Takeaways from CBRS Auction and Implications for the C-Band

The 3.5 GHz CBRS PAL auctions were concluded on August 26, and the winners were announced a week later. Overall, the auction raised $4.4 billion, which was slightly above what many analysts had expected. The big winners: Verizon, DISH, Comcast, and Charter. Also interestingly, a number of enterprises also won licenses, which demonstrates the interest to deploy private wireless networks as a complement to/replacement for Wi-Fi and for certain specialized applications.

Here’s my take on the winners and losers in the auction, what it means for 5G and the competitive structure of the wireless industry, and the implications on the even more consequential C-Band auction, which is scheduled to start on December 8.

As a quick backgrounder, the FCC has made 150 MHz of spectrum available in the 3550-3700 MHz band, or the 3.5 GHz CBRS ‘mid-band’. This band, incidentally, is also being used for 5G in many other countries. The initial phase of the CBRS auction, called the GAA layer, consists of 80 MHz of shared spectrum, meaning that it can be used by anyone (i.e. not auctioned) as long as it’s available, through a regime managed by four spectrum database administrators (SASs). The GAA layer became commercially available in late 2019, and so far has been used for mainly corporate or venue type deployments.

The second phase was the 70 MHz PAL auction (called Auction 105), for 10 year licenses, in 10 MHz channels, on a county-by-county basis. A provider could bid for up to 40 MHz in a particular geographic region. That auction concluded on August 26. Of the $4.4 billion spent on the auction, Verizon was the big winner, spending $1.9 billion. DISH spent $913 million, Comcast spent $458 million, and Charter spent $212 million. T-Mobile only won a handful of licenses, and AT&T did not win any licenses at all.

The auction was especially critical for Verizon, which is in the weakest spectrum position of all the major operators, especially in the mid-band. I expect its 3.5 GHz efforts are a precursor to what will be a more significant spend in the C-band auction, where 280 MHz of spectrum in the 3.7-4.2 GHz band will be made available.

The magnitude of DISH’s spend was a bit of a surprise, given DISH’s already strong spectrum position and its rather precarious cash situation, as the company bleeds pay TV subscribers. But it’s an important signal of DISH’s commitment to being in the wireless business. In addition to its treasure trove of low-band spectrum, DISH reaped the spoils of the T-Mobile-Sprint merger, getting some of the excess spectrum, Boost Mobile from Sprint, and an MVNO relationship with T-Mobile. So DISH is now a bona fide retail player in the prepaid wireless space, with 9 million Boost subscribers (and 270,000 from the recently acquired Ting), with plans to build a nationwide 5G network in what is likely to be a hybrid of retail/wholesale strategy.

The cable companies were the other notable winners in the auction. Cable — mainly Comcast (Xfinity Mobile), Charter (Spectrum Mobile), and Altice — have been steadily growing their wireless business, counting some 4 million wireless subscribers between them. However, their mobile business relies on the several million Wi-Fi hotspots and an MVNO relationship with Verizon (Altice’s is through T-Mobile). Their participation in the PAL auction is the first time the cable companies have acquired a meaningful amount of wireless spectrum, enabling them to add some physical cellular infrastructure to complement their Wi-Fi/MVNO strategy. It demonstrates their commitment to being in the mobile space, and their desire to be less dependent on the MVNO structure, given the rather unfavorable economics.

T-Mobile’s relative lack of participation in the 3.5 GHz auction was no big surprise, given its strong mid-band position by virtue of the 150 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum it got from Sprint. AT&T was conspicuously absent from the CBRS auction. We suspect they’re saving their powder for the C-band auction.

Outside of the major operators, this was also a successful auction in bringing in some new, innovative players. Among the winners were:

  • Several Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs), some of them already using the GAA spectrum, who will use it to provide rural broadband using fixed wireless access (FWA). They’re also counting on additional funds being made available for rural broadband initiatives, an idea that’s gained steam in the wake of Covid and the need to narrow the digital divide.
  • Numerous private companies. A 10 MHz license is sufficient bandwidth for a company to deploy a private LTE or 5G network. Among the auction winners were Deere & Company and Chevron, who could use their licenses to provide connectivity to manufacturing and other facilities that are harder to reach with Wi-Fi. Several real-estate companies also won licenses, the idea being that building or campus-wide networks could be deployed. Power companies also spent more than $50 million, collectively, on licenses, to power smart grid and IoT applications, or to use wireless as a connectivity backup.

Implications for the C-Band Auction

Given that the CBRS auction is in the mid-band, it’s viewed as somewhat of a warm-up act for the upcoming C-Band auction. This will be the largest auction in U.S. wireless history, with 280 MHz being made available in the attractive 3.7-4.2 GHz band. We expect all the major players to be there. Wall Street analysts expect this auction could raise $50 billion or more.

The auction is probably most consequential for Verizon, which still needs additional mid-band spectrum to meet 5G coverage and capacity needs. I also expect AT&T to spend big, especially since it sat out CBRS. And even though DISH and T-Mobile are in a pretty good spot spectrum-wise, it’s almost certain they’ll be active in the auction, given the attractiveness of the C-band, the seemingly insatiable need for additional capacity…and a defensive strategy to ensure that major competitors don’t end up in an overly advantageous position.

Financing will be a big story over the next three months, as the C-band auction looms. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there have been recent rumors about AT&T potentially shedding some of its media assets, particularly DirecTV and possibly Xandr. AT&T’s balance sheet isn’t pretty. Wall Street and Elliott Management aren’t going to let AT&T go wild at the C-band auction without the means to pay for it.

DISH also needs to come up with some source of funding if it’s going to both be active in the C-band auction and spend the $10 billion (or more) required to build its 5G network. I believe that DISH’s strategy is to offer a retail wireless operation (like Verizon, AT&T, etc.) but also to run an active wholesale business, given its favorable capacity position. In fact, DISH really needs a major anchor tenant to sign a long-term deal, which would provide DISH with the resources needed to execute its wireless strategy. My bet is that it will be one of the major Internet players, such as Amazon. The cable companies are also possible candidates, as they look for more favorable MVNO terms than they currently have with Verizon. Given that DISH is a major competitor in the pay TV space, this would be among the frenemiest relationships in telecom.

Between the mmWave auctions completed earlier this year, the recently completed CBRS auction, the upcoming C-band auction, and the FCC’s announcement a few weeks ago that it would auction off another 100 MHz of spectrum in the 3.45-3.55 GHz band in 2021, we’re seeing an unprecedented expansion of capacity being made available for commercial wireless use. This will alter the competitive landscape and will be a catalyst for the sorts of innovative new use cases envisioned for 5G. Ensuring adequate spectrum resources for 5G is also the ante needed for being competitive on the global 5G stage.

The Long-Term ‘Work From Home’ Trend is Overstated

The transition to ‘work from home’ for many types of white collar jobs was a swift and quite remarkable mobilization. With the coronavirus still extant, many companies are encouraging their employees to work from home through the end of 2020, with some intimating that working remotely will be an option on a more permanent basis.This has led to all sorts of forecasts of a permanent, dramatic shift in workplace patterns, away from the office and toward remote/home-based work. I think it’s awfully premature to make such bold prognostications about the longer term. And, I believe these forecasts will turn out to be overstated.

Certainly, the current pattern will continue until there is a vaccine, which could take us well into 2021. The tools to be able to work remotely are available, and companies and employees have adapted commendably. I’ve thought quite a bit over these past several months about how work and learning might have been significantly more disrupted had the pandemic occurred 15 or 20 years ago, before collaboration tools were enabled by broadband, mobile, and cloud. Working from home will be the default option for many as long as the virus in our midst, and will need to be an option for many working parents until day care centers and schools are fully open and in-person. But on a longer term basis, once Coronavirus has waned? I believe the vast majority of people who were going ‘into the office’ prior to the pandemic will choose to do so once again. And, employers will start changing their tune somewhat on how pervasive and permanent they’ll want WFH to be.

While WFH was feasible out of necessity, it’s a suboptimal solution for many — capital ‘S’ for some, small ‘S’ for others. The situation varies by individual, but it could be the combination of any number of factors, such as the type of work they do might be harder to perform remotely, or their home environment is challenging in some way, be it space issues or the inability to work effectively with kids, spouse, etc. in the picture. Sitting at a computer all day and Zooming all day worked OK as a temporary phenomenon. Some companies have even said that some employees have become more productive in a WFH environment. Long-term, I can see this being the case for some workers, but I think the majority of people will become increasingly fatigued with the WFH experience.

I also believe the social aspect of working in an office environment is an under-recognized need for many individuals. This is especially true, I think, for younger workers. Imagine you’re in your mid-20s, having just graduated college or come out of grad school. You’ve had (2020 excepted) an entire community — work, social, activities — at your disposal during college (and in school before). Many social networks, of the analog variety, are formed in those first ten years of work, before marriage, kids, etc. It’s in those first couple of jobs that many people in their 20s and early 30s form their networks, meet their partners, engage with the community, and so on. Going straight to a ‘work from your one-bedroom apartment’ on a permanent basis would be terrible for the mental health of many young people. Zoom is OK for meetings. But it’s not how you meet people, form friendships, and form a life outside of work.

There’s another, less measurable benefit of working in an office: serendipity. Zoom, Teams, Slack, and so on all have their place. But there’s something to be said for the nuances of an in-person conversation that can’t be fully captured remotely, no matter how effective the tool. And then there are the spontaneous, informal types of conversations that just happen when you’re in a physical milieu with other people — the knock on someone’s door to bat around an idea, the side meeting, the drinks after work. All that.

It’s sort of like the difference between online shopping and bricks-and-mortar. Buying something from Amazon or some other online retailer is a largely transactional experience. Usually you’ve done the research and pretty much know what you want. Whereas with physical stores, there can be a browsing/serendipitous/pleasurable aspect.

There are also the nuances of in-person conversations that just can’t be captured in a remote environment. It’s sort of like comparing a phone conversation to text or email. There’s nuance, emotion, empathy, and privacy that happens when people just talk to each other: when you hear someone’s voice, look into their eyes, capture some sort of other facial expression…or just wait a beat and think before responding to something. Plus, there’s a certain informality that happens in the workplace, where not every interaction is witnessed, recorded, or memorialized with digital breadcrumbs.

Sure, there are the pollyannish aspects of WFH. No commute! Less office politics! Cut the clothing budget! Live wherever you want! There are merits to all of these. But I believe that both employers and employees will come to realize that the benefits of working at a place, with people, have come to be somewhat under-appreciated. More people will work remotely post-pandemic than pre-pandemic, and there will be a trend toward more flexible/hybrid models. Patterns will be significantly altered. There are still wonderful opportunities to develop tools to further enable and improve remote work.

But ultimately, we’ll come to realize the palpable benefits of congregating with others at a physical office. Even the elements that are fraught and frustrating are key to learning how to navigate professional relationships. Office buildings might be ghost towns right now. But I think that over time, they will largely be filled and the buzz will be back.

Wireless Industry Poised for Major Change

Wireless is poised for its fourth cycle of major change in the industry’s 30+ year history. Three major new factors will drive this change. The most important catalyst is the gargantuan amount of new spectrum that will become available over the next several years. The second factor is an industry realignment caused by all this new spectrum, resulting in the emergence of some new players, and an evolving new framework for how networks are built are deployed. Third is the emergence of 5G, whose adoption and new use cases will be tepid initially but will start accelerating in 2-3 years. The rest of this column delves into these three megatrends in greater detail.

The history of the wireless industry actually fits quite neatly into decade-long cycles. The ‘cellular industry’ was born in the mid-1980s, but was not really seen as a major consumer mobility market until the advent of the portable phone in the early 1990s. The 1990s was really about expanding coverage, greater capacity due to digital, and the gradual displacement of voice landlines. The 2000s witnessed the advent of wireless data, beginning with SMS (text messaging), and, later, mobile e-mail services and the first real smartphones, initially led by Blackberry. During this decade, the mobile operators held most of the power, deciding which ring tones and games would be on the carrier ‘deck’.  The 2010s was the smartphone decade, defined by a succession of continually improving devices, the emergence of native apps (and the App Store) as the new business framework, and the introduction of true mobile broadband networks in the shape of LTE.

True to form, the wireless industry is poised for major change as it enters its fourth decade. Three interrelated factors will drive this change.

From Spectrum Scarcity to Spectrum Abundance

Earlier this year, I wrote a Techpinions column titled Spectrum-Palooza, whose key theme is that after 30 years of ‘spectrum scarcity’ in wireless, we will be moving to one of ‘spectrum abundance’. This will drive an industry realignment, a different business framework, and exciting new uses, with 5G at the center.

Six months into the year, this theme is coming dramatically into focus: More spectrum will become available for commercial wireless use in the next 3-4 than the cumulative total that’s in use today. The first of four major ‘spectrum events’, the mmWave auctions, were completed earlier this year. All of the [now] Big Three operators emerged with strong mmWave holdings in the major markets. mmWave will act as a sort of ‘Super Wi-Fi’, offering very fast speeds but over short distances.

The next swath of spectrum to become available is in the very important mid-band. We’re two weeks into the first of these auctions, the CBRS PAL auctions at 3.5 GHz. Some 70 MHz of spectrum is being auctioned, on top of the 80 MHz already made available late last year through the GAA  ‘spectrum sharing’ layer. So far, the auction is exceeding expectations, with $3 billion raised and all of the major players participating (so far). On the heels of the 3.5 GHz auction is the critical C-band auction, scheduled to start December 8, where 280 MHz of spectrum (not a typo) will be auctioned in the 3.7-4.2 GHz band, raising potentially $100+ billion, according to some Wall Street analysts. This auction is especially critical for AT&T and Verizon, who both need more mid-band spectrum in order to remain competitive. Finally, the FCC added icing to the spectrum cake with the announcement earlier this week that 100 MHz of spectrum in the 3.1-3.55 GHz band, historically used by the military, will be made available for commercial wireless use. That auction could be held in late 2021.

There are two areas of impact from this spectrum-palooza. First, since so much spectrum is being made available, any dramatic imbalance in operators’ post-auction spectrum position will cause major share shifts and potential M&A. Second, the capacity increase will result in significant drops in the price of providing wireless data, which will lead to price changes, new use cases, and new business models, including a more vibrant wholesale market. This is also pivotal to the types of network performance improvements and new market opportunities envisioned for 5G.

Industry Realignment

In addition to a raft of spectrum activity, 2020 also began with a change in the competitive landscape, with the approval of the T-Mobile/Sprint deal. In fact, as of the second quarter, T-Mobile overtook AT&T in terms of the number of branded wireless subscribers. The New T-Mobile is in a particularly strong position compared to AT&T and especially Verizon in terms of spectrum capacity per subscriber, particularly in the mid-band, where T-Mobile inherited 150 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum from Sprint. If T-Mobile puts this spectrum to work quickly, it could gain a substantial early lead in 5G performance, while AT&T and Verizon need to spend big in the other mid-band auctions to catch up. The chink in T-Mobile’s armor is the enterprise space, where T-Mobile’s capabilities, and share, lag significantly behind AT&T and Verizon.

The other major new factor in the industry is DISH. The company has been amassing, and sitting on, a treasure trove of spectrum for years, which it is finally putting to use by promising (and being required) to build a greenfield 5G network. DISH is already getting its retail wireless training wheels by virtue of the 9 million Boost Mobile prepaid subscribers the company inherited as spoils from the T-Mobile/Sprint deal. On the heels of that, DISH recently acquired 271,000 Ting Mobile subscribers, and is likely to shake up some of the prepaid industry’s more antiquated practices. DISH is active in the CBRS auction, and is likely to participate in the C-band auction as well. DISH could be an innovator and industry disruptor. For example, DISH is embracing a Rakuten-like approach of building a wireless network using an Open RAN approach, employing a new breed of vendors rather than the usual wireless network equipment troika.  I also believe that DISH will establish a substantial wholesale business, perhaps with Amazon or some other Big Tech player as anchor tenants.

And what about Cable and Big Tech? Cable companies, mainly Comcast and Charter, have quietly grown to 4+ million mobile subscribers between them. They’re participating in the mid-band spectrum auctions, but might get priced out by the big guys. Even so, they will have more palatable wholesale options — potentially ironically from DISH — with all the new spectrum becoming available. As for Big Tech, they’re likelier to take advantage of wholesale opportunities than spend big on spectrum.


The third big theme of the 2020s for wireless will, of course, be 5G. My one word of advice: be patient. We are in the very early innings of 5G and it’s likely to get off to a slow start. Even though AT&T and T-Mobile both boast ‘nationwide 5G’ availability, this is 5G of the ‘4G+’ variety, not of the ‘game-changing’ speeds/latency variety. Really fast 5G (mmWave, or T-Mobile’s 2.5 GHz) is only available in parts of certain markets. That, combined with a challenging economy and the lack of compelling use cases for 5G other than faster speeds, are likely to depress 5G adoption, at least initially.

It will be 2022-23 before 5G, in terms of the hyped performance improvements and the incremental opportunities driven by new types of uses in the enterprise, really kick into gear. For that, we need the combination of new spectrum to be commercially deployed, 3GPP Release 16 enhancements such as Ultra Low Latency (URLLC) to become available, a new generation of devices, and new business models — especially for enterprise 5G deployments. We also need to see enterprises shift some of their spending toward mobile for the operators to realize some of the incremental revenue potential from 5G that will justify the heavy spectrum auction and capex spend. The pandemic will be a factor here. On the one hand, some of the 5G catalysts such as remote work and new frameworks in health care and education have accelerated. On the other hand, enterprise budgets will be tight, so any spending on 5G ‘experiments’ will have to be justified.

For most of the past 2-3 years, most developments in mobile were of the internecine variety, with hype about the ‘5G Future’ and endless discussions about industry structure. But the deals are done, the spectrum auctions are in full force, and 5G networks are being deployed. Time to strap on your seatbelts.

Prison Phone Fees: One of Telecom’s Black Marks

There have been difficult discussions these past few weeks about racism and income inequality. Many of us have been thinking about what we might be able to tangibly do. In that spirit, here’s a shameful little corner of our industry where the vulnerable are preyed upon: prison phone calling.

Two companies — Securus Technologies and Global Tel Link — have a veritable duopoly providing calling services to inmates nationwide. They charge exorbitant rates: an average of $3.75 for a 15-minute call, plus all sorts of usurious add-on fees, such as $3.00 to add funds to a prison account (similar to topping up a prepaid phone card). Even worse, local counties and cities are able to charge even higher rates, sharing in the added profits through a kickback arrangement with the prison calling companies. For example, in Bristol, MA, the average rate is $5.40 for a 15-minute call, and the county gets nearly $1 million annually in kickback commissions from the vendor. The rates are also wildly inconsistent. Some states have tried to reign in the rates for state-run prisons, so we have fees that vary 10x from one state to another. Even so, in many states, county jails are still free to charge what they want, which results in average rates in jails that are close to $1 per minute.

Vendors who provide a service to jails — whether it’s clothing, food service, or phone calls — have a right to make a reasonable profit. But in an era where voice calling for most of us is practically free, charging inmates $1 per minute. plus myriad ridiculous add-on fees, is one of the prison industrial complex’s worst examples of shameful profiteering. Even worse, this practice preys upon the already vulnerable prison population, a group that’s also disproportionately black and brown. These fees are a particular burden on inmates’ families, who are usually the ones who end up having to fund prisoners’ phone accounts. The main punishment of sending someone to jail is the revocation of their liberty. It doesn’t mean we have the right to layer on additional forms of punishment such as this.

There have been some attempts to rein in this practice. But it remains a patchwork, mainly because there is no federal oversight of the issue. Some states have imposed regulations, such as capping rates and fees, eliminating kickbacks, or mandating a minimum number of free weekly calling minutes. There are even some particular institutions that have made calling free of charge. The Prison Policy Initiative has been one of the leading advocates for reform.

A year ago, six Senators introduced a bipartisan bill to “Address Predatory Phone Rates in the Criminal Justice System”, calling on the FCC to regulate prison phone rates, using the ‘Fairness’ provision in the Communications Act. This issue has gained even greater urgency due to Coronavirus, since physical visitation has been largely curtailed, making video and phone sessions even more of a lifeline for those who are incarcerated.

But the 1996 Telecom Act, which seems to be growing more antiquated by the day, throws a byzantine wrinkle in attempts to standardize rates. The FCC can only regulate interstate rates. Only the states can regulate intrastate rates. Now, anyone under the age of 40 will have never even seen those words related to their communications world, while those of us over the age of 40 might have some vague memories of a bill from MCI or NYNEX, circa 1993. So we now have a system where the FCC capped interstate rates at 16¢ per minute, which has helped rein in the rates at state prisons. But state jails still charge, on average, 3x, to as much as 50x, the rate of state prisons, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Attempts during the Obama administration to cap intrastate rates were successfully challenged in court.

The FCC’s signals are mixed. Chairman Pai initially backed down from challenging the courts’ ruling that the FCC has no jurisdiction on intrastate calls. But on July 20, Pai sent a letter to the state regulatory commissioners (NARUC) warning of “alarming evidence” that rates being charged for calls to and from incarcerated people are “egregiously high.”

So, if you’re looking to do something tangible to help address one of the tech industry’s most egregious examples of a practice that preys upon the vulnerable, lobby your state regulators to set reasonable rates for prison calling. And don’t feel sorry for Securus Technologies and Global Tel Link. They’re no better than the vendor who sells bottled water for $10 to people just rendered homeless after an earthquake or a hurricane. In a week where Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon are testifying about issues of monopoly practices and abuse of power, here’s a more specific example from a corner of our industry, affecting 1.5 million incarcerated individuals and their families, where perhaps it’s actually possible to do something.

Are We Already Past ‘Peak’ Streaming’?

The average number TV viewing hours per household has, not unsurprisingly, risen during the coronavirus era. It has also shone a light on the good, the bad, and the ugly of the streaming TV revolution, which has been steadily upending traditional pay TV viewing patterns and business models. But I’d argue that we’re starting to reverse course on what, until recently, has been mainly a good thing. For streaming as a business, there will be higher levels of churn, several failures, and eventual consolidation. For consumers, there will be greater confusion and an eventual paring back of the number of services subscribed to.

My view is that we’ll look back on the successful launch of Disney+ as the peak of streaming TV. Until that point, most developments in the sector were accretive to the business and a positive for consumers. It all started with Netflix’s first original programming in 2013 (was it that recently?). The other ‘majors’ mainly added value. Hulu was a great alternative to a cable subscription and also produced some excellent original programming. Amazon Prime Video made a lot of sense as another reason for subscribers to keep their Amazon Prime subscriptions, but its success is measured differently than other streaming services.  HBO and Showtime doubled down on original content and successfully migrated to a TV Anywhere model, with options for non-cable subscribers and good apps for tablets and phones.

Then came Disney+ in late 2019, which has been successful so far for three reasons: exposure of previously unavailable titles from its vast library, combined with some signature original content; it’s a legendary brand serving a well-defined market segment; and the pricing is attractive.

To me, the beginning of the downward slope began with Apple TV Plus, which launched in November 2019, technically two weeks before the Disney+ launch. This is the start of what I call the “unnecessary” phase of the streaming era. It’s Apple’s latest foray into what has been, for the most part, a failed, 10+ year attempt to achieve the same success in TV it had in music. Apple is throwing billions of dollars at new content (most of it mediocre). Sure, the free year of Apple TV Plus that comes with any new Apple device purchase is a nice perk, but I doubt anybody is buying a new Apple device because of this benefit. It will be interesting to see how many people pay for the service once they come off their free year. Aside from that, there’s little value add to the experience.

Then there’s the recent launch of HBO Max, with most rational people asking “what?” and “why?”. This is a classic example of messing with the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mantra. But we could see this coming from a mile away. Question: has there ever been a successful telecom company foray into media? HBO was a beloved brand with New Yorker levels of customer loyalty and a defined place in the universe with prestige content. You might have gotten Netflix to do My Brilliant Friend, but that’s HBO’s default level of quality.  So AT&T acquires Warner, and within months most of HBO’s top brass leaves and the then new head of AT&T’s media biz John Stankey tells HBO to produce more content (translation: content dilution). Then HBO Max launches, sowing further confusion into the already messy HBO Now/HBO Go distinction, and instantly upsetting millions of customers who can no longer get the HBO app on their devices. Why didn’t AT&T just leave HBO alone and tack on an extra $2-3 per month for access to Warner’s wonderful content library, if that’s what they needed to do in order to justify this ill-advised acquisition?

And what of Peacock, which is now soft-launching for Xfinity (Comcast) subscribers? Since I get it for free, my reaction is “ohhh, that’s nice” to some of the TV and movie treasures in Universal’s library. But it’s more like when the restaurant presents you a couple of nice chocolates after a good meal than something you would have ordered.  It’s also hard to compute the added value for a subscriber who already gets a decent pay TV package from Comcast, most of whose content is available on-demand or through Hulu. Yes, there will be some new original content for Peacock subscribers, but that piece of it is looking more like Apple TV Plus: “too much already, and if there’s something really good I’ll subscribe for a month and get out”.

And for those who don’t have cable, Peacock is the Comcast/Universal version of CBS All Access I suppose. But will consumers pay X per month for Peacock so they can get The Office plus some other content they didn’t even know they were missing? Put another way, Peacock+CBS All Access+HULU = Cable.

And then you’ve got Quibi, the least necessary of them all. $2+ billion invested so far. Ask ten of your under-35 year-old friends whether they were looking for more shorter form content for their phones. And they’d answer: “isn’t that what YouTube is? Jeffrey Katzenberg has always loved sequels — but I don’t think he was looking for go90: The Sequel, which Quibi is rapidly turning into. And, yes, I know, this isn’t technically streaming TV, but one of the chief complaints (perhaps amplified by Quibi’s coronavirus era launch) is, ironically that you can’t get Quibi on your TV.

So now let’s look at this from the customer perspective. It’s never a good thing when you throw customers into the underwear of the business. Consumers already were a little deer in the headlights with this streaming TV thing, so overwhelmed by the dizzying choice 500+ new scripted series every year that they opted just to watch The Office or Friends instead. But now you have the industry forcing consumers to develop some sort of mental matrix of what studio produces which content. Quiz: who produces Law & Order? a) Comcast/Universal  b) AT&T/Warner c) Paramount  d) Disney/Fox

So, in the middle of a challenging economy, when households are looking more carefully at their spending, the Netflix+HBO+CBS All Access+Showtime+Hulu+DISNEY+ is a $60+ nugget, and doesn’t include any live, linear TV.

Consumers are also now thrown into the crosshairs of this new season of content licensing and moves from one place to another. It’s not unlike the war for talent in the sports business: the free agents are the prices bidded up for established content/talent (The Office, Friends, Ryan Murphy), and then the bidding wars for the hot prospects (new shows with top talent).

There’s certainly been an upside to the streaming explosion. There’s loads of fantastic content — pretty much something for everyone. This has been a boon for writers and others involved in content development and production. And, Netflix and Amazon have filled a huge gap left by the major studios — who appear mainly interested in funding franchises and comic book movies — by funding films like the Irishman and Da 5 Bloods.

However, something’s going to give over the next couple of years. The first stage of this is already happening, in the form of subscriber losses not only in Pay Cable but also live TV alternatives such as Sling and AT&T TV (DirecTV Now). There will be further exits or consolidations in the vMPVD space (could there also be an exit for this acronym?).

The next stage will be elevated churn among some of the streaming-only players, which some recent data is already showing. Subscribers will binge a couple of favorite shows, then move on. There will be some high-profile failures, while others just quietly fade into the sunset. There will also be some consolidation. If Quibi continues to underperform, it could become a bargain buy for an AT&T/Warner or Comcast. Netflix, which has eschewed acquisitions to date, could also be a buyer.

I also think there will be an emerging, and more interesting market for inexpensive, niche services. Philo, for example, has performed well as a $20 per month skinny bundle of mainly entertainment channels, which it can do profitably because it’s not saddled by rights-prohibitive sports channels (a particularly good deal in our current sports-less TV universe!).

I think one way this space could go is that consumers might opt for a smaller number of ‘foundational’ streaming services that they subscribe to on an ongoing basis. Then they’ll then layer on shorter-term subscriptions to the niche channels (adventure sports, cooking, indie movies) for a temporary or seasonal fix.

I’ll mark late 2019 as the ‘Peak Streaming’. The next chapter is already starting to be written.

Tech, Inequality, and the ‘Industrial Complexes’

Many of us have been doing a lot of thinking over these fraught past couple of weeks. Certainly there have been calls on corporations to do more. Several companies in the tech sector have pledged significant sums, promised to increase diversity in hiring, and reexamine compensation structures.

Laudable as these intentions might be, I think we need to take a closer look at the root of the problem. I’ll refer to a theme Senator Elizabeth Warren has been espousing for many years, which is that the ‘cards are stacked against’ many in the middle class and below, disproportionately affecting people of color. This is a trend that has accelerated during my thirty-year professional lifetime.

One strand of this economic repression has been the rise of what I refer to as several new ‘industrial complexes’ in our economy. To refresh your memory, the term ‘Military-Industrial Complex’ described the “informal alliance between the military and the industry that supplies it, seen together as a vested interest that influences public policy”. This term gained popularity when President Eisenhower spoke of its detrimental effects in his farewell address in 1961.

I believe that modern-day ‘industrial complexes’ in areas such as health care, education, and taxation have played a significant role in expanding inequality (and endemic racism), erecting barriers to racial and economic progress. Let me describe each of these in a brief paragraph, and then prescribe some ways tech might help break these down and create new opportunities for those outside today’s privileged class.

A June 16 Wall Street Journal op-ed comparing the health care systems of the United States and Singapore illustrates the failings of the U.S. if what I call the ‘Health Care-Industrial Complex’. The U.S. spends 18% of its GDP on health care, compared to 5% in Singapore, with inferior outcomes across nearly every metric. Common medical procedures cost 5-10x here what they do in Singapore (and most other OECD countries). Why? Our inefficient health care system has a massive ‘middle sector’ unparalleled anywhere else in the world, mainly orbiting insurance companies with tentacles expanding to billing and other parts of the medical bureaucracy. This is compounded by the ‘fee for service’ approach, which incentivizes treatment rather than prevention. Here’s a coronavirus example: hospitals are now spending billions of dollars in advertising begging people to come in for treatments and procedures they might have skipped during the lockdown. The fact that hospitals are desperate for revenues reveals the structural failings of our system. It’s similarly dispiriting that the high-profile health-care venture Haven, led by Atul Gawande and funded by Amazon, Morgan Stanley, and Berkshire Hathaway, has not, so far, shown any success in its objective of “simplified, high-quality and transparent health care at a reasonable cost” (Gawande stepped down in May).

This ‘health care industrial complex’ is a huge contributor to today’s economic disparities. Even if low-wage workers get health care through their employer, the miasma of deductibles and copays is ridiculously burdensome. Privileged white collar workers might be able to spend two hours on the phone fighting with their insurance company, but what about the factory worker or person for whom English is not their first language?  Those living paycheck-to-paycheck, or the 40% of Americans who would struggle to come up with $400 for an unexpected bill (according to a recent study) are massively vulnerable to the failings of the health care-industrial complex.

The system of higher education has remarkable similarities to the health care system. We all know that the cost of attending university  has risen at several times the rate of inflation over the past 20 years. This ‘Education-Industrial Complex’ benefits the privileged few. At universities, the pay of tenured professors and the ranks of well-compensated deans and senior administration have mushroomed, built on the backs of growing numbers of adjunct faculty who can barely make a living. To pay for this increasingly expensive education, a massive student loan industry, with its usurious rates, fees and hard-edged tactics, has become the education-industrial complex’s version of the health care industry’s insurance companies. So, higher education, a major ticket out of poverty, is increasingly out of reach, and/or saddles students with such debt that they are behind the eight ball from the day they graduate — which inhibits their ability to afford the middle class trappings that so many take for granted.

One more example is what I call the Tax-Industrial Complex. In many developed countries, taxes are done automatically, or, at best, take an hour for the average person to complete. Not here. The increasingly complex tax system has spawned a huge industry of tax accountants, preparers, companies, and software programs who exist merely to help you do your taxes. Or, for the privileged, to help find creative ways to pay less taxes. No other country has a bureaucracy akin to the IRS and a ‘middleman’ sector that exists to demystify it or, for the privileged, do war with it. It’s another example of an institutionalized structure that’s designed to protect the ‘haves’ and the status quo.

The more deeply entrenched these ‘industrial complexes’, the more impervious they are to reform. A mini industrial complex of lobbyists, consultants, and lawyers spends billions annually to resist structural change in the very sectors that desperately need it.

So, where does the tech sector come in? With its collective capital, brainpower, and entrepreneurial spirit, I’m hoping there’s an opportunity for tech to play a role in disrupting some of these industrial complexes. Perhaps some of the same appetite and avarice that’s been used to disrupt some industry sectors — some for good, others less so — can be applied to the health care and education industries, changing lives for the better by narrowing the gaps between the haves and have-nots.

The coronavirus era has provided a glimpse of what could happen, only because the pandemic’s disruption was so sudden and far-reaching that there wasn’t time for the usual coterie of resistors, bureaucrats, and lobbyists to get in the way. So you had remote health care, for example, arise almost instantly, and with largely satisfactory outcomes. What might have taken ten years to happen took ten weeks. Even if a coronavirus vaccine were to happen tomorrow, the new reality is that a meaningful percentage of doctor visits going forward will be online.

Or take education. The move to remote/virtual learning was by no means perfect and remains very much a work in progress. Nothing fully replicates the experience of a classroom, or the full ‘college experience’. However, we’ve seen that for some subjects, quality instruction can be delivered virtually. This certainly opens our eyes to the possibility of educating more people and for less cost.

Notable tech entrepreneurs such as Reid Hoffman and Peter Thiel have called on big tech companies to think more broadly about the impact they have on the world, and for entrepreneurs to think about bigger problems than the next micro-segmented dating app.

Some of the most important categories of business opportunity right now reflect broader global challenges: dealing with a pandemic; addressing climate change; reinventing transportation. Perhaps it’s time to add the objective of reversing systemic inequality, which is one form of racism, to this ambitious list. Deconstructing some prevalent ‘industrial complexes’ in areas such as health care and education is one way to start, and areas where tech can make a tangible difference.

More Nuance is Needed With Regard to China

There’s little question that the situation with regard to China is becoming increasingly fraught and tense. But it’s also highly incongruous. On the one hand, severe actions are being taken against companies such as Huawei. On the other hand, many U.S. companies are significantly expanding their operations in China, particularly in certain retail segments.

From a tech sector perspective, I’m concerned that if we don’t adopt a more balanced, nuanced, and better thought through approach, there could be real damage to U.S. companies, the economy, and even our health and well-being. The extent to which the economies of China are intertwined is, I believe, significantly under-recognized.

To begin with, we need to dismiss that the U.S.-China “Cold War”, as it has been characterized by some, is anything like the 1950s-1980s era Cold War between the United States and the then U.S.S.R. That Cold War was primarily military and geopolitical. But there was very little economy and trade between the U.S. and the Soviets. Very few U.S. companies did business there, and very few Russian companies did business here. The global economy was also much less interconnected at the time. Even if, today, the current U.S.-Russia rift expanded into a broader economic war, the impact would not be that significant, comparatively.

With regard to China, there’s ample reason to be concerned. The Trump administration has been directionally correct to make this a bigger issue. Obama, and his ‘Asia pivot’, downplayed some of China’s egregious actions and potential long-term threat. There’s ample evidence that Chinese companies have spied on U.S. companies and individuals, stolen our technology, and fomented discord. The Chinese have placed onerous demands on U.S. companies wanting to do business there, and have outright banned some companies and ‘categories’ of business. It’s OK to recognize that our societies are fundamentally different.

However, I think many people don’t fully understand how dependent the U.S. is on China, in three ‘mega’ ways. First, China is a huge market for many U.S. companies, in a broad range of sectors. If the situation were to escalate, causing the Chinese to place greater barriers on U.S. businesses, there could be a major impact back home. And the U.S. economy, already in a coronavirus-induced fragile state, can ill afford another shock.

Second, the U.S. is highly dependent on China’s massive manufacturing capacity and its role in the global supply chain. The trade war and tariffs in certain sectors have caused some damage. But if things were to escalate, the effects could be profound. It would be inconvenient if you couldn’t get your new iPhone. But many critical pharmaceuticals, and much medical equipment, are manufactured in China. We’d be in big trouble if that were significantly disrupted. Frankly, I’m surprised that it’s held up as well as it has through the Pandemic, given the school-yard-ish rhetoric being spewn by the White House.

Third, there are a lot more ‘comings and goings’ between these two countries than many people realize. The fact that 430,000 people arrived in the United States on direct flights from China in the first three months of 2020 is illustrative. There were some 400,000 Chinese students in the United States in 2019, many of them paying full boat at U.S. universities (thereby subsidizing the financial aid given to U.S.-based students). Many U.S. universities have significant operations in China. And, there is a lot of cooperative R&D between the two countries. Chinese tourists spent nearly $10 billion in the United States in 2018.

Put a different way, the impact of a significant reduction in relations and commerce between the U.S. and China would be far more damaging than between the U.S. and Europe — from an economic perspective.

So, what to be done? I think we need a coordinated national strategy, and more middle ground. One disappointment in the federal government’s approach is that there has been little involvement of the private sector in the decision-making. Yes, there are potential conflicts of interest, but what if the White House assembled a task force of some key U.S. companies in tech, aerospace, pharma, and so on to at least get some advice and counsel on how real is the threat, and what prudent measures can be taken?

Recognizing the importance of our mutual economies and the fact that there are grave reasons for concern, we need to develop an effective, longer-term approach. This means developing an overarching policy, proper safeguards and means of verification. There are certain to be individual skirmishes, but it would be helpful if those were applied across a broader set of principles and policies. Maybe we should look at this as the 2020s version of negotiating an arms control treaty. Only this would be more economy/tech based.

Take Huawei as an example. I don’t think there’s much to be gained by masterminding a full takedown of the company. Why not use Huawei as a textbook case to develop some of these security mechanisms? Their management has shown a willingness to engage.

This strategic view should also take a look at manufacturing. Again, the Trump administration is directionally correct to want to bring more manufacturing back to the United States. Between the China trade war and coronavirus, it would be prudent to be less dependent on China’s role in the supply chain for certain critical industries and products.

Perhaps, on the way to this, we can tone down the rhetoric. Calling COVID-19 the ‘China Virus’, and other such xenophopic behavior is unnecessary, and beneath our ideals. It can only come back to bite us at some point.

As we emerge, haltingly, into a ‘Covid re-entry’ world, let’s focus on the constructive, rather than the destructive. The economy needs it. Our mental well-being needs it.

A Huge Opportunity for Tech If It Regains Trust

Among the many fronts that have opened in the war against COVID-19 and the effort to reopen the economy and society was the news two weeks ago that Google and Apple are working together on developing content tracing apps that could be used by public health authorities. Among my colleagues in the tech community, as well as friends and family, this potentially promising development was greeted with a mix of optimism and trepidation. On the one hand, few people questioned that these two companies, with their collective resources and brainpower, could play a vital role in helping to develop some form of ‘coronavirus early warning system’. At the same time, it also raises questions about consumer privacy, and the potentially undesirable and nefarious ways the data, and the window into our lives it would peer into, could be used.

This is a really important conversation, because if this initial effort on the COVID-19 front is successful, it could provide a valuable springboard into a much larger opportunity for Big Tech in healthcare. Putting aside Covid for a moment, few would argue that from a systems, IT, and data perspective, our health care system is a bloated, inefficient mess. We spend 2x per capita what other OECD countries do, with relatively little to show for it. You show up at your doctor’s office and are asked to fill out a 1950s-era mimeographed form with skewed letters at the top. Poll question: If you wanted to access your medical records right now, could you? And the well-meaning $50+ billion Obama-era electronic health records (EHR) initiative is so cumbersome it has driven large numbers of doctors away from the profession.

Few would question that tech could play an important role in improving these systems and reducing their cost. COVID-19, and the threat of recurrence and future pandemics in our globally connected society, adds a sense of urgency and focus to the issue. The smartphone — with its combined set of connectivity capabilities (cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS), suite of (current and future potential) sensors, apps, and the data about what we do, who we communicate with, and where we go — is the ideal home base for Covid-related tracing and some broader set of opportunities in health care.

The problem is that Big Tech is starting from a relatively low point on the ‘ol consumer trust-o-meter. It’s not any one company, or any one particularly egregious action. It’s the collective body of trust and privacy violations, ranging from Cambridge Analytica to consumer data breaches to fake advertisements to the optics of Facebook launching a dating app in the middle of Congressional investigations. It’s the fact that nobody from Theranos has yet been brought to justice, and the near-criminal lack of oversight that enabled the disaster at WeWork and allows Adam Neumann to walk away with billions and sit on a beach in Israel.  The beyond-what’s-reasonable profits, incessant need for growth, and short-termism driven by the needs of the stock market, juxtaposed against the widening equality gap now placed into particularly sharp relief are all ingredients added to this soup.

That said, this is a generational opportunity. Big Tech could be the systems and software companion to the ground-breaking and in-record-speed work being done on the life sciences front to fight Covid and fast-track our return to some semblance of normalcy. We should note the collective brainpower at Apple, Google, and others, and the deep capabilities of their senior leadership. In another time, these are the people that would have been working in government, NASA, universities, or other publicly-funded institutions. But those sectors have been hollowed out by declining budgets and a de-prioritization of their work. Much R&D has shifted from the public sector to the private sector.

Priority One will be accomplishing the immediate mission at hand: developing some form of contact tracing capability, with the proper safeguards and data protections. The stakes are high – even if the development of the app is successful, one high-profile wrong move on the data/privacy front would set the longer-term, bigger opportunities back a ways. But the level of private/public sector collaboration that will be needed to pull this off could be the template for a much bigger play in health care. Think of what Apple+Google+Facebook+Microsoft+Amazon+Sales Force+IBM+Qualcomm+Palantir+etc, etc. could do, with the proper allocation of resources, prioritization, and, yes, potential for profit. This could be THE project of the 2020s, in a way that mobile and cloud were the projects of the 2010s.

One final note: There’s been much discussion about U.S. leadership, and its waning role on the global stage. But the list of private sector companies in both Silicon Valley and in life sciences, plus the collective venture capital and private equity assets that might need to be amassed to beat this thing, and help deal with the world that results at the other end, provide the type of opportunity that could help reverse this course.

Coronavirus Era Shines a Light on the Importance of Broadband

Broadband and wireless networks have held up quite well during this month of dramatically shifting work and traffic patterns. Some of the stats are otherworldly, such as the 50%+ drop in mobile handoffs in places such as NYC, a near doubling of home streaming and work collaboration traffic, and a 50-60% increase in home voice calling minutes. Kudos are due to the service providers and the FCC for some agile, outside the box thinking, and gratitude is due to the front-line workers who are keeping the networks up and running.

The communications needs during the coronavirus crisis have cast a particular light on the importance of broadband networks. Yes, there has been a marked increase in wireless network traffic, but much of this drafts off home broadband/Wi-Fi. Even the increase in wireless voice minutes (since so many fewer homes have landlines) is using ‘voice over Wi-Fi’. For the most part, home broadband networks have held up pretty well. For the 60-70% of homes in the United States that have a 50 MB connection or better, broadband has met most of those  Zooming and Streaming requirements. Much as we might beat up the cable companies, they’ve done a pretty good job upgrading their networks over the past 3-5 years – albeit with far less fanfare than the wireless service providers. Average home broadband speed has basically doubled since 2015, and most consumers aren’t paying more.

However, these steady improvements have, like so much else in the economy, illuminated the stark difference between the haves and the have-nots. Some 30% of households in the United States are unserved or underserved by broadband, in that they have no access at all, or can only get some sort of crummy DSL service (or worse). I consider anything below a 25 MB download service as inadequate for today’s needs.

There’s a whole other category here, which is more difficult to quantify: the percentage of households who don’t have broadband simply because they can’t afford it. Then there’s the percentage of who pay the $60 monthly average cost of broadband, but struggle to do so – a number that’s sure to increase as the recession deepens. Note that even though broadband service has improved in recent years, the industry in the United States is not at all competitive. Only 50% of U.S. households have a choice of more than one good broadband service, with little prospects for this changing in a widespread way in the near-future.

There have been some important measures and initiatives to address issues of broadband availability/quality/affordability over these past few weeks. Most of the broadband service providers (SPs) have waived data caps and late payment fees, and have said they won’t turn customers’ networks off for non-payment. We’ll see how long that magnanimity lasts. Some SPs have also offered a free or very low-cost entry-level broadband service. Comcast, for example, is offering its Xfinity Internet Essentials service for free for 60 days (it’s normally $9.95) and increasing download speeds from 15 Mbps to 25 Mbps. But, we should bear in mind that the usual 15 MB service is the communications equivalent of the $15 minimum wage: it might be a ‘living wage’, but it’s not enough to live on.

In another promising sign, a not insignificant sum of money has been allocated to help improve broadband in un-served/underserved areas as part of the coronavirus stimulus bill. This should help some of the Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs), some smaller/rural telcos, and others who are seeking to upgrade their networks. Laudable though this is, it must be noted that there is no quick, easy or cheap way to get to areas not served by current physical plant. Reaching that last 10% of households is really, really hard. Satellite remains the service of last resort, but the quality ranges from abysmal to inadequate…and is super-expensive. Multiple attempts at a ‘next gen’ satellite service have either failed or fallen under the weight of the enormous capital required, OneWeb being the most recent casualty.

The telecom historian in me remains cynical of the prospects of the ‘stimulus broadband’ dollars producing any large-scale results. Billions of dollars, across multiple initiatives, have been allocated to ‘rural broadband’ over the past ten years, with very little to show for it. It’s a real mystery where some of this money has gone.

Finally, there’s the idea of wireless to the rescue. A significant increase in wireless network capacity is on the way over the next few years, through a series of already completed and upcoming spectrum auctions, in both the high (mmWave) and mid- (sub 6 GHz) bands. This, combined with the spectral efficiencies of 5G (which lower the cost of providing data), put wireless networks at least in the league of being considered as an option for unserved/underserved areas, and/or a competitive alternative in cities, which could lower the cost for consumers. Verizon remains committed to serving 30 million households with its 5G Home service within three years, and T-Mobile as part of its deal to acquire Sprint, has promised to offer a competitive broadband service to tens of millions of households, especially in un/under-served rural areas.

However, what we’ve seen out of coronavirus era usage patterns should give a sense of pause when it comes to the prospects of wireless as a home broadband alternative. Average wireless data consumption (not using Wi-Fi) from smartphones is about 8 GB per month in the United States. Average U.S. household broadband data consumption is about 300 GB per month, and now getting closer to 500 GB with the coronavirus spike. Those looking at the 3-year planning horizon should probably assume household usage approaches 1 TB per month. Even with all the improvements in wireless network capacity and spectral efficiency brought by new spectrum, industry consolidation, and 5G, wireless networks will not be able to support data requirements anywhere near that level. Wireless might be a viable alternative for a 50-100 Mbps plan with usage caps in the 200 GB range. Perhaps at a discounted level to current broadband pricing. A ‘Metro PCS’ for broadband, if you will.   Wireless should be seen as a niche home broadband service, not a broad-based solution or competitive alternative.

During this very long past month, most home-bound folks will say there are four things they wouldn’t have been able to live without: toilet paper (apparently), liquor (50% increase in sales), Netflix, and broadband. The ‘haves’ — those who live in cities and with decent incomes — are well-served by broadband networks. But good broadband service remains far from universal. And it’s big monthly nugget for many. The number of households that that will struggle to pay that broadband bill will undoubtedly increase as the coronavirus economic fallout continues in the coming months. This is something we need to think more about, and address.

Some “Lighter Side” Headlines For the Coronavirus Era

For most of us, the past couple of weeks have been ‘all coronavirus all the time’, whether personally, professionally, or financially. I just looked at my work e-mail inbox, and 80% of messages have COVID-19 in the subject line. So it’s time to take a break from adding to the chorus of bleak forecasts or recommendations on what XYZ company should do. With April Fools approaching, here’s an attempted humorous take at some of the headlines we might see coming out of the tech and telecom worlds over the next couple of weeks.

WeWork To Change Its Name to iWork. With nearly all co-working places closed worldwide and the massive shift to working remotely, the company has been advised that anything connoted to the concept of ‘We’ will take an even bigger chunk out of WeWork’s ongoing valuation freefall. Adam Neumann, the company’s beleaguered former CEO, has suggested that the stock symbol for its future IPO should be just “I”, rather than “WE”.

Apple Temporarily Disabling Screen Time Feature. Nearly two years ago, Apple introduced a feature called Screen Time, to help customers take control over how much time they’re spending on their various iDevices. But with the kids at home for an extended period and parents also pulling their hair out, Apple has decided it’s better for everyone’s mental health if they just simply don’t see that their usage across all screens roughly mirrors the hockey-stick-like surge in confirmed coronavirus cases.

New TV Show To Debut on Netflix: “Billionaire Island”. Part ‘Survivor’ and part ‘Hunger Games’, this new series puts 12 tech billionaires infected with coronavirus on an island, without any access to PPEs or ventilators. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have signed on as advisors to the show, and, as one would expect, they’ve designed some interesting challenges and plot twists.

Secret Emerges in DISH offer to Lend Spectrum to T-Mobile. DISH’s offer let T-Mobile use a chunk of its 600 MHz spectrum for free in order to help meet network capacity demands in the coming weeks is laudable. Many were surprised, however, since DISH has been hoarding its spectrum for years. We’ve since learned that in a break during the negotiations between DISH and T-Mobile that helped get the Sprint deal done, John Legere challenged Charlie Ergen (a famous poker player) to a game of Texas Hold ‘Em, using spectrum channels rather than dollars, as currency. The evening ended with Legere up about 30 MHz.

Alexa To Be Used to Help Identify Those With Coronavirus. The shortage of test kits for the coronavirus continues to be a serious problem. But tech companies are stepping up. In his news conference yesterday, President Trump announced a new arrangement with Amazon, whereby anyone who says “I might have coronavirus” within earshot of Alexa will be entered into a national database, as a first step in determining who should get tested. The president added “If  Amazon does a good job, we might take another look at that JEDI contract”.

Fund Managers Start Shorting Netflix Stock. This might seem like a counterintuitive move, since it appears that we’re all homebound for the long haul. However, it’s possible that we’ll have cycled through pretty much everything Netflix has to offer — something that until recently seemed mathematically impossible — which could lead to significant numbers of subscribers dumping Netflix once they’re actually allowed to go.out.again.

Airlines Will Make a Huge Comeback…With $1,000 Bag Fees. Airlines are the good cop/bad cop of corporate America. During the past ten flush years, they’ve done nearly everything possible to make the flying experience less pleasant. Now, they’re being all nicey-nicey, waiving change fees, cancel fees, and baiting you with $30 fares to Hawaii. But when flying returns, you can bet that they’ll be looking at all sorts of creative ways to recoup their losses. We hear they’re considering $1,000 bag fees, surcharges for crying children, and huge fines for anyone boarding a plane with so much as a runny nose.

Facebook to Relaunch Facebook Dating as A Virtual Service. Facebook received a huge amount of bad press when it launched the Facebook Dating app not long after CEO Mark Zuckerberg was summoned to testify in front of Congress about customer privacy concerns. Predictably, the app has not been a standout success. However, we hear that Facebook has pivoted and is re-casting Facebook Dating for the coronavirus era. In a press release, the company said, “Our whole company was built on the basis of people virtually, rather than actually, interacting. Facebook Dating is the logical extension of that, and is perfect for these times, since people can only virtually, and not actually, date”.

Two New Coronavirus-Era Reality Shows Being Rushed to Market:

  • ‘Zoom Bloopers’, Hulu. Next week will mark the debut of the show on Hulu. Zoom users — who now equal about 100% of the U.S. population — will be asked to send in videos of their favorite Zoom fails and embarrassing moments. Categories include: Most Embarrassing Unmute Moment; Worst Audio of the Week; Most Distracting Behavior by a Child During a Work-From-Home Zoom Call;  Best Example of Someone Getting Frustrated Learning How the F___ To Use This Thing;  and You Shoulda Left the Camera Off.
  • ‘Work From Home War Stories’, Netflix. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide who have never worked from home are now getting adjusted to this new reality. Well, this sure works better for some than others. Sketches for the first couple of episodes include: WFH Will Ruin My Marriage; Odd Spaces for Home Offices; Sweatpants Are The New ‘Business Casual’; One Thousand Ways to Distract Your Kids So You Can Actually Work For Ten Minutes; These Types of Classes Just Don’t Work For Online Learning; and Foods Not To Eat While On a Conference Call. People will be able to nominate their colleagues for a special award, to be given at the end of each episode: Least Effective Home Worker Of The Week

Stay safe, stay healthy, and stay sane.

Could Tech Actually Save Bricks and Mortar Retail?

There’s no question that e-commerce has changed the retail landscape forever. The hollowing out of physical stores started with books and Amazon and has now touched nearly every retail sector. In the latest wave, traditional malls, big box stores, and even grocery stores are feeling the effect.

But a recent trip down a storied Boston shopping street proffers hope that bricks and mortar retail might experience a sort of rebirth. And, ironically tech is playing a part.

Newbury Street in Boston’s tony Back Bay neighborhood has experienced all the familiar phases of retail over the past 30 years. For a long time, Newbury St., which runs for about 1 mile between Boston Public Garden and Kenmore Square was a high-end retail district, lined with boutique shops, galleries, and a few restaurants. That began to change in the 1990s, when the continued escalation in rents and the growth of big box stores resulted in the “mall-ification” of Newbury St. Even though the neighborhood remained delightful for walking,  Newbury St., which is populated by three to four story brownstones and mid-rise commercial buildings, started to look like the outdoor version of a typical American mall. Cue the Gap, Banana Republic, Victoria’s Secret, Urban Outfitters, and the like. A Tower Records store became a Best Buy.

But with the continued rise of Amazon and online shopping, and growing fatigue with the genericization of the retail shopping experience, business at many of these retail outlets started to fade. Vacancies, even in an otherwise healthy economic times, started to rise. And then, about three years ago when things were starting to look downright depressing, Newbury St. started to experience somewhat of a rebirth. Now, it’s still a work-in-progress, and there’s no doubt that retail remains a particular challenge…but the trendlines are cautiously encouraging. Ironically, e-commerce, tech, and big data have influenced or helped make this happen. How?

First, there’s the growth of what I call micro-segments, which are surely enabled by big data and social networking. For clothing, it used to be, there were men’s stores, women’s stores, and children’s stores. Now, these tend to be higher-end stores geared toward much more specific segments. The generic wedding shop is now Firas Yousif Originals Bridal, which makes custom gowns and women’s evening wear. There’s No Rest for Bridget, which has an ever-rotating line of trendy women’s clothing and accessories. Mulberry Rd. is the same idea, but for infant and kids clothing. The Fish & Bone, for pets. Allsaints has 200+ stores worldwide, catering to the ‘chic and edgy’ segment. There’s a block-long ‘athletic cluster’, consisting of Patagonia, Arc’teryx, North Face, and Fjällräven, all surrounded by yoga boutiques, a bike shop, a boxing club, and a Boston Sports Club.

Microsegments also include niches, such as Barbour, the British brand of cotton waxed jackets English country apparel, Akris, which features a Swiss line of womenswear and accessories, and Alps and Meters for luxury alpine sportswear.

Then there’s a group of stores that the increasingly sophisticated supply chain at least partially enables. Ministry of Supply is a men’s clothing shop whose main appeal is affordable custom-made wear. You stop in, are offered a coffee, and then get measured for an item that you actually have to pick up two weeks later…all while buying a sweater or some accessory that sits on their rather sparse shelves.

Third, are the types of stores that e-commerce can’t replace. Goorin Brothers Hat Shop still survives, since hats are probably something you don’t really buy online. Or the more modern Topdrawer, which sells pens, pencils, stationery, and travel type gifts – the whimsical sort of thing you wouldn’t know to even look for on the Internet. Muji is a Japanese retailer that sells a large range of clothing and household knickknacks. There are at least 15 shoe stores on Newbury St., since that’s a type of product that’s harder to buy on-line. And, high-end designer boutiques that have made somewhat of a comeback. Sure, this is a function of an affluent city/neighborhood and a strong economy, but also type of product/experience for which there is less of an online substitute.

Fourth is a group of stores I term ‘Born in Silicon Valley’: AllBirds (the shoe version of Lululemon), and Warby Parker (the Apple store of eyeglasses). You also see where Apple has had an outsized influence on design, such as at the sleekly decorated LIT Boutique, and numerous other stores along Newbury.

Yet another category is stores that started in direct-to-consumer online but are now adding a bricks and mortar presence. The above-named Allbirds is an example. Another example on Newbury St. is Tracksmith, which sells running clothing online for the prep school/Strava crowd but has opened the Trackhouse, which looks like a mix of Augusta’s 19th Hole and the Harvard Club. All that’s missing is the Winkelvi. Related, are stores influenced by online sites. So, the online StitchFix and Rent the Runway beget several high-end consignment shops on Newbury St., such as Castanet Designer Consignment and Revolve.

Finally, and this has nothing to with tech, is what I call ‘trend of the month’. Bagel shops became cupcake shops, which became frozen yogurt shops, and are now…smoke and CBD shops. Which will run through their cycle and yield to…anybody’s guess.

To conclude with a twist of irony, I should mention that one block over, running parallel to Newbury St., is Boylston St. It’s a wider street, home to the Boston Public Library and Trinity Church, but also a much larger population of chain type stores and restaurants than Newbury St. And the largest employer on Boylston St.: Boston-based Wayfair, which at least for household goods has mounted an impressive online challenge to Amazon.

What’s Your MWC Plan B?

If things had hewn to plan, I’d be writing this column from balmy Barcelona, rather than staring out my window at 42 and drizzle in Boston. In the immediate aftermath of MWC’s cancellation, Carolina wrote an excellent piece reflecting on how companies made the decision to withdraw and what impact this might have on future trade shows.  The cancellation of MWC was a big deal – 120,000 attendees, ½ a billion Euros to Barcelona’s economy, countless hours spent planning for the event, and no small number of dollars lost in non-refundable travel bookings.

I’d like to build on Carolina’s column with some thoughts of my own, focused on three key questions:

  • What are companies doing to offset some of the real or perceived business losses from the cancellation of this important annual event?
  • For those who use events like MWC to keep up on the latest and greatest on 5G, IoT, and other hot, mobile-related issues, what are some alternative means and substitutes?
  • Will the cancellation of MWC have any longer-term impact on major trade shows?

Company Strategies

Aside from the parties, SWAG, and the customary trade show excess, MWC is a gargantuan effort and expense for key vendors in the mobile ecosystem. Huge numbers of people spend more than a year planning for this event, with some companies’ MWC-related budgets running into the tens of millions of dollars. They plan major product announcements at this show. Some smaller companies allocate much of their annual sales and marketing budget to MWC basket, seeing it as the opportunity to have meetings with key prospects all in one place and in a concentrated amount of time.

So, in addition to the dollars lost and massive inconvenience of MWC’s cancellation, what are companies doing to make up for the perceived loss of business? We haven’t detected a major pattern, yet. Key vendors are implementing a variety of strategies. They’re issuing press releases of major product announcements and are holding webinars and other types of online briefings. One example is the slew of announcements of 5G phones, showcased in a Qualcomm 5G-related press event held this week.

In the immediate aftermath of MWC’s cancellation, some companies had announced plans to conduct a series of road shows or smaller, more customer-focused events. But we understand many of these plans have been put on hold, due to the still-spreading Coronavirus and escalating number of travel restrictions.

More urgently, over the past few days, I’ve had several discussions with companies who have shifted their focus from the new product announcements they were planning to make at MWC to focusing on their global supply chain and trying to minimize any disruption to customer commitments.

The GSMA, organizer of MWC, is trying to keep itself visible. Its news service is sending out product announcements and alerts. It is producing a series of MWC Shorts, showcasing some of the knowledge-sharing that would have happened in Barcelona. And, the GSMA has been mum with respect to MWC Shanghai, planned for June 30-July 2. I think they’re going to have to make a go/no-go decision on that one within a month.

For those who’d like an analysis of key MWC-related product announcements, please join me and two other highly respected industry analysts, Monica Paolini and Chris Nicoll, in a ‘Sparring Partners’ Webinar, Wireless Without MWC.

Substitute Events

Another key element of a tradeshow such as MWC is its role as an annual benchmark for the state of the industry, communicated in countless executive sessions and educational tracks. The 2020 MWC was set to be particularly critical, as we’re hip deep in Phase I of the 5G rollout, with new networks, new devices, and new use cases all emerging and being discussed.

The industry can ill-afford waiting until MWC 2021 for some sort of major confab. So, in addition to what some companies themselves might be doing directly (see above), it might be time to consider attending some of the smaller, regional, but still significant trade shows and conferences that will still hopefully happen. Among them:

5G World. London, June 9-11. I’ve attended/spoken at this event a couple of times. Last year I thought it was a bit flat, but the event might see a bit of a boost this year…

The Big 5G Event. Dallas, May 18-120. The North America version of the above show, and a re-branded version of what had been called The Big Telecom Event. No, Dallas ain’t Barcelona, but it’ll be easier to find accommodations…

IoT World. San Jose, April 6-9. A good opportunity to do a deep dive on IoT, visit your Silicon Valley friends, and feel like you’re in Barcelona by spending on overpriced hotels while missing Barcelona’s hyper-efficient transportation system (even when it’s on strike)

MWC Shanghai. June 30-July 2. A regional version of MWC. Would be a great opportunity to benchmark the 5G rollout in China and in Japan, in advance of the Olympics. Still on, as of late February…but we’ll see.

MWC Los Angeles. October 28-30. This event might move closer to ‘must attend’ status if there continue to be travel disruptions through the first half of 2020, but then things start recovering this summer. Then again, three days in downtown L.A. will really make you miss Barcelona.

Longer Term Effect on Trade Shows?

It’s too early to tell whether the cancellation of MWC, and, presumably, numerous other events over the next few months, will result in some bigger picture soul-searching about the value of big trade shows. Let’s face it, these types of events have a mix quantifiable benefits as well as ‘softer’ attributes experienced through meals, receptions, casual conversations, chance encounters, and just the sheer energy and osmosis that validate you’re part of something important and exciting.

I do think that some larger companies might use MWC’s cancellation as a ‘control variable’ in assessing the true value of this type of event. I don’t think we’ll see large scale pullouts of future MWCs, but we could see some companies adjusting how they approach major trade shows, what sorts of resources they devote to them, and what types of alternative events are equally effective.

Perhaps as one consolation, it was an unusually mild 65º in Boston on Monday — about the same temperature it was in Barcelona. Perhaps I should now do a search for ‘Best Tapas, Boston’…

A Wild Week for Wireless: Spectrum-Palooza

Developments over the past week in the wireless industry were the most consequential there have been, or will be, for some time. Last Friday, the FCC announced a deal with incumbent satellite providers, paving the way for the auction of a massive amount of mid-band spectrum later this year. Three days later, U.S. District Judge Victor Marreo ruled in favor of the T-Mobile/Sprint merger, paving the way for the deal to close in April. Also on Tuesday, Samsung held its Unpacked 2020 event (nice analysis by Carolina), which marked the most significant 5G-related device announcements to date. Then yesterday, some of the air was taken out of this newsy balloon with the announcement that Mobile World Congress — the industry’s annual Barcelona confab that attracts more than 100,000 attendees and injects neatly ½ a billion Euros into Barcelona’s economy — has been canceled, a victim of the coronavirus and the steady drip of exhibitor defections that had started a week earlier.

In a word, WHEW!! Now I’d like to focus the rest of this column unpacking the significance of the C-Band deal and the approval of the T-Mobile merger.

My über theme is that we will soon be entering an entirely new framework with regard to wireless network capacity. The C-Band auction, currently scheduled to begin in December 2020, will put into play 280 MHz of spectrum in the 3.7-4.2 GHz band, known as ‘mid-band’ spectrum. Of this 280 MHz, 100 MHz will be auctioned initially, with the other 180 MHz following in about 18 months. Add to this the 70 MHz of spectrum in the CBRS (3.5 GHz) PAL auctions scheduled for June 2020, and we’ll have 350 MHz of mid-band spectrum becoming available over the next 2-3 years, in stages. This is a dramatic amount of spectrum, in a favorable part of the band — good for both coverage and performance (note that there are little asterisks next to each of these bands: there are power limits for 3.5 GHz, and for the C-Band, a complex process of moving incumbents to another part of the spectrum band. But these are surmountable).

On top of this, New T-Mobile gets Sprint’s 150 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum, which is the most consequential aspect of the deal for both the industry and for consumers. Played right, T-Mobile now has the ability to build a pretty killer 5G network, delivering both depth (hence, speed and capacity), plus breadth (coverage, in the 600 MHz and 700 MHz bands). It is, instantly, competitive with AT&T and Verizon from the standpoint of potential network capacity.

This series of events is also a big step for U.S. competitiveness and the 5G industrial policy arms race that is now well underway.

We also have the creation of a fourth national player, in the form of DISH. As we all know, DISH has been amassing spectrum (mainly in the 700 MHz band) for several years, although to the consternation of many, the company has been mainly sitting on these assets. As part of the T-Mobile deal, DISH gets Sprint’s 800 MHz holdings, access to 20,000 cell sites, a guaranteed MVNO deal with T-Mobile for seven years, 8 million Boost and Virgin Mobile subscribers…and a requirement to actually build out some of its spectrum, thus moving toward being a facilities-based service provider, at least in part, over the next 3-4 years.

So, we have a pretty dramatic reshaping of the industry, almost overnight. First, over the next 2-3 years, as all of this spectrum is auctioned, transferred, and actually put to work, we are going to move from a framework of spectrum scarcity to spectrum sufficiency, or, dare I say it, spectrum abundance. This will, clearly, allow service providers to carry vastly more data on their networks at a much lower cost per gigabyte. Beyond the obvious benefits of potentially lower prices or the upping of data ‘limits’, this added capacity, combined with 5G New Radio, edge computing, and some of the additional benefits planned for 3GPP Release 16 and beyond, are what gets us into the territory of the 5G vision that we’ve been hearing about now for a few years.

This new network capacity also opens up new market opportunities. For example, T-Mobile has promised that it will offer a competitive broadband service (100 Mbps+) to more than half the country’s households by 2024. For enterprises, private LTE and 5G networks could offer a viable alternative to Wi-Fi, in terms of both coverage and capacity.

This new industry structure will also lead to a new wave of potential competitors. In my 30+ years as an industry analyst, the perambulations over the ‘four to three’ implications of the T-Mobile/Sprint deal were an amazing curiosity, given that more than 50% of U.S. households only have one [decent] broadband provider from which to choose. But with all this new spectrum, mobile operators will be more incented to open up shop to third parties. DISH’s approach is likely to focus more on operating a wholesale business. Once could see Amazon, or some other FANG-esque anchor tenant on their network.

This also changes the calculus for the cable companies. On the one hand, they might face greater competition for their broadband business from Verizon, T-Mobile, and others over the coming years. On the other hand, this spectrum-palooza gives them much greater opportunity to play in the wireless space. They will have new alternatives to the currently not-that-favorable MVNO prices from Verizon. They’re likely to pursue a hybrid network approach, relying on a blend of Wi-Fi, select small cell deployments in mid-band spectrum (acquired in the PAL or C-Band auctions), and spreading their business to multiple wholesale hosts.

The T-Mobile deal approval and the C-Band announcement have set the table. During 2020, we’ll see the conclusion of the mmWave auctions, the CBRS PAL auction, and the first stage of the C-Band process. Those who spent the past several years concerned that industry consolidation would lead to less competition and higher prices will be looking in the rear-view mirror, as we see the emergence of a new competitive landscape for mobile and broadband services.

New Opportunities for Enterprise Mobility Require a Different Mindset

The ‘Wireless Decade’, one of the major stories in tech during the 2010s, was primarily a consumer-driven phenomenon. Yes, smartphones and mobile apps helped change the way companies do business, but there weren’t substantial changes to enterprise infrastructure to support mobile (other than Wi-Fi). For enterprises, the world post-Blackberry revolved around developing the policy and security framework to support Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) programs. From an infrastructure perspective, enterprises continued to upgrade Wi-Fi networks, but the vaunted ‘in-building’ wireless market never really took off.

But if the 2010s were about consumer mobility, the 2020s are going to be much more enterprise-centric. Three major developments will require enterprises to re-think their existing communications infrastructure, and, over time, present entirely new categories of opportunity.

  1. Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax). This new generation of Wi-Fi is just starting to roll out. We include it in our ‘mobility’ framework because Wi-Fi 6 overcomes some of the historic shortcomings of Wi-Fi compared to cellular: it does a much better job at handling interference; can support much greater capacity; supports many more devices; and has greater range. Companies looking to enhance or upgrade their in-building communications infrastructure will look at Wi-Fi 6 in addition to some of the evolving cellular alternatives, such as Private LTE and, eventually, 5G. I don’t see it as a zero-sum game. Wi-Fi 6 will be part of the mix.
  2. Private LTE. Private LTE (PLTE) is a local cellular network that includes cell sites and core network servers dedicated to supporting the connectivity of a specific organization’s requirements. It can be independent of service provider networks or use an SP network as an anchor. PLTE uses dedicated, shared, or public spectrum. In the United States, PLTE is typically being deployed using the 3.5 GHz CBRS spectrum, which is just now becoming commercially available. As an example, the new American Dream mall in New Jersey has deployed a PLTE network, which provides significantly better cellular connectivity and also displaces some Wi-Fi infrastructure. Private LTE also provides an opportunity for enterprises to provide connectivity in locations/situations where Wi-Fi might be either unfeasible or not economically viable.
  3. 5G. Some of the capabilities of 5G — which are not embodied in this Phase 1/Enhanced Mobile Broadband era — will be game-changing for enterprise connectivity. Ultra-reliable low latency (URLLC), Massive IoT, edge computing, significantly enhanced location/positioning, among other features, will start becoming commercially available in 2021-2022. It is here that significant opportunities will be created. 5G will be a key driver of Industry 4.0 initiatives in manufacturing, the evolution to autonomous vehicles, smart cities, and so on. Not right away, but over the course of the decade.

Rather than being mutually exclusive, these connectivity options are very much intertwined. However, I believe these opportunities will require enterprises to rethink how they approach mobility (broadly defined).

First, the nature of the enterprise-service provider (SP) relationship will have to be rethought. SPs such as Verizon and AT&T are not going to foot the bill for the millions of small cells and other associated infrastructure that will have to be installed at enterprise facilities. It’s interesting how differently enterprises look at cellular compared to Wi-Fi. For cellular, they expect the SP (or other entity) to install the “equipment”, and then they pay per-device connectivity fees. This is primarily an operational expense (opex). By contrast, Wi-Fi is more of a capital expenditure, (routers and so on), but then there aren’t the same types of connectivity fees.

With Private LTE and 5G, a different framework will be needed. Enterprises will have to be prepared to pay for some significant share of the infrastructure. The nature of connectivity fees will also change, resembling more the edge/cloud model that has evolved for webscale services. Discussions between enterprises and service providers will have to become very different than they are today.

Second, I believe this new era of mobile connectivity provides an opportunity for an entirely new cadre of solutions providers to become involved in the enterprise mobility discussion. Wireless operators are accustomed to selling connectivity plans, rather than broad-based solutions that require a mix of equipment and services. The leading SPs are building the capabilities and teams to be able to have those conversations, but it’s still early stage. This is also much more the bailiwick of larger SPs, such as Verizon and AT&T. T-Mobile, as an example has only nascent capabilities to support enterprise solutions.

A new raft of companies will also have to be part of the solutions discussion. VARs and SIs, for example, have typically been involved more in telecom/Internet/Wi-Fi solutions than they have in cellular. Big Tech and cloud/edge computing firms will also be part of the mix. This is a huge opportunity for firms such as Cisco, IBM, VMware, Amazon, and so on.

We’re already seeing some of this positioning. During 2019, Commscope acquired Arris (and with it Ruckus), while there were major cloud/edge computing partnerships signed between Verizon and AWS and between AT&T and Microsoft. The ability for both enterprises and service providers to evolve their thinking about connectivity will be a major determinant of when, and to what extent, the capabilities of Wi-Fi 6, Private LTE, and 5G are fully harnessed.

Dynamic Spectrum Sharing Will Provide an Important Interim Step for 5G

Here are three words that aren’t at the tip of your average tongue when talking about 5G: Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS). Yet, in this early stage of 5G, DSS could provide an important stepping stone to rolling out broader 5G coverage more quickly. And it could be a temporary lifeline for Verizon, given the dose of reality we’re seeing with millimeter wave and the fact that new, mid-band spectrum won’t be commercially available for a couple of years.

Put simply, Dynamic Spectrum Sharing allows a spectrum band to be shared by both 4G and 5G. An operator can add a coverage layer for 5G New Radio (NR) in low-band frequencies without having to refarm the spectrum.

To understand the importance of this, a quick tutorial is in order, using Verizon as an example. Today, Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband service is offered on the operator’s high frequency millimeter wave (28 GHz) band. 4G LTE, in Verizon’s other bands, is used as the coverage layer, which is especially important right now given the limited coverage (and rollout) of its mmWave. A 5G network that still uses the 4G LTE core network is referred to as 5G ‘non standalone’ (NSA). In order to add 5G to the lower bands, which is critical to achieving greater coverage, Verizon has two options: refarming the spectrum for 5G, or using DSS. Refarming would require Verizon to allocate some of its channels in the lower band (likely the 850 MHz band) permanently to 5G. It’s a simpler and cleaner approach, more of a fast cut. The drawback is that Verizon would lose the capacity in those channels for LTE, which is what most of its subscribers (and devices) are still using.

DSS offers a more elegant approach. It allows Verizon to split the band between 4G and 5G, so that it gains 5G coverage in the low bands, while still keeping some capacity for LTE. The channels (‘carriers’, in industry parlance) can be allocated between 4G and 5G dynamically, as traffic demands. DSS is important to operators such as Verizon, since the operator has far less capacity per subscriber (outside of mmWave) than its competitors, and the prospects for acquiring more spectrum lie in the [more complex] CBRS PAL auctions later this year and future C-band auctions.

DSS is expected to become available later in 2020, in line with the availability of devices that support both 5G and LTE in the low bands. Ericsson Spectrum Sharing and Nokia Dynamic Spectrum Sharing require a software upgrade on the network side and devices that support DSS. Those devices require Qualcomm’s newer X55 chip, which is available on a handful of phones today, with more expected throughout the year.

The ability to offer DSS is critical to operators’ extending 5G to their lower band holdings. However, the need for DSS, and how it will be deployed, is highly situational. In the United States, DSS is especially important for Verizon, because of the combination of the natural coverage limitations of mmWave bands, its lack of mid-band holdings, and capacity challenges relative to its number of subscribers and data demand. Verizon needs to roll out 5G at its lower band holdings in order to claim ‘nationwide’ coverage of 5G, which will be critical later this year as more 5G devices, including a likely 5G iPhone, are launched. In fact, there’s a chance that the 2020 iPhone won’t offer support of 5G in the mmWave bands, which makes Verizon’s rollout of 5G in the 850 MHz band even more critical.

AT&T is also looking at DSS, although its relative capacity position is more favorable, which means refarming certain lower and mid bands for 5G is a viable strategic option, as well. T-Mobile’s strategy with regard to DSS hinges on the outcome of the Sprint deal. For its current 5G coverage, T-Mobile allocated 20 MHz of its new 600 MHz band spectrum. If the Sprint deal goes through, T-Mobile will accelerate the rollout of 5G on Sprint’s 2.5 GHz bands, which is ideal spectrum for 5G. If the Sprint merger is blocked, T-Mobile will need to look at adding DSS to its 700 MHz and 1900 MHz holdings, in addition to acquiring spectrum in future C-band auctions. Sprint, for the time being, is focused on its 2.5 GHz band for 5G, and is not seriously considering adding 5G at the lower bands.

DSS will also play a role in the next phase of 5G networks, which will be the rollout of what’s called 5G Standalone (SA). This involves moving to a 5G Core network, rather than today’s NSA framework of 5G NR radio using a 4G LTE core. 5G SA is required in order to introduce some of the game-changing capabilities that have been touted for 5G, such ultra-low latency, support for massive IoT, and network slicing. The capabilities of DSS, as they mature and are deployed commercially, will be employed in network slicing, which allows operators to deploy certain network functions to particular customers or market segments, such as higher speed bandwidth or lower latency capabilities. But for now, expect to hear more about DSS from certain operators as they roll out 5G coverage and add capacity over the coming months.

2020 Will Be A Consequential Year for Mobile

Next year is going to be one of the most consequential in the 30-year history of the cellular business. Numerous factors are coalescing in a way that will shape the industry, and the types of services offered to consumers and enterprises, for years to come. Here’s a brief tour of the key issues, incorporating some opinions and predictions.


5G will dominate the wireless industry news cycle in 2020. Even as we start experiencing an accelerated pace of network and device rollouts throughout the year, it’s going to become increasingly clear that 5G is long ball. Do not expect meaningful revenues, or game-changing uses cases coming from 5G during 2020. Millimeter wave based deployments will continue to resemble a Swiss cheese, and it’s not clear that they’ll move beyond being a niche, ‘hot spot’- centric service with specific use cases, at least in the near term. There’s a distinct possibility that the 2020 version of the iPhone will not support mmWave. On the opposite end, it’s clear from T-Mobile’s 600 MHz launch that ‘coverage-centric’ 5G at the lower bands yields only modest improvements over LTE.

Three things could change the game: action in the mid-band, through resolution of the T-Mobile/Sprint case and C-band auctions that could occur before the end of the year; AT&T’s more fully leveraging its spectrum assets to deliver the first compelling ‘mobile 5G’ service in the U.S.; and service providers starting to re-farm their lower band spectrum for 5G, including dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) techniques, which allows channels to share LTE and 5G. The potential for 5G becomes real when 5G leverages multiple spectrum bands, low-mid-high.

Opportunities for 5G in the enterprise, which is where many of the game-changing use cases reside, won’t really kick in until 2022 or so, which is when equipment, software, and devices based on 3GPP Release 16 will become more widely available.


We all might be frustrated by what’s happening in Washington these days, but Ajit Pai’s FCC has been impressively laser-focused on getting more spectrum into industry’s hands, and soon. The first three months will see continued auctions of mmWave spectrum. The CBRS PAL license auctions are scheduled for 2020, and could be very interesting in terms of new types of players (i.e. cable, Internet) and even some enterprises bidding for spectrum.

It’s also looking increasingly likely that there will be C-band (3.7-4.2 GHz) auctions toward the latter part of 2020 or in early 2021. Mid-band spectrum is increasingly becoming a big part of the global 5G story. It’s where a lot of the 5G (especially standalone) deployments are going to occur in Europe, China, and other parts of Asia. Mid-band will also prove increasingly critical to Verizon, and T-Mobile (absent Sprint). Mid-band could end up being the 5G backbone in the U.S. by the mid-2020s.


Any 5G device that’s currently available should be considered ‘early stage’, particularly since the initial 5G devices are geared toward very specific 5G bands (i.e. mmWave, 600 MHz). We’ll see a steady stream of 5G phones launched throughout 2020, at more varied price points. There are four big questions: First, pertains to mmWave. Will the performance of mmWave-based phones improve, as we continue to learn more about the vagaries of mmWave, such as antenna placement? And will there be an adequate selection of mmWave-based devices, most importantly a mmWave iPhone? Second, is what device performance will look like when they start supporting multiple 5G bands…and how many different bands the next generation of phones will support. The third key question pertains to Apple’s 5G strategy. They’re likely to release a 5G iPhone in the fall of 2020, but the wild card is whether it will support mmWave. And fourth, is the need to see some additional devices that leverage 5G, other than smart phones and mobile hotspots. It’s likely we aren’t going to see much beyond this ‘enhanced mobile broadband’ phase of 5G during 2020. But a year from now, a clearer picture of this next stage will start emerging.


We’re still in the very early stages of the CBRS (3.5 GHz, shared spectrum) launch. Next year will be pivotal, as we see the first wave of commercial deployments. Also, the PAL auction, scheduled to begin in June, provides an opportunity for entities other than the incumbent mobile operators to acquire spectrum. This could include cable companies, DISH, major Internet players, and some enterprises themselves.

An important aspect of CBRS is the opportunity for Private LTE, whereby enterprises can use dedicated or shared spectrum to deploy a private cellular network. This is an opportunity for companies in certain verticals, such as energy and hospitality, to offer enhanced coverage, capacity, and security. In some cases, Private LTE could be a compelling alternative to Wi-Fi.

Industry Structure

There are some big questions in 2020 related to industry structure. Of paramount interest is resolution of the T-Mobile/Sprint saga. If the deal goes through, the competitive landscape will be reshaped. New T-Mobile would be a 5G juggernaut, armed with Sprint’s 2.5 GHz spectrum, and more. It would also become a bigger player in IoT and the enterprise. If the deal is not approved, there will a new round of discussions about ‘what to do with Sprint’, which is unlikely to survive on its own.

Hanging in the balance is DISH. There’s a provisional deal as part of the New T-Mobile, which will start DISH down the road of becoming a fourth national competitor. If the T-Mobile deal doesn’t go through, DISH will need another major partner, or anchor tenant, in order to finance its 10+ billion (required by the FCC) network build.

Other key industry structure questions include: the potential participation of entities other than incumbents in planned spectrum auctions; the future of Verizon’s media unit; the impact of the Streaming Wars on the mobile sector; the future of DirecTV within AT&T; and how and whether AT&T will leverage its Warner Media unit in mobile, particularly in the 5G era.

The Geopolitical Landscape

As the near daily headlines over the past several months have made abundantly clear, the mobile space and 5G are very much caught up in the fraught geopolitical climate. If The Tech Cold War gets even colder, the competitive and supply chain landscape could become even more profoundly affected, impacting availability of 5G equipment and devices. One would imagine that there could be retaliation for the ban on Huawei and other Chinese suppliers. Closer to home, the stalemate in Washington, and the upcoming 2020 election could stall initiatives such as planned spectrum auctions, or result in rogue actions.

So, it appears that 2020 for the mobile sector will not lack for drama. On the one hand, there’s a sense of great opportunity, with 2020 being the first full year where 5G will be deployed broadly, in numerous countries. It’s also looking like the spectrum auction/allocation roadmap could result in the needed capacity, in favorable bands, to help fulfill the promise of 5G. But there are also wildcards, mainly regulatory and geopolitical, that could dilute some of this promise or stall its progress.

Why Did Podcasts Suddenly Take Off?

Some industries gestate for a while and then take off, almost overnight. Podcasts are one of the most recent examples of this. How and why this happened provides some interesting lessons for the broader tech and business communities.

Before diving into the podcast business case, there are some other examples in the history of tech that followed a similar path. Take smartphones. The first smartphones were introduced in the mid-1990s, but never really took off. The Blackberry was a success as, basically, a portable e-mail device. But the smartphone business as we currently know it didn’t really take off the second version of the iPhone, the iPhone 3G, was launched in July, 2008. It was successful because the stars aligned: the innovative UI of the initial iPhone was coupled with a better cellular network (3G, not EDGE), and a new business model (the App Store). The industry has not looked back since.

Streaming TV represents a similar example. First, it required a critical mass of households with a fast broadband connection. Then, ‘devices’ in the form of high-quality, inexpensive HD sets and dongles such as Roku and the Fire TV Stick that enabled easier ‘access’ to multiple players’ streaming services. This was further enabled by improved integration these services into smart TVs and even frenemy Cable TV systems (who woulda thunk?), so individuals who weren’t the CTO of the household didn’t have to muck around with switching inputs.

A final turning point was streaming’s equivalent of the ‘app store’: the major bet made in original content, pioneered by HBO but then more broadly by Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and the like.

And now, podcasts represent the latest example of the stars aligning. This is an industry that muddled along, as a niche service with no real revenue model, for 10+ years. During that period, it was a hobby project for anyone producing podcast content. Few, if any, big players were in the game. But then, circa 2016-2017, podcasts popped. Why?

Again, it was an alignment of the stars, involving a number of factors — some obvious, others less so. First, the nature of content changed. For a time, podcasts were like the audio version of the magazine industry: content was geared to specific communities of interest – sports, comedy, science, politics, etc. But there wasn’t any broader, more horizontal content of mass appeal. Then, along came ‘storytelling’ podcasts such as Serial and The Moth, which spread like wildfire, mainly via word of mouth. It’s sort of an irony, in an era where you can download a 2 GB movie to your smartphone in a couple of minutes, that podcasts were looking like 1930-1950s ‘gather round the radio for story hour’. As some podcasts attained a mass market following, the bigger players (Spotify & others) jumped in, acquiring some content producers and investing big sums themselves in original content.

Second, people became more comfortable with time shifted/on-demand audio content. Ironically, this came 10+ years after the same thing happened with TV (DVRs, then streaming). It took quite some time for a large percentage of the population to realize that they didn’t have to listen to Fresh Air at 3pm, and that they could choose select episodes, or parts of episodes, to listen to. This isn’t a revelation – but I blame the ‘delay’ partly on the plethora of quite mediocre podcast apps, embodied by Apple’s native podcast app. Fortunately, a number of actually OK (but no really good) third party podcast apps emerged over the past couple of years, to break the Apple monopoly.

Third, was the explosion of options and form factors for listening to all this podcast content, across three categories, just like HDTV & dongles: better integration of audio into automobiles, via in-vehicle systems, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto; the surge in audio headsets, from Beats to AirPods; and a new generation of home audio hardware, starting with Sonos and graduating to smart speakers (Alexa, etc.), that made listening to podcasts while cooking dinner or folding the laundry ever so easier.

The fourth factor is significant but less tangible. In a way, podcasts represent both a new medium and a substitute for an old medium. Amidst the explosion of content, particularly short form, ‘snackable’ content on smartphones, podcasts have emerged as a platform for longer-form, substantive content. In a world of bullet points and sound bites, I revel in hour-long stories and interviews that only podcasts seem to provide. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that podcasts surged at the same time magazine sales collapsed. The long-form profile of Mark Zuckerberg in Fortune has been replaced by the ReCode interview by Kara Swisher.

In the midst of all this, the revenue model is still a work in progress. Most of the most popular podcasts are free or ad-supported. Some are vehicles to build awareness of larger, paid-for content brands, such as The Daily (New York Times). The podcasts that are ad-supported are not big moneymakers. And in an era of targeted advertising, the ‘General Mills Radio Adventure Theater” nature of podcast hosts reading sponsor blurbs is downright quaint and just about perfect for the atmosphere of this cold, blustery November New England day on which this column is being written.

Over in the visual part of the entertainment universe, we might have seen the peak of ‘peak TV’, as the streaming wars could lead to a dilution of content, customer confusion, and further fragmentation. With such a proliferation of original content, it’s no surprise that there have been numerous studies showing consumers are like deer looking into headlights, reverting to reruns of Friends and The Office.

That could happen with podcasts. The mass market adoption of the medium, the relatively low cost of entry, and the involvement of larger brands has led to an explosion of content. There will certainly be a shakeout in the next few years. And there will be increased pressure to actually make money, which could put podcasts into greater competition for our dollar, in addition to our time. But for now, it’s a great time to enjoy this period of peak audio.

Key Takeaways from Mobile World Congress Americas

Last week, I attended and spoke at Mobile World Congress Americas in Los Angeles – the wireless industry’s major annual convention in North America. Staged in partnership with CTIA, this event is the Americas version of the more significant Mobile World Congress held each February in Barcelona. The GSMA also runs MWC Shanghai each June.

Although attendance this year was flat compared to last year, there was definitely a sense of things ‘getting done’, rather than being ‘around the corner’. The L.A. location also meant that some of the keynote sessions tilted in favor of key content players rather than major enterprise players, which is an issue that I think the GSMA needs to address for next year and beyond. There were no blockbuster product or service announcements, which are increasingly the province of company-specific events. Although, for the first time in several years, Apple’s fall iPhone event did not crash MWCA.

Here are some of my key takeaways, across a few key categories.

5G. Nearly all presentations and conversations worked in 5G in some way. But whereas a year ago 5G was just around the corner, this year, with the availability of 5G NR, we are in deployment mode. In fact, in North America, there will be a raft of Mobile 5G deployments during the fourth quarter of 2019. The biggest surprise is T-Mobile’s plans to turn up 5G on its 600 MHz spectrum ‘nationwide’ (actually, 200 million POPs) this year. And over the course of the next year, operators will deploy 5G will get deployed in most major cities, with deeper coverage in those cities, and across numerous additional spectrum bands. We’ll also see a much larger number of 5G-enabled smartphones and other devices (UE).

But we are still in the very early stages of 5G. The bulk of deployments are in just four countries: the United States, South Korea, China, and Japan. Europe is behind, with significant variation from one country to another. There were also lots of conversations at the show about what needs to happen for 5G to get deployed more quickly and more deeply: spectrum is a major issue of conversation, with an aggressive push in the United States for the C-band (3.7-4.2 GHz spectrum). Another key concern is how we’re going to deploy the massive number of small cells needed for 5G, given cost and siting challenges.

Although there was optimism around 5G, I did also sense a note of reality, in that this first wave is going to be mainly focused on the Enhanced Mobile Broadband (EMBB) pillar of 5G. The major new opportunities enabled by super low latency (URLLC) and Massive IoT are dependent on the approval of 3GPP Release 16, expected in 2020. That means this that ‘Phase 2’ of 5G doesn’t really kick in until 2022.

IoT.  The IoT ecosystem continues to grow and mature. The focus at MWCA tended to be around IoT infrastructure and platforms, rather than devices. But the industry is still more defined by a series of ‘base hits’ rather than home runs. There still doesn’t seem to be an IoT sub-sector that’s really taking off. Additionally, the ‘Massive IoT’ pillar of 5G, which promises to be much more transformative, is still a couple of years away from commercial reality. As a side note, CES is becoming an increasingly relevant show to get a sense of IoT across some key sectors, such as automotive, smart cities, transport, and energy.

Enterprise. This was my single biggest disappointment with MWCA. There were a lot of vendors and operators talking about enterprise solutions, across the range of 4G (private LTE) and 5G, plus CBRS and Wi-Fi 6. There were great booth demos. And, some high profile keynotes from operators (such as Verizon’s Tami Erwin). But there was remarkably little presence of, or announcements by, major companies about enterprise wireless deployments or plans.

With the approach of the next ‘phase’ of 5G, focused on URLLC, Massive IoT, and Industry 4.0, the GSMA (which runs this event) must work harder attract enterprise decision-makers to MWCA. Especially with the range of new solutions for enterprises in addition to 5G, such as CBRS and Wi-Fi 6. They also need to have a more prominent role discussing their solutions and showcasing leading-edge deployments. And not of the scripted, ‘brought here by my vendor/operator’ variety.

In-Building. The indoor market has been a challenging one for several years. But this was an area of accelerated discussion at MWCA. With the realization that mmWave, and even mid-band, will have a hard time penetrating buildings, there has been more of a focus on ‘inside out’ solutions rather than ‘outside in’, which is the prevalent mode in cellular networks. Companies with indoor small cell solutions and booster solutions, CBRS, Wi-Fi 6, and new models for neutral hosts are in the mix here. The investment community is also getting more excited about this area.

Open RAN. This topic was another area of emphasis, as operators are starting to move to a more open, virtualized network framework, consisting of more commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions. A key part of this, of course, is looking at reducing the cost and complexity of deploying and running networks, as well as encouraging a more competitive market for network infrastructure. A new breed of competitors, such as Mavenir, Altiostar, JMA Wireless, Parallel Wireless, and others, were at MWCA. But they are still struggling to get Tier 1 operator contracts and there were few significant operator announcements.

The last frontier of this would be vRAN, and like at MWC Barcelona in February, all eyes are still on Rakuten in Japan, which is building a greenfield network using a virtualized RAN. But my sense from discussions with the leading equipment providers is that major service providers are not prepared to go there…yet.

It will be interesting to see what happens at the TIP Summit in Amsterdam, scheduled for November 13-14. Expect news on Open RAN, vRAN, and some developments on Facebook’s Terragraph initiative.

Next year’s MWCA is scheduled for October 28-30, 2020. I have three recommendations for the GSMA to help keep this event relevant: first, pretty please get this conference the heck out of downtown L.A. – it’s an awful place to have to spend four days, and the Convention Center is crappy; second, place a greater focus on the enterprise, including attracting more users; and third, we’re hoping to hear something more substantive about IoT deployments – hopefully something that helps justify the ‘billions of devices’ forecasts that continue to lead all PowerPoint decks about IoT.

Hotspots, Hotspots Everywhere

Most people would agree that wireless coverage and data speeds have been getting steadily better during recent years. The differences between the major operators have narrowed. Certain key problem areas have been addressed: Verizon has alleviated capacity issues in major cities as a result of an aggressive densification program; AT&T has improved coverage and speeds with the deployment of numerous bands of spectrum; and T-Mobile’s rollout of 600 MHz has helped shore up deficiencies outside of major cities.

But just when you thought it was safe to go in the water again, the next phase of improvements to the wireless experience will be more variable, ‘hit or miss’, in nature. ‘Premium’ wireless experiences, delivered by the rollout of 5G, Wi-Fi 6, CBRS, and so on are going to be much more ‘hotspot’ in nature. It will be more like ‘islands’ of premium data speeds or reduced latency, rather than broad coverage. Take 5G as an example. The deployment of mmWave is occurring primarily in cities, and only in select parts of those cities. mmWave, for the foreseeable future, will be more like a ‘super-hotspot’, like a Wi-Fi access point that works mainly outdoors over a radius of a couple of hundred feet. Even within that radius, quality will be variable, given the sensitivity of mmWave to all sorts of structures, materials, and conditions.

It’s not going to be all that different with the deployment of 5G in other bands, broadly known as ‘sub-6 GHz’. For the next couple of years, 5G NR rollouts are going to be more on a market-by-market basis, and there will be significant variability from one city to the next, as well as differences in operator deployment strategies. Add the ‘marketing’ angle to this, such as what operators call 5GE, 5G+, 5G Ready, and so on, and things will be even more complicated. Suffice it to say that there will be significant variability in the 5G experience, depending not only on what city, but even within that city, whether outdoors or indoors, and also depending on the operator. The spots where the 5G experience is truly revolutionary will be limited to ‘islands’ of coverage, or select venues or locations where operators have decided to showcase 5G or where there is a particular use case.

The ‘hotspot’ nature of wireless quality improvements is not limited to the rollout of 5G. We’re just now seeing the rollout of Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax). It was encouraging that the iPhone 11 supports Wi-Fi 6. This new generation of Wi-Fi delivers significant improvements in speed and coverage, and does a much better job of supporting a large number of devices connected to a hot spot. But we’re in the early stages of device certification. And the deployment of Wi-Fi 6 requires the purchase of new Wi-Fi access points. The cycle for Wi-Fi equipment replacement/upgrades tends to be lengthy, mainly because Wi-Fi works well in most locations, most of the time. There’s no great urgency or particularly compelling use case driving the Wi-Fi 6 deployment cycle. Don’t expect your cable company to be knocking on your door offering new Wi-Fi equipment anytime soon. Rather, for the next couple of years, Wi-Fi 6 deployments will be case-driven, driven mainly by capacity-constrained locations, such as airports.

The other ‘hotspot’ on the block is CBRS, the shared spectrum at the 3.5 GHz band. We are in very early days with respect to CBRS, with a handful of deployments. For the next year or so, we are likely to see CBRS deployed at particular venues, such as stadiums, shopping malls, and convention centers. Mainly as a speed/capacity augmentation at high traffic locations. Some enterprises might also deploy CBRS. As CBRS matures and the PAL auctions occur, deployments will become more widespread, and permanent in nature.

Private LTE is another example of the ‘hotspot’ theme. We’re also in early days here, but in the coming years, we will see the deployment of Private LTE solutions by enterprises. Even there, the capability will only be at specific locations, and with a limited footprint at those locations.

The bottom line is that the next phase of improvements to the wireless experience — whether delivered by some flavor of 5G, evolution of LTE-Advanced, CBRS, Private LTE, or Wi-Fi 6 — will be deployed and delivered on a piecemeal basis, rather than broad coverage at the flick of a switch.

The other aspect of this is that these deployments will be for more specific use cases – such as fixed wireless access, the need to support high-traffic locations or venues, or ‘showcase’ locations to deliver a premium wireless experience using 5G, such as for multi-player gaming, e-sports, or AR/VR. An example: Verizon’s deployment of 5G at 13 NFL Stadiums.

Given the ‘hotspot’ nature of these new wireless experiences, I’m hoping that the operators are more forthcoming and transparent about where these services are available. With 5G for example, it’s not OK to just say ‘mobile 5G is available in X city, or in select areas of X city’. Customers should be able to easily determine 5G coverage at least at the ‘neighborhood’ level, with some information on how good that experience is, compared to prevailing 4G LTE. Icons on the phone should accurately effect what that experience is, at a particular location.

The next phase of wireless will feature some pretty remarkable improvements in coverage, speed, latency, and capacity. But these enhanced experiences will be mainly in specific locations or areas, rather than broad-based, at least for the next couple of years. Customers should adjust their expectations accordingly, and consider this in their purchase decisions. They should also press their service providers for more granular information on what sort of experience can be expected, and where.

Five Important New Terms to Know About 5G

In yesterday’s Techpinions column, Bob O’Donnell did a great job of providing a 5G Status Report, based in part on having attended the Qualcomm 5G Workshop in San Diego and the 5G Americas Analyst event in Dallas last week. I had the opportunity to attend the same two events, and thought I’d use the opportunity to build on Bob’s piece with a bit of a different take on 5G.

So far, initial 5G deployments are mainly focused on the EMBB (Enhanced Mobile Broadband) pillar of 5G. Basically, faster download and upload speeds that are averaging 3-5x better than typical LTE speeds. The one unique ‘use case’ for 5G so far is fixed wireless access (FWA), deployed mainly by Verizon in very limited parts of five cities, with the objective of providing a competitive alternative to fixed broadband.

But the real promise of 5G, over the long-term, rests on the other two ‘pillars’ of 5G: Massive IoT, and Ultra Low Latency. The capabilities to open up new markets and new use cases are highly dependent on the next ‘phase’ of 5G, in what’s called 3GPP Release 16 (R16), which will likely be approved in 2020, with commercial availability of some of its aspects arriving in 2021.

In preparation for that, here are five important aspects that will be critical in the development of 5G opportunities beyond enhanced mobile broadband. Be prepared – they’re a mouthful.

Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communication (URLLC). Now say that five times quickly, with all the dashes in the right places. This is a critical feature of 5G that delivers latencies of below 10 milliseconds (ms) and perhaps below 1 ms. These low latencies are better than what can be accomplished today on many fixed networks. They open up important use cases in the consumer realm, such as in gaming and AR/VR, as well as important new enterprise sectors, such as motion control in manufacturing or the factory floor.

Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS). Notwithstanding the fact that this acronym will yield a very different (and less fortunate) type of thing in search results, DSS means that operators can reuse existing LTE bands for 5G, and that 5G NR and LTE can operate on the same band, simultaneously, with a simple software upgrade. This is going to be very important, for two reasons. First, it will enable operators to get to broader 5G coverage quickly, rather than relying exclusively on new 5G-centric bands. Second, this is a hedge against mmWave. It would allow Verizon, for example, whose 5G strategy is mmWave centric, to have broader options for its 5G deployment strategy, especially in advance of new mid-band spectrum becoming available.

Time Sensitive Networking (TSN). Supports time synchronization and dual connectivity, and gives deterministic performance. This means guaranteed packet transport with low and bounded latency, low packet delay variation, and low packet loss. This is a key requirement for some of the Industrial IoT application and use cases, such as manufacturing/factory floor. Although there are some aspects of TSN present in LTE, there are significant enhancements embedded within the URLLC specs of R16. Those who are looking seriously at the Industrial IoT sector should familiarize themselves with TSN

Coordinated Multipoint (CoMP). CoMP allows connections to several base stations at once (eNodeBs in LTE parlance). CoMP started to be used more aggressively in LTE Advanced, as a way of improving service at the cell edge, by utilizing multiple eNBs, boosting the signal and reducing interference. But CoMP takes on even greater importance in 5G. Whereas Massive MIMO is increases capacity and coverage extending to the cell edge in a macro environment, CoMP delivers some of those same capabilities for a small cell environment. Which is why CoMP is also sometimes referred to as ‘Distributed MIMO’. The capacity gains enabled by 5G CoMP will be important in small cell based enterprise and venue deployments, and the latency improvements will have application in the Industrial IoT realm.

5G NR-U. Just when you thought you understood the distinction between 5G, 5G NR, 5G NSA, and 5G SA, along comes 5G NR-U [unlicensed]. Over the past several years, there have been important developments in the use of unlicensed spectrum to expand mobile connectivity, notably LAA and MulteFire. R16 will include an LAA version of 5G NR in unlicensed spectrum (5G NR-U) that relies on a licensed anchor, as well as a standalone version of 5G NR-U that can be used by carriers and/or any entities that don’t control any licensed spectrum of their own. This will be another tool for private/enterprise deployments. Even more importantly, there’s potential harmonization with Wi-Fi 6, which itself employs many of the characteristics of 5G. Wi-Fi and cellular have always been a bit of a binary discussion. But the potential for cross-fertilization of Wi-Fi 6 and 5G is an under-recognized area of opportunity.

CBRS Launch: An Important Day in Wireless History

It might not rank up there with the introduction of the iPhone or the launch of 4G LTE., but yesterday marked an important day in the history of wireless services, with the launch of Commercial Deployment Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS). This has been years in the making, and is testament to a combination of innovation, persistence, and a level of public-private cooperation that we probably all wish was more prevalent. I’d like to use this column to explain why CBRS is significant, how it will used, and what the roadmap looks like for the next couple of years.

CBRS utilize 150 MHz of spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band, so it’s sort of ‘mid-bandy’. Half of the spectrum will be made immediately available in what is known as the ‘General Authorized Access’ (GAA) layer. In GAA, the spectrum is unlicensed, similar to Wi-Fi. Companies  — mainly service providers, but also venue operators and enterprises who are certified — can request to use a certain number of channels for a specified amount of time and in a certain area. This ‘spectrum sharing’ database will be administered by one of five companies who have been chosen by the FCC to be Spectrum Access Systems (SAS) Administrators: Federated Wireless, Google, CommScope, Amdocs, and Sony. Any customer that wants to use CBRS must sign up with one of the SASs.

Although CBRS is launching later than originally planned, it is important to step back and acknowledge getting to this point marks a significant accomplishment. The genesis of CBRS goes back to 2012, when the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a report, “Realizing the Full Potential of Government-Held Spectrum to Spur Economic Growth”. This report envisioned the need to provide a framework for spectrum sharing. This means that the spectrum would not be owned by any one entity, or auctioned off in the manner that has been prevalent since the mid-1990s. So, the idea was hatched to use the 3.5 GHz band, which has been historically (but sparingly) used by the U.S. federal government, principally the Dept. of Defense. Notably, 3.5 GHz is being adopted for 5G in China and other parts of the world. The FCC, and key participants across the service provider, vendor, and public sector ecosystem developed the idea to create the SASs. And in order to allow the military and other government agencies to continue to use the spectrum, the SASs would also operate an Environmental Sensor Network, which is equipment installed to detect the presence of federal incumbent radar transmissions in the 3550-3650 MHz portion of the 3.5 GHz band.

Over the past few months, the SASs have been certified and the ESCs have been tested. The CBRS Alliance, which consists of key players across the ecosystem, has branded CBRS services as OnGo, which pertains to LTE in the CBRS spectrum. A special event was held in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, where key participants in the development of CBRS were acknowledged, and some of the Initial Commercial Deployments (ICDs) were announced. The ICDs must run for a minimum of 30 days, after which the SAS Administrators must file a report on their experiences.

OK!! So how will CBRS be used and what is the significance? It should be noted that CBRS is best suited to small cells and in-building type deployments as there are limitations on the power output of the equipment. The use cases depend, to a certain extent on the service provider. The incumbent mobile operators will use CBRS to augment LTE speed and capacity. The spectrum will be incorporated into ‘Carrier Aggregation’ techniques that combine channels across a service provider’s spectrum holdings. AT&T and Verizon, particularly, have been equipping their cell sites (especially small cells) with 3.5 GHz radios to support CBRS. And, in a boost to CBRS, the iPhone 11, which becomes available on September 20, supports CBRS (Band 48), as does the Samsung Galaxy 10, select other high-end smartphones, and a number of other devices such as mobile hotspots.

CBRS could also be very useful for cable companies, who could augment their hybrid MVNO/Wi-Fi hotspot based wireless service with 3.5 GHz services in select cities. Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs), which operate fixed wireless networks in mainly rural areas, could augment their services using CBRS.

I also see venues, such as stadiums and convention centers, as likely early adopters of CBRS. These are the types of entities that need the significant, but temporary, boost in capacity that the CBRS framework is made for. There has also been a lot of discussion about enterprises using CBRS to deploy a private LTE network. Initially, they’re likely to do so in conjunction with service provider partners, but eventually, companies could obtain licenses to operate CBRS themselves.

If this initial wave of CBRS is successful, a compelling roadmap lies ahead. The FCC has set a goal for making the other half of the 3.5 GHz spectrum available through an auction of what’s called Priority Access License (PAL) in June, 2020. PAL will allow for longer license terms, larger coverage areas, some expectation of license renewal, and the ability for an owner to make some of its spectrum available on the secondary market. We also expect that the 3.5 GHz spectrum could be upgraded to 5G, although that is unlikely for at least a few years. Truth be told, CBRS is yet another tool in the toolbox that enables a service provider to improve the LTE experience to the extent that it looks like 5G. Finally, if CBRS is proven successful, it’s envisioned that some future 5G millimeter wave (mmWave) bands might be designated for spectrum sharing.

Finally, at this notable moment in the history of wireless, congratulations are in order to some of the key players who had the vision and persistence to make CBRS a reality: FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler (and current Chairman Ajit Pai who saw it through); Iyad Tarazi, CEO of Federated Wireless, one of the few startups in the game; and the 150-member CBRS Alliance, which developed specifications, helped negotiate the choppy waters of the GAA and PAL license schemes, developed numerous case studies, and developed the OnGo brand and certification program; and numerous vendors who played an instrumental role in evangelizing CBRS and then developing solutions including Google, Ericsson, Boingo, Commscope (which owns Comsearch and Ruckus Wireless).

And with all the negative stuff going on in Washington and with Big Tech, it’s nice to have this positive and optimistic moment, where the public and private sectors came together to make something happen. Companies who are also competitors worked together on the CBRS Alliance and with the FCC, DOD, and the NTIA to develop specifications and work out tough issues regarding license terms. This is also a moment of U.S. technology leadership. The concept of a spectrum sharing regime, and some of the technology used to develop and implement it, is a model that’s already being considered in several other countries.

Vendors to Watch In the 5G Era

In these very early days of 5G, it certainly seems on the surface that the vendor ecosystem is similar to what it has been for the past several years. The Big Three network equipment companies — Ericsson, Nokia, and Huawei — are winning the lion’s share of 5G contracts, with Samsung and ZTE gaining some share. It also appears that we’re not likely to see any major shifts in the handset ecosystem in the near future. Qualcomm remains in a strong position in the 5G chipset, licensing, and radio modem business – the biggest threat comes from the internal development on the UE side, such as Apple’s ultimate frenemy move of acquiring Intel’s modem business, barely a week after they settled their dispute with Qualcomm.

But as we truly enter the 5G era, which will move from ‘commercial trial’ phase to more broad-based network and device availability in 2020, there is an opportunity for a new wave of vendors to play a significant role. I’d like to use this column to provide a glimpse of some companies and categories of opportunity to keep your eyes on. A few caveats. First, this list is inclusive of the broader next phase of opportunity in wireless, including companies that will contribute to 5G, edge computing, new business cases and different economic/cost models. Some of these companies are [well-funded] start-ups, while others are established companies making a big play for 5G, in some cases through some recent acquisitions. Second, this is just a sample of a few companies – it is by no means exhaustive. Finally, no company has paid to be on this list or has sponsored this column in any way.

New Era of Networking
Among the companies to keep your eye on in the networking space, a few stand out.­ Mavenir is helping to transform mobile operator economics, with a comprehensive portfolio across nearly every layer of the network infrastructure stack. It is playing a particular role in contributing to the move to more software-oriented solutions for mobile networks.

Altiostar, which provides a 5G-ready virtualized RAN software solution, has raised more than $200 million. It is one of key vendors supplying Rakuten, a new, high-profile operator in Japan that is building the world’s first end-to-end fully virtualized, cloud-native mobile network.

Parallel Wireless. Although not a major 5G play at this point, Parallel has contracts with more than 60 smaller operators worldwide, with its pioneering 2G/3G/4G Open RAN solution consisting of a Converged Wireless System (CWS), a software-defined base station, and a fully virtualized HetNet Gateway (HNG.)

New Opportunities in Mobile Broadband
Evolved 4G and 5G networks are positioned to offer a competitive broadband solution, particularly in areas that are un-served or under-served by broadband. Starry, which has launched fixed wireless access in 5 cities covering some 2 million homes, has raised nearly $200 million and just won 104 licenses in the 24 GHz auction. Airspan has numerous solutions for network densification – they’re behind Sprint’s innovative ‘magic box’, and recently acquired Mimosa Networks, which focuses on fixed wireless solutions and adds some new IP in the massive MIMO space. Adtran is  playing an important role in backhaul, customer premise, and access solutions for mobile broadband. And as opportunities in fixed wireless expand, Cambium Networks is well-positioned in certain geographic areas and parts of the radio spectrum that are not typically covered by the mainstream network equipment providers.

Opportunities in User Equipment (UE)
Although we’re not forecasting any significant near-term share shifts in the handset (smartphone) market, we believe that there’s a new breed of opportunities for wireless modems (i.e. bricks/pucks/mobile hotspots) in the consumer and enterprise space. Some notable companies include: Inseego, which has won some of the initial contracts for Advanced 4G LTE (i.e. Cat 18) and 5G networks; Cradlepoint, which provides a comprehensive suite of 4G/5G/IoT routers and edge cloud solutions; and Netgear, which has among the industry’s first 5G mobile hotspot and Wi-Fi 6 products.

Edge Computing and Storage
An important element of next generation 5G networks is bringing connectivity and content to the edge, which improves network performance and can significantly alter network economics. This will expand opportunities for established Big Tech companies to expand their business in the telecom/wireless sector. A good example here is VMware, which at the recent VMworld, laid out a compelling vision for the evolution of the telecom network as a cloud, as part of the company’s Telco NFV solutions. Seagate, one of the world leaders in storage solutions, is expanding its footprint into telecom , given opportunities in the evolution of the edge and the data center. On the start-up side, VaporIO has an innovative solution that places data centers at the base of cell towers, which brings cloud-like services to the edge of the wireless network.

CBRS/Shared Spectrum/Wi-Fi 6
Another company on our watch list is Federated Wireless, which is among the leaders enabling CBRS (shared spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band) with its Spectrum Controller platform. The coming commercial launch of CBRS is key to proving the pioneering shared spectrum model, and will play an important role in the evolution to 5G.

Finally, not that many in the broader tech ecosystem are that familiar with CommScope, a $5 billion company which for years has been a significant supplier of a range of wireless network equipment, such as antennas and amplifiers. Among the reasons to keep your eyes on them is the recent acquisition of Arris, which more than doubles the company’s revenue, and through Arris’ ownership of Ruckus, provides substantial a substantial footprint in the enterprise/telco Wi-Fi and CBRS areas. I also believe Cisco is poised to play be a bigger player in 5G. The company is in a unique position, given its broad portfolio in the enterprise, mobile, and Wi-Fi areas.

We’ll address some key players in the IoT and enterprise segments of 5G, including the industrial aspect, in a future column.

Consumer Techlash, Part 2: The Education Phase

The so-called ‘tech-lash’, which has been a gathering storm for about two years, is now a full-fledged hurricane. We’ve moved from the bloviating stage (concerns, bad press, and hearings) to the call for action stage (fines, lawsuits, regulatory action). As one interesting indicator, The New Yorker, in its August 26 edition, has a major piece, titled “Silicon Valley’s Crisis of Conscience”.

Even with all these winds swirling, the major actors yet to experience significant repercussion: profits and stock prices are near all-time highs; and, as I wrote a few weeks ago, there has yet to be significant consumer backlash (What’s Missing from the ‘Tech-Lash’: Consumers).

This lack of broad-based consumer anger is due in part to the un-stated ‘tech grand bargain’ (free = data collection and targeted advertising), but also inertia (tendency not to take action until personally affected). But there’s a third aspect, which I’d like to discuss here, and for which I have a proposed solution. I call it the ‘deer in the headlights’ phenomenon: the issues are so many, so broad, and so obtuse that consumers don’t know exactly where to direct their anger or how to take action. As a friend asked me at a recent dinner: “Am I supposed to be mad at Facebook?”

Here’s an example of the yin and the yang. On August 21, Facebook announced it was rolling out tool to limit off-Facebook data gathering. Great!  Now, have your non-techie friend or colleague read the following passage from the lay-friendly CBS News website:The company is launching a long-promised tool that lets you block the social network from gathering information about you on outside websites and apps. This includes the “Facebook pixel,” a piece of code that businesses can use to track activity on their sites by people who have a Facebook account, and “Facebook login,” which lets people use their Facebook ID for outside sites.”  Huh?

This tells me that regardless of the hearings, fines, new regulations, and corporate actions that will surely be coming down over the next few months, this will largely remain an inside-the-Silicon-Valley-Beltway issue. It is barely a blip in the consumer consciousness, and this is a big problem. The companies can roll out all the tools they want to appease the regulators and make themselves feel better, but they will be ineffectual until the average consumer realizes exactly what the problems are and then actually does something about it.

So, here is my proposed solution. New regulations, settlements, fines, etc. should have a significant consumer education component. There are two important elements. First, consumers need to be much better informed about a range of issues related to their data: security, privacy, how it can be used and by whom, and so on. Second, user-friendly tools need to be developed that allow consumers to adjust settings appropriately, understanding the tradeoffs (i.e. less relevant advertising).

As I’ve written before, having some understanding of how data security and privacy works is a the 21st century equivalent of Driver’s Ed. We all need to know the basic rules of the road.

There are numerous ways this could be implemented. I’d love to see the FTC or other entities that are collecting significant fines from Big Tech direct meaningful dollars toward a broad-based consumer education campaign. This could be a clever, creative, and informative video (“Your Data 101”) that, yes, perhaps has to be mandatory for consumers. Not unlike how every parent has to take a short mandatory course before their kid gets a driver’s license.

Then, I’d like to see a requirement that each of the major platforms (Facebook, Google, etc.) develop a series of user-friendly, easy-to-discover tutorials that clearly lay out how to adjust settings for items like data collection, advertising, search history, etc. Users should not be expected to go deep into menus and settings themselves to learn how to do all this. And, these companies should staff call centers for consumers who have questions. Yes, Google, Facebook, and friends: Joe the Plumber and Mom the Septuagenarian should be able to talk to a human being at your company. Not email, not chat, not ‘product forums’, not clever AI routing, not Zendesk: a human being.

There are other ways to take a personal approach: ‘Your Data 101’ could be something offered at Apple stores and other retailers. Maybe there could be a fund used to train and then pay instructors to teach ‘Your Data 101’ at Adult/Community Education centers, which exist in nearly every city or town in the country.

For the average consumer, it’s time to stop merely reading about ‘Fake News’, data breaches, and the like.  It’s time to become at least conversant about what is happening, and what can be done about it. And any consequences/new regulations of Big Tech that come out of this process should include a requirement that the relevant actors do a better job of both educating consumers and training them on how to take action.

My 5G Explainer: There Will Be Five ‘Flavors’

If you’re in the telecom/wireless space, you’ve no doubt been asked by tech industry colleagues, or even by curious friends and family, about 5G: What is it, how will it be different than 4G, and when and where will it be available? It’s awfully difficult to give a clear and succinct answer. As evidence, I present AT&T’s August 6 press release announcing the availability of 5G in New York City: it serves a very limited area (which AT&T did not specify), and is only available to select enterprise customers. And, in the same announcement, AT&T said that “5G will be launched broadly over sub-6GHz in the coming months, with plans to offer nationwide 5G in the first half of 2020”. Huh?

So, dear Techpinions reader, I offer you the tech equivalent of a ‘summer beach read’ — the easiest way to understand, and then explain, what 5G will look like over the next couple of years. You can thank me now for laying it out in a way that eliminates the need to use the following terms: 5G SA/NSA, mmWave, sub-6, mid-band, 5G TF, 3GPP-based. This is also meant to help you ignore, and/or override, operators’ particular branding of their own version(s) of 5G, and (often obfuscating) marketing terms that they might use.

Put simply, there are going to be five distinct ‘flavors’ of 5G. Over time, the three main flavors will be overlapping (think Neapolitan ice cream), but for now they’re fairly distinct.

Three Main Flavors

5G+. These are 5G services that are based on the mmWave bands (above 6 GHz – today, mainly in the 28 GHz & 39 GHz bands, with additional bands coming later). This will likely be the fastest 5G service, but coverage will be very limited because a cell can only reach a few hundred meters and doesn’t do very well indoors. The best way to understand/explain: it’s like a ‘super Wi-Fi hotspot’. Expect to see this mainly in the city core, densely populated areas, and high-traffic venues (i.e. stadiums). Today, AT&T brands this service as 5G+ and Verizon as 5G Ultra Wideband.

5G. Over time, this will be the most common ‘flavor’ of 5G. The ‘vanilla’ of 5G, if you will. This is going to be the 5G we often see referred to as ‘sub-6 GHz’, combining operators’ spectrum holdings, ranging from 600 MHz up to 4.2 GHz (depending on the operator, and some future auctions). At these lower bands, speeds will not be as compelling as 5G+, but coverage will be broader. For example, Sprint’s 5G service (using its 2.5 GHz spectrum), which it has branded as ‘True Mobile 5G’ offers better coverage at launch than Verizon and AT&T’s mmWave services, but top speeds are lower.

There are a couple of nuances to understand here. First, this is the flavor of 5G that will look the most like 4G LTE, in that it will get steadily better over time. That’s because operators will be combining their spectrum bands to offer an increasingly effective combination of speed, coverage, and capacity. For example, New T-Mobile will be combining its 600 MHz spectrum (currently being built out for 5G) with Sprint’s 2.5 GHz spectrum…and over time will be migrating some of the spectrum being used for 4G LTE (such as 700/800/1900 MHz channels) over to 5G.

Second, phones will also be able to work across multiple 5G bands. For example, we expect that at least some of the phones AT&T introduces in 2020 will work in both the sub-6 GHz and mmWave bands, though the experience at the outset might be a little rough.

5G/4G+. These are services that aren’t officially 5G, but are being branded as 5G. You can thank AT&T, which basically took what the rest of the industry was calling ‘Gigabit LTE’, and called it ‘5G Evolution’. Lest you be tempted to fire off a nasty-gram to AT&T’s marketing team, the fact is that some of the best speeds consumers are experiencing with LTE get us into 5G ‘territory’. For example, some users of gigabit LTE are experiencing speeds in the 200-400 Mbps range, which is similar to the speeds of the 5G services Sprint has launched in four cities, to date.

This is not unlike what we experienced in the transition to LTE. In the early days, some of the best 3G services (HSPA+) were as good as, or better, than some of the initial LTE services. Over time, the lines between the 3G and 4G data experience became more distinct, and we expect the same for 4G/5G.

Two Additional Flavors

Now, the above represent the main three ‘flavors’ of 5G: gold-silver-bronze, chocolate-vanilla-strawberry (and, Neapolitan over time), etc. But there are two additional, fairly distinct flavors of 5G to add to our explainer.

5G FWA. These are 5G services used specifically for fixed wireless access, aimed at the residential broadband market. The one commercial service available today is Verizon’s 5G Home, available in parts of four cities. It uses the same spectrum as other flavors of 5G (in Verizon’s case, the same mmWave spectrum as that for 5G Ultra Wideband), but requires specific CPE for the home (rather than a phone) and does not feature mobility. In some cases (such as Verizon’s 5G Home), 5G FWA is aimed to compete directly with incumbent fixed broadband suppliers such as Xfinity Broadband (Comcast), while in other cases, 5G FWA is a more technically able and cost effective way of getting broadband to homes that are un-served or under-served by broadband today.

Industrial 5G/IIoT: This is a version of 5G focused on the enterprise market and for use by machines and other connected devices. There are strong use cases for the factory floor and manufacturing. One key item to understand here is that although there are critical elements of the next iteration of the 5G standard that are needed for Industrial 5G, this ‘flavor’ of 5G will represent a combination of numerous 4G, 5G, and even Wi-Fi services, including: CBRS (3.5 GHz), private (enterprise) LTE, LAA, and even Wi-Fi 6. You’ll be hearing more about this over the next couple of years.

In the early days of 5G, there will be very visible tradeoffs between coverage and speed. That distinction will erode over time, as operators built out 5G over numerous spectrum bands, migrate 4G channels to 5G, and introduce phones that are able to nimbly move between low, medium, and high band spectrum. It will also become a clever software and network tuning game, as operators strive to deliver the best combination of speed and coverage, given economics, capacity, and users’ context.

What’s Missing from The ‘Tech-Lash’: Consumers!

This week, the Justice Department announced that it is opening a broad antitrust probe into whether tech giants are unlawfully crowding out competition. This is another front in the “tech-lash” that has been building for a couple of years. The tech-lash includes concerns about a number of issues, including anti-competitive practices, widespread data breaches, illegal use of customer data, and other examples of poor practices and poor judgment. The tech industry, historically revered, and a symbol of U.S. economic leadership, is now increasingly vilified, and even blamed for increasing income inequality, housing prices, traffic congestion, and yet another poor season for the Mets. Telling friends at a cocktail party you work at Google or Facebook used to bring nods of admiration and some envy…now you’re sometimes put on the defensive.

But this so-called tech-lash still seems to be a largely internecine, intra-industry affair. The bulk of the criticism is coming from those in the game and in the know: regulators, media, analysts, advocacy organizations, and some companies looking to profit from the misdeeds and misfortunes of their competitors.

But what about consumers? It seems to me they are largely missing from the tech-lash. They are not leaving Facebook in droves, crying out for an alternative to Google search, or shopping less on Amazon. They’re not protesting in the streets, writing their Congressperson, or mounting e-mail campaigns. There aren’t emails coming from employers or being circulated among friend groups urging people to change their Facebook or Google privacy settings. In a year where Uber had numerous headline stories about poor executive/corporate behavior, some customers might have switched their loyalties over to LYFT, but the company still grew like a weed.

Ask ten (non-techy) friends whether they’ve changed any of their privacy settings in the past year and I’d bet eight say they haven’t. If you’re at a dinner party, talk might inevitably turn to our fraught political times, the crisis at the border, or how bad the traffic has become. But it’s unlikely anyone will spend much time opining on Facebook’s role in the 2016 election, complain about the duopoly in digital advertising, or express lament that Amazon has disrupted numerous sectors of retail.

Why is this? To begin with, most consumers like these services, despite the repercussions. They might think that the targeted advertising or fake news is annoying, but I’d wager a relatively small percentage believe that it has negatively affected their daily lives in a serious way. A second aspect, and this is certainly true among younger people, is that they understand the tradeoffs. They know that if Facebook, Google, and the like are going to be free, that they gotta make their money from somewhere.

And then, there’s sheer laziness and convenience. Here’s a personal example: it used to be that if I needed to buy new tennis balls, there were three sporting goods stores within three miles of my home in a close-in suburb of Boston. I could bike or take a quick drive over there, supporting a bricks and mortar retailer instead of ordering the new balls on-line. But as a result of Amazon, e-commerce, and the general problems affecting retail, all these stores have closed within the past three years. Now, my choices are to drive out to a strip mall seven miles away, fighting traffic, or to order the same product on-line, through Amazon or Tennis Warehouse, free shipping included – a process that takes about a minute.

I’ll add a final, perhaps less tangible factor. Many of these companies being examined by the DOJ are among the biggest success stories in American innovation in this generation. They’re all U.S.-based. They’re all companies whose products are used, in some shape or form, by a majority of the population. And many of us have profited from these companies’ rising stock prices, whether as direct investments or through index funds or retirement plans. So even though we might get obtrusive ads, read about the horrors of working in an Amazon warehouse, see Apple apps always show up at the top in search, or see a lot of junk stories on our social media news feeds, these companies and their products are intertwined in our daily lives. And most people would argue that these companies’ products and services have made their lives better, in some way.

Believe me, if regulators were going after Ticketmaster for outrageous ‘convenience’ fees, hotels for usurious ‘resort’ fees, or one of the big banks for predatory loan practices, there would be a lot more people jumping on the bandwagon.