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5G Rollout in Buncombe County and Implications

by Stagg Newman*

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 define in Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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).[5] 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.[6] 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

Buncombe County Swiss Cheese Broadband Network
Buncombe County Map – No Broadband Service Offered (in red)

Unserved Households

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.

Here is the link. https://www.t-mobile.com/coverage/coverage-map

T-Mobile Coverage in Buncombe County Area

T Mobile Coverage in Buncombe County
T Mobile Coverage Check – Asheville Area

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.

US Cellular Coverage Buncombe County Area
US Cellular Buncombe County Area Coverage – 5G in light green

Here are links to two articles that describe the plans and perspective of U.S. Cellular for Home Broadband offers.

  1. US Cellular Outlines Rural 5G Fixed Wireless Plans; CEO Says Other 5G Use Cases Remain Elusive – Telecompetitor. (2020, November 6). Telecompetitor.com. https://www.telecompetitor.com/uscellular-outlines-rural-5g-fixed-wireless-plans-ceo-says-other-5g-use-cases-remain-elusive/
  2. admin. (2019, March 27). The Future of Home Internet | U.S. Cellular®. U.S. Cellular Connected. https://connected.uscellular.com/live-home-and-family/access-anywhere-the-future-of-home-internet/

‌Implications for Buncombe County

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.

Stagg Newman

Categories
Advocacy Broadband access Broadband funding Broadband in WNC Broadband Technology Dan Gerlach Education Federal Efforts Greg Vogt Jeff McDaris Jeff Sural Local Government Local Government North Carolina Paul de Sa Stagg Newman Walter Johnson

WNC Broadband Leadership Summit

March 2, 2021

Meet the Experts, Get Broadband Industry Updates, and Closing The Digital Divide in 2021


You’ve been asking questions- we’re paying attention. 2021 will bring a host of changes to policy, funding, technology, and more.

Join us on March 2nd for our annual broadband leadership summit as we hear from local, state, and national leaders on what those changes will bring.

We will be hearing from:

Paul de Sa- “Perspectives on the new FCC directions and Internet Policy and Funding in the Biden Administration”

Paul was part of the leadership team at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from 2009-12 and 2016-17, serving as Chief of its Office of Strategic Planning, with a focus on merger reviews, spectrum policy, and broadband, including work on the National Broadband Plan. He is now a senior partner with Quadra Partners consulting and a member of President Biden’s Broadband Transition Team.

Walter Johnston- “Broadband Technology in 2021”

Walter was Chief of the Electromagnetic Compatibility Division of the FCC from 2009 to Jan. 2019. He is now a senior partner with Danu consulting. He is a leading expert in new broadband technologies.

Dan Gerlach- “Foundations and funding questions”

Dan has served the public for 25 years as a budget advisor to Gov. Easley, President of the Golden Leaf Foundation, and interim Chancellor of East Carolina University. He currently is president of Dan Garlach LLC and a consultant to the Dogwood Health Trust.

Jeff Sural- “What to expect at the state level”

Jeff earned his Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from UNC-Chapel Hill and his J.D. from Western Michigan University. Since January 2015 he has been the Director of the Broadband Infrastructure Office (BIO). BIO leads the statewide initiative to expand high-speed internet access for all North Carolinians.

There will also be information from several providers in the region including Charter, Skyrunner, ERC, and French Broad Electric Co-op.

And more……

This event will be held from 10-noon with optional breakout sessions from noon-1pm.

Breakout Sessions

  • Education – led by Jeff McDaris – will hear what K-12 and colleges have done to meet the pandemic and respond to the digital divide. Barry Pace of Buncombe Schools will provide an update on their experience.
  • New Technologies – led by Stagg Newman and Walter Johnston will continue the conversation about 5G expansion, satellite services, and the future.
  • State & Local Funding for Broadband – led by Jeff Sural and foundation partners – will look at the potential for state and local funding for broadband.
  • Federal Policy Changes – Greg Vogt and Paul de Sa will continue the conversation about what the Biden administration and Democratic control of Congress means for broadband improvements and regulations.

Register for this virtual event today! Spaces are limited.

Date: March 2nd
Presentations: 10-12
Breakout sessions: 12-1
Cost: Free

Zoom Registration Link

For questions related to this event reach out to


Does your organization have a digital inclusion activity it offers?

We want to know!

2020 escalated the conversation around digital inclusion and we want to make sure we know what’s going on across WNC. Please let us know who you are and what your organization is doing by completing this brief survey. We will present an update to this project at the March 2nd Summit. 

Digital Inclusion Survey Link

Categories
Broadband funding Broadband in WNC Economic Development FCC Kevin Jones RDOF Stagg Newman WLOS

About $45M in Federal Grants for Broadband Expansion in WNC

Our Western North Carolina Broadband Team Leader, Kevin Jones:

Looks like several WNC counties will be getting around $45M in RDOF funding.

Kevin Jones

Stagg Newman, Retired FCC Technologist and also a WNC Broadband Project Team Lead adds:

These grants help a bit. In Buncombe County, we have estimated that we have at least 15,000 Households without available future proof broadband service as defined in the Buncombe County RFP. These federal grants only address less than 1500 lines in Buncombe County, so less than 10% of the problem. I think the situation is similar in Henderson County and probably in other counties. So a small step in the right directions. The problem is most of the unserved areas do not qualify as totally unserved census blocks under the FCC Rural Development Opportunity Fund (RDOF). Congress mandated in 2019 that the FCC fix their mapping problem but only funded the FCC to do so in December of 2020. It will likely take the FCC at least two years to do so. The next $10 B of RDOF money will not be available until after the FCC fixes the maps.

Stagg Newman

In the WLOS video, Senator Kevin Corbin talks about the importance of broadband in Western North Carolina

WLOS – Sen. Kevin Corbin – (R) District 50

Dr. Shelley White, President of Haywood Community College also references in the WLOS video the broadband client-access benefits for their Small Business Center.

WLOS – Dr. Shelley White, President, Haywood Community College

Hodge, R. (2021, February 16). About $45 million in federal grants will help expand broadband in WNC. WLOS; WLOS. https://wlos.com/news/local/federal-grants-to-help-rural-counties-expand-broadband