Counties across North Carolina need flexibility to source funding and apply ‘middle-mile’ broadband infrastructure that could be used to lease to ‘last-mile’ providers. Buncombe County is in this category.
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.