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AT&T Warning Tower Owners to Cut Prices or They Will Relocate

AT&T claims it is willing to play hardball to force cell tower owners to reduce the cost of leasing space for AT&T’s wireless services. If tower owners won’t lower their prices, AT&T is threatening to find someone else willing to build a new, cheaper tower nearby.

AT&T is closely coordinating its tower strategy with its biggest competitor, Verizon Wireless. Together, the two companies are looking to force costs down by seeking opportunities with newer tower companies Tillman, CitySwitch, and Uniti Towers that are willing to build new towers next to old ones, while offering “much cheaper” pricing than industry leaders American Tower, Crown Castle, and SBA Communications.

Light Reading notes AT&T would like to pay roughly half the current rent for its wireless infrastructure. But it is running into a roadblock because 65% of American cell towers have no competition within a half-mile radius. Getting zoning approval to construct new towers, especially in suburban and residential areas, can be difficult and costly. But the three upstart tower companies AT&T and Verizon are working with claim they will commit to tower construction when there are signed contracts in hand. AT&T is using this fact to leverage existing companies to lower prices or lose AT&T’s business.

But Wall Street analysts suggest AT&T is bluffing. Research of FCC public records between January 2017 and April 2019 found 1,000 new tower applications, but only 500 had been built. Only 40% of those applications were to build new towers near existing ones. When one considers there are about 110,000 cell towers in the U.S., fewer than 0.5% of cell sites are likely to face competition based on the applications already filed.

The wireless industry prefers to co-locate infrastructure on existing towers, which means Verizon Wireless, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint could all theoretically be leasing space on the same tower. This was originally both a cost-saving measure and a bow to reality because new tower applications often take years to approve and often face local opposition. Most wireless companies sign 10-year contracts with tower companies, so any organized effort to force competition will probably take years.

AT&T complains it is the victim of a lack of competition and is fed up with the “vicious model” of monopoly tower companies charging excessively high prices and raising fees anytime AT&T changes their contract. Many of their customers can relate.

Altice Preparing to Offer $20-30/Mo Unlimited Data Mobile Plan

Altice USA could be your next cell phone provider, if you subscribe to Cablevision’s broadband service in the metro New York City area.

The Wall Street Journal reports Altice is preparing to launch an unlimited calling/texting/data plan that will cost between $20-30 per month, powered by Cablevision’s in-home Wi-Fi, its network of public Wi-Fi hotspots, and Sprint’s 4G LTE network.

The service, likely to be called Altice Mobile, is the latest entry from cable operators pitching low cost mobile service as an incentive to keep customers from switching providers. Altice will charge dramatically less for its unlimited plan than Xfinity Mobile and Spectrum Mobile ($45) — both reselling Verizon Wireless service — (with speeds reduced to 1 Mbps download and 512 kbps upload after 20 GB of data usage in a month.)

Customers using AT&T and Verizon pay even more. Unlimited monthly plans for a single phone start at $80 at Verizon and $70 at AT&T, depending on bundling certain other AT&T-owned services. For less than half the price, Altice Mobile would deliver all the same services larger providers offer, although Altice intends to offload as much usage as possible to its network of Wi-Fi hotspots, to keep costs low. Before Altice acquired the cable company, Cablevision built a major Wi-Fi presence in the New York City metro areas where it provides cable service. Altice announced it intends to strengthen that network to support its mobile initiative, including the possibility of deploying its own small cell network.

Where Altice cannot supply its own wireless connection, it will rely on Sprint to take over, paying the cell phone company for its customers’ traffic. In return, Sprint will be able to bolster its network in Altice’s service area, perhaps even using Altice’s fiber-to-the-home network, now under construction. That could help Sprint launch 5G service relatively soon in the region, regardless of whether its pending merger with T-Mobile USA is approved. To protect the venture, Altice has secured an agreement with both T-Mobile and Sprint not to terminate its contractual agreement with Sprint should a merger be approved. But the service will still be dependent on network owners like Sprint willing to sell connectivity. Should Altice Mobile take a significant share of the market, network owners may be reluctant to renew such contracts, or price them much higher at renewal time, raising prices.

The cable industry’s incentive for getting into the wireless business, even if it proves unprofitable, is plain to see. All entrants require their mobile customers to maintain a broadband account in good standing to qualify for mobile service. Comcast, Charter, and Altice are aware their video packages are increasingly untenable in a cord-cutter’s marketplace, but maintaining internet service remains essential. In most areas where the cable operators provide service, Verizon or AT&T also sells both broadband and wireless service. Customers may be reluctant to bounce between providers looking for a better deal if they also have to switch mobile providers at the same time.

Average Spectrum Broadband-Only Customer Now Using More than 400 GB a Month

Charter Spectrum’s broadband-only customers run up more than double the amount of broadband usage average customers subscribing to both cable TV and broadband use, and that consumption is growing fast.

“Data usage by residential internet customers is rising rapidly and monthly median data usage is over 200 GB per customer,” Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge said on a morning quarterly results conference call. “When you look at average monthly usage for customers that don’t subscribe to our traditional video product, usage climbs to over 400 GB per month.”

Last week, Comcast reported its average broadband customer also used over 200 GB a month, but did not break out the difference between those subscribing to cable TV and those who do not. If Comcast’s broadband-only customers are consuming a comparable amount of data, they could be nearing half of their monthly usage allowance (1 TB), in markets where Comcast caps its customers’ usage. But because that is only an average, it means many more Comcast customers are likely nearing or now exceeding Comcast’s data cap, exposing them to hefty overlimit penalties.

Spectrum does not impose any data allowances on its customers — all usage is unlimited.

Charter officials also reported their average mobile customers use “well under 10 GB a month.” The fact Charter did not get more specific about mobile usage is important because the new product is getting scrutiny from some on Wall Street concerned it will have a hard time becoming profitable because of its wholesale agreement with Verizon Wireless, which provides the 4G LTE service for Spectrum Mobile.

Subscribers have been primarily drawn to the $14/GB plan, which includes unlimited talk and texting, because it offers a very low entry price for a full-function wireless plan. But a customer only needs to use more than 3 GB of service per month to find their bill higher than what they would pay subscribing to Spectrum Mobile’s $45 unlimited usage plan. If Charter executives said the average mobile user consumed 5 GB of data, analysts could deduce what the average customer bill probably looked like. To maximize profits, Charter needs customers to select an unlimited data plan and keep data usage low to assure it can cover the wholesale costs Verizon Wireless charges the cable company for wireless connectivity.

Rutledge

Rutledge stressed he expects Spectrum Mobile to be profitable with the current Verizon Wireless MVNO contract in place — the service simply needs a larger user base to overcome its current losses.

Rutledge also announced Spectrum Mobile was testing dual SIM technology, which could allow it to eventually offload more of its 4G LTE traffic to its own (cheaper) network, which could eventually include mid-band wireless spectrum and the CBRS spectrum the company is already testing for fixed wireless service for rural areas. Spectrum could also follow Comcast with its own in-home network of publicly available Wi-Fi or innovate with unlicensed wireless mobile spectrum using small cells or external antennas.

Charter executives noted that customer data demands were pushing many to upgrade to higher speed internet products.

“Over 80% of our internet customers are now in packages that deliver 100 Mbps of speed or more and 30% of our customers are getting 200 Mbps or more,” Rutledge said. “We’re also seeing strong demand for our Ultra product, which delivers 400 Mbps, and we have gigabit service available everywhere.”

The costs to continue upgrading service for broadband customers are negligible on the company’s current platform, Rutledge admits. In the future, Charter Spectrum is considering offering 10 Gbps and 25 Gbps symmetrical service to customers, and it can scale up upgrades very quickly.

“For example, in only 14 months we launched DOCSIS 3.1, which took our speeds up to 1 Gbps across our entire footprint at a cost of just $9 per passing,” Rutledge said.

Comcast and Charter’s Mobile Service a Money Loser; Verizon Set Wholesale Rates Too High

Comcast and Charter Communications are losing money on their cell service plans because their partner, Verizon Wireless, sets its wholesale rates too high, making certain the two companies cannot cannibalize Verizon’s own customers for long.

MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett claims the cable industry’s 2012 $3.9 billion sale of wireless spectrum to Verizon Wireless, which included an agreement allowing the two cable operators to resell Verizon Wireless service, turned out to benefit Verizon more than Comcast and Charter.

The problem is Verizon set its own price for service high enough to guarantee the two cable operators will have a hard time outcompeting Verizon Wireless. Moffett estimates Verizon is currently charging the two operators about $5/GB and around $5/month per customer for unlimited voice and texting. According to Moffett’s calculations, only the pay-per-gigabyte plans have any chance of marginal profitability. Comcast charges $12/GB for its pay-per-usage mobile plan; Charter charges $14/GB for essentially the same service. Both plans include unlimited voice and texting.

Things quickly get unprofitable when a customer signs up for Spectrum Mobile’s or Xfinity Mobile’s Unlimited plan (both $45/mo). Once a customer uses more than 8GB of 4G LTE data per month, Verizon’s wholesale price, including the cost of voice and texting, reaches the same amount those companies are charging customers for service. That does not include any of the ancillary costs Comcast and Charter have to pay to support and market their wireless plans.

Moffett believes the two companies overestimated how often subscribers would offload traffic to Wi-Fi, and the future potential for more solid Wi-Fi coverage “looks cloudy.” The problem, as Moffett sees it, appears to be the cable industry’s loss of interest building out their metro Wi-Fi networks. Moffett called the joint CableWiFi project between Comcast, Charter, Cox, and Altice USA “a bust” because the members of the coalition have largely stopped investing in new hotspot installations. That leaves about 500,000 working hotspots around the country, a number that has remained unchanged for two years. Only in-business Wi-Fi continues to grow, as business cable broadband customers are offered the opportunity to provide Wi-Fi service for their customers. But those hotspots don’t typically offer outdoor coverage.

Comcast has grown its Xfinity Mobile service to 1.2 million lines since launching in 2017 and Spectrum Mobile, which began in last September, had attracted almost 134,000 customers by the end of 2018.

Verizon’s Millimeter Wave 5G Has Return On Investment Problems

This is the second part of a two-part series reflecting on Verizon’s 5G millimeter wave wireless home broadband service and how Wall Street complicates its potential. Be sure to read part one, “How a Wall Street Analyst Complicates AT&T and Verizon’s Upgrade and Investment Plans” for the full story.

“Put simply, the cost of building a second network is so high that its builder simply can’t earn a passable return based on the market share available to a second player,” Craig Moffett, an important telecom industry analyst working on behalf of Wall Street investors, argued over Verizon’s fiber to the home project dubbed FiOS. “Virtually every overbuilder, from telephone companies to competitive cable companies to municipalities, has learned this lesson the hard way; almost all such efforts have ended in bankruptcy. Verizon’s own FiOS network was an economic failure; there is no longer any debate about whether FiOS did or didn’t earn its cost of capital. It didn’t, and it wasn’t even close.”

Moffett’s philosophy about emerging broadband technology and competition is heavily influenced by his personal and professional belief that broadband competition is bad for business and investors. His distaste for Verizon FiOS, a plan to scrap old copper phone wiring in favor of fiber optics, was well-known across the industry and trade press. But Verizon kept going with the project under the leadership of then-CEO Ivan Seidenberg, who was a telephone man through and through. But by 2010, Seidenberg had decided to retire, and his successor, Lowell McAdam, had a very different perspective about Verizon’s future. McAdam spent almost his entire career from the early 1990s forward in the wireless business. In 2006, McAdam was named the chief operating officer and CEO of Verizon Wireless. When he succeeded Seidenberg in late 2010, Verizon had already announced it was winding down further FiOS expansion. That seemed to suit McAdam just fine, because under his leadership as CEO of Verizon, Verizon Wireless became the dominant focus of the company. Heavy investment in wireless continued, while Verizon’s landline network was allowed to deteriorate.

Moffett told his clients the end of FiOS expansion would be good news for cable companies because they would lose fewer subscribers as a result.

Verizon’s marketing machine carefully lays its business case for 5G home broadband

More than a decade later, Verizon’s decision to embark on another major technology upgrade requiring billions in new spending quickly raised eyebrows on Wall Street. This time, however, Verizon executives attempted to be better prepared to defend their 5G vision from the reflexive investor argument that it was too expensive and extravagant.

Moffett

“First, their fixed wireless broadband business will leverage investments that Verizon argues they will need to make anyway to support their wireless network,” Moffett wrote in a report to his clients, acknowledging Verizon’s claimed reasons for entering the wireless home broadband business. “Second, Verizon argues that it will be cheaper to connect homes wirelessly than it is to connect them with fiber, making it economic to deploy fixed wireless in markets where fiber to the home hasn’t been economically justifiable.”

Most of the expenses cited by Moffett relate to bringing fiber networks into neighborhoods to support the small cell technology Verizon is relying on for its 5G home broadband and mobile services.

Moffett also believes the only attractive market for 5G service will be in more upscale suburban rings around cities, not densely populated urban centers or rural areas. Moffett argues fiber providers are likely already providing service in urban areas and rural areas simply lack enough customers to justify the cost of either a fiber optic network or a small cell network. Ironically, that conclusion means the same suburban ring Moffett rejected 5-10 years ago as economically unsuitable for fiber service is now precisely the area Moffett argues is the only attractive market for fiber service, to bring 5G.

From a short-term results perspective, laying fiber optics is a costly proposition unlikely to return much revenue gain in a few short years. That reality has kept many investor-owned phone companies away from expensive network upgrades. These legacy telephone companies recognize they are going to continue to lose customers to faster technologies like cable, fiber, and perhaps, wireless. But managing an existing low-speed DSL business seems preferable to facing the wrath of investors upset over the prospect of shareholder dividends and share buybacks being curtailed to redirect money into a full-scale upgrade effort, even if it results in better returns and greater revenue a few years down the road.

Verizon is depending on its wireless division’s extremely high profitability to counter the usual objections to major upgrades, and by focusing on how 5G will enhance the wireless experience. It also benefits from media hype surrounding 5G technology, exciting some investors. But Verizon is also downplaying exactly what it will cost to lay fiber optic networks deep into neighborhoods to deliver it.

Moffett investigates Verizon’s first 5G city — Sacramento, Calif., and discovers alarming results

Moffett decided to bypass the traditional cost-benefit analysis of laying mile after mile of optical fiber and decided to test Verizon’s case for wireless 5G home broadband instead.

Six months after launch, Moffett investigated Verizon’s 5G millimeter wave network in Sacramento, examining how the service is initially performing. Moffett identified seven zip codes in Sacramento where service was most likely to be available, based on cell tower/small cell records. As of late February, Moffett found Sacramento had 391 Verizon small cells installed, with 273 used for millimeter wave 5G service (the rest are likely designed to bolster Verizon’s 4G LTE network).

Verizon has admitted small cell technology is vulnerable to distance, so Moffett relied on earlier purported claims of 5G coverage to limit the number of addresses to be sampled. Moffett’s team identified 45,000 out of 70,000 possible addresses, based on if those homes were located within a radius of 0.7 miles of a 5G small cell. Then, Moffett’s team devised a method of hitting Verizon’s 5G availability website with each of those 45,000 addresses to learn which ones Verizon qualified for 5G service.

The results, so far, are underwhelming:

  • Only an average of 6% of the queried addresses were actually eligible to receive Verizon’s fixed wireless service. That could mean Verizon has installed 5G small cells, but some are not yet operational in all areas or the network is performing much worse than originally anticipated. Some zip codes did better than others, but not by much. The best offered just an 18% pre-qualified acceptance rate. Apparently Verizon’s qualification website also informs applicants if they already have service, which proved to be a good way of finding out how many addresses actually have signed up. Moffett claims only 3% of eligible customers have decided to subscribe to Verizon’s 5G home broadband service so far.
  • Coverage appears to a problem. As Moffett checked addresses further away from each small cell, more and more were deemed ineligible for service. In fact, despite Verizon’s claims that its 5G signal reached customers more than 1,900 feet away, the company’s own website refused to actually sell service to customers that far away. Moffett found subscribers were deemed ineligible for service as little as 400 feet away from a small cell. At that distance, less than 50% of checked addresses could sign up. For those 700 feet or more away, almost no addresses were qualified for service.

With those results, Moffett was able to extrapolate some important numbers about how much Verizon’s infrastructure is being utilized:

  • Each small cell serves approximately 27 eligible addresses.
  • Verizon’s 5G home broadband has a 0.1% market share in Sacramento.
  • Excluding areas where multi-dwelling properties dominate, Verizon has achieved a penetration of roughly one subscribed single-family home per 1.5 5G small cell.

“Our findings in Sacramento — limited coverage, low penetration — preliminary though they may be, suggest that earning an attractive return will be challenging, at best,” Moffett concluded.

Because Verizon has attracted so few subscribers thus far, the total cost per connected home for 5G wireless service could far exceed what it would cost to just lay down fiber to the home service to each customer, which might actually give Verizon more business.

“Our analysis suggests that costs will likely be much higher (that is, cell radii appear smaller) and penetration rates lower than initially expected,” the report explained. “If those patterns are indicative of what is to come in a broader rollout, it would mean a much higher cost per connected home, and therefore much lower returns on capital, than what might have been expected from Verizon’s advance billing.”

If Moffett’s estimate of 27 residences served per small cell was proven true, Verizon would have to deploy well over five million small cells to deliver 5G wireless service across America.

Verizon’s choice of cities to launch its 5G millimeter wave network may be partly designed to test the differences in topology, building density and foliage levels, and there may be dramatic differences between Houston, Sacramento, Indianapolis, and Los Angeles.

Moffett’s overall conclusion is that should Verizon move forward on rolling out 5G wireless home broadband to around 25% of the country, as it planned, reaching those 30 million homes “will take a very, very long time, and it will cost a great deal of money.”

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