Fiber-for-C-Band Raises Ongoing Cost, Timing Concerns

By Matt Daneman, 19 September 2019, Communications Daily

With rival estimates of cost and feasibility of fiber distribution to replace satellite C-band use before the FCC, experts told us there are issues about how fast such fiber could go up and about ongoing expenses. Being switched to fiber could force many small cable operators out of business, some fear.

The speed with which such a fiber network could go up might run headlong into an already crowded pole-permitting process. Fiber-to-the-home GoNetspeed Chief Operating Officer Tom Perrone said fiber densification work for 5G is already clogging the permitting process, and 120,000 route miles of fiber to replace the 3.7-4.2 GHz band will slow things further.

T-Mobile estimates $1 billion for fiber replacing C band (see 1906240038) and the C-Band Alliance (CBA) said fiber might be $20 billion to $30 billion over 30 years. The 5G Plus Plan of America’s Communications Association, the Competitive Carriers Association and Charter Communications estimated $4.6 billion. Perrone estimated such a plan of 120,000 new route miles might cost $6 billion to $9 billion.

ACA Senior Vice President-Government Relations Ross Lieberman said his group’s estimate is more detailed and in-depth than that of rival plans. Lieberman at CCA’s conference Wednesday said that even if the CBA were able to free up as much as 300 MHz of the band for 5G, the FCC might opt for a different approach (see 1909180061). Commissioner Mike O’Rielly told us in Washington that the CBA has “a very credible plan” and most if not all its attributes “will be more than seriously considered if not adopted” (see 1909180020).

But the Fiber Broadband Association said such a fiber network within five years “is feasible.” In a docket 18-122 posting Tuesday, it said 120,000 route miles would mean deployments up 7 percent per year over the 2019 forecast level.

Fiber Concerns

Broadcasters have fiber concerns.

NAB said some broadcasters “are actively looking for opportunities to avoid fiber” due to cost and reliability, rather than switch to it. It said with the 5G Plus proposal for fiber to 2,600 non-broadcast earth stations costing $4.6 billion, adding in 10,000-plus earth stations would likely increase expenses by a factor of four or five.

NPR Vice President Mike Beach said the public radio programmer looked several years ago at the potential of an all-fiber network, but the $150 million or so price tag was prohibitively high, with some locations where it couldn’t get fiber installed at all. Some areas can’t get fiber installed “even if you’re willing to pay for it,” he said. He said NPR instead is spending $53 million over the next several years to upgrade the public radio satellite system. He said a hybrid network of fiber and satellite “is certainly doable” and cheaper than all-fiber, though still too expensive for public broadcasting.

Swapping fiber for C band ignores the thousands of extra dollars annually that small cable ISPs will have to pay for fiber-related costs, CCG Consulting President Doug Dawson said. He said small cable companies with older technology can’t afford to upgrade their headends. “They wouldn’t know what to do with a 10 GB pipe if you gave it to them for free,” he said. “These are not tech companies,” and with rural cable TV barely breaking even, a move to fiber could put a notable minority of them out of business, he said.

Perrone’s back-of-envelope price range estimate could vary further depending on how much fiber rollout is in rural vs. suburban or metro areas, with rural fiber typically involving less make-ready work. Make-ready “starts to add up quickly,” he said. And it doesn’t account for annual costs such as operation of the network, such as pole rentals, or repair work, he said.

Fiber to Homes

The fiber plan has advantages, too, even some skeptics note.

But 5G Plus fiber could also open the door to more FTTH installations, Perrone said. With those cable and broadcast customers as anchor tenants for new fiber lines, fiber companies would be more prone to look for other opportunities along the routes to run fiber to residential or enterprise customers or provide redundancy to some other provider, he said.

The CBA C-band auction plan is “untested and overly complicated” and should be eschewed in favor of the FCC’s tried-and-true procedures, Charter Communications said in a docket 18-122 posting Wednesday. Charter said auction design problems include no opportunity for full-price discovery via open bidding by all participants, and it allows the CBA to set the sale price at levels only the largest bidders could afford. The cabler said the CBA system allows bidders to game the system by driving up bids they’re certain to lose, to increase what competitors pay. The company said the CBA approach would encourage bidder collusion.

CBA emailed it’s “fully committed to using an efficient and competitive sales process; it will be fair, transparent and subject to FCC oversight.” It said the Charter/ACA/CCA proposal “is unrealistic and unworkable. Speed, certainty and accountability for clearing are essential for success, [and the ACA] proposal falls woefully short. It fails to account for the significant complexity of installing fiber all over the U.S., particularly in rural areas. It fails to involve those who are actually operating within the spectrum. It fails to assign accountability for a successful transition. And it fails to protect the content companies who serve nearly 120 million US households and who have said on the record that the proposal underestimates the complexity of installing fiber and challenges in timing, network reliability and cost.”

“What consumers and industry truly need are 1) the quickest access to spectrum to enable 5G nationwide, and 2) the protection of the existing content distribution system used by nearly 120 million American homes,” said the consortium of three major satellite operators. “Only the CBA plan delivers both quickly and accountably.”

Reprinted with permission of Warren Communications News, Inc. and Communications Daily, 800-771-9200, and