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.

If I were Spectrum King…

My five ideas for getting the spectrum situation sorted out here in the USA in the short to medium term. This doesn’t include any sort of 600MHz-band incentive auction because that wont be ready for devices until 2017 at least, if not 2020.
  1. Grant Verizon’s AWS spectrum acquisition from the cable companies on the two following conditions – they sell their 700MHz A&B block spectrum (probably to AT&T and regional carriers) and they sell their AWS F block holding (presumably to T-Mobile, giving it enough spectrum to deploy LTE on the entirety of the eastern half of the US). The second condition would be a tough sell for Verizon – thats a ton of valuable spectrum, but its also not likely to be used for a good 4 years assuming they use their newly acquired block first – the only major metro areas they don’t own in the newly acquired cable spectrum is Buffalo NY and Cincinatti OH, not exactly hotbeds of technological innovation demanding higher speeds (plus, AT&T owns those licenses, maybe they swap them for some of the B licenses Verizon owns).
  2. Grant Dish Network their request to turn their 40MHz spectrum holdings into terrestrial cellular spectrum. Swap the necessary spectrum pieces such that the new spectrum is AWS-1 adjacent – free up the spectrum between 1755-1800MHz (currently used by DoD), swap the 2000-2020 band with 1780-1800 (put first priority to free up this spectrum) and pair that with 2180-2200; then auction off 1755-1780 paired with 2155-2180 at a later date after the spectrum has been completely vacated. Try to get the first 20MHz swap done by end of 2014 for the first LTE-Adv devices, and the latter 50MHz by 2017.
  3. Find other spectrum to trade Lightsquared’s current GPS-adjacent holdings with so it can proceed with building their network. If it is not possible to relocate LS’s holdings, then they’ll just have to give up.
  4. Issue an order against spectrum warehousing – all spectrum that is currently not used and has not been used either since allocation or in the last 4 years must be either returned to the FCC or sold to another party (who would still be on the hook with above requirements) before January 1, 2016. Exemptions will be granted on a case-by-case basis for those companies who have spectrum for future expansion (the FCC will judge how likely and capable they are in their plans and grant or deny).
  5. All future auctions will not be sold to the highest bidder, but rather companies with the least warehoused spectrum and that show the best business plan to deploy equipment to use that spectrum. Both technical and financial factors will be considered. The goal here is to not raise subscribers bills, and provide for faster mobile broadband.

 

Data Update & Clean-up

Downloaded new data for the Bands map for April. I’m still waiting on the FCC to approve several of the pending spectrum acquisitions  (cable companies to Verizon, AT&T AWS to T-Mobile, etc) before I do a visual map update.

I’m still trying to build something to allow people to visualize spectrum blocks subdivided geographically and by frequency. We’ll see…

Version 2.0!

I updated the Spectrum Mapper to version 2.0! The big (and only) feature add was the ability to view spectrum ownership by band and block. Now in some cases (PCS Broadband block) the frequencies are divided up into a million pieces nationwide, so you get this incredible listing of frequencies, which really doesn’t help but I’ll figure out a way to clean it up.

So the next things are deep linking into the map and cleaning up the band frequency listing.

Data Update: Added Qualcomm spectrum to AT&T, waiting on AT&T’s FCC filing to move their AWS spectrum over to T-Mobile.

And yes, this is what I spent my New Years Eve doing. Pretty sad huh?

New Blog!

OK, so maybe I will be working a little more on the project! After getting linked by Engadget Mobile and having over 3000 hits (probably more since I didn’t have Google Analytics setup yet), I think I’ll put a little more work into this mapping system.

For now I’m working on three things

  • Deep linking into the map – link into a map that shows Verizon’s 700MHz Upper C licenses, I can do that.
  • Group by band – this alternate view will allow users to select one band/block (e.g. 700MHz Lower B block) and then see nationwide who owns all that spectrum across carriers.
  • Easier to update license data – behind the scenes, I’d like it to be easier to download data from the FCC and update the system easier, right now its not so easy.

Back to work!