Editor’s Corner—Inside C Spire’s maverick strategy for fixed wireless

Mike Dano

With just under a million customers, C Spire is one of the nation’s largest regional wireless network operators. It has been providing wireless services in Mississippi and elsewhere for decades, and currently operates an extensive LTE network. It owns spectrum licenses ranging from 700 MHz to 28 GHz.

In short, C Spire is a very traditional wireless provider, and one would expect the company to dutifully follow the rest of the global wireless industry toward a 5G future.

But, at least right now, that’s not at all what C Spire is doing.

Today, C Spire is using Wi-Fi technology and unlicensed spectrum to deploy 120 Mbps down / 50 Mbps up fixed wireless internet services to consumers and businesses in locations across Mississippi. And the company is selling its service like Netflix does: Customers can sign up for C Spire’s $50-per-month service at any time, without any startup or equipment fees, and can suspend or cancel their service at any time for any reason.

The best part? C Spire is branding its service as “5G” because, according to the company, the offering meets the IMT-2020 requirements for fifth-generation wireless network technology.

Rebel tech

Craig Sparks, C Spire’s VP of technology, said that the carrier is using equipment and technology from upstart fixed wireless vendors Mimosa and Siklu to deploy its new service. He said the company enters each new neighborhood by deploying fiber to a “hub home.” That home gets free internet service from the company, but also broadcasts a wireless signal via Mimosa equipment operating in unlicensed 5.8 GHz spectrum to nearby homes. Mimosa’s transmission technology uses a proprietary iteration of the 802.11 standard that powers standard Wi-Fi connections. For nearby homes that sign up for its service, C Spire installs a dinner plate-sized antenna receiver on their roof.

Each hub home can connect up to 20 nearby homes to the system—nearby being roughly 500 meters—but those connections must be obtained through a line-of-sight connection. Trees and other obstacles can affect the quality of the connection.

Sparks said that C Spire can expand throughout a neighborhood via wireless backhaul connections using Siklu’s equipment running in the unlicensed 60 GHz band. So, after connecting the first hub location via fiber, Sparks said C Spire can wirelessly “chain” additional hub homes to the network via Siklu’s backhaul equipment. Again, each hub home running Siklu’s equipment gets free internet service from C Spire.

“It actually increases a sense of ownership in the neighborhood,” Sparks said of those hub homes. “And then they go out and they are evangelistic” about the service.

Sparks added that C Spire can also deploy the service in ring designs, thus improving reliability.

Now, to be clear, nothing about C Spire’s technological approach is unique. Other fixed wireless providers use similar technologies and equipment—after all, both Mimosa and Siklu boast of customer deployments across the United States. Sparks did say though that C Spire is designing its fixed wireless network so that it can provide reliable 120 Mbps services—speeds would slow if it added additional customers to hub homes or if it took more liberty with the distance of its connections.

Although C Spire’s technology isn’t unique, its position and strategy is: C Spire owns the kind of millimeter wave spectrum and vendor relationships that would presumably position the carrier to join the likes of Verizon and AT&T on the forefront of 5G deployments. But 5G is not economical for this type of service, Sparks explained.

“The normal players, they’re just stuck in a business model around a mobility yesteryear,” he said, noting that C Spire is paying around $1,000 for each base station and around $100 for each antenna installed on customers’ roofs. That’s far less than what bigger vendors charge for LTE and 5G equipment. “They’ve got some serious competition that’s currently taking the lead on some price performance.”

“These kinds of players like Mimosa are really innovating in terms of the equipment,” Sparks said.

Rebel business model

Aside from its technology, what makes C Spire’s new fixed wireless approach particularly compelling is that it’s using the Netflix model: Pay per month, suspend or cancel service anytime. “It’s a flat rate, meant to be simple and clean,” explained Jared Baumann, C Spire’s senior manager of innovation and emerging products. “No shenanigans.”

“We’re trying to reimagine the internet service provider,” Sparks added. “It’s time to reinvent the ISP.”

Baumann said that C Spire kicked off its latest fixed wireless rollout just a few weeks ago, and is currently deploying equipment in a handful of Mississippi towns including Pearl, Quitman and elsewhere. He said the company’s goal over the next few months is to deploy these services passing up to 25,000 homes in the next couple of months.

“We expect to move as quickly as we can,” he said.

So, will C Spire use fixed wireless technology now instead of fiber? “It’s really an option to extend our fiber,” Baumann said, though he explained that C Spire isn’t halting its fiber-to-the-home deployment efforts.

C Spire’s work with Mimosa and Siklu are part of the company’s wider pledge earlier this year to use several different types of fixed wireless technologies to reach up to 200,000 consumers and businesses across its coverage area.

An uncertain 5G future

So, what does this mean for 5G?

“I’m about outcomes for customers,” Sparks said. “I don’t care how I got there.”

Indeed, Sparks said that the wireless industry needs more options for unlicensed transmissions below 6 GHz.

“We can’t just make this a 3GPP conversation,” he said. “The industry is better served by having some more options in unlicensed under 6 GHz.”

C Spire isn’t the only company using Wi-Fi technology to target the in-home internet sector. For example, startup Starry spent much of 2017 testing its fixed wireless service in Boston, and earlier this year the company announced it would expand its $50-per-month fixed wireless service—which provides speeds up to 200 Mbps—to 16 major markets during 2018. Further, Wall Street research firm Oppenheimer concluded that Starry’s 802.11ax-based fixed wireless service is more economically effective than a fixed wireless service based on the 5G standard.

On the other side of the argument, Verizon said it plans to replace its proprietary 5GTF fixed wireless standard with the official 3GPP 5G standard as it rolls out fixed wireless services in four U.S. cities this year.

The bottom line here is that 5G isn’t a cure-all, and there are other options out there. It’s also entirely possibly that C Spire, Starry and others may return to the 5G fold in the coming years as the technology matures, much like Sprint did with WiMAX. However, at least in the near term, it’s clear that 5G proponents may need to recalibrate their pricing and expectations, lest other longtime industry stalwarts follow C Spire’s lead and step outside the 3GPP’s ecosystem. – Mike | @mikeddano

Editor's Corners are opinion columns written by a member of the Fierce editorial team. They are edited for balance and accuracy.