Author Archives: Anthony

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Data updates resumed & Visual Refresh

The FCC resumed updating their License View data dump in August, so I have resumed data updates for the Spectrum Map. The FCC updates the License View data weekly. Expect updates to the map data at least once a month, if not more than that (my goal is 2-3x a month, depending on my free time).

I also did a minor visual refresh of the site – it should work a little better on smaller devices like iPhones and iPads, and also is leveraging modern web development tools.

I’m glad to be back, I plan to keep this site going as long as there is interest and the FCC keeps their data sources updated!

If you’d like to contact me, feel free to drop me a line on my contact page.

End of the Spectrum Map? Part deux…

So for the second time, the FCC has stopped updating my data source (the first time was the Spectrum Dashboard, and then I rewrote my scripts to parse the License View data dump).

I’m loathe to rewrite it for a third time (using the direct data dumps from the ULS) mostly because I’m too busy. With 50 hour work weeks becoming more frequent, a wife, and friends I don’t get to see much, I don’t have a lot of free time anymore (when I first wrote this, I was single, all my friends were married, and had tremendous amounts of free time). Its one thing to fire up a python script once every two weeks to download and update the data from the FCC, its another thing to have to dedicate 100+ hours to rewrite the back end from scratch (data processing, cleanup, normalization, store into a DB, generate static data files).

So I think this might be the end, if the FCC doesn’t update the License View dataset ever again. I could care less about their Spectrum Dashboard, that was a difficult tool to use productively. But the raw License View data was much easier to ingest and process – its way more valuable to the community. Lets hope this doesn’t fall on deaf ears.

AWS-3 Auction Results

  1. Dish-affiliated bidders, with their DE credits, managed to secure a lot of “G” blocks in major metro areas.
  2. AT&T is still at a deficit of spectrum in the top 10 markets. Things get better after that.
  3. Verizon is doing OK on spectrum, they have enough spectrum in the top 25 markets to do 20×20 LTE (if they can manage to either do intra-band aggregation or make some spectrum swap deals with the other carriers).
  4. T-Mobile spent very little in the auction, but I think that’s on purpose (they want more 600MHz spectrum). They picked up a little spectrum here and there at a great value.

Open spreadsheet in full window

AWS-3 Auction Predictions

I published this via twitter a week or two ago, and now I’ve cleaned it up and am publishing it here. In general terms, I expect Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile to each own about 40-50MHz in the AWS-1/3 combined spectrum “superband” after the auction closes. This, after some deals between the three of them to reorganize the spectrum so its contiguous, will allow each of them to deliver end-user speeds of 15-25Mbps in areas of good coverage.

[Update 3/31/2014: Updated to reflect FCC’s band plan for AWS-3, also tweaked the results slightly to accommodate the new band plan]

Combined with lower band 600 and 700 MHz spectrum, along with refarming of PCS 1900MHz spectrum over the next 5 years, LTE coverage should be greatly improved in terms of speed and capacity.

What is left to determine is how end-user usage patterns will change when they have access to higher speeds – will they need to move up from a 10GB bucket to a 15GB bucket for their family of four lines, or will users keep their habits in check and the carriers are left with an overbuilt network because people aren’t streaming video for fear of data overages?

How a Sprint/T-Mobile merger should happen

Disclaimer: let me say I’m against the merger today. However if it were to happen, this is how it should happen.

First, T-Mobile should be allowed to succeed for fail on its own. Its fourth quarter numbers weren’t great. If T-Mo can turn it around on their own and become profitable in the US and they don’t need to be bought out, then great. If they cant, and we get to the point where the US market has proven that it cant sustain four profitable, healthy carrier networks, then T-Mobile and Sprint should be allowed to merge. But this means giving T-Mobile time to fix and market themselves.

In the same vein, Sprint should be allowed to fix themselves and open themselves to other opportunities. Masayoshi Son said recently about offering wire-line replacement at speeds of 200Mbit/s using 2.5GHz BRS/EBS spectrum.

I’m guessing we wont be able to make this judgment on whether current actions will turn around both companies until late 2016 or 2017. So any merger shouldn’t be allowed until then.

By then, what would a Sprint/T-Mobile merger look like? Probably a lot easier than what it would take in 2014 or 2015. Most notably, omni-band phones would allow Sprint to push most of its consumer and business customers over to T-Mobile’s faster GSM/LTE network rather easily and quickly.

T-Mobile will have some 700-A spectrum assets to leverage for better LTE coverage, as well as upcoming 600MHz band assets as well. They’ll have likely rounded out their AWS spectrum with spectrum from the AWS-3 auction to ensure 20+20 LTE in the top 50 markets (they only need 10MHz in many markets, 20MHz in a few markets). There will also be opportunities post-auction to rebalance spectrum assets from market to market, as Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T look to rebalance their spectrum block between markets such that they own continuous blocks of spectrum – in most cases, Verizon will occupy the lower 40MHz (A&B), T-Mobile the middle 40/50 (C, D, E and F), and AT&T the upper 40/50 (future blocks in the AWS-3 auction).

Sprint will offer supplemental LTE with their 2.5GHz small cells to provide higher capacity and speeds in dense metro areas. Sprint’s legacy CDMA will have to stick around a long while for M2M customers, but they could start refarming CDMA capacity in the PCS band for additional LTE.

From a technology standpoint, waiting another two years down the road makes it easier. But will the owners of T-Mobile and Sprint want to wait that long? I think they’d like to go right now. Its up to the FCC and DOJ to make sure that we have four viable carriers in the marketplace until the marketplace proves definitively that its not going to work.

Predicting Upcoming Spectrum Auction Results…

(this post inspired by a series of tweets by Tim Farrar of TMF Associates)

The biggest proclamation we heard at the height of the latest spectrum frenzy is that we need to free up 500MHz of spectrum for mobile communication between now and 2020, with 300MHz of that coming by 2015. President Obama repeated it, the FCC Chairman at the time Julius Genachowski repeated it. But there is a flip side to all this spectrum becoming available.

Name Frequencies Total MHz 5MHz FDD Pair Equiv.
600MHz Incentive 614-698MHz (TV channels 38-51) Max 120MHz, Likely 70MHz 8*
AWS-3 (paired) 1755-1780/2155-2180 (AWS adjacent 1700/2100) 50MHz 5
AWS-2** (unpaired) 1695-1710 (AWS adjacent 1700/2100) 15MHz 1.5
AWS-2 1915-1920/1995-2000 (PCS adjacent) 10MHz 1
Total 145MHz 14.5

* includes the 6 MHz Lower 700MHz “A” block because the block will become usable when TV stations are relocated, this effectively adds more spectrum to the usable inventory than will be auctioned.

** its possible for this spectrum to become paired if the FCC forces broadcasters to give up some spectrum they use currently (predominately backhaul), this would add another 15MHz to the totals. But if I were the broadcasters, I’d be sick of the FCC’s bullshit by now.

Congress has dollar signs in their eyes. They see spectrum auctions as a way to raise dollars for the federal treasury. But their desire to raise funds ultimately conflicts with the FCC’s and the administration’s desire to free up a lot of spectrum because of basic supply and demand – there will be so much spectrum for sale in the next three years, its likely that the spectrum prices will plummet. The price of 69c/MHz-POP will fall, since its not likely the big four will spend over $30 billion on spectrum purchases in the next three years. So what will they spend?

600MHz Incentive

T-Mobile and Sprint desperately need low-frequency spectrum for their networks (for coverage, not capacity), AT&T could use a little more spectrum below 1GHz, especially if it can get it on a nationwide basis. Verizon is good on spectrum (or so they say), and would really only be playing a game of keep-away from the other carriers if it were to aggressively bid during the auctions. Dish network is also a contender here, acquiring one or two 5MHz blocks for rural and in-building coverage. I expect this to be the most contentious auction if there are no hard ownership caps, and moderately contentious if AT&T and Verizon are limited in the amount of spectrum they can purchase.

AWS Band Extensions

The AWS band extensions are valuable because three of the four carriers (plus a host of smaller regional carriers) already have spectrum here. We’re also likely to see another round of musical chairs here after the auction is closed and the big three look to swap spectrum to create larger contiguous spectrum segments. It’s entirely likely that after the upper band extension is auctioned, we could see AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon all swapping spectrum to squeeze out as many 20MHz FDD LTE channels as they can. Sprint is likely to stay out of the game, as with Dish. Smaller carriers might be able to get smaller bits in mid-tier markets, but not much in the top 25 markets where I expect competition to be fierce. AT&T will likely have the most to spend in this band to catch up given its small amount of AWS holdings (even if the Leap acquisition goes through, it may be 3-4 years before that spectrum is available for 100% LTE).

PCS Band Extension

The 10MHz PCS band extension is likely to be Sprint’s, unless Charlie Ergen wants to play spoiler. Which he might, just for the hell of it. But I think there is less pressure now that it seems like he is going to get LightSquared’s spectrum through bankruptcy – 40MHz of LS spectrum plus the 40MHz he owns would definitely be enough to start his own carrier, along with some 600MHz spectrum he would need to pick up in the incentive auction.

Totals

My carrier spectrum ownership totals post-auction estimates. Existing ownership figures are national averages from my current spectrum ownership database. Expected spectrum purchases in the expansion bands shown in parenthesis.

Carrier 600Mhz 700MHz Cellular/SMR PCS AWS WCS* BRS/EBS* Total
Verizon 10 22 25 20 40 (10) 0 0 117
AT&T 10 18
7†
25 40 40 (25) 20 0 160
T-Mobile 20 0 0 25 50 (10) 0 0 95
Sprint 15 0 15 35 (10) 0 0 50 115
Dish** 15 5† 0 0 0 0 0 100

* “Boutique” spectrum (not a large ecosystem of players worldwide who use that same band)
** Not listed: 40MHz AWS-4*, 40MHz L-Band* (Lightsquared)
† Unpaired spectrum, only usable to supplement download speeds

This thought exercise made me realize a few things

  1. I understand why Verizon is fighting against spectrum caps – if things play out this way, they could fall further behind AT&T for spectrum, though they do have the trade off of not being saddled with any boutique spectrum, unlike AT&T and Sprint.
  2. The race to acquire large regional carriers is on – US Cellular, Cincinnati Bell, nTelos, etc. will likely be bought, and the FCC doesn’t seem to care as long as we keep at least four major carriers. AT&T is throwing its cash around to buy up these carriers, Verizon is a little more diligent.
  3. AT&T is amassing a spectrum ownership lead over the other carriers, yet it doesn’t translate to any meaningful improvements in service – coverage or speeds. They’re a little faster than Verizon in terms of LTE, but I attribute that to 1) hardware differences (RRH) and 2) less LTE unlimited subs than Verizon (c.f. the Reddit user who uses 40GB/mo on Verizon).
  4. Sprint has been heavily spectrum constrained. But they’re poised to break out – CDMA Adv. and LTE in the SMR band should allow them to catch up a little bit to the big players. They have the chance to be just as fast (with their tri-band LTE equipment), but I’m still skeptical of their execution. I hope I’m wrong.
  5. T-Mobile should work to get as much AWS spectrum as they can – 20+20 channels would keep them at the top of the speed race. 600MHz will allow them to get the suburban, exurban and rural coverage they desperately need. But can they afford to buy all this spectrum?

So back to the question of how much they will spend. For the most part, the spectrum to be sold is uniform within each band, unlike the 700MHz auction which had different characteristics for each of the different blocks (Verizon’s “C” block had open access requirements, the lower “A” block had interference issues). I’m venturing to say that the prices are as follows…

Band Price ($/MHz POP)
600MHz 0.60
AWS Exp. 0.60
PCS Exp. 0.50
Name Band Spectrum Cost
AT&T 600MHz 10MHz 1.8B
AT&T AWS Exp. 25MHz 4.5B
AT&T Total 35MHz $6.3B
Sprint 600MHz 15MHz 2.7B
Sprint PCS Exp. 10MHz 1.5B
Sprint Total 25MHz $4.2B
T-Mobile 600MHz 20MHz 3.6B
T-Mobile AWS Exp. 10MHz 1.8B
T-Mobile Total 30MHz $5.4B
Verizon 600MHz 10MHz 1.8B
Verizon AWS Exp. 10MHz 1.8B
Verizon Total 20MHz $3.6B
Dish 600MHz 15MHz 2.7B
Dish Total 15MHz $2.7B
ALL OPERATORS Total 130MHz $23.1B

Smaller operators excluded from this table.

So $23B is roughly the amount I expect the spectrum auction to go for. This includes 70MHz of incentive auction spectrum, 50MHz of AWS expansion band, and 10MHz of PCS expansion band. Not included is the 15MHz unpaired AWS expansion band (this could bring in another $4-5B if it were 15MHz paired).

Spectrum Mapper Version 1.5 Released

I’ve updated the spectrum mapper app to version 1.5. It’s now able to use the FCC License View data for the maps, but not the metro spectrum breakdown (thats still running on old FCC Spectrum Dashboard data).

The new features are:

  • New, slightly more accurate data source
  • Direct link into the FCC’s ULS for each license.

The SMR and EBS/BRS spectrum is a bit messy – the spectrum licenses I download don’t correspond to the ULS, so there are mismatches and somewhat clumsy records.

I will continue to do what I can for the metro spectrum breakdown, but that will be a much more involved effort, which may take me the rest of the summer.

Feedback is welcome! Drop a comment below.

Work on version 2 underway

Ever since the FCC stopped updating the spectrum mapper data, I’ve been left in the lurch when it comes to data updates.

I have started work using the FCC’s License View portal that allows me to download all 16M FCC licenses. There are downsides though – I have to sift through all those licenses and extract the ones I want, and the licenses don’t have county level disaggregation information associated with it (e.g. if a license is broken into pieces geographically or a spectrum block is split by frequency ranges).

The latter is a huge problem for the Metro mapper tool because it doesn’t accurately show what licenses are in effect in which metropolitan area. The regular mapping system won’t have a problem since things are broken up by license area. So that means I have a substantial amount of work left. And my free time is way smaller than it used to be, so it might take a while…

End of data updates?

In order to update my Spectrum Map, I use data from the FCC Spectrum Dashboard (its helpful CSV export functions). Unfortunately, we’ve gone two months now where the FCC hasn’t updated it. And I don’t know if they will resume them.

If I want to keep the Spectrum Mapper going, I’ll have to figure out a way to get at the same sort of FCC data I had before. Raw license data is easy (kind of) – they have a way to download the entire license database into a 10GB text file (1GB ZIP file). I have a python script already that will go through and pull out all the cellular license data. But the issue from there is it doesn’t come with population-specific information on geographically disaggregated licenses (when two or more companies split a geographic area into smaller parts) and no county-level data (which is what I was using as the basis in my system). The FCC ULS has county level data, but I don’t feel comfortable screen scraping the FCC’s website, lest they call it “unauthorized access” and threaten to throw me in jail for 30 years like Aaron Schwartz.

So for now I’m stuck. Even if I figured out a solution, I cant do much until May anyways, since my weekends are spent writing papers.