AT&T says it will use small cells for its mobile “5G” service planned for 12 U.S. cities this year. The company’s first of these roll outs will use millimeter wave  spectrum, which offers higher capacity rates than low-band spectrum but does not propagate over large distances. That requires transmit/receive radios need to closer together than they are in LTE deployments.
Note 1. Millimeter wave (also millimeter band) is the band of spectrum between 30 gigahertz (Ghz) and 300 Ghz.
“Millimeter wave is more associated with small cell-like ranges and heights,” said AT&T’s Hank Kafka, VP of network architecture. “It can be on telephone poles or light poles or building rooftops or on towers, but generally if you’re putting it on towers it’s at a lower height than you would put a high-powered macrocell, because of the propagation characteristics.”
“5G will change the way we live, work and enjoy entertainment,” said Melissa Arnoldi, president, AT&T Technology and Operations. “We’re moving quickly to begin deploying mobile 5G this year and start unlocking the future of connectivity for consumers and businesses. With faster speeds and ultra-low latency, 5G will ultimately deliver and enhance experiences like virtual reality, future driverless cars, immersive 4K video and more.”
AT&T has announced 23 cities that are getting its 5G Evolution infrastructure, which the company describes as “the foundation for mobile 5G.” Those cities are Atlanta; Austin; Boston; Bridgeport, Connecticut; Buffalo, New York; Chicago; Fresno, CA; Greenville, South Carolina; Hartford, Connecticut; Houston; Indianapolis; Los Angeles; Louisville; Memphis; Nashville; New Orleans; Oklahoma City; Pittsburgh; San Antonio; San Diego; San Francisco; Tulsa, Oklahoma and Sacramento, California.
AT&T’s deployment of small cells to support mobile 5G will be largely independent of another 2017 AT&T infrastructure initiative – the build-out of the 700 MHz spectrum for FirstNet.
“Where appropriate we’re always going to try and get as much synergy as we can … but there’s a difference between dealing with small cell sites and dealing with macro sites,” Kafka said.
“You’ll find that a lot of radios that suppliers are putting out now are going to be upgradeable to support 5G,” Kafka said. “Some of the radios we’re deploying now do have that capability in the hardware.”
Kafka said that in some instances, tower crews might be able to add “5G” equipment near the base of the tower at the same time they add 700 MHz radios to the top. But the synergies between the two deployments are limited.
In sharp contrast to AT&Ts endorsement of millimeter wave technology, Sprint’s CTO John Saw said last week that he is not sure that using millimeter waves to deliver 5G services is a practical economic use of the high-band spectrum and that Sprint will be focusing on using its existing bandwidth to initially deploy 5G.
“What is the cost to deliver a bit over millimeter waves? Where is the business case on that?” John Saw asked at the Citi conference in Las Vegas.
Verizon CTO Hans Vestberg told a CES panel last week that Verizon “will be first” to deploy 5G. Verizon is moving ahead with deployment of pre-standard fixed-wireless 5G service, starting with a rollout in Sacramento, California in the second half of this year. But Vestberg noted fixed-wireless is just one part of what Verizon plans to do with 5G.
“From 5G you can do different slices. We are now focusing on one slice, which is basically residential broadband to deliver superior performance quicker to market…That’s one use case, we can talk about many others.”
The Small Cell Forum (SCF) commissioned an in-depth survey from Rethink Technology Research to understand more about their deployment plans and business drivers for a dense HetNet, and the barriers they need to overcome. Over 50 tier 1 and 2 mobile and converged operators responded to this survey, which illuminates operators’ deployment plans for network densification, as well as the barriers they expect to have to overcome.
The results showed that cell densification has begun in today’s LTE networks and will intensify in the 5G era, enabled by profound changes to the architecture and economics of small cells.
The SCF forecasts that between 2015 and 2025, new non-residential small cell deployments will grow at a compound annual rate of 36%, to reach almost 8.5 million, and by 2025 deployments will be 22 times higher than in 2015.
Densification is starting in LTE networks and will intensify in the 5G era, enabled by profound changes to the architecture and economics of small cells.
It is clear from the results of the survey that most mobile network operators (MNOs) are starting to plan for dense HetNets, even if they do not intend to deploy the 5G radio network at scale until well into the 2020s. The biggest uptick in new deployments of small cells will be seen in the 2018-2020 period, with a 50% increase, with a second sharp increase in 2023-2024 as 5G densification gets into full swing.
This indicates that many operators are densifying their networks long before they upgrade to 5G – the start of 5G small cell deployment will come in 2020, with 68% of respondents planning to embark on this upgrade before the end of 2022 and the rest later than that. While a smooth migration path to 5G will be important, most MNOs’ main concerns are with immediate issues of deployment in 4G.
Against that context, the following is a summary of some of the key findings of the survey:
• Only 17% of respondents have no plans for large-scale densification. By
contrast, by 2020, 40% of operators expect to deploy between 100 and 350
small cells per square kilometer in the areas they densify (led by transport
hubs, urban downtown regions and business parks).
• When it comes to 5G, 69% of operators planning 5G deployment before 2023
expect to start small cell deployment in tandem with the macro, or ahead of
it. In the first 2-3 years of deploying 5G New Radio, 58% expect to focus
primarily on small cells, 37% mainly in order to densify the network for
enhanced mobile broadband, and 21% mainly to enable new use cases.
• However, densification will happen well in advance of 5G. When asked to
rank their critical requirements for small cells, operators prioritized those
which relate to the here-and-now, not just 5G futures. Low total cost of
ownership (TCO), multivendor interoperability, ease of deployment and good
macro network interworking were the most commonly cited as top three
• It is vital for the industry to support the key requirements as soon as
possible, since the survey shows that many operators would be keen to
accelerate their deployment timeline if their concerns were addressed. For
instance, 19% would ideally like to start at-scale deployment within one year,
but only 7% believe that will be practical and affordable.
• The key factors which would enable them to bring their deadlines forward
would be new sources of affordable fiber for backhaul and fronthaul (53%
cited this), followed by lower overall TCO (50%) and easier access to sites
• The commercial drivers which are creating this new urgency are becoming
more diverse and business-critical. Supporting improved quality of experience
(QoE) – the main determinant of customer satisfaction – through improved
and targeted capacity emerged as the most important driver (placed in the
top three by 40%). This was followed by lower total cost of ownership (TCO)
for the mobile network (38%), and the ability to deploy new services and
revenue streams based on small cells (36%).
• There is increasing diversity of business cases. On top of mobile broadband,
40% plan to introduce new enterprise services enabled by small cells before
2020 – and two-thirds after that – while for IoT services, the figures are 29%
• Density will allow MNOs to address new enterprise requirements. The areas
where the largest number see a business case for density would be transport
hubs, business parks and corporate buildings or campuses, while significant
opportunities are also seen in medium-sized enterprises and the hospitality
and property development sectors.
• To support business case diversity, there is a need for architectural diversity
too. As well as standalone access points, by the end of 2019, 50% also
expect to have deployed distributed radio systems and 33% clusters of small
cells managed by a virtualized controller.
• Other architectural changes are being actively adopted to make densification
easier and support additional use cases. For instance, by the end of 2019,
75% of operators will have implemented small cell SON (self-optimizing
networks), while 25% will have started to deploy end-to-end orchestration of
physical and virtual cells.
• To improve the small cell business case further, especially in the enterprise,
79% expect to support edge computing integrated with small cells, by the
end of 2022. Enterprise edge applications are seen as the leading driver
(40% placed it in their top three).
• To boost capacity, there is a rising need to tap into new sources of spectrum.
By 2022, 66% expect to be using LTE in unlicensed spectrum, and 45% plan
to have deployed small cells in spectrum above 20 GHz.
You can download the entire survey (after filling out a form) here.
Unlimited data boosts Verizon’s phone net additions though wireless margins continue to diminish
by Steve Vachon, TBR Analyst
In 2Q17 Verizon was able to report consolidated year-to-year revenue growth (+0.1%, on a historical, non-adjusted basis) for the first quarter since 1Q16, but this was mainly due to $693 million in revenue generated from acquisitions that have closed in the past year, including Fleetmatics, Telogis and, most recently, Yahoo, which closed on June 13, 2017.
Verizon’s core businesses continue to feel the weight of pricing pressures and market saturation within the mobility, video and business services markets. These trends are exemplified by wireless revenue remaining in decline (-1.9% year-to-year) despite the recent launch of unlimited data, competition from over the top (OTT) preventing Fios video subscriber additions and growth within Verizon’s new Business Markets unit being largely contingent on the XO Communications acquisition.
The launch of Verizon’s unlimited data plans in February boosted postpaid phone net additions, totaling 358,000 in 2Q17 compared to 86,000 in 2Q16, as more customers are shifting to unlimited data for its convenience and to support increasing mobile video usage. TBR believes the price point of Verizon’s unlimited plans is also benefiting subscriber growth while minimizing average revenue per user (ARPU) declines as they strike a happy medium, starting at a lower price point than AT&T’s Unlimited Plus program, competing on-par with multiline T-Mobile One Plus plans without yielding to the overly aggressive pricing of Sprint’s Unlimited Freedom promotions.
Maintaining sufficient LTE capacity is critical as the carrier is continuing to rely on its reputation of providing superior network coverage as its primary differentiator to attract unlimited data coverage. TBR believes Verizon is well-positioned to sustain its unlimited data strategy long term as currently only 50% of its spectrum is being used for LTE and the company can continue to add network capacity via small cells, deploying AWS-3 licenses and refarming 3G licenses for LTE. However, Verizon’s network distinctions are becoming less pronounced as competitors continue to densify their networks and move towards 1Gbps data speeds by implementing LTE-Advanced technologies, which will require Verizon to implement new differentiators to stand out in the unlimited data market.
Despite the success of Verizon’s unlimited data plans, wireless EBITDA margins fell for the third-consecutive quarter in 2Q17, declining 170 basis points year-to-year to 45.8%. Verizon’s diminishing wireless (profit) margins are in part due to the carrier’s shift to a non-subsidy device pricing model as decreased equipment subsidies are failing to offset service revenue declines stemming from lower-priced wireless plans offered under this model. Postpaid ARPU is also being limited by Verizon Plan features including Carryover Data and Safety Mode that are helping tiered data customers conserve data usage. Conversely, TBR anticipates the adoption of unlimited data plans will mainly have a stabilizing effect on postpaid phone ARPU over the next year as migrations from customers on less expensive plans will be offset by the cost savings heavy overage customers will realize by transitioning to unlimited data.
Highlights of Verizon’s Earnings Call Transcript:
Matthew D. Ellis – Verizon Communications, Inc.
We had a strong quarter of execution. First, we invested in our 4G network leadership position, resulting in a sweep of third-party network performance surveys for the first half of 2017, while prepositioning for 5G services. Second, we delivered solid wireless operational performance and financial results in a competitive environment with an increase in both postpaid and prepaid accounts. Third, we successfully completed the acquisition of Yahoo’s operating assets to scale our media business.
Network leadership is the central element of our strategy, and we are continually investing in our network to extend our leadership in 4G capacity growth with densification using small cells, which includes expanding our fiber capabilities. As we prepare for the network of the future, we announced the acquisition of Straight Path for $3.1 billion, which we expect will close by the end of first quarter 2018. Straight Path complements our spectrum portfolio and positions us to lead and further drive 5G technology and its ecosystem. We have begun the pre-commercial fixed wireless trials in eight out of the 11 markets and have our first batch of customers on this technology. As we have previously highlighted, we will have trial results later in the year, and I look forward to sharing them with you.
We had a strong quarter, adding and retaining wireless customers as the momentum from the launch of our unlimited plans was sustained throughout the quarter. We delivered a strong wireless operational performance that reflects customer demand for our high-quality network in a highly competitive market. Finally, we completed the acquisition of Yahoo’s operating assets and immediately began executing on integration plans that we’ve been working on for over a year. We are confident in the execution of our strategy, which we expect to drive profitable growth, generate strong cash flows, and return long-term value to our shareholders.
Total wireline revenue on a reported basis grew 1.2%, including the recently acquired XO operations. On an organic basis, wireline segment revenue decreased 2.8% compared to a decline of 3.2% last quarter. This shift in the wireline revenue trend towards fiber is growing. Organically, fiber based products grew more than 3%, which supports our plans to further invest in fiber. Our emphasis on delivering value to all business customers, from the very small to the large enterprise, was recognized recently in a leading third-party study. More importantly, we won the large enterprise business award for the second consecutive year in the same study.
Consumer markets revenue increased 0.6%, driven by Fios Internet activity. Consumer Fios revenue growth of 4.1% was consistent with the past several quarters. During the quarter, we launched Fios Gigabit Connection in certain markets, which offers symmetrical speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second. In Fios Internet, we added 49,000 customers. Fios Video results were pressured due to softer secular demand for traditional linear video, given growth in the over-the-top offerings, as well as competitive promotional activity. Fios Video losses were 15,000 in the quarter. For the second quarter, Enterprise Solutions revenue fell 4.1% on an organic basis, which was due to persistent trends in our legacy products and pricing compression in the marketplace. On a constant-currency basis, revenue was down 3.5%.
Partner Solutions revenue declined 6.8% on an organic basis, while the revenue mix towards fiber has been trending higher. Within business markets, fiber revenue is expanding, driven by Fios broadband demand, offset by continued pressure in legacy products. On an organic basis, revenue declined 4.9% and improved slightly sequentially.
On a comparable basis, the second quarter wireline EBITDA margin was 20.8%, compared to 13.3%, which included the work stoppage, last year. Sequentially, wireline EBITDA margin was down 120 basis points, primarily due to lower revenue from Enterprise Solutions and Partner Solutions and an increase in operating expense as a result of leasing data center space related to the sale to Equinix.
Commentary from Fierce Wireless:
Whether Verizon can maintain its network edge in an era of unlimited data is unclear, however. Recent data from Ookla indicates that the networks of both Verizon and AT&T have suffered as traffic has ramped up in recent months, as T-Mobile recently pointed out. So Verizon must continue to move quickly to meet the ever-increasing demands of consumers as mobile data traffic soars.
“Subscriber trends recovered sharply this quarter; however, this is partly due to an aggressive push behind unlimited that we don’t think is sustainable for Verizon,” New Street Research analysts said in a note to investors. “They have the least capacity per sub of all the carriers, and their network performance is already deteriorating both in absolute terms and relative to peers. Verizon is also paying for improved subscriber trends with ARPU and service revenue pressure. The recovery in subs is also partly due to record low churn across the industry in general, which we suspect will reverse later in the year with the new iPhone launch.”