Editors note: This week we’ll take a look back at the 50 stories that drew the highest level of engagement from our RCR Wireless News community. 

AT&T buys FiberTower for millimeter wave

AT&T agreed to purchase FiberTower and its millimeter wave spectrum rights for an undisclosed amount. FiberTower owns licenses in the 24 GHz and 39 GHz bands and provides wireless services to carriers, enterprises and government entities. Carriers typically use FiberTower’s services for wireless backhaul.

The FiberTower acquisition is set to help AT&T realize its vision for “5G” and centralized radio access networks, the carrier said. In urban areas, AT&T plans to deploy remote radio heads linked to central baseband processing units. These links can be accomplished with fiber when it is available, but installing new fiber for every C-RAN deployment would be expensive and often impractical because of zoning and permitting issues.

FiberTower says its 24 GHz and 39 GHz spectrum can provide more than 200 high capacity links per square kilometer, and the company has been actively marketing this solution to carriers. The company holds licenses in most states and in several major metropolitan areas, including Washington, D.C., Boston, Baltimore and Detroit.

“According to AllNet Insights, FiberTower owns 8.4 billion [megahertz per potential customer covered](8.1 billion 39 GHz and 374 million 24 GHz),” Wells Fargo analyst Jennifer Fritzsche wrote in a research note. “We would expect these details to come out in future [Federal Communications Commission] filings.”

Verizon tested 5G in 10 locations

Building on tests conducted this year, Verizon is planning a commercial 5G fixed wireless access deployment in the second half of 2018 with an eye on providing residential broadband services.

Speaking during the telecommunication operator’s fourth quarter conference call, Verizon EVP and CFO Matt Ellis said the carrier was moving onto the next phase of its 5G plans having concluded a number of technical trials and lab tests in 2016. The carrier had previously stated plans to begin commercial trials of next-generation wireless technologies in 2017, which are expected to revolve around a fixed-broadband use case.

The firm said it calculated the potential ROI for operators investing in a pre-5G network using the 28 GHz band compared with LTE costs and “the potential costs for a sub-6 GHz network using 5G technology,” and found at “historical prices, 5G will not be successful.” To reach the necessary ROI, Mobile Experts said the market would need inexpensive access to large spectrum blocks.

“The business case for 5G fixed broadband is not a slam dunk,” said Joe Madden, principal analyst at Mobile Experts. “We expect pre-5G deployment to be a very targeted investment by mobile operators, addressing very specific neighborhoods instead of nationwide deployment.”

T-Mobile US, Dish, Comcast dominated 600 MHz incentive auction, Verizon a no-show

T-Mobile US, Dish Network and Comcast walked away as the highest bidders in the Federal Communications Commission’s 600 MHz incentive auction process, with the three accounting for $15.9 billion of the auction’s $19.8 billion in net proceeds.

T-Mobile US led the charge, with the nationwide operator posting nearly $8 billion in winning bids. The carrier, which said it would be aggressive in the low-band spectrum auction, picked up 1,525 total 10-megahertz licenses covering 414 of the auction’s 428 partial economic areas.

While auction leading, some had predicted the carrier would spend up to $10 billion, as it had been active in stocking its coffers ahead of the process.

Dish Network continued to bolster its spectrum holdings, with the satellite-television company picking up 486 licenses covering 416 PEAs for $6.2 billion. The company participated in the auction under the ParkerB.com Wireless name.

Verizon, AT&T to build hundreds of towers with Lightsquared founder

AT&T and Verizon have jointly agreed to build hundreds of new cell towers with Tillman Infrastructure, a company founded last year by Sanjiv Ahuja’s Tillman Global Holdings. Ahuja is the former CEO of Orange and also the founder of Lightsquared, a company that tried unsuccessfully to launch a satellite-based wireless network.

Tillman Infrastructure will build to-suit with AT&T and Verizon, and both carriers have agreed to co-anchor the co-located towers. In addition, the companies said they may move some equipment off existing towers and onto the new ones.

“We need more alternatives to the traditional tower leasing model with the large incumbents. It’s not cost-effective or sustainable,” said Susan Johnson, SVP of AT&T’s global supply chain. “We’re creating a diverse community of suppliers and tower companies who will help increase market competition while reducing our overhead. We look forward to working with Verizon as we establish site locations and sign new lease agreements with additional suppliers in the coming years.”

Nicola Palmer, Verizon’s chief network officer, said the carrier reviews all its contracts as they come up for renewal, and is excited to have a new tower partner in the mix. The companies are not commenting on pricing, except to say that Tillman’s prices will be “competitive.” Verizon has the highest operating margin of any of the nationwide carriers, and Palmer said that continued cuts in operating costs are “imperative.” Tower and site rents are one of the biggest components of network operating costs for the carriers.

Sprint plans thousands of new towers

New tower construction will be a big part of Sprint’s network investment over the next 15 months, and the carrier will also add equipment to its existing towers. Sprint plans to spend $3.5 billion–$4.0 billion on its network during fiscal 2017, which ends in March 2018, and expects to increase spending to between $5 billion and $6 billion in fiscal 2018. CFO Tarek Robbiati laid out specifics of the network investment plan at a UBS brokers conference this week. He said there are four key initiatives for Sprint.

The four initiatives Robbiati outlined were:
1. Tri-banding towers. Robbiati said Sprint wants to deploy 800 MHz, 1.9 GHz, and 2.5 GHz on every tower it occupies.

2. New tower builds. Sprint plans to build several thousand new towers, focusing on neighborhoods where its coverage has fallen behind population growth, Robbiati said.

3. Massive MIMO. Massive multiple-input multiple-output antennas help carriers get more bang for the buck by delivering more data using their existing spectrum.Sprint has already announced plans to deploy massive MIMO antennas developed by Ericsson and Samsung.

4. Small cells. Sprint’s small cells range from outdoor mini-macro sites in the public right of way to indoor Magic Boxes. The carrier has been working on its outdoor small cell deployments for at least two years, but the Magic Box is a new network element added this year. In addition, Sprint just announced a partnership with Corning’s SpiderCloud Wireless, which will give the carrier two new indoor small cell solutions.

5G in sub-6 GHz spectrum bands

It is becoming increasingly accepted that millimeter wave spectrum, the frequencies between 30 GHz and 300 GHz, will define “5G” networks. But there are still problems to be solved with mm wave before it is ready for prime time.

The difficulties associated with mm wave means standards organizations and mobile operators will continue to rely heavily on sub-6 GHz spectrum. Especially since it likely take three years or more for mm wave technology to be developed and to harmonize the availability of the new spectrum bands.

Some of the advantages of sub-6 GHz spectrum include, according to the Pacific Telecommunications Council:

  • The existing investment by satellite industry (169 commercial satellites, investments of $50 billion to $60 billion and growing, user base = several hundred millions)
  • Unique technical properties (rain fade, coverage); often preferred solution for broadcasting, telemetry, disaster relief, meteorological, aeronautical, etc.

T-Mobile US has big plans for small cells

Mark McDiarmid, T-Mobile US vice president of network engineering, explained yesterday that the operator plans to deploy 2,000 more small cells by the end of the year, which will add to its currently installed base of 3,000 small cells.

But that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to what’s coming next year. McDiarmid said the so-called “Un-carrier” has 25,000 small cell units contracted “most of which will be done next year,” he said during a joint T-Mobile US/Qualcomm-hosted event focused on gigabit LTE.

To the gigabit LTE piece, license assisted access (LAA), a technology developed by Qualcomm, allows carriers to create wider spectral channels by aggregating licensed and unlicensed spectrum. McDiarmid said LAA-compatible small cells will be turned up on the network in the first quarter of 2018.

“These small cells are maybe a few 100 yards to maybe a quarter-mile at most,” he said in a question and answer session with journalists and analysts. “But when you take 40 [megahertz]of licensed spectrum and 60 [megahertz of unlicensed spectrum” connected to dark fiber, “…the capability and the capacity that you put in that small cell is quite dramatic. That’s one of the ways we’re going to deliver gigabit. We’re continuing to build densification of macro sites in addition to small cells.”

CCA 2017: FirstNet under fire

In October, former governors Jeb Bush and Martin O’Malley took to the stage at the Competitive Carriers Association show for a fireside-chat-style discussion of public safety communications that was more than a little scorching in its criticism of the First Responders Network Authority.

FirstNet awarded a $6.5 billion contract to AT&T earlier this year to build out a nationwide LTE network for public safety use, and 27 of the 56 U.S. states and territories have so far “opted in” to allow AT&T to build out the FirstNet network in their area. Opting in does not obligate states’ first responders to use the FirstNet network.

Both Bush and O’Malley acknowledged to the audience that they sit on the board of Rivada Networks, which was one of three known companies that competed for the national contract, two of which were excluded from the “competitive range” of the contract. Rivada sued over its exclusion and was rebuffed in court, then vowed to take its battle to the states and persuade them to opt out of the nationwide AT&T build.

As former governors, both men had sharp words for federal control of the contract process and the network itself. O’Malley called the deal being offered to states “a pig in a poke”, while Bush categorized it as “this is not ground-up, this is from Mount Washington, lighting bolts being sent down.” O’Malley said that states felt threatened by AT&T and stiff penalties — between millions and billions — that states face if they opt out and their opt-out network fails, referring to this as “third-world thuggery.” AT&T was indeed judged by FirstNet to be the only company in the “competitive range” that had bid on the contract and could meet the criteria that FirstNet was demanding, according to the court ruling on Rivada’s exclusion from the competitive range, and O’Malley made a number of critical references to the “sole source” contract and state plans that have been issued through a limited-access online portal, with what he said was a lack of transparency around AT&T’s coverage and build-out plans as well as what accountability mechanisms are in place. In addition, there was criticism that what was intended to be a “purpose-built, hardened, secure network”, as O’Malley put it, will be operating as essentially a part of the AT&T network. AT&T has offered public safety access to all of its existing spectrum and is supporting prioritization for first responders’ traffic, with preemption capabilities on the way, but has sidestepped questions about Band 14-specific build-out plans (Verizon is also stepping up its prioritization and preemption capabilities, plans to build a public safety-specific core network and also says that it plans to compete aggressively with FirstNet on pricing). AT&T executives have said that FirstNet funding will help them turn up Band 14 coverage at the same time that they do other, non-public-safety-specific upgrades to their network.

T-Mobile, Sprint and AT&T unleash network enhancements with latest Samsung S8

Samsung’s March launch of its latest Galaxy S8 and S8+ smartphone models is sure to have an impact on the device market, but for domestic wireless carriers the new devices are set to unleash recent – and ongoing – network enhancements.

T-Mobile US noted the devices will be its first smartphone to simultaneously tap into the carrier’s 4×4 multiple-input/multiple-output antenna technology, carrier aggregation and 256 quadrature amplitude modulation transmission scheme. The carrier explained the technology cocktail can support network speeds of nearly one gigabit per second.

T-Mobile US late last year touted network speeds associated with the trio of technologies, with internal testing on an “unreleased handset” showing peak LTE speeds of 979 megabits per second. Where customers will actually be able to experience those speeds is still somewhat clouded as the carrier has noted its 4×4 MIMO was available in more than 300 markets, though no indication on the reach of all three technologies combined.

Another first for the Samsung devices will be their support for T-Mobile US’ LTE-Unlicensed work, which will allow the device to tap into the unlicensed 5 GHz spectrum band to bolster network speeds and enhance coverage. The carrier last month said it had begun deploying support for the technology on the heels of the Federal Communications Commission certifying the first round of LTE-U devices.

T-Mobile launches 600 MHz spectrum support

T-Mobile US, the big spender in the Federal Communications Commission’s  600 MHz incentive auction, activated 600 MHz spectrum in a few areas this year including Wyoming, Maine and New York.

As part of its vast haul of spectrum licenses, T-Mobile US said it’s expecting this year to have access to at least 10 megahertz of 600 MHz spectrum covering more than 1 million square miles. The carrier cited claims by vendors Ericsson and Nokia that they planned to have 600 MHz-enabled network equipment available this year that would allow T-Mobile US to begin deploying spectrum support, as well as a statement from Qualcomm that it would be introducing smartphone chipsets to support the 600 MHz band.

T-Mobile US spent nearly $8 billion during the auction, winning a total of 1,525 10-megahertz licenses covering 414 of the auction’s 428 partial economic areas. The carrier said it won 45% of the spectrum sold with an average depth of 31 megahertz and at least 10 megahertz covering all of the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

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