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AT&T’s hard sell on DirecTV: A new type of broadband network

Kevin Fitchard

If you want to sell a telecom merger to the American public, the hip to do is promise more broadband access. Sprint chairman and SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son is making such claims to justify his forthcoming bid for T-Mobile, and now AT&T is on its own broadband kick to push its proposed acquisition of DirecTV.

In a regulatory filing with the Federal Communications Commission this week, AT&T promised to deliver broadband to 15 million more homes and businesses, but Ma Bell isn’t just talking about wireline technologies like DSL and U-Verse. It plans to build the bulk of this network using wireless airwaves.

AT&T said it would target 13 million primarily rural locations outside of its broadband footprint with a technology called wireless local loop (WLL). Local loop is the telco term for the circuit a copper line completes going from a telephone company’s switching office to the customer’s home. But in this case of WLL, the circuit is made via wireless, not copper.

WLL has long been used around the world as a DSL replacement, including by many rural broadband carriers in the U.S., but it’s not a technology AT&T has ever made extensive use of. AT&T Mobility recently started offering a fixed wireless option on its LTE network, which connects to an external antenna rather than directly to a smartphone or mobile hotspot. But AT&T’s Wireless Home Phone and Internet Service is hardly what you would call a full-fledged broadband service. Its data caps range from 10 GB to 30 GB depending on the plan, with the cost ranging from $60 to $120 a month.

If that’s all AT&T plans on offering in the U.S, then it won’t be increasing home broadband options in the U.S. It would just milk more money out of its LTE network, by asking users to pay what are basically mobile data rates for wireline access.

But AT&T may have other plans than just repackaging its 4G service. Though it didn’t say specifically what technology it would use or what spectrum, its use of the term “WLL” might offer a hint.

Way back before AT&T got the Bell band back together, its various companies tested wireless local loop technologies in several parts of the country (including in the brothel capital of the U.S. — Pahrump, Nevada), testing a variety of fixed wireless technologies including WiMAX. Nothing really every came out of those trials, mainly because the spectrum band AT&T was using was loaded with problems.

AT&T, however, still owns those 2.3 GHz airwaves in the Wireless Communications Services (WCS) band. In fact, it recently consolidated its WCS holdings across much of the country. And through a compromise with the satellite radio industry, it managed to clear the interference issues that previously made the band useless for wireless data services.

AT&T has said it will use WCS for LTE, but it’s beginning to look like it won’t build the same kind of LTE network it uses to connect phones, tablets and cars. Broadband spectrum analyst Tim Farrar believes AT&T plans to use those 2.3 GHz frequencies for its planned air-to-ground in-flight network. It may choose to use WCS for its fixed wireless network as well. Instead of transmitting to a plane in the sky, the network could link to an antenna. And that antenna could be conveniently mounted on a DirecTV satellite dish – all part of a bundled broadband and TV package.

Source: Flickr / Cantoni

AT&T says its WLL network could deliver speeds of 15 Mbps to 20 Mbps. That isn’t as fast as the speed we’ve come to expect from cable, but it’s certainly not bad either, especially considering the limited options in rural areas. The big question is whether it can deliver the monthly capacity to individual subscribers to make it a truly competitive offering.

Average monthly broadband consumption in the U.S. is 39 GB per month, and for hard-core video streaming users that number climbs to well over 200 GB, according to Sandvine. Unless AT&T prices fixed wireless data at a tremendous discount to what it’s charging for regular mobile data, then it’s not going to create a competitive broadband option, just an expensive broadband option.

Image copyright Shutterstock / Max Krasnov.

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