State Contributions for Broadband

DEEDThe FCC has documented very well the lack of rural broadband. They gave out a tiny handful of ‘experimental’ broadband grants that were supposedly going to be the precursor to a large federal broadband grant program funded by the Universal Service Fund. But as usually happens with these things, politics took over and $9 billion was instead awarded through the CAF II program to the largest telcos to expand rural broadband to a paltry 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload.

And this is a shame because $9 billion could have been used as seed money in matching grants to build a whole lot of last mile broadband. This money could have seeded perhaps $40 billion to $50 billion of fiber in rural areas which would have meant that a lot of areas would get real broadband solutions. What’s probably the saddest is that the CAF II program lasts for six years, so that money is going to be tied up for a long time.

There doesn’t look to be any other move to provide federal funding for fiber, but there are some states that have been looking at the issue. But, as you might imagine, politics comes into play in these efforts as well. There aren’t a whole lot of state programs that are trying to fund fiber, but consider these two that are:

Minnesota crated the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program, created by the Legislature in 2014 and administered by the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). The grant provides dollar-for-dollar matching for constructing last mile fiber, although the money is likely to go to projects that contribute a higher percentage of the cost of a project. Minnesota is one of the lucky states that is running a budget surplus and this seemed like a good way to spend some of that money. There are numerous rural communities in the state that are actively seeking a broadband solution, so there is no lack of potential projects to be funded.

This was created in the 2014 legislature and the original bill asked to fund this with $100 million. The cable companies and carriers lobbied heavily against this funding, not wanting to have the state fund any competitors – although the funding was supposed to be used in areas where there is no broadband today. And the carriers were successful and chopped the grant pool down to $20 million.

When that money was awarded last year it went almost entirely to independent telephone companies and the only non-incumbent recipient of the grant was a new start-up cooperative. There were numerous applications from municipalities, but none were funded. The governor has recently recommended funding $200 million to this fund over the next two years, and we’ll have to wait and see how much of this makes it through the political gauntlet.

California has a program called the California Advanced Services Fund. Attempts to create funds within that program to build rural fiber have also been met with stiff opposition from the large incumbents.

Recently a bill was introduced to add $350 million to that fund, $150 million of which would go directly towards building last mile fiber in the form of matching grants. Past attempts to get infrastructure funding failed. The latest proposal has made it clear that any funding would only go to rural areas (in the last proposal it could have gone to urban areas). The new funding also has a significant pot of money allocated to broadband adoption efforts and for bringing broadband to public housing. Proponents of the bill are hoping that this will be more acceptable to the opponents, but if the past is any indicator the incumbents don’t want any competition of any kind.

It’s certainly laudable for the states to tackle broadband. There are obviously not going to be any federal programs aimed at the problem for now and anybody who understands broadband knows that help is needed in getting broadband to rural areas. But it seems that every attempt by states to tackle the problem gets killed or whittled down to the bare bones during the political process.

Raising Cable Rates

comcast-truck-cmcsa-cmcsk_largeIt’s that time of the year when the large cable companies all raise their rates. In a time with increasing programming costs every cable provider needs to raise rates annually. I know that a lot of small cable providers are loath to raise rates, but if you have to do it then it’s worthwhile to look first at what the big companies are doing. Following is a summary of the rate increases that have been announced so far this year:

Comcast as usual looks to have one of the largest rate increases. They announced an overall increase of 4%, but the details seem to show something larger. The company is raising the rate on double-play packages by $3 to $4 per month. They are also raising the ‘broadcast TV fee’ from $3 to $5. This is a fee that really ought to be included in cable rates which they have broken out as a separate charge to supposedly cover the cost of paying for local network retransmission fees. That makes their overall increases to be between $5 and $6, which is hard to reconcile with the 4% increase statement. But perhaps some of the increase is being counted as broadband increases. It’s really hard to know how these big companies think about the components of their bundles, and all that really matters to customers is how much their bill goes up.

Comcast did cut the cost of HBO from $21.95 to $15 to match the price for HBO’s direct online product. This is an interesting cut that some other large companies are matching. Perhaps this was one of HBO’s reasons for putting their network directly online. You would think that lower prices at the cable companies ought to increase HBO customers.

Time Warner Cable looks to also have a sizable rate increase. They raised the prices of cable packages between $2 and $4 per month. They also increased their broadcast TV fee by $1. Time Warner has broken out a sports programming fee as a separate billing item – something that also ought to be included in the cable prices – and raised this rate by $2.25 per month, up to $5. There are also small increases on settop boxes.

Cablevision says their average increase will be $3 per customer. That includes a $0.85 increase in the settop box rental fee. Their sports surcharge is going up $1 to $5.98.

AT&T is increasing the cost of all bundles by $2 per month. Several Spanish packages are going up between $3 and $4. The company increased its ‘broadcast surcharge’ by $1. While not TV, the company is increasing its voice product that includes 250 long-distance minutes by $2 to $27. I haven’t seen an increase in voice prices for a while. I also find it interesting that the company with the largest voice network is charging more for a package with 250 long distance minutes than most companies charge for unlimited LD.

DirecTV increased rates across the board. Their lowest tiers are increasing by $2 per month. Their ‘Choice’ and ‘Xtra’ bundles will go up by $4 and their largest package will increase by $8. They are also increasing the broadcast TV fee by $0.50, up to $6.50.

Dish Networks is increasing rates significantly. Most packages including ‘America’s Top 120’, ‘America’s Top 120 Plus’, ‘America’s top 200’ and ‘America’s Top 250’ are going up by $5 per month. This will be a relief to rural systems that compete against them. Their smallest package is going up $2 per month while their ‘Everything’ package is going up $8 to $140 per month.

Charter hasn’t announced any rate increases and may not do so until the expected merger with Time Warner Cable.

Verizon also hasn’t announced increases yet for its FiOS TV products, although increases are expected.

Watching Interest Rates Again

eyeballWe have had an amazing run of stable interest rates. This has meant that I could create a business plan and have good confidence that the interest rate that I used would still be good a year or two later when it’s time to finance a project. That took one big worry off the plate because it hasn’t always been like this.

Historically interest rates have gone up and down and this period of steady rates is the exception in the way that interest rates have bounced during my career. Just within the last decade there were times where the bond markets were in such turmoil that it was nearly impossible to float new bonds. For the past few years we’ve seen nearly the opposite and the bond houses I know have instead been decrying the lack of bond deals wanting to get financed.

It’s not surprising to see interest rates starting to swing a bit again. We are going through a big stock market correction that has investors spooked. And the first thing that spooked investors affect is the bond market. The municipal bond market sells almost entirely to wealthy individuals looking for a safe haven for money. And corporate bonds are sold to both wealthy individuals and big pools of money like pension funds and insurance companies. As those buyers liquidate stock holdings there is a big increase in demand for bonds. Bank rates are the last to change, but they react over time to changes in the corporate bond rates.

Interest rates really matter to fiber projects. A project that might be feasible at a low interest rate might become risky at a higher one. I can remember times in the past when floating a municipal bond deal was dependent on the interest rate that was being offered on the day the bonds went to market. Bond sellers would hire experts who would try choose the right time to sell new bonds. And on the morning when a bond was to go for market I’d be sitting waiting to plug in the interest rate and bond term being offered that day to make sure it was a good deal.

I certainly don’t hope for a return to those kind of crazy times because high or fluctuating interest rates can put the kibosh on many good projects that would have easily been funded in better times. But since the payment term for bonds is so long the interest rate matters a lot – fiber bonds might last for 25 or even 30 years and might not be able to be called and refinanced for 10 or 12 years.

This blog was prompted by reading an article about the widening spread between corporate bonds and US Treasury bills. The spread for the whole corporate bond industry has opened up to 770 points, meaning that the interest rate being charged for issuing corporate bonds is a full 7.7% higher than the rate being paid on T-bills. That different climbed 1.1% just during the month of January. We haven’t seen a full 1% change in interest rates during a month for quite a while. More worry came when I just read that a Federal Reserve survey of banks shows that the majority of banks see a tightening of credit for 2016.

Why do interest rates matter to a fiber project? Consider a $50M fiber project. I just did a calculation of a project of this size for a client. In that project an increase of 1% in interest rate cut long-term cash flows by over $5 million if funded with bank debt. But if funded by municipal bonds the impact was $15 million due to the longer payment term plus the fact that muni bonds usually borrow money to make the first few years of interest payments up front. While a 1% change in interest rates might not kill a project, it’s easy to see that changes of more than 1% can be deadly.

Maybe worse of all is that we have been sitting with interest rates at historic lows for a long time. This means that the only place that rates can go is higher. At least, when rates finally go higher, there is always a chance that they might drop. So I will start keeping my eyes on news of interest rates again. It seems one of our old worries is back on the plate again after a nice hiatus.

Are We Really Funding More DSL?

DSL modemRecently while speaking at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson told the attendees that AT&T’s DSL technology is obsolete. This is a rare admission of the truth from AT&T, which has been less than forthcoming over the years about its broadband business.

And it’s a pretty interesting quote from a company that last year accepted $427 million in CAF II funding from the FCC to expand broadband in rural markets. That money is supposedly going to be used to upgrade rural customers to be able to receive at least 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds. CenturyLink and Frontier plan to spend their federal assistance money by expanding DSL. I think it’s widely assumed that AT&T will also use the money for DS. But we can’t be certain that they aren’t planning to instead use that money to bring cellular wireless to rural homes, against the intentions of the FCC.

To be fair to Stephenson, his response was answering a question about how regulators should look at new technology cycles. Stephenson pointed out that technology cycles have shortened over the years. When DSL was first introduced it was expected to be good for about 10 – 15 years, but today the cycles for new technology have shortened to 5 years – with his example being the transition between 3G and 4G wireless.

Stephenson is right about the speed at which broadband technologies are improving. Since the introduction of DSL we have seen cable modems go through several generations of improvements and in 2016 we are seeing the first widespread roll-out of DOCSIS 3.1 and gigabit speeds from cable companies. And in that same time frame we have seen the development and the maturation of fiber technologies for serving homes. From a performance perspective DSL has been left in the dust.

AT&T certainly still has a lot of DSL in service. But it’s hard to decipher AT&T’s broadband statistics because they lump all broadband customers together. This has gotten more confusing since they picked up DirecTV, which sells satellite broadband. AT&T has been further making a distinction between traditional DSL customers and U-verse customers, most of which are served by bonding two pairs of copper together and using two DSL circuits. But supposedly within the U-verse numbers are also customers on fiber, which many analysts suspect are MDUs or small greenfield fiber trials that AT&T has done over the years.

In the fourth quarter of 2015 AT&T announced a net gain of 192,000 IP broadband customers, which is a mix of the three different types of broadband customers. If AT&T is like Verizon and CenturyLink they have been losing traditional DSL customers at a torrid pace, so it’s hard to know what to make of that number. Are they finally adding some FTTP customers?

But back to DSL. Stephenson is right. At best, a DSL service on a single copper line can deliver perhaps 20 Mbps of data – but conditions are rarely ideal and in the real world DSL is generally a lot slower than that. But even if people could get 20 Mbps from new DSL it’s obsolete because that is no longer considered as broadband.

It’s a shame that the FCC is going to invest billions in DSL at a time when the large telcos were never going to make those investments on their own. The CAF II funds will channel billions of dollars to the DSL vendors for one last hurrah before the technology hits the dust heap. Without the CAF II money one can imagine the DSL equipment market fading away.

While CAF II is a huge gift to the companies that sell DSL equipment – it’s going to be a long-term curse to people that will be upgraded with CAF II funding. They are going to get upgraded to DSL in a fiber world and the telcos are going to check these areas off as upgraded and needing no more investment. A lot of the first DSL built in the 90s is still working in the network, and sadly we are probably going to find a lot of CAF II DSL still working in rural America twenty years from now.

What Happens to Unused CAF II Funds?

Fiber CableI look around rural America and I see fiber projects being proposed or built in a lot of places by small companies. Some of these are new initiatives like the new RS Fiber Cooperative that is underway in Sibley and Renville counties in Minnesota. And a lot of these new projects are being built by rural telcos and telephone cooperatives into areas adjacent to where they have always served.

While these small companies are building fiber the FCC is giving nearly $9 billion to the largest telephone companies to expand rural broadband. This was done under a program called CAF II that is part of the Universal Service Fund. The largest recipients of the funding are CenturyLink, Frontier and AT&T.

The CAF II funding has embarrassingly modest goals and only requires that the money be used to bring rural broadband speeds up to 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. The big telcos have a very relaxed six years to get this done. The telcos are mostly going to accomplish this by extending fiber from rural towns, into the country to support rural DSL.

I’m sure since most of my readers are knowledgeable about broadband that they realize how pathetically slow the 10 Mbps goal is. Already today 10 Mbps is not really broadband, even by the FCC’s own definition. A household that gets upgraded to 10 Mbps is probably going to be happy to get off dial-up, but they will soon realize that they are still far worse off than most of the rest of the country.

And while 10 Mbps is slow at today’s demand it’s been clear for decades that household demand for broadband has been doubling about every three years, back to the earliest days of the slowest dial-up. The folks at the tail-end of the six-year upgrades are going to be two more doublings of demand behind, meaning that in six years that 10 Mbps will feel basically four times worse than it does today.

In looking around at rural fiber projects I see fiber being built in areas where the telcos are going to get the CAF II subsidies. I wonder what will happen to the CAF II funding being used for those areas? Will the large telcos build DSL anyway even though nobody is going to buy it? Or will they just pocket the federal money and do nothing in those areas?

I don’t see anything in the CAF II rules that makes the large telcos give back any of the money, and so I suppose they will just keep it. This whole program is one of the worst uses of public funding I have ever seen. It’s easy to imagine the hundreds of rural fiber projects this money could have seeded. But instead the big telcos will be building DSL and will likely be loading up the claimed costs of the upgrades so they can get by with the least amount of actual upgrades possible.

Since the telcos already own wires in the places that will get upgraded they will be able to build fiber by overlashing. That is a process of tying fiber to existing copper lines and was the primary technique used by Verizon to build their FiOS fiber network. Overlashing is the lowest cost method of fiber construction and shouldn’t cost more than $15,000 to $20,000 per mile. If the whole $9 billion was used to build fiber that would mean building between 450,000 and 600,000 road miles of fiber. Wikipedia says that the US has less than 3 million miles of roads in the US including city streets, so this money could bring fiber to a significant percentage of rural areas. Of course, probably half of the money needs to be used for electronics, but that still means that the telcos ought to be using the CAF II money to build more than 200,000 miles of rural fiber.

If this money had instead been used to seed fiber innovators it could have brought fiber to millions of rural customers. If used as matching grants the $9 billion could have been leveraged to build $40 billion or $50 billion of rural fiber. Instead, every place that gets upgraded to the slow DSL is still going to need fiber and, for all practical purposes will be no closer to a true broadband solution than they are today.

The FCC Tackles Settop Boxes Again

Settop boxFCC Chairman Tom Wheeler just announced a proposal that would take another shot at standardizing settop boxes. The FCC is proposing that standard protocols be developed, enabling people to then buy a box from a third-party vendor rather than pay a monthly rental to the cable companies for each box.

Chairman Wheeler says that this is different than the AllVid proposal that has been around for years and that companies Best Buy, Google, Sony and TiVo recently resurrected. AllVid would create an updated version of a cable card – a device that could be added to an off-the shelf settop box to make it work. The FCC rejected AllVid a few years ago and many engineers think it’s not practical.

This time the FCC wants the industry to develop open standards for settop boxes. Chairman Wheeler was quoted saying, “We need to have standards the same way we have standards developed for cell phones, standards developed for Bluetooth, standards developed for Wi-Fi”. If such standards were developed, then third party manufacturers could make settop boxes directly for consumers, meaning they could avoid having to lease boxes from the cable companies.

This is obviously intended to quell the complaints from consumers about having to lease settop boxes. Many of the large cable companies have crept the monthly lease prices up to $8 per month, per box. My small clients can buy settop boxes that cost between $100 and $180, and surely the giant cable companies can buy these boxes for less than that. The math is pretty straightforward and a cable company can recover the cost of a $150 box in 18 months – and the average box probably stays at a home for three of four years, often longer.

Even with open standards there would be a number of technical challenges with the idea, due to the fact that all cable providers don’t use the same technologies. The settop boxes in a standard cable system operate differently and perform different functions than a box in a fiber network or DSL network. And even traditional cable systems aren’t going to keep the same technology forever and there is already some experimentation of converting cable systems to IPTV.

The idea of some standard solution gets even murkier when you consider that cable companies have been experimenting with delivering cable on other boxes such as Roku and the Xbox. This is not something that they have been able to do casually and it apparently took years of research to make this work. And not everybody is doing this the same way and there is a lot of custom programming and unique apps written to get cable to work on a different receiver.

There are also changes underway in the industry that have to be considered. There was a time when most of the brains of the cable delivery was in the settop box. All of the functions a customer used were controlled by software loaded onto the box and which controlled hardware within the box. But the industry has been experimenting with moving a lot of these functions to the ‘cloud,’ or at least to the headend. For example, some cable companies are now offering remote DVR storage, letting customers record shows at the headend to watch later.

One just has to wonder if a standard can be created that will allows companies to offer widely different features and options for customers? It probably can be done, but the time to do this was a decade ago when settop boxes were similar everywhere and the functions that cable providers offered were similar. We are finally starting to see experimentation among providers which has to complicate any attempt to create standards.

If the main goal is to give consumers a way to escape paying too much for cable boxes there is a much simpler solution. Why not just force every cable company to sell whatever box they use to customers at cost? This would give customers a way out of the monthly rentals and would shrink the claimed excess billions of dollars of cable profits. This would also create a secondary market for settop boxes since customers would be free to sell one that they owned to others. This would allow every cable provider to continue to pursue a different technological path with their boxes while still offering a break to consumers. This could be done immediately without having to wait for a protracted period of developing standards, and then manufacturing the boxes to meet those new standards.

Facebook as a Communications Alternative

Facebook MessengerThe way that people and businesses communicate is changing rapidly. I can use my own family as a good example of this. In tech terms I am old school and my preferred mode of communications is email, plus I talk to a lot of people each week on the phone or in person. I only send two or three business text messages out each week. I send this blog out by Twitter, but I rarely communicate with anybody using Twitter. I use social media mostly for friends and family.

But then I look at my teenage daughter who is very representative of her generation. She never emails, and I mean never. She will talk to somebody on the phone only if there is no alternative (meaning to me). She texts a ton – and not just with SMS or other texts on her phone, but also using various messenger services and social networks as well. She will only use Facebook to share things with a few of us oldsters. And she exchanges silly pictures and such with friends using several picture and video services.

There is almost no crossover between her generation and mine and her generation looks upon all the ways my generation communicates as old and obsolete. This certainly has to put a shiver up the spine of anybody in the business of supplying traditional communications. I saw a survey this week that said that 25% of people don’t use their cellphones to make phone calls – and it’s not too hard to figure out which generation that is.

I’ve been hearing it said for probably two decades that telephony is a commodity and it’s finally starting to come true. For example, Facebook is making a big push to convince small businesses to communicate with their customers through Messenger. They aren’t doing this because there is money to made in the communication, but rather in the local advertising that think will come along with businesses making them their primary communications tool.

Facebook is starting into this venture with huge potential because they claim to already have over 50 million small business pages on their social network. They recently gave businesses the ability to communicate with people directly on Messenger rather than forcing people to post public messages. They are also working on click-to-Messenger from ads so that a customer can communicate instantly with an advertiser. They are also considering allowing the option for ‘blast’ messaging where a business could send messages to many followers at the same time (for pay of course).

And all of this is being driven by wanting to lure more companies to advertise on Facebook and by the desire to keep users within the Facebook realm when they want to do ecommerce. The communications part of this is an afterthought. But it’s clear that Facebook’s vision of future communications doesn’t require a telephone number or an email address and that anybody inside Facebook can interact with others directly with Messenger.

They are not the only big web company that wants to do this. There are changes happening everywhere. There was a lot of talk last year about building free voice connections into a number of browsers. Twitter is lengthening the size of their messages to allow people to have longer and more meaningful communications as an alternative to email. Even LinkedIn is enabling businesses to send bulk messages to their contacts.

And every one of these trends is a direct assault on traditional communications. When the younger generations are in the workforce they are still going to want to communicate in these new ways instead of with emails or phone calls (and many already do).

I saw another survey recently that said that people become attached to the way that they learn to watch video. It said that kids who grew up mostly watching YouTube are not buying traditional cable TV and continue to prefer YouTube and alternate sources of video. And I think the same thing is true for general communications. If my daughter gets into the workplace and is forced to use email she will begrudgingly do so. But given an alternative she will communicate in the way that is most comfortable and productive to her – and that is a world without traditional telecom.

Paying for Rural Fiber

I am in an interesting place in the industry in that our firm works for both municipalities as well as lots of small commercial ISPs like telcos, cable companies and CLECs. One thing that I have noticed over the years is that there is a huge amount of distrust by commercial ISPs towards municipalities that explore building fiber optic networks.

And I think for the most part this distrust is misplaced. It’s been my experience that there are almost no cities that want to be an ISP. I think perhaps the idea that cities want to do this has been caused by the big telcos and cable companies spreading alarms about the cities that have done this. I think that most of the cities that have built fiber, except for a few like Chattanooga, would have much preferred to have a commercial company bring competitive broadband to their city.

It’s easy to forget about the fear and angst in rural America concerning broadband. Rural communities keep seeing other rural places that are getting gigabit broadband while they still have homes that don’t even have DSL. They look around and see little towns of their own size with broadband that are thriving and they realize that if their town stays on the wrong side of the digital divide that their long term viability is at risk.

Perhaps the best example of this that I’ve heard came from Hiawatha Broadband of Winona, Minnesota. This is a commercial overbuilder who built broadband networks to a number of small towns in their region. They have been at this for a while and what they observed in the last census is that every one of the towns with one of their broadband networks gained significant population while every town around them that doesn’t have broadband is losing population.

People need broadband and they are going to live where they can get it. New homes are going to be built where there is broadband. People want to work at home and can only do that where there is broadband. And people with kids want broadband so that their family is not at a disadvantage. Towns and rural areas without broadband understand these issues and they don’t want their area to dry up and disappear.

I remember a bunch of articles back in 2012 where somebody had estimated that it would cost $140 billion to build fiber everywhere in the country. I have no idea if that is a good estimate, but obviously it would cost a lot. What I think is important to understand is that even if all of the small telcos and cable companies and electric coops wanted to build fiber everywhere that the combined borrowing power of those companies in aggregate is not large enough to get the job done. As much as folks want to think that small carriers are the national solution, as a whole they could not borrow the needed billions.

What I am finding is that communities are starting to wake to the fact that they are going to have to contribute to financing fiber if they want broadband. The likelihood of an ISP just showing up and building fiber in most rural communities is very small. It’s hard to make a good business case with rural fiber, and even if you can make the case it’s exceedingly difficult to borrow the money.

So I think it’s time to get rid of the mistrust between municipalities and small ISPs and instead come together to get the job done. I’ve done a lot of financial analysis of rural America and fiber projects are a lot more feasible when part of the project is funded by municipal bonds and not just from bank debt.

I think the way to get this done is through the creation of public private partnerships (PPPs). There are already a number of examples of places where this has worked, but there needs to be a whole lot more PPPs created. If rural towns and counties really want to get broadband then they ought to be willing to put skin in the game to make it happen. It’s something that taxpayers want and rural surveys are generally overwhelmingly in favor of local government helping to solve their broadband problems.

There are some very specific steps that ought to be taken to put together a good PPP for rural fiber. It would probably take a dozen blogs to discuss this topic thoroughly. I may or may not do that, but meanwhile, if your community needs a broadband solution give me a yell. I can tell you how other communities have gotten this done and point you in the right direction towards finding a PPP broadband solution for your area.

Getting Access to Federally Funded Fiber

Fiber CableWhen billions of the stimulus dollars were spent for telecom, a lot of the money went to projects that built middle-mile fiber. This is fiber that basically runs between towns and from county to county through rural areas. The stimulus money required the builder of these fiber networks to connect the handful of nearby anchor institution – schools, libraries and city halls – but the grant recipients weren’t required to connect anybody else.

One of the requirement of those grants was that any middle-mile fiber built with assistance from federal dollars must be made available at low costs to anybody that wants to use that fiber to serve the last mile. And that is a great policy because the ultimate goal for federal broadband dollars ought to be to solve the rural digital divide where rural homes have no access to broadband.

But before you can serve homes in rural areas there has to be a backbone fiber – a connection from a rural area to affordably connect to the Internet. There are still huge swaths of the country where getting that connection is prohibitively expensive, if it is available at all.

The FCC’s hope was that building these middle-mile fibers would lure other service providers to build the last mile. There has not been nearly as much such construction as was hoped for, but there is some. As an example, a fiber project in Cook County, Minnesota is connected to Minneapolis through a federally-funded middle mile fiber. Before that fiber was built there didn’t seem to be an affordable way to connect that remote county to the Internet. Around the country there are numerous communities that have taken advantage of this opportunity for cheap transport.

And now the FCC has decided to spend even more billions of federal money on fiber with the CAF II funds. This money is being given to ten large telcos, most noticeably CenturyLink, Frontier and AT&T. These companies will be receiving $9 billion to help pay for expanding broadband to rural areas that don’t have it today.

In my opinion this program is mostly a huge boondoogle in that the telcos only have to build broadband connections that reach 10 Mbps download speeds. In today’s world that is not broadband, and it certainly isn’t going to feel like broadband by the end of the six year time frame the companies have to make these expansions.

The only way these telcos are going to be able to affordably meet the CAF II goals is by expanding DSL into the rural areas. And to expand DSL they are going to have to build rural fiber routes to support the new DSL. Even if half of this money goes toward DSL electronics, that leaves a lot of federal dollars being spent for rural fiber. Even without considering the telco matching funds, this much money has to be funding more than 200,000 miles of new fiber, almost entirely in rural areas.

It perplexes me why the FCC didn’t impose the same requirements on this new federally-funded fiber as they did the middle-mile fiber built by stimulus funds. Why isn’t this new CAF II fiber being made available at a reasonable price to anybody that can then use it to bring real broadband to the rural areas? This might be the only way to salvage something with long-term value out of this huge waste of federal dollars.

Certainly the large telcos can’t claim any special exemption from such a rule because the many smaller telcos that built middle mile fiber with stimulus funding accepted the last-mile rules as a condition for taking that funding. The large telcos are going to use this free money to do a virtually worthless upgrade to DSL, and people in these rural areas deserve a chance to use these federally-funded facilities to get rural fiber.

This would require nothing more than a policy decision by the FCC. All federally-funded fiber ought to be made available to solve rural broadband. That was true for the stimulus funds. It ought to be made so for fiber built along Interstate highways. And it certainly should apply to the large telcos that are seeing a bump in their stock prices right now due to the ‘revenue’ they are receiving from the CAF II funds.

The Evolution of the Fiber Business Plan

Fiber CableThe other day it struck me how much the telecom consulting business has changed over the last decade. A decade ago a huge amount of the focus of an FTTP feasibility study was about integration. And today all of the emphasis is about finding the money to pay for fiber.

Integration is the effort required to make the equipment from different vendors work together. In the early days of the FTTP industry this was a very big deal because there were different issues with every brand of electronics in the industry. There was nothing at all automatic about getting a cable TV headend or telephone voice switch working on a given fiber network.

A lot of the work involved in choosing a brand of electronics was deciding which brand had the least number of bad things that wouldn’t work on an FTTP network. There was a time when very basic things like supporting a fax line or provisioning a T1 on FTTP was an issue. There were tons of problems getting some telephone features to work. And no matter what the vendors told you, when it came time to get a new network up and running all sorts of new surprises would pop out after each new software release from the many vendors. It got so bad that we were recommending not updating software at one point.

Sometimes the integration issues were significant. I had one client who was the first one to try an IPTV cable headend on their FTTP network and they had a huge number of headaches. The integration caused them a delay with their launch and their problems with cable delivery were so bad that they got a bad name in their market that took years to overcome.

But today there is almost no worry about making things work on an FTTP network. Most products are now delivered as native Ethernet and all of the work of decoding the signals is done by smart devices like set-top boxes or modems rather than in the fiber electronics. I can’t recall having used the word integration for many years, which is refreshing compared to a time when we had to practically scare clients to make them understand that they were going to see surprises and have delays every time they launched a new product on their network.

Today we are able to make a pretty reliable estimate of the cost of the electronics and know that when it comes time to get into the business that whatever major brand of electronics is chosen will work well.

Today our emphasis has instead turned towards figuring out how to pay for building a fiber network. This has never been easy, but it seems like all of the old avenues of financing – be that bank loans or municipal bonds – are harder to close these days than in the past. In the last fifteen years banks have tightened up significantly compared to the times before the housing meltdown of a few years ago. And municipal bonds for fiber are a harder sell due to a few failures of municipal revenue bonds for fiber as well as a tougher bond market in general.

I find that I spend far more time these says working on financing and as a firm we spend far less time working on engineering issues. I now warn clients that funding will be the big hurdle where in the past it was the worry of successfully getting all the products to work right. I now put a whole lot of emphasis up front with a new client on finding a business plan that they can take to the bank. I know that bankers are going to scrutinize every assumption and that there has to be a lot of safety margin in any business plan so that it will remain solvent even if it does worse than hoped for.