Both T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular are offering 5G, the next generation cellular service in some parts of Buncombe County. That will certainly improve the mobile service offer. This article addresses the implications for fixed Home Broadband service.
5G – Fifth Generation Wireless
Because we see 5G heavily marketed by most carriers; it is important to revisit the definition of 5G.
5G is the fifth generation technology standard for broadband cellular networks, which cellular phone companies began deploying worldwide in 2019, and is the planned successor to the 4G networks which provide connectivity to most current cell phones.
5G networks are cellular networks, in which the service area is divided into small geographical areas called cells. All 5G wireless devices in a cell are connected to the Internet and telephone network by radio waves through a local antenna in the cell. The main advantage of the new networks is that they will have greater bandwidth, giving higher download speeds, eventually up to 10 gigabits per second (Gbit/s).
Frequency bands – low, medium, and high. A 5G network will be composed of networks consisting of up to three different types of cells, each requiring specific antenna designs as well as providing a different tradeoff of download speed to distance and service area. 5G cell phones and wireless devices connect to the network through the highest speed antenna within range at their location:
Low-band 5G uses a similar frequency range to 4G cellphones, 600–850 MHz, giving download speeds a little higher than 4G: 30–250 megabits per second (Mbit/s). Low-band cell towers have a range and coverage area similar to 4G towers.
Mid-band 5G uses microwaves of 2.5–3.7 GHz, allowing speeds of 100–900 Mbit/s, with each cell tower providing service up to several kilometers in radius. This level of service is the most widely deployed, and should be available in most metropolitan areas in 2020. Some regions are not implementing low-band, making this the minimum service level.
High-band 5G uses frequencies of 25–39 GHz, near the bottom of the millimeter wave band, although higher frequencies may be used in the future. It often achieves download speeds in the gigabit per second (Gbit/s) range, comparable to cable internet. However, millimeter waves (mmWave or mmW) have a more limited range, requiring many small cells. They can be impeded or blocked by materials in walls or windows. Due to their higher cost, plans are to deploy these cells only in dense urban environments and areas where crowds of people congregate such as sports stadiums and convention centers.
5G coverage maps
Speed tests in themselves are not enough information. A notion of quality of needs to be associated with speed and coverage. Quality includes many additional elements to download and upload speeds like latency, indoor/outdoor, time of day, search vs streaming, etc. Mobile device speed test apps are starting to include indexes of a value of the quality. These indexed value calculations vary by app developer.
It should be noted that certain areas where 5G has been detected are not necessarily commercially open. Indeed, beforehand, technical tests can be carried out by operators (NPerf 5G coverage map).
Buncombe County Broadband Service
Today the situation in Buncombe County is approximately 90% of our residents are offered >100 Mbps wired broadband service. RiverStreet in the Central North offers > 100 Mbps downlink broadband service with Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) technology. Charter Spectrum in much of the rest of the county except for the southeast corner offers > 100 Mbps downlink broadband service with deep fiber Hybrid Fiber Coax (HFC) technology. French Broad Electric Member Cooperative (FBEMC), as result of winning state GREAT Grant funding, will offer >100 Mbps service in the far west of the county in the next couple of years with FTTH technology. Charter recently won federal Rural Development Opportunity Funding to build out in some additional areas of the county.
SkyRunner offers fixed wireless broadband service at speeds of 25 Mbps or higher in many parts of the county but only to homeowners who have a clean line of sight to one of the towers with SkyRunner radio equipment. SkyRunner, in addition to offering fixed wireless, is now starting to build out FTTH networks fed by Gbps fixed wireless backhaul to groups of homeowners in some micro-communities.
That leaves approximately 10% of Buncombe County households with the only choice of fixed Internet access as DSL (Digital Subscriber Line Services) from traditional telecommunications companies such as AT&T, Frontier, and RiverStreet in some areas where RiverStreet has not yet modernized the network of the old Barnardsville Telephone company, which they acquired. This DSL technology cannot offer >25 Mbps downlink broadband service and thus no longer meets the FCC definition of minimal acceptable service. These customer areas, where only DSL service is offered, create the “holes in the Swiss Cheese” network, i.e. they cannot obtain the high speed broadband needed for work at home, remote education, and good streaming services so urgently needed in the COVID-19 era. Note that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) now defines 25 Mbps as the minimum downlink speed for acceptable broadband service eligible for purposes of federal funding.
Buncombe County’s Swiss Cheese Network
Addressing the needs of the approximately 10% of unserved households is now urgent. Now 5G, the next generation of cellular service, can provide a viable alternative for >25 Mbps service where there is excellent or good signal strength. As the cellular operators further modernize their 5G networks, they will also offer options without stringent caps on monthly usage. The article “T-Mobile Takes Stab at 5G Home Broadband After Others Failed” by Scott Moritz from Bloomberg News, https://www.bloombergquint.com/onweb/t-mobile-takes-a-stab-at-5g-home-broadband-where-others-failed, provides an excellent description of T-Mobile’s plans to offer 5G Home Broadband. We know U.S. Cellular is working on similar plans. Given industry dynamics and Verizon’s response in other markets, I believe Verizon is likely to follow. If all of these firms develop such offers, this can fill in many of the holes in our “Swiss cheese” network not served by current broadband providers that offer at least 25 Mbps downlink broadband service.
T Mobile Low Band Spectrum
The article about T-Mobile above does miss the importance of low band spectrum. The importance of low band spectrum is that low band connections do not require direct line-of-sight nor near line-of-sight. The signals bounce off of hillsides, buildings, etc. T-Mobile has excellent low-band spectrum in our area and is using this to offer 5G. The map below shows their current 5G offer in our area. Note that in some areas the signal strength is excellent and over 100 Mbps speeds are possible according to testing some of us have done. On the other hand in other areas, the 5G signal is good, which probably means between 25 Mbps and 100 Mbps service. In other areas the strength is only fair or poor and customers cannot obtain >25 Mbps service. Note that this is the outdoor signal strength. Indoor performance will be slower.
T-Mobile provides a coverage map. You can put in your address and see the coverage there. You can also scroll over the map to see how coverage changes.
Low band spectrum allows the rapid implementation of 5G on the existing macro-coverage cell sites on high towers. These cell sites may have a radius of several miles or more and cover an area of 10 to 100 square miles. Deploying 5G on these existing cell sites enables a quick roll out. The one disadvantage of the low band spectrum is that the amount of frequency in each block is relatively small compared to other bands. This fact together with the large area covered by each cell site means there are more customers served by the cell site. This means the total capacity allocated for all of the customers, both fixed and mobile is limited. So initially at least, the cellular players using low band spectrum are unlikely to offer the type of unlimited usage promised in the fixed Home Broadband offers.
As the cellular players also light-up the mid-band spectrum discussed in the article, they will have more attractive Home Broadband offers that will be more competitive with the offers of Charter, RiverStreet, and FBEMC and Skyrunner.
T-Mobile through their acquisition of the Sprint cellular network has excellent mid-band mobile spectrum in our area to complement their low-band spectrum.
Both U.S. Cellular and Verizon, which already have some mid-band spectrum, acquired considerably more mid-band spectrum in the recent FCC so-called C Band spectrum auction.
I have not investigated AT&T’s spectrum assets to know if they will be able to stay competitive with T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon in our area as 5G roll-out accelerates.
US Cellular Coverage
US Cellular has also started rolling out 5G in our area. Here is the map for the US Cellular Coverage in Buncombe County Area.
Here are links to two articles that describe the plans and perspective of U.S. Cellular for Home Broadband offers.
The implication for Buncombe County is that essentially all homeowners in Buncombe County could have access to a high quality (>25 Mbps, essentially unlimited usage, low latency service) by the combination of:
Fixed wired last mile broadband from Charter, FBEMC, RiverStreet, or SkyRunner for about 90% of our customers, particularly if the RDOF and GREAT Grant build-outs are done and we can get a built-out in the Broad River basin
5G Home broadband can serve most of the remaining area, if we can get one or more cellular operators to roll out 5G to many of the holes in our ’Swiss cheese” network
A Low-Earth Orbit Satellite (LEOS) system (e.g. SpaceX Star Link) can serve the remaining 1/2 % or so of really hard-to-serve households.
Therefore, Buncombe County, and other counties in WNC really need to help solve the cell site location, power, and fiber backhaul problem for the cellular operators to make the rapid 5G roll-out more attractive. Extensive 5G networks will complement the wired deep fiber networks. 5G will fill in the inevitable “holes” in these networks, i.e. the really high cost to build areas. 5G will also provide customers with competitive alternatives.
* Stagg Newman was former Chief Technologist at the FCC and Chief Technologist of the team that created Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan in 2010 for Congress and the President. He started his career at Bell Laboratories and worked for 4 decades as a technologist, technology manager, and the consultant on broadband, cellular, and Internet deployment around the world. The perspective in this article is the author’s and does not represent the official position of WNC Broadband nor any other organizations that he advises.
During the pandemic, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is helping households struggling to pay for internet with the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program.
The FCC is also looking to mobilize organizations to help share important consumer information about the Emergency Broadband Benefit that will provide a discount of up to $50 per month towards broadband service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on Tribal lands.
Additionally, eligible households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers if they contribute $10-$50 toward the purchase price.
Emergency Broadband Benefit. (2021, February 11). Federal Communications Commission.
The Federal government, the State of North Carolina, and local entities continue to need accurate data to make optimal decisions about where service is needed and how to fund the expansion of broadband services.
What are the FCC Broadband Data Collection (BDC) milestones that will give the FCC, industry, state, local and Tribal government entities, and consumer the tools they need to improve the accuracy of existing maps?
As Vice-President for Information Technology & Chief Information Officer at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, one of the largest and most impactful educational institutions in western North Carolina, I have had a front-row seat during the COVID-19 crisis and have perhaps a unique perspective on the challenges encountered and lessons learned during the College’s (and community’s) adaptations to this changing environment.
By virtue of a decade of reinvigorated attention to the value of technology within modern higher-education, A-B Tech entered the crisis is a stronger position than many of sister colleges within the North Carolina Community College System, and a stronger position than many other corporate entities and governmental agencies in the region. When NC’s community colleges were instructed in March of 2020 to switch operations to 100% online, A-B Tech was well situated to make this transition and already had much of the infrastructure in place to facilitate that transition. That’s not to say that considerable investments of money, time and labor weren’t needed on a very compressed timeline or that everything had been figured out ahead of time but A-B Tech was fortunate in being able to rapidly make adjustments and deploy resources to quickly resume operations in a radically altered format. As we assess the hurdles already overcome and the difficulties which remain, one of the most universal and foundational challenges is connectivity.
As an institution, A-B Tech can implement solid systems and processes to provide for efficient and effective remote instruction and support, we can deliver software and hardware to enable home-based employees and students alike, we can offer training to facilitate the use of such technology – but we are very restricted in our ability to provide employees or students with the fast and reliable Internet access which necessarily underpins all such remote-working arrangements. We have implemented web-based and cloud-hosted solutions, have deployed laptops, webcams, headsets and mobile WiFi hotspots, have instituted new policies and procedures to adapt operations to fix demands, have established COVID-conscious computer labs and have invited the community to use our parking lots for connectivity from inside one’s car, etc. Only in limited situations, however, have we been able to solve a connectivity challenge with cellular access points or other workaround approaches. Cutting across socioeconomic lines, crossing the urban/rural boundaries, impacting people without regard for educational attainment or financial situation, the very real challenge of high-speed Internet access throughout western North Carolina impacts students, faculty, staff and senior administration at A-B Tech, as it similarly impacts our local businesses and our regional K-12 schools. Broadband Internet access has quickly proven to be a core requirement of “the new normal,” as fundamental to modern life as electricity and running water.
Brian Willis, VP of IT/CIO Information Technology, A-B Tech Community College
Impact of COVID on Broadband for a Higher Education Institution
In the delivery of remote or hybrid instruction, as we’ve experienced over the past year, there are two key locations that need to be connected: the professor and the student. The connection is provided via broadband. With high speed connections and reliability, learning is enabled. It is absolutely critical for success.
For a university with faculty and students located in more rural areas of North Carolina and in areas underserved with respect to broadband, this can be a significant problem; and in a lot of cases there may only be one internet service provider, if even available. In fact, from a technology perspective, this was probably the number one item expressed by both faculty and students. We experienced some faculty needing to come to campus only because they had poor internet connectivity, reliability, or bandwidth at home. A significant number of students experienced the same situation and we heard instances of students driving to a nearby McDonalds to use their wireless from the parking lot to access learning management systems or Zoom sessions. Locally, some students came to campus to use the university’s outdoor WiFi. Here in the mountains, cellular is not usually an effective solution due to the terrain, and in fact for many, cellular connectivity is actually being delivered over their broadband connection; so without broadband there is no cellular coverage. Without quality broadband professors can’t teach and students are not able to learn and engage.
In addition to the faculty and students, the university runs via its staff employees. Areas include facilities, finance, purchasing, information technology, campus services, fundraising, admissions, tutoring, academic services, research, and more. These services and functions need to remain operational. Staff need to be able to access systems, payroll, remotely answer phones, meet in teams, and provide services. Working remotely, as most staff was being asked to do, requires quality broadband. Without it a person cannot do their work, provide necessary functions, or assist faculty, students, or other staff.
Just before the pandemic hit, WCU Power and Morris Broadband were very close to completing the implementation of high speed broadband service to the WCU Power service area. The service area encompasses a significant number of faculty, staff, and students that live near the university. Many have said they are so thankful that the new broadband service was in place — because it is what enabled them to successfully teach, work, and study remotely. Without it, they would have either not be able to work or would only have been able to do so being present on campus — significantly impacting university operations.
Craig Fowler, Chief Information Officer (CIO) at Western Carolina University