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Investor Skepticism Forces Wireless Carriers to Tread Cautiously on 5G Spending

Phillip Dampier February 18, 2019 Consumer News, Wireless Broadband No Comments

Investors are not buying into the substantial hype surrounding the forthcoming 5G revolution and many remain unconvinced about the benefits of spending billions of investor dollars to deploy the next generation in wireless.

A survey by telecom analyst McKinsey & Co., picked up a clear drag on proposed spending, especially outside of North America, as carriers are finding investors reluctant about the business case for 5G technology.

The survey found 60% of wireless operators cited selling investors on the merits of 5G to be their greatest challenge. Only 25% were confident they could successfully prove a substantial return on investment for shareholders who typically want short-term results. Investors are demanding detailed evidence that 5G networks, the most costly requiring large fiber optic networks and neighborhood small cell antennas, will pay off with increased revenue and customer demand. Unlike earlier cellular standards which required incremental upgrades usually on existing cell towers, the fastest iteration of 5G will require providers to construct costly new fiber networks with a very large number of short-range antennas expected to be placed on top of utility or light poles.

Customer demand for 5G is anticipated to be low until new devices are introduced capable of connecting to it, and investors already recognize consumers are increasingly delaying device upgrades since the industry dropped two-year service contracts with device subsidies. Ongoing upgrades to existing 4G LTE networks may ultimately dampen demand even for less costly 5G networks that will be deployed on existing cell towers. McKinsey’s survey found less than 35% of respondents are planning quick launches of 5G on gigabit-speed capable millimeter wave spectrum, citing the high cost of deploying small cell networks.

“Until th[e business case emerges], most operators will tread cautiously, leveraging 5G for near-term objectives and waiting for a clearer view on the use cases’ economics to accelerate,” the McKinsey report concluded. “Given the expense required to prove those significant use cases, it could be an uncomfortably long wait. And for operators in countries that don’t see 5G as a matter of strategic and economic importance, there is a greater risk of falling behind.”

In early 2019, most network operators will focus on network planning and funding, with the first significant wave of launches expected in the U.S. coming later this year. Just over half of U.S. operators plan to have “large-scale 5G deployments” completed by late this year, and U.S. carriers are the most optimistic 5G can make good business sense, at least for some applications. Other U.S. carriers expect their networks to launch by the end of 2022. But in neither case are those launches expected to be widespread across the country. Competing with cable and phone company internet with fixed wireless service is also a non-priority for most operators.

“At least at the outset, the majority see enhanced mobile broadband and the Internet of Things (IoT), rather than fixed wireless access or mission-critical applications, as the most prevalent applications,” McKinsey’s survey found. Among early potential applications are smart utility meter connectivity, traffic sensing, and connected public infrastructure like lighting and traffic control signals. Giving consumers a way out of choosing between Verizon and Comcast for home internet service is not going to be an early priority for companies like AT&T. In fact, starting a price war is the last thing investors want to see.

“Although commercially in its infancy, 5G technology is ready, and in most markets its presence will be felt from 2020 on,” McKinsey’s report states. “Yet the fact that commercial models are not ready cannot be minimized; the business case is marginal, and the investments to enable new business models are not currently planned.”

McKinsey believes what will ultimately drive a gradual rollout of 5G technology is network congestion which can no longer be managed through existing traditional cell tower networks, known as “macro sites.”

“In rural and suburban areas, as well as along roadways, operators can handle increased traffic simply by densifying existing networks with macro sites,” McKinsey shared. “In many highly populated urban areas, by contrast, they’ll need to rely on small-cell solutions for two reasons: a higher concentration of traffic, as measured by traffic load per square kilometer, and the use of higher spectrum bands (greater than 3 gigahertz).”

But making the jump from the traditional large cell tower to a network of small cells scattered around neighborhoods will require a great deal of money. Operators will need to build fiber optic connectivity to each small cell, which can be managed either with a newly constructed fiber project or leasing existing fiber optic networks, presumably from cable operators which already have a significant fiber presence. In either scenario, rural areas will largely be left out, because all-important network traffic density is generally inadequate to support the business case for 5G, and cable operators are unlikely to have fiber networks available to lease in those areas.

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.”

Mysterious 5G Small Cells Showing Up in Cincinnati Suburbs

Homeowners in Greenhills, Ohio woke up one morning recently to discover anonymous contractors unspooling cable and planting orange-colored PVC pipes along a Hamilton County right of way on Sharon Road, straddling the communities of Greenhills and Forest Park.

Technological mysteries are uncommon in Greenhills, a planned community built in the 1930s as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program. Greenhills was designed to be surrounded by a “belt” of nature, drawing people out of dilapidated urban settings and into quiet, tree-filled neighborhoods. Many who were offered homes in Greenhills by the Resettlement Administration never left, and their descendents still live in the homes their parents or grandparents once did.

Considering the slow pace of change and the desire to stay a quiet enclave, it should come as no surprise that many residents are disturbed about the quiet invasion of 5G small cells that will be going up all over town, especially because the owner won’t come forward and explain the project.

That layer of secrecy has brought suspicion among neighbors, even those younger ones that understand how much faster 5G service could be over 4G service available today.

“For me, I’d rather not be the guinea pig,” Andrew Steele told WCPO-TV. “That would be terrible,” Anna Steele, Andrew’s wife, added. “That would be horrible. Also, do we really even need it?”

A closer inspection of the infrastructure being installed shows Verizon is the most likely silent operator, which makes the prospect of millimeter wave 5G service for the community of 3,600 very likely. That could mean a new home broadband competitor in the area. But many residents do not want an option that includes small cell antennas.

Monique Maisenhalter told the TV station she was concerned about cell tower radiation causing damage to health and the environment, although such evidence is open to debate.

She and nearly 50 of her neighbors have signed a petition asking for the construction to cease until “more is known.”

Some believe there is no need for 5G service when 4G works well enough. Others are concerned about property values being lowered by the presence of multitudes of small cell antennas. Others object to the fact the equipment is being installed without full disclosure about exactly who is behind it. Even town leaders are flummoxed, as WCPO reports:

The mayor of Greenhills, David Moore, said he has no say over the fiber line installation because the lines are actually going up across the border in Forest Park, on a Hamilton county right-of-way on Sharon Road.

So we went to Hamilton County engineer Ted Hubbard, who said he, too, is struggling to find out who is laying the fiber and what their plan might be.

“The ownership is a big question,” Hubbard said. “And I have asked that. We are having a hard time finding out who actually owns it.”

Hubbard said several small contractors have received permits to install the lines but won’t tell the county who is behind the whole project.

“Who’s going to operate it?” Hubbard asked. “And who do we contact if there is an issue?’

WCPO in Cincinnati investigates mysterious new 5G infrastructure appearing in northern suburbs of Cincinnati (3:19)

Unsurprisingly, California Fires Cause Significant Charter Spectrum Outages

Phillip Dampier November 14, 2018 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News No Comments

Charter Spectrum customers across Ventura County, Calif., are reporting significant outages of TV, internet, and phone service as a result of the region’s ongoing wildfires, which have caused significant damage to Spectrum’s fiber optic lines.

“Our fiber lines have been damaged or destroyed by the fire in multiple areas,” said Spectrum spokeswoman Pamela Yu in an e-mailed statement. “Our technicians will be working to restore service as soon as it is safe to do so, and we get approval from the fire department to go into those areas. We are repairing fiber where we have been given access and crews are restoring services.”

Stop the Cap! reader Juan Hidalgo, who lives outside of Camarillo, told us he lost service late last week, saw it briefly restored on Monday, and is out of service once again.

“I waited on hold 49 minutes before a representative confirmed there was additional damage to their fiber optic service lines, which are spread across the county and have affected Spectrum and other providers,” Hidalgo said. “I know it is not their fault, but I wish they had redundancy in their network so they could transfer service to another cable not affected by the fires.”

Hidalgo and his family are safe, although they could see smoke from the Woolsey fire last weekend. Things have calmed down since then, and Hidalgo says he realizes that his inconvenience pales in comparison to the losses some Californians are experiencing.

“My heart goes out to them and their families, and I am aware that in comparison having your cable out doesn’t really seem that important, but considering how serious fires are becoming in California, finding ways to maintain service to get important messages out seems more urgent than ever,” Hidalgo said.

The fires have also caused disruptions to other service providers, especially fiber-fed cell towers in fire areas. As customers drop landline service, most depend on their cellphones to get urgent alert messages and stay in touch with friends and family, as well as emergency services like 911. Those who escaped from the devastating Camp Fire in northern California reported significant problems making and receiving calls during the peak of the fire and the resulting evacuation. Most reported text messaging was the most reliable service when calls did not go through and internet service was spotty.

Some attempts by volunteer groups and competing ISPs to bring up publicly accessible internet hot spots had mixed results, according to the Ventura County Star.

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.

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