “That is not sustainable in an environment in which every megahertz of spectrum, especially below 6 GHz, needs to be fully scrutinized and maximized in quick order. While the Commission’s original allocation was more than likely well-intentioned, it is way past time to take a fresh look at this 50 megahertz of spectrum.”

Although higher than 3.5 GHz, engineers believe there is a very credible case to be made to use the available spectrum for 5G fixed wireless services, delivering broadband at speeds up to 1 GHz from a small cell located nearby. It would have to be. At these frequencies, virtually anything blocking the line-of-sight between the antenna and the user will block the signal as well. With almost no constituency defending the 4.9 GHz turf, it is expected it will be repurposed for wireless broadband in areas where it isn’t in use for public safety communications.

24/28 GHz

Although the 28 GHz band has many licensed users already, the 24 GHz band does not, and the wireless industry is interested in grabbing vast swaths of spectrum in this band for 5G home broadband. Known as “millimeter wave spectrum,” these two bands are expected to be a big part of the 5G fixed wireless services being planned by some carriers. Verizon acquired Straight Path late in 2017, which had collected a large number of licenses for this frequency range. Today, Verizon holds almost 30% of all currently licensed millimeter wave spectrum, an untenable situation if you are AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint. T-Mobile has been the most aggressive seeking more spectrum to compete with Verizon in this frequency range, and has purchased almost 1,150 MHz covering Ohio for use with a 5G project the company is working on.

39 GHz

FiberTower, now owned by AT&T

This band might as well be called “the controversial band” because AT&T made moves on these frequencies even before the FCC got around to discussing an auction for this band, likely also to be used for 5G fixed wireless. FiberTower originally held hundreds of licenses for wireless spectrum for several years, but did little with them, leading to suggestions the company was either hoarding the spectrum to resell to someone else or was incapable of deploying a network that used the frequencies. The company declared bankruptcy in 2012, eventually emerging in the spring of 2014 just in time to watch the FCC uphold the decision of its Telecommunications Bureau to cancel 689 of FiberTower’s licenses for failure to use them.

In February 2018, AT&T completed its acquisition of FiberTower for $207 million. According to AllNet Insights & Analytics, AT&T acquired more than 475 of FiberTower’s 39 GHz spectrum licenses, raising eyebrows among shareholders who lost their investments in FiberTower after it declared bankruptcy. Hundreds of the spectrum licenses that came with the AT&T deal were given a value of $0.00, allowing AT&T a sweetheart deal and shareholders hoping to recover more money from the bankruptcy liquidation extremely upset. In fact, had FiberTower remained in bankruptcy, it would eventually have surrendered all of its licenses, which would then be put up for auction by the FCC and would likely command much higher value among bidders. Verizon effectively paid triple the price for what AT&T got for a song in the FiberTower acquisition. Even more remarkable, the FCC approved the acquisition by AT&T despite the obvious fire sale price, and has ignored the consequences of what could come from an AT&T/Verizon duopoly across large swaths of 5G frequencies.

Eshoo

That brought a rebuke from Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) who accused both Verizon and AT&T of flipping public property for private gain.

“The FCC’s policies unambiguously required Straight Path and FiberTower to forfeit their unbuilt spectrum licenses,” Eshoo wrote. “But rather than auction the reclaimed spectrum and promote timely deployment, the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau reached ‘resolutions’ with Straight Path and FiberTower than allowed them to profit handsomely from their wrongdoing. Following the ‘resolution,’ Straight Path sold its assets to Verizon for nearly $3.1 billion, and FiberTower is estimated to have sold its assets to AT&T for roughly $2 billion.”

In reality, AT&T acquired FiberTower for $207 million — a fraction of the amount of the estimated value of the spectrum Eshoo used in her estimate.

“The Bureau’s decisions also further concentrated critical input resources in the hands of the two dominant wireless incumbents,” Eshoo continued. “The purchasers of the public assets that Straight Path and FiberTower once held, Verizon and AT&T, already control a disproportionate amount of other critical spectrum available for immediate deployment. Up until recently, the industry had an imbalance in favor of these companies in low-band spectrum that lasted for decades. The FCC now risks going down the same wrong path with high-band spectrum should the Commission continue down this course. Allowing Straight Path and FiberTower to ‘flip’ public assets for private gain does nothing for taxpayers, but does much to further entrench the dominant incumbents’ longstanding spectrum advantage over their rivals.”

95+ GHz

The FCC has not regulated frequencies above 95 GHz, but as technology advances, there is growing interest in utilizing spectrum that many believed would be essentially unusable for communications services. Right now, most frequencies in this range are used by environmental satellites and radio astronomy. At these frequencies, signals would be absorbed by the skin and attenuated significantly by things like high humidity’s haze or fog. Still, there are proposals under consideration to open up a small portion of spectrum for unlicensed home users for things like indoor wireless routers.

The key policy priority here will be to protect existing users from any hint of interference. But with vast amounts of unused frequencies in this range, it shouldn’t be difficult to keep competing users apart.

AT&T’s Argument It Was Untouchable by Federal Trade Commission Fails in Court

Phillip Dampier February 27, 2018 AT&T, Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

AT&T’s attempt to avoid oversight and enforcement of consumer protection laws by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) failed in a federal appeals court Monday, overturning a 2016 decision that agreed with AT&T the FTC could not oversee or punish AT&T for its business practices.

In a unanimous 11-0 decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the court found AT&T’s interpretation of a law it said gave the Federal Communications Commission exclusive authority to regulate and oversee “common carrier” telecom companies was overly broad and based on a misinterpretation of the law. The decision means the FTC will continue to pursue AT&T in court to secure relief for AT&T’s wireless customers that the FTC claims were misled by AT&T’s unlimited data plan that was not truly unlimited.

“The phrase ‘common carriers subject to the acts to regulate commerce’ thus provides immunity from FTC regulation only to the extent that a common carrier is engaging in common-carrier services,” the court ruled Monday. In laymen’s terms, the judges found that the FCC does have the regulatory authority to oversee common carrier services like basic telephone service, but the law does not prevent other government agencies like the FTC to oversee AT&T’s conduct in non common-carrier services.

The FTC and the FCC both argued that allowing AT&T and the 2016 lower court opinion to stand would create a regulatory loophole through which virtually any corporation with even the slightest ownership stake in a common carrier telecommunications company could escape all oversight and enforcement of consumer protection laws.

The dispute began in 2014, when the FTC sued AT&T in court for intentionally throttling wireless internet speeds of millions of AT&T customers hanging on to their legacy unlimited data plans.

The FTC’s complaint alleged that the company failed to adequately disclose to its customers on unlimited data plans that, if they reached a certain amount of data use in a given billing cycle, AT&T reduced – or “throttled” – their data speeds to the point that many common mobile phone applications – like web browsing, GPS navigation and watching streaming video –  become difficult or nearly impossible to use.

“AT&T promised its customers ‘unlimited’ data, and in many instances, it has failed to deliver on that promise,” said former FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez in 2014. “The issue here is simple: ‘unlimited’ means unlimited.”

According to the FTC’s complaint, AT&T’s marketing materials emphasized the “unlimited” amount of data that would be available to consumers who signed up for its unlimited plans. The complaint alleged that, even as unlimited plan consumers renewed their contracts, the company still failed to inform them of the throttling program. When customers canceled their contracts after being throttled, AT&T charged those customers early termination fees, which typically amount to hundreds of dollars.

The complaint accused AT&T of violating the FTC Act by changing the terms of customers’ unlimited data plans while those customers were still under contract, and by failing to adequately disclose the nature of the throttling program to consumers who renewed their unlimited data plans.

AT&T responded in court asking the case be dismissed, arguing that the FTC could not bring a case against AT&T because, as a common carrier, only the FCC has jurisdiction over the company.

The case was largely decided on whether Congress intended to exempt common carrier companies from FTC oversight based on their “status” or their “activities.” AT&T argued the law clearly gave companies deemed to be common carriers a blanket exemption from FTC oversight. The FTC argued Congress only intended to exempt the specific common carrier “activities” or services sold by a company from FTC oversight, not the entire company. The three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals agreed with AT&T’s view, affirming AT&T’s claim it was untouchable by the FTC and dismissed the FTC’s lawsuit.

Judge Kozinski, questioning AT&T: “I’m regulated by the FTC and I don’t like it. I go out and I buy a small, money-losing common carrier. Do I say, ‘bye bye FTC,’ under your reading of the statute?”

The decision was a stunner in D.C. regulatory circles and opened a chasm-sized loophole for almost any company to completely escape the FTC’s oversight and enforcement of consumer protection laws just by providing a single common carrier service (or acquiring a small phone company that does) to secure blanket immunity. The FTC appealed the decision before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Both the FTC and at least one judge hearing the federal agency’s appeal saw the potential impact of the earlier 2016 decision immediately.

“I’m regulated by the FTC and I don’t like it,” Judge Alex Kozinski said to AT&T’s attorney. “I go out and I buy a small, money-losing common carrier. Do I say, ‘bye bye FTC,’ under your reading of the statute?”

The FTC warned if AT&T’s view was upheld, any company could buy a common carrier and violate federal consumer protection laws with no recourse for consumers and no available FTC enforcement action.

This week’s decision, called “common sense” by the judge who wrote the summary of the court’s finding, restores the FTC’s authority over non-common carrier services at companies large and small, including AT&T. It is also a relief to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who earlier argued the FTC had jurisdiction over abusive ISPs and would effectively oversee broadband providers without any need to continue the net neutrality policies of his predecessor. Had the court ruled in favor of AT&T, Pai’s policy would have transferred oversight of internet services to an agency legally prohibited from overseeing most broadband providers.

The FTC was pleased with the decision.

“It ensures that the FTC can and will continue to play its vital role in safeguarding consumer interests including privacy protection, as well as stopping anti-competitive market behavior,” Maureen Ohlhausen, acting Chairwoman, said in an emailed statement.

AT&T was not, and claimed the court ignored the merits of the case.

“We are reviewing the opinion and continue to believe we ultimately will prevail,” the representative said in an emailed statement, which did not definitively state whether AT&T intended to appeal the decision.

Charter Seeks Favorable Licensing Terms for New Mobile/Rural Wireless Broadband Service

There are three tiers of Citizens Broadband Radio Service users – incumbent users (usually military) that get top priority access and protection from interference, a mid-class Priority Access License group of users that win limits on potential interference from other users, and unlicensed users that have to share the spectrum, and interference, if any.

Charter Communications wants to license a portion of the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band to launch a new wireless broadband service for its future mobile customers and potentially also offer its own rural broadband solution.

The CBRS band has sat largely unused except by the U.S. military since it was created, but now the Federal Communications Commission is exploring opening up the very high frequencies to attract wireless broadband services with Priority Access Licenses that will assure minimal interference.

One of the most enthusiastic supporters of CBRS is Charter/Spectrum, which has been testing a 3.5 GHz wireless broadband service using CBRS spectrum in Centennial and Englewood, Col., Bakersfield, Calif., Coldwater, Mich., and Charlotte, N.C. Those tests, according to Charter, reveal the cable company “can provide speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps at significant distances,” which it believes could become a rural broadband solution for customers outside of the reach of its wired cable network.

But Charter’s interest in CBRS extends well beyond its potential use to reach rural areas. Charter’s primary goal is to offer wireless connectivity in neighborhoods for its forthcoming mobile phone service. Charter plans to enter the wireless business this year, selling smartphones and other wireless devices that will depend on in-home Wi-Fi, CBRS, and a contract with Verizon Wireless to provide coverage everywhere else.

Charter wants to keep as much data usage on its own networks as possible to reduce costs. It has no interest in building a costly, competing LTE 4G or 5G wireless network to compete with AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile. But it is interested in the prospect of using LTE technology on CBRS frequencies, which are likely to be licensed at much lower costs than traditional mobile spectrum.

Primary Economic Areas

There are several proposals on the table on how to license this spectrum. Large wireless companies want Priority Access Licenses (PALs) based on Partial Economic Areas (PEAs) — 416 wireless service areas the FCC established as part of its spectrum auctions. PEAs are roughly equivalent to metropolitan areas and typically cover multiple counties surrounding a major city. Major wireless carriers are already familiar with PEAs and their networks cover large portions of them.

Charter is proposing to license PALs based on county lines, not PEAs, which will likely reduce the costs of licensing and, in Charter’s view, will “attract interest and investment from new entrants to small and large providers.” If Charter’s proposal is adopted, its costs deploying small cell technology used with CBRS will be much lower, because it will not have to serve larger geographic areas.

The FCC envisioned licensing PALs based on census tract boundaries, which would result in licenses for areas as small as portions of neighborhoods. That proposal has not won favor with like wireless companies or cable operators. The wireless giants would prefer licenses based on PEAs, but companies like AT&T seem also amenable to the cable industry proposal.

Charter’s proposed CBRS network would likely allow the cable company to offload a lot of its mobile data traffic away from Verizon Wireless, reducing the company’s data costs. Charter’s deployment costs are relatively low as well, because the backhaul fiber network used to power small cells is already present throughout Charter’s service areas.

Just how far into rural unserved areas Charter’s CBRS network can reach isn’t publicly known, but it would likely not extend into the most difficult-to-serve areas far away from Charter’s current infrastructure. But if the FCC establishes county boundaries and a requirement that those companies obtaining priority licenses actually serve those areas, it could help resolve some rural broadband problems.

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