New Spectrum!

So this week was apparently a productive one for the FCC. Or maybe they wanted to clear off their docket for the new year.

  • The use of WCS licenses for LTE was approved by the FCC, along with the spectrum transfers from various companies to AT&T. This will give AT&T 20MHz of LTE (10 up, 10 down) in most parts of the country. Future deals with the remaining spectrum holders in the WCS band could give them a nationwide footprint for WCS. Those remaining companies include Sprint. AT&T expects to deploy this in three years. This spectrum is located at 2.3GHz, and will be considered a “high band” with respect to Qualcomm’s WTR1605L (the other high band is the 2.6GHz spectrum that is mostly owned by Clearwire/Sprint). 
  • The approval of the AWS-4 band currently owned by Dish Network. This will add 40MHz of LTE-Advanced within four years. Dish fought hard but failed to keep the FCC from placing limits on the lower 5MHz of their 20MHz upstream channel. Dish will likely only be able to use 15MHz of upstream and 20MHz of downstream. Dish is currently mulling whether or not they will start their own cellular network, or sell the spectrum (and see a huge windfall, since the spectrum was bought out of bankruptcy for around 2B but could fetch a price as high as 6B). This spectrum is at 2Ghz and 2.2GHz, and is considered a “mid band” like PCS and AWS.
  • The approval of the PCS-H block (10MHz, 5+5), likely to be sold to Sprint in an auction by the end of 2013. This 5MHz block will allow Sprint to increase their LTE downstream channel from 5MHz to 10MHz. However, power restrictions on the upper 3MHz of their upstream channel may force them to keep their uplink at 5MHz (again, not a big deal, bandwidth is in demand from the internet to the user, not the user to the internet). This is an extension of the currently used PCS band.

It was a great week for wireless warriors – 70MHz more for LTE will be available to various companies to increase throughput and user speeds. The downside is that it’ll take 3-4 years for all of it to get here for the major metro areas (40% population), and 6-7 years for it to reach 70% of the population.

New Feature + Minor Data Update

I added a new feature – the ability to deep link directly into band/block data. Simply add #band/band-code/block-code to the end of the URL to have it automatically load that data up. So for example, to load up AWS-1 block C, add #band/aw/c to the end of the URL. FWIW, I’m using “AZ” for the two letter band code for AWS-4 (“AW” is AWS-1, so I figure “AX” for AWS-2, “AY” for AWS-3 and “AZ” for AWS-4, makes sense to me).

I also updated the database to move all the WCS licenses from the various companies that sold them to AT&T. Not all the WCS licenses moved, and Sprint still owns several large blocks in the southern US (notably, both of the ones covering Dallas, AT&T’s home turf. I didn’t move over the few AWS licenses transferred from Nextwave, nor did I include any recent 700MHz transfers made recently.

Battle Royale: PCS-H vs AWS-4

I’m not entirely sure if this is technically possible (I think it might but I’m not sure), but here is my idea so far on the whole Dish/Sprint PCS-H vs AWS-4 battle royale with the FCC.

  1. Move Dish uplink up 5MHz (2005-2025MHz).
  2. In a concession to Dish for dealing with the inconvenience, also give them PCS-J block (really AWS-4 “C” block, now 2000-2005/2175-2180MHz), subject to transmit power and other restrictions to keep it from interfering with PCS-H.
  3. Auction PCS-H (presumably to Sprint, for around $1B) with rules about filtering off at the high end (2000MHz) necessary for adjacent small cell compatibility.

The idea is that the new AWS-4 “C” block could be used for small cells sometime in the future, adjoining Dish’s existing spectrum, and buffering the uplink from the PCS downlink. Transmit power would be limited on the 2000-2005MHz range, but that should be tolerable for small cells (and maybe just one 3MHz uplink channel). Since smaller cells are a part of LTE-Advanced anyways (HetNets and DASes and all), this spectrum will likely be useful to someone, and it might as well go with Dish now rather than the FCC sit on it for 5 years and we have another squabbling match in 2017. As long as Sprint and Dish can play nicely together about avoiding interference  then they can both get something from this deal.

November Data Update

I’ve updated the bands and metro area (but not carriers, I swear I’ll get it done next month – work+school+social life means I don’t have much free time). Also you may need to clear your browser cache if the new bands.json file wont download.

It appears that the Verizon/T-Mobile AWS swap is included in this months data, which makes the maps incredibly messy (also I think the FCC hasn’t removed some of the old data – so it may come up as shared when its really not). Also included is some of AT&T’s 700MHz B/C block transactions with smaller carriers – their goal with this is to acquire 700MHz spectrum in rural areas where they have wireline service.

Spectrum Crunch?

Tim Farrar pointed out that bandwidth demands aren’t increasing on a per-device basis (though as more people get smartphones, overall traffic continues to increase). To me it seems obvious this is a result of data caps, and given the performance I’ve had with my iPhone 5 so far it seems like the spectrum crunch is easing (I’ll reserve final judgment until after Christmas and the holidays to see how the LTE networks hold up). The telecoms are pushing hard on things like LTE-Adv, hetnets, microcells, and 40MHz LTE, but what good is all that coverage and 25Mb/s data speed all if you still have a 2GB or 3GB monthly cap for $30/mo? Or 10GB of data to share between 4 people for $120/mo?

Given that both AT&T and Verizon in most areas are only using a 10+10MHz LTE network (20MHz total, or about 20% of their total spectrum capacity), and speeds are still fairly fast for me while out on the go (10Mb/s down, 10Mb/s up on AT&T for me), I don’t see what the big deal is over spectrum anymore. Yeah, we’ll need a little more spectrum, I’d venture to say about another 50MHz per major carrier before 2020, but as long as the prices for data transfer caps stay where they are, people are going to adjust their habits to keep their monthly bills in check. And as the unlimited data plans fade away (due to devices failing and upgrades requiring capped plans), those users are going to have to check their data usage (no more spending all day watching or listening to movies on Netflix over the cellular network).

With the plans currently in place, all four major carriers probably have enough spectrum for the next 4 years. By 2016 the picture will look quite different — AT&T has 20MHz of LTE now, and will have another 20 with WCS, and then whatever it can refarm on PCS (10MHz per market), so an average of 50MHz of LTE per market. Verizon will have 40-60MHz of LTE in metro areas – 20 in 700MHz and 20-40 in AWS. Sprint will likely end up with 20MHz nationwide (PCS G+H blocks) plus what it holds in the SMR spectrum (17MHz avg nationwide), plus Clearwire’s TD-LTE. T-Mo will have 40MHz LTE in the AWS band in most major areas, plus I expect them to pick up more spectrum in the future AWS-3 (extended AWS-1) and the 600MHz incentive auctions. Beyond the big four, we’ll also see Dish Network try to get in the game with their 40MHz of spectrum, building a pure LTE-Adv network, plus whatever they may pick up in auctions.

So why not divert some of the spectrum away from cellular carriers, and towards metro-area wireless broadband? I’d love to see the 70MHz in the 1.3GHz spectrum identified in the recent PCAST report not used for cellular but rather for metro WiFi. Lower frequency, better propagation, set stuff up on light poles and let people hook up to it, use an updated protocol that can handle 100+ devices, etc. Some of the spectrum identified might be better suited for backhauls to sites as well (3.6GHz), rather than tower to handset.

There is still a lot of work ahead for the transition to LTE, a process that will take a long time (3G networks wont be shut off until the early 2020s). And there are spectrum needs for the next few years to manage that and other future transitions. But with the growth in mobile traffic trailing off due to carriers successfully altering consumer behavior, the worries about a future wireless apocalypse doesn’t seem realistic anymore.

Mergers (again)

Originally, this site was born out of the failed AT&T and T-Mobile merger, I wanted to see how much spectrum AT&T would have had if it were complete.

So now we have T-Mo and MetroPCS merging. It makes sense, T-Mo needs to bolster its LTE spectrum, and Metro is a relatively cheap way to do that.

From here, I’d like to see Sprint (after they get bought by Softbank) to buy Leap/Cricket. From there, T-Mo and Sprint can trade spectrum – MetroPCS’s PCS spectrum can go to Sprint (along with a fair amount of cash), Leap’s AWS spectrum would go to T-Mo to finish bolstering their AWS LTE plans. It would set the stage for more band consolidation — the idea that carriers will want to be on as few bands as possible to make the phones easier and less expensive to engineer, and to make it so future phones can operate on all their bands without needing a 12-band RF switch.

On a forward looking perspective, more auctions in different spectrum bands (600MHz, extended AWS-1, AWS-4, 3.6GHz, etc) means that future phones wont be able to support all these bands, plus the ones they support now, plus support international roaming. So we might see band consolidation. Short term movement in this area would be AT&T and T-Mobile trading their PCS for AWS where available – for example, my map shows San Francisco having 25MHz of T-Mobile spectrum in the PCS band after the MetroPCS acquisition. They could trade 5MHz of that to AT&T for 5MHz AWS spectrum in Dallas, TX, for example.

In the long rung, AT&T and Sprint would have 3G and LTE in PCS, plus a lower frequency (700, SMR respectively) and higher frequency (WCS, BRS respectively). Verizon would have LTE in two places (700, AWS) and T-Mobile would have it in one (AWS). I could see T-Mo try to buy up the 600MHz spectrum to try and have both a high and low band for LTE, but beyond that, I don’t see how much more spectrum is needed for the big four.

More Data Clean-up

In the wake of the FCC approving the Verizon-SpectrumCo deal this week, I assigned all Cox and SpectrumCo licenses to Verizon (though I haven’t updated the associated deals – Leap, MetroPCS and T-Mobile; for those I’m waiting for updated FCC license data).

I also went through and built software to make generating the updated datasets for the carriers and bands pages faster and easier for me. Which is good because I’m going to have less time on my hands since I’m going to business school for my MBA.

Once the FCC updates its database for the acquisitions, I’ll pull the data from their website and update my datasets.

New Feature & Data Update

Over this past weekend I spent time coding and a new feature has arrived!

I’ve now added a basic spectrum chart for specific metro areas. For now, I’ve limited it to three areas – NYC (Manhattan), LA (LA County aka downtown) and Las Vegas (because its where I live). I’ve got a few other features I have to add before I can roll it out to more metro areas (specifically, what happens if a specific area is shared geographically by two companies). For now enjoy, I have to curate the data before adding a new metro area to the list and sometimes check bad data against the FCC’s online licensing system (which is a huge pain in the ass).

Also I’ve updated the data on the “By Bands” page as well (the “By Carrier” page is still a bit out of date, the next thing on my list is to write a global data update & cleanup tool). The data finally shows the result of AT&T’s spectrum transfer to T-Mobile. There are so many pending spectrum transfers going on right now I’m starting to lose track…

  • SpectrumCoAWS and Cox sell spectrum (AWS-1 20MHz, 700 Lower 12MHz) to Verizon
  • Verizon & Leap trade spectrum (Lower 700MHz 12MHz for some AWS-1 blocks)
  • Verizon to sell Lower 700MHz A & B blocks either already owned or soon to be acquired to the highest bidder in a private auction (most of the “B” blocks will go to AT&T, while the “A” blocks may go to regional carriers).
  • Verizon & T-Mobile to trade and sell spectrum in the AWS-1 band to allow T-Mobile to get faster LTE speeds in certain metro areas come 2013.

I’ve probably missed some but Its a lot to keep track of – its starting to remind me of the BCS and college football conference reshuffling. Plus there is the outstanding issue of Echostar’s (Dish Network) 40MHz of satellite they want to convert to terrestrial cellular. Why Charlie Ergan wants to start his own cellular carrier I don’t know, seems like more of a headache – I’d just sell the spectrum and take my 6-7 billion dollars in profit and retire.