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14 February 2017

Verizon and AT&T seek to seize mmWave initiative back from WiGig

Verizon and AT&T continue to pile up the tests in millimeter wave spectrum, aiming to steal a march in 5G capacity, at least for fixed wireless services. Their efforts must also be taking place with half an eye on the big threat of 5G – that its more flexible architectures and expanded spectrum will enable new entrants, and rob the telcos of their stranglehold on mobile services.

In the responses to the FCC’s Spectrum Frontiers recommendations for high band 5G airwaves, the tensions were clear. Many bighitters are calling for mmWave bands to be licence-exempt, as 60 GHz already is – claiming that it is the IEEE, and the WiFi Alliance with its WiGig certifications in 60 GHz, which are driving real world adoption in high frequencies, not the 3GPP community.

The cellular operators and vendors need to respond to such claims to leapfrog the WiFi community in terms of mmWave developments and ecosystem, which will also help to justify their calls for some of these higher bands to be licensed in the traditional way.

The two operators are taking different approaches to their trials – AT&T is sticking to the 3GPP standards process, though trying to accelerate the timescales; Verizon is working with pre-standard systems which it has designed itself, with a group of vendors, but claims will be easily tweaked when the full 3GPP Release 15 specifications are finalized.

AT&T has said it would like to see the industry finalize parts of the 5G standard in December 2017 instead of June 2018, but Verizon has opposed those efforts in the 3GPP.

Both carriers, however, are very interested in bands from 24 GHz upwards, and both have applied for new special temporary authority (STA) licences to conduct further tests. Verizon’s latest applications concern Euless, Texas, and South Plainfield, New Jersey, using its 28 GHz prototype equipment from five different vendors – Ericsson, Intel, Qualcomm, Samsung and Nokia.

The requested period is from February 19 to August 19 this year, and the purpose is to “understand the characteristics of mmWave operating bands, specifically 28 GHz, including channel bandwidths, and U/L ratios for residential/commercial deployments”.

The Euless location has a Verizon Mobile Switching Center and apartments nearby, while the South Plainfield location is in an urban area with adjacent buildings and trees.

Meanwhile, AT&T is requesting a two-year experimental licence to conduct testing and propagation measurements in the 3.4-4.2 GHz band and in 27.5-2.835 GHz, 3.7-3.86 GHz, 64-71 GHz and 71-76 GHz.

The tests will involve communications between a fixed outdoor base station in Austin, Texas, and user equipment inside residential units, business units and test vehicles located within three kilometers of the base station. The 5G radio signal will be measured and analyzed in various types of RF propagation environments, such as line-of-sight, through foliage, and nearby structures. AT&T will use 10 units from multiple unnamed vendors.

AT&T is also building two 5G testbeds in Austin to start operations this spring. The testbeds will include dedicated 5G outdoor and indoor test locations and flexible infrastructure to allow modifications as standards develop.

The 28 GHz band is receiving particularly intense attention in the US. The FCC noted, in its July 2016 report on higher band spectrum, that there had been a great deal of academic and industry work on prototypes in this band because it has 850 MHz of contiguous bandwidth, and it has global co-primary allocations for fixed and mobile services so there is potential for international roaming and a broad device ecosystem. And there are no federal allocations in the band, unlike some of the millimeter wave options, as it has housed the LMDS licences which cover about 75% of the US population. They have supported fixed wireless in the past, with limited commercial success, but they can be quickly repurposed for new uses, including mobile, the FCC said last year.

This has caused a rush to acquire these licences, many of them held by fiber companies which acquired the spectrum after the US’s LMDS broadband wireless burst and start-ups like NextLink went bankrupt. Verizon’s recently finalized purchase of XO Communications brought it access to LMDS spectrum as well as fiber, while AT&T acquired similar assets along with FiberTower.

Another owner of significant amounts of LMDS spectrum, Straight Path Communications, may also come up for grabs this year. It recently came to a settlement with the FCC, which will force it to divest its 28 GHz and 39 GHz licences. The company says it holds 735 licences in the 28 GHz and 39 GHz bands and an average of 620 MHz in the top 30 US markets. This represents about 95% of the commercially available 39 GHz licences and a significant portion of available 28 GHz spectrum, it says.

The settlement ended an investigation into the company’s failure to deploy wireless services as required under FCC licensing rules. It has now secured new funding from a syndicate of investors, led by affiliates of long-time shareholder Clutterbuck Capital Management, which will enable it to fulfil its obligations to the FCC for at least nine months.

“We are highly encouraged by Straight Path’s recent FCC settlement and its unique position as the most significant holder of newly regulated, commercially available 5G spectrum. We are glad to help finance the company at this critical juncture, and we look forward to seeing the positive developments continue,” said Robert Clutterbuck, managing partner at Clutterbuck.

Last month, the company said it was reviewing strategic alternatives with investment banking advisory firm Evercore and would continue to develop 5G technology, including hardware and software it has designed for fixed wireless in its Gigabit Mobility Lab in Plano, Texas.

Despite all the progress, there are many disputes over how millimeter wave spectrum should be regulated, especially some of the other bands where satellite players are present. Verizon is in a fight with the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA), which represents smaller operators (actually including Sprint and TMO), over whether the FCC should implement an in-band aggregation limit for mmWave spectrum.

“This is not an illusory concern. The wireless industry has seen numerous instances of bands monopolized by larger carriers,” CCA commented. “Without adopting appropriate competitive protections at the outset, the largest two carriers may be allowed to continue down this path again.”

Of course, Verizon wants the FCC to reject the proposal that there must be spectrum aggregation limits in each of the designated 5G bands, in addition to the overall aggregation.

In its filing, it wrote that the existing order “risks quashing innovation and investment in nascent 5G services” and that the CCA wants to go “even farther in the wrong direction; it would destroy the Commission’s attempt to ensure that ‘providers will be able to access a sufficient amount of [millimeter wave] spectrum to facilitate the deployment of new services and innovation that will benefit consumers’.”

Late last year, the FCC set a spectrum aggregation limit of 1250 MHz across the 28 GHz, 37 GHz and 39 GHz bands, but the CCA wants further limits in each band, pointing out that one carrier could aggregate all 850 MHz in the valuable 28 GHz band. It pointed to the Verizon-XO deal, which allows the operator to lease, and in future buy, spectrum covering 65% of the POPs for the LMDS service band (27.5-28.35 GHz, 29.1-29.25 GHz, and 31.0-31.3 GHz) in the top 60 markets nationwide.

Even more intense disputes are going on between the wireless and satellite industries. These were played out in the consultation period for responding to the FCC’s Spectrum Frontiers program, which extended to January 31.

Key issues include the relationship with satellite services in mmWave bands, and the split between licensed and unlicensed allocations.

On the former topic, the mobile players are demanding that the FCC treat satellite interests in designated 5G mmWave bands as secondary to those of terrestrial mobile.

The Satellite Industry Association (SIA), and individual players like O3b, Boeing, Inmarsat, EchoStar and SES, have been petitioning for new spectrum – Boeing has asked for additional satellite access to the 37 GHz band, while SES, O3b, Boeing and others want expanded access to the 28 GHz band, and some also want the FCC to re-evaluate rules for the 39 GHz band.

T-Mobile joined the chorus of opposition to this in a filing on January 31, claiming that the satellite operators have not actually used the huge amount of V-band spectrum which is already available to them, so have little cause to ask for additional capacity.

There has also been opposition from 5G Americas, which argued: “Demand for mobile broadband is clearly growing dramatically, whereas the same cannot be said for satellite services. The number of mobile subscribers in the United States dwarfs satellite subscribers. There are approximately 325m terrestrial mobile users in the US alone, compared to fewer than 2m satellite customers globally.”

The FCC has already rejected a satellite industry request to reclassify the status of fixed satellite services (FSS) in the 28 GHz band to be co-primary rather than secondary.

Another controversial topic is how much mmWave spectrum should be licensed , unlicensed or shared. The big backers of expanding unlicensed spectrum to promote competition and new services include Microsoft and Intel, which have joined with Boeing and others to urge the FCC to keep the whole 64-71 GHz band unlicensed.

CTIA, T-Mobile USA and the CCA have called on the regulator to reconsider its decision to make the whole band licence-exempt. CTIA suggests licensing the 66-71 GHz band while keeping the 57-66 GHz band unlicensed (60 GHz, which is unlicensed, is the band in which the most wireless usage is currently happening via the WiGig technology).

Microsoft, Intel and others believe the unlicensed 60 GHz band is driving the open  device availability which will be essential to the economics of mmWave services, and that these devices will be easily extended to work in 64-71 GHz.

“Petitioners toss up a handful of ill-considered reasons the Commission should reconsider its allocation of the 64-71 GHz band to unlicensed use in the hope that something will stick,” Microsoft wrote in its filing, pointing to the WiFi Alliance’s WiGig certification program, which promises to support the multivendor interoperability required for a broad device ecosystem.

“CTIA further claims that only five products have been certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance for use in this band, suggesting the band is not primed for unlicensed use,” Microsoft wrote. “At best, this claim appears to be nothing more than CTIA’s attempt at misdirection by equating the WiFi Alliance certification program that began in late October 2016 with the number of relevant 60 GHz devices the FCC has certified. Microsoft has learned through the Wi-Fi Alliance that the number of FCC certified devices is well over 100.”

Intel argued that there was good reason to believe that unlicensed mmWave products with expanded range to cover the 64-71 GHz band would appear in a timely manner.
The approved IEEE 802.11-2016 standard – the basis of the WiFi-like WiGig – already supports 802.11ad devices operating in 64-71 GHz range and the WiGig program could be extended to these.

Additionally, Intel pointed to the draft standard, IEEE 802.11ay, which should be completed by the end of this year and will support higher throughput and lower latency for 60 GHz.

Boeing came at the issue from a different angle, that of an industry which needs to use unlicensed spectrum for its own purposes. It echoed an increasingly often-heard complaint from vertical industries, that the telecoms sector is the only vertical whose business needs are being considered as the new 5G spectrum and technologies evolve.

The aerospace giant said it uses unlicensed spectrum in many ways, such as for factory floor monitoring. It warned the FCC to “view with skepticism the proposals of wireless carriers to carve off yet another segment of this vital and vibrant public resource for their exclusive use”.