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AT&T Still “Meh” on Fixed 5G Wireless; “We’re Focused on Mobility”

AT&T continues to gently discourage the media and investors from comparing its 5G strategy with that of its biggest competitor, Verizon, suggesting the two companies have different visions about where and how 5G and small cells will be deployed.

“We’ve done fixed wireless in our network on LTE as part of our Connect America Fund commitment from the government. We’ve been doing that for two years. And so we know the technology. We know it works, and it works for the purposes intended, which is real broadband,” said Scott Mair, president of operations at AT&T. “The challenge is the use case and the economics, right? So where does fixed wireless work? We’re focused on mobility.”

Mair echoes earlier sentiments from AT&T’s chief financial officer who has repeatedly told investors that AT&T sees fiber to the home service as a superior offering, and one economically within reach for the company in its urban and suburban service areas.

Speaking on Barclays Global Technology, Media and Telecommunications Broker Conference Call, Mair did not rule out 5G residential fixed wireless service in certain expensive-to-reach areas, but it is clear AT&T’s priority will be to bolster its mobile network, not invade the home internet access marketplace. Mair noted AT&T will deploy small cells to power its 5G services, but primarily to resolve congestion issues in high wireless traffic areas.

“If we’re there, we build small cells primarily for capacity,” noted Mair, adding the company believes “the mobility use case is probably the right place to be spending our time and effort.”

AT&T plans to target its first fixed or short-range 5G services on its business customers.

“We see initially enterprise businesses as being the area where the entry will be first,” Mair said. “We’ve thought about partnering with a manufacturing firm, and I really believe that manufacturing is going to be a key capability. When you look at a factory floor, it’s real-time telemetry, real-time analytics. You have factories that now need to be more nimble than ever in terms of being able to reconfigure for product changes very quickly.”

AT&T is also continuing to aggressively expand its fiber footprint, including the prospect of constructing fiber networks outside of AT&T’s traditional landline service area. But the company stressed it is building fiber networks in new ways that will maximize the company’s Return On Investment.

Mair

“So with our fiber build-out, fiber underlies everything we do, whether it’s wireline or wireless. And so fiber matters,” Mair said. “By middle of next year, we’ll be at 14 million homes passed and because we also have a deep fiber footprint, we’ll have another eight million businesses that we pass. That gives us 22 million locations that we can sell fiber-based services.”

AT&T’s fiber network planning has become very sophisticated these days. The more customers sharing a fiber connection, the faster construction expenses will be paid off.

When a business client contacts AT&T to arrange for fiber service, the company used to run a dedicated fiber cable directly to the business. These days, AT&T attempts to maximize the potential use of that fiber cable by routing it through areas that have a high potential of generating additional business for the company or traffic on its network. For example, a fiber connection furnished for a business might also be used to serve multiple dwelling units, like apartment buildings or condos, or rerouted to also reach other businesses that can be sold fiber services.

“I’m passing two [AT&T] cell sites that I’m paying someone else transport and backhaul for, where I can now put it on my own network,” Mair offered as an example. “I know where I’m going to be building small cells in the future. We can plan out that. We know where we’re going to be. I can route that fiber. So now I’ve optimized the route.”

Optimum and Suddenlink Getting Speed Upgrades as Customers Demand More

Altice USA’s Optimum (formerly Cablevision) and Suddenlink are getting upgraded technology as the two cable companies face increasing demands for speed and broadband usage around the country.

“Over the last two years, the percentage of customers taking over 100 megabits of speed has risen to about 80% of our total customer base,” noted Dexter Goei, CEO of Altice USA. “Recently, we have shifted focus to growing the penetration of 200 Mbps services with about 80% of gross additions now taking these speeds or higher, reaching about half of our total customer base at the end of the third quarter, up from less than 5% two years ago.”

Goei noted that the average of all Optimum and Suddenlink broadband customers’ internet speeds has risen from 56 Mbps to 172 Mbps over the last 24 months, and this is increasing every quarter.

“Average data usage is now over 240 gigabytes per month per customer,” Goei added. “And this continues to grow over 20% per year.”

Goei

To meet growing demand, Altice USA is spending money upgrading its cable properties. The company is scrapping its coaxial cable network in the northeast and in selected parts of Suddenlink territory. In smaller communities that Suddenlink typically serves, the company will either bring fiber to the home service or upgrade the existing cable system to DOCSIS 3.1.

“The first objective is to have 1 Gbps broadband services available virtually everywhere,” Goei said. “For our legacy coax network in the Optimum footprint, we just need to do a Digital Switched Video upgrade now to move us to DOCSIS 3.1 and 1 Gbps speeds, which we can complete over the next few quarters. We just soft launched our fiber network in select areas of Long Island, and it is performing just as we expected so far, delivering a great 1 Gbps symmetrical single-play data service with the new advanced wireless gateway. The smart meshed Wi-Fi we’ve introduced is also doing extremely well.”

Goei says Optimum’s fiber network will be capable of delivering more than 10 Gbps speeds, as well as enhanced Wi-Fi, and improved system reliability.

“For the Suddenlink footprint, we already offer up to 1 Gbps services, so we will add further 1 Gbps capacity through some node splitting and CMTS upgrades,” Goei said. “We are also doing a QAM to IP migration on the cable plant to deliver future IP services. And with the move to DOCSIS 3.1, customers will have a uniform SSID across all of their devices, for an improved seamless Wi-Fi experience.”

The upgrades will mean Suddenlink customers will be more likely to receive 1 Gbps speeds even during peak usage times.

By transitioning video services away from the current QAM platform, IP video will free up additional bandwidth Suddenlink can devote to its internet customers.

Goei told investors on a quarterly results conference call that the five-year fiber upgrade project in the northeast may stretch into a sixth year due to permitting delays in some communities where Optimum provides service.

Some Wall Street analysts questioned Goei about the merits of a costly fiber upgrade, asking if it was necessary. Jonathan Chaplin of New Street Research suggested if cable systems were already capable of gigabit speed service under DOCSIS 3.1, any revenue benefits gained from offering gigabit service could already be realized without stringing fiber optic cable. Other Wall Street analysts wanted to know when Altice would deliver the next revenue-increasing rate hike on Optimum and Suddenlink customers.

The company acknowledged it lost customers after the last round of price increases last spring. Its biggest losses are coming from cord cutting. Altice saw 20,700 Optimum TV customers cancel service between July and September, with a total of 76,000 customers dropping service so far this year. But that won’t stop Altice from raising rates again. Goei anticipated the next rate hike will likely take place during the first half of 2019.

Altice USA is also working on its own cellphone service, which will be powered by its large Wi-Fi hotspot network in the northeast and rely on the services of Sprint to connect customers while away from Wi-Fi. The company did not release pricing or service information.

AT&T Nearing End of Fiber Buildout

AT&T will complete its fiber buildout to areas designated to get fiber to the home service by mid-2019, according to AT&T executives.

John J. Stephens, AT&T’s chief financial officer, told investors on a quarterly conference call that AT&T is on schedule to complete expansion of its fiber to the home commitment to 12.5 million new customer locations, a regulator-required commitment imposed on AT&T in return for approval of its acquisition of DirecTV.

“We are getting near the end of our fiber build project, which is basically laying the foundation for stabilizing our broadband and TV business profits in 2019,” added AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson.

AT&T’s expansion has targeted millions of customer locations for fiber to the home service, replacing the fiber to the neighborhood technology AT&T used for several years to support its U-verse service. AT&T officials say its fiber network will reach more than one million new customers during 2018. That network is key to two AT&T initiatives – its emerging 5G wireless service, which requires fiber connections to cell towers, and AT&T Fiber and its broadband offerings — helping boost internet and online video revenue.

“This shift to fiber is beginning to drive IP broadband ARPU growth,” said John M. Donovan, CEO of AT&T Communications, Inc. “The strategic pivot we’re making with video, combined with our execution with fiber gives us the confidence that we will stabilize Entertainment Group [profitability] next year.”

AT&T Fiber is critical to the company’s ability to compete in the home broadband market against cable operators that have recently boosted internet speeds. AT&T’s hybrid fiber-copper U-verse system proved inadequate to match the significantly faster internet speeds many cable operators are rolling out. But AT&T Fiber will not reach all the company’s landline customers. Rural areas are unlikely to ever receive fiber upgrades and AT&T has had long-term plans to scrap its rural landline network, transitioning those customers to wireless voice and internet using AT&T’s 4G LTE network.

Frontier Boost Speeds in Fiber Markets While Its DSL Customers Suffer

Frontier can boost speeds on its acquired fiber to the home networks, which offer almost unlimited capacity upgrades.

Frontier Communications is America’s feast or famine broadband provider, today announcing speed upgrades for its acquired Frontier FiOS and Vantage Fiber service areas while the company continues to pile up hundreds of complaints about poor quality DSL service in the northern U.S. where fiber upgrades are unlikely to ever happen.

Frontier today announced gigabit service (1,000/1,000 Mbps) is now available in its FiOS (California, Texas, Florida, and parts of the Pacific Northwest and Indiana) and Vantage Fiber (primarily Connecticut) service areas. The company also unveiled new plans offering 200/200 and 300/300 Mbps speed options in Indiana, Oregon, and Washington.

“Frontier is pleased to now offer a 200/200 Mbps service, the fastest, most efficient introductory broadband service available in our markets, plus eye-popping speed and capacity with our FiOS Gigabit for the home,” said John Maduri, executive vice president and chief customer officer at Frontier Communications. “Speed and reliability are hallmarks of FiOS Fiber broadband service. Two-way speeds over our all-fiber network make Internet tasks faster and more efficient, regardless of the time of day, while also enabling the many connected devices and streaming services in the home to work simultaneously and smoothly.”

Frontier’s fiber networks are only found in certain regions of the country, including 1.4 million homes in the Tampa Bay/six-county region along the central west coast of Florida, parts of Southern California, Dallas, and individual communities in Indiana, Oregon, and Washington that used to be served by Verizon.

Frontier’s Vantage Fiber network was largely acquired from AT&T’s U-verse service area in Connecticut, with more recent limited rollouts in North Carolina and Minnesota. Life for the unfibered masses in the rest of Minnesota is less sunny, with nearly 500 complaints against Frontier filed by frustrated consumers stuck with a company they feel has forgotten about them.

City Pages notes no company affirms the notoriety of a bad phone company like Frontier Communications, which still relies on a deteriorating copper wire network in most of its original (a/k/a “legacy”) service areas. Complaints about mediocre internet access, missing in action repair crews, and Soviet era-like delays to get landline service installed are as common as country roads.

City Pages:

The grievances read like a cannonade of frustration. They speak of no-show repairmen. Endless waits on hold. Charges for services never rendered. Outages that last for days.

“I have never dealt with a more incompetent company than Frontier,” writes one customer on Google Reviews. “I have no other choice for internet or phone service in my area…. It took me over three months just for Frontier to get to my house to even connect my service…. They also canceled multiple times for installation without calling. They just didn’t show up.”

These maladies aren’t exclusive to the outbacks. They also extend to Watertown Township, in the exurbs of Carver County.

“Frontier Communications is my only option for internet,” Kathleen McCann wrote state regulators. “My internet service is worse than dial-up…. As a dentist, I am not able to email dental X-rays. It took me 47 minutes to upload one small photo to Facebook recently.”

Frontier vice president Javier Mendoza at least admits most rural Minnesotans will be waiting for upgrades forever.

“The economic reality is that upgrading broadband infrastructure in the more rural parts of the state is not economically viable,” he says.

That leaves customers hoping some other entity will step up and serve the critical digital needs of one of America’s most important agricultural states. If not, the future is dismal.

“Those people are screwed,” Christopher Mitchell of the Institute of Local Self-Reliance, a Minneapolis nonprofit, tells the newspaper. “People who make business or real estate decisions are not going to move to that area.”

With that bleak assessment, several rural Minnesota communities are doing something remarkable — building their own public broadband networks. Even more surprising is that many of those towns are led by hardcore Republican local governments that have very different views about municipal broadband than the national party.

Life is rougher for Frontier’s legacy customers that depend on the company’s decades-old copper wire networks.

Some have joked they could change the mind of big city Republicans that are openly hostile to the concept of public broadband by making them spend two weeks without adequate internet access.

In the Minnesota backcountry, in the heart of Trumpland, broadband is about as bipartisan an issue you can find. Ten cities and 17 townships in Renville and Sibley counties went all-out socialist for suitable, super high-speed fiber optic broadband. RS Fiber, the resulting co-op, delivers superior internet access with fewer complaints than the big phone and cable companies offer in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Public broadband is no more a “big government” takeover than municipal co-ops were when they were formed to bring electric and phone service to rural farms during the days of FDR. Waiting for investor-owned utilities to find adequate profits before breaking ground came second to meeting the public need for reliable power and phone service.

Today, part of that need is still there, even with an incumbent phone company delivering something resembling service. Frontier DSL is internet access that time forgot, with customers comparing it to the days of dial-up. Speed tests often fail to break 1 Mbps. Cable companies won’t come anywhere near most of these communities, many inconveniently located between nothing and nowhere.

As long as Frontier remains “checked out” with make-due internet access, rural Minnesota won’t ever benefit from the kinds of fiber fast speeds Frontier is promoting on the fiber networks that other companies originally built. Frontier is not in the business of constructing large-scale fiber networks itself. It prefers to acquire them after they are built. That makes Frontier customers in legacy service areas still served with copper envious of the kind of speeds available in California, Texas, and Florida.

Investors continue to pressure Frontier to reduce spending and pay down its debts, piled up largely on the huge acquisitions of Verizon and AT&T landline customers Frontier effectively put on its corporate credit card. For Wall Street, the combination of debt repayments and necessary upgrade expenses are bad news for Frontier’s stock. The company already discontinued its all-important dividend, used for years to lure investors. A growing number of analysts suspect Frontier will face bankruptcy reorganization in the next five years, if only to restructure or walk away from its staggering debts.

Verizon Starts Taking Orders Thursday for 5G Home Internet in Houston, Indianapolis, LA and Sacramento

Verizon 5G Home will begin accepting new customer orders for its in-home wireless broadband replacement as of this Thursday, Sept. 13, with a scheduled service launch date of Oct. 1.

The new high-speed wireless service will be available in select parts of Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Sacramento.

Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg is calling the service part of Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband network. Initial reports indicate speed will range between 300-1,000 Mbps and existing Verizon Wireless customers will get a $20 price break on service — $50 a month instead of $70 for non-Verizon Wireless customers. We are still waiting word on any data caps or speed throttle information. Verizon informs Stop the Cap! there are no data caps or speed throttles. Service is effectively unlimited, unless hidden terms and conditions introduce unpublished limits.

Interested customers can determine their eligibility starting at 8 a.m. ET on Thursday from the Firston5G website. If you are not eligible initially, you can add your email address to be notified when service is available in your area.

Early adopters will be awarded with a series of goodies:

  • Free installation (a big deal, since it could cost as much as $200 later. An external antenna is required, as well as in-home wiring and equipment.)
  • 90 days of free service (a good idea, considering there may be bugs to work out)
  • 90 days of free YouTube TV (a welcome gift for cord-cutters)
  • Free Chromecast or Apple TV 4K (a common sign up enticement with streaming cable-TV replacements)
  • Priority access to buy forthcoming line of 5G-capable mobile devices

Customers in the first four launch cities will be using equipment built around a draft standard of 5G, as the final release version is still forthcoming. Verizon is holding off on additional expansion of 5G services until the final 5G standard is released, and promises early adopters will receive upgraded technology when that happens.

Verizon is clearly providing a greater-than-average number of enticements for early adopters, undoubtedly to placate them if and when service anomalies and disruptions occur. Although Verizon has done limited beta testing of its 5G service, it is very likely the 5G network will get its first real shakeout with paying customers. Unanticipated challenges are likely to range from coverage and speed issues, unexpected interference, network traffic loading, the robustness of Verizon’s small cell network, and how well outside reception equipment will perform in different weather conditions, particularly heavy rain and snow. With a large number of freebies, and no charges for 90 days, customers are likely to be more forgiving of problems, at least initially.

Chromecast

Verizon’s 5G network depends on millimeter wave spectrum, which means it will be capable of providing very high-speed service with greater network capacity than traditional 4G LTE wireless networks. But Verizon will have to bring 5G antennas much closer to subscribers’ homes, because millimeter wave frequencies do not travel very far.

Verizon will combine a fiber backhaul network with small cell antennas placed on top of utility and light poles to reach customers. That explains why Verizon’s initial 5G deployment is unlikely to cover every customer inside city limits. There are substantial deployment costs and installation issues relating to small cells and the optical fiber network required to connect each small cell.

Verizon’s existing FiOS network areas will offer an easier path to introduce service, but where Verizon does not offer its fiber to the home service, it will need to bring fiber optic cables deep into neighborhoods.

AT&T sees a similar challenge to 5G and is openly questioning how useful wireless 5G can be for urban/suburban broadband service, considering it can simply extend fiber optic service to those homes and businesses instead, without a costly 5G small cell deployment.

Verizon introduces 5G wireless in-home broadband in four U.S. cities and starts taking new customer orders on Thursday. (1:00)

Article updated at 6:28pm ET with information about data caps and speed throttles provided by Verizon.

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