Super high speed broadband doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. That’s the aim of Common Networks, a startup using 5G to offer wireless broadband to homes in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The company launched its service three years ago and is offering a new tier of service starting Wednesday that delivers 300 megabit per second downloads for just $49 a month. This is a big savings compared with cable giant Comcast, which offers similar speeds at higher prices in the same market. Comcast offers 250Mbps for $69.99 or 400Mbps for $84.99 as part of its introductory offer for the first 12 months of service.
Ronald Mooney, who’s been testing the new tier of service since January, said he couldn’t be happier with the performance and the price. Mooney, who lives with his wife, 21-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter, said he’s done speed tests that consistently get the advertised speeds of 300Mbps. The Mooneys live in an apartment in downtown Alameda, California, above their home goods store, Daisy’s.
Mooney uses his broadband connection to run the store’s point-of-sale system, and he said even when his son is playing online games and others in the household are streaming videos upstairs, the connection works without a hitch.
“When your business relies on your internet connection, you can’t afford to have issues,” Mooney said. “And I can tell you, since using this service, the internet is the last thing I worry about when it comes to my POS system.”
An alternative to fiber
Common Networks CEO and co-founder Zach Brock said the company is trying to address a big problem: delivering high speed broadband in an affordable way. Brock said Common Networks is targeting suburban markets, like Alameda, where consumers may have access to only one high speed broadband provider, like a cable company, or much slower DSL service.
“Everyone wants fiber,” he said. “That’s the gold standard in terms of speed. But it’s expensive to deploy. That’s exactly the problem Google ran into.”
Google Fiber, which offered 1Gbps service for $70 a month in Kansas City and a few other cities, ultimately stopped building out the network due to the high cost of deploying fiber. The company has also been exploring wireless as an alternative for delivering high speed broadband.
This is where new 5G wireless technology comes in. 5G or the fifth generation of wireless, is being touted as a cheaper alternative to fiber, which can deliver up to 1Gbps downloads. And Common Networks isn’t the only company looking to deploy flavors of 5G. Traditional wireless companies, like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, which are building out their mobile 5G services, have also been promising fixed 5G that can be a competitor to home broadband service. Verizon has already launched this service. But even 5G networks, which require dozens of radios and links to fiber backhaul, is expensive to deploy.
A more affordable way to do 5G
Common Networks says it can do it cheaper.
“It’s not enough to just offer faster speeds,” Brock said. “It also has to be more affordable. The only reason we don’t have fiber everywhere is because of the cost. It’s way too expensive. So how do we make the economics work?”
Common Networks is using its own flavor of 5G technology, which relies on a mix of open-source technology called Terragraph from Facebook and unlicensed microwave and millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum.
Millimeter wave frequencies are the key to 5G delivering super high speed wireless connections. But the use of this very high frequency spectrum comes with some engineering challenges, such as interference from barriers like walls, trees or even bad weather like rain. What’s more, the signals travel over only very short distances, as opposed to traditional cellular radio frequencies, which allow providers to blanket an entire area with service.
As a result, to deliver this service to homes, you need direct line of sight between radios. And you need lots of radios. And those radios need to connect to so-called “fiber backhaul” or fiber links that eventually send the traffic over the internet. This small-cell architecture is at the heart of all 5G deployments. And it’s expensive to build.
Common Networks’ strategy is to reduce the amount of fiber infrastructure needed to deliver the high speed wireless signal, thus reducing the cost. That’s where the Terragraph architecture comes in. This technology allows radios deployed on customer rooftops to act as signal repeaters. So instead of deploying dozens of radios on light poles or atop buildings and running fiber to each of these locations, the Terragraph devices can be deployed at people’s homes and then used to beam the service to surrounding homes, expanding the reach of the network with the addition of new customers.
The Terragraph architecture doesn’t completely do away with the need for fiber backhaul. The wireless service still needs some fiber connections. But it greatly reduces the number of small cells that need fiber.
Not without limitations
Brock notes that the biggest drawback to this approach is that the network availability and growth is dependent on acquiring new customers.
“We can’t serve every customer on day one,” he said. “We don’t run fiber loops, so it can take a few months before we can ramp up coverage.”
The dependence on repeaters that require line of sight also limits where the technology can be deployed. Brock admits that this isn’t a technology well-suited for rural communities, which are also in need of broadband. Instead, his company is focused on suburban markets with a lot of densely located single-family homes.
The service, which launched three years ago, has been catching on, Brock said. The company, which first launched in Alameda, an island between Oakland and San Francisco, is now in several nearby Bay Area communities, including Santa Clara, San Leandro, San Jose, Sunnyvale, and soon Oakland. Its network now reaches 100,000 potential customers. Common Networks hasn’t disclosed how many customers it has.
In addition to the new tier of service, Common Networks offers two other tiers: 20Mbps for $34 a month and 80Mbps for $39.
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