FCC Expands Wireless Attachment Rights

On April 12 the FCC issued a new Notice for Proposed Rulemaking in Docket 19-71 that will use 5G as the justification for another giveaway to the wireless carriers. Last year the FCC ordered that wireless carriers are free to put small cell sites and other wireless devices on utility poles, light poles or buildings that are in the public right-of-way. This new docket would expand some additional rights for buildings along the sides of rights-of-way. Comments will be due within 30 days of publication in the Federal Register with an additional 45 days for replay comments.

This docket requires an understanding of past orders to fully understand what is being proposed. The order would modify existing industry rules that apply to OTARDs (Over-the-Air Reception Devices). The original order on the topic was issued in 2000 and dealt with the right of consumers to connect a receiving antenna on their home to receive a wireless signal. At the time this mostly applied to satellite dishes for cable TV, but at the time there was also a budding wireless industry that was deploying WiFi mesh networks.

In the original order, the FCC said that residents, particularly renters, had the right to install receiving antenna under a twelve-inch dish size. Landlords could have some say in the placement of the dishes, but they could not deny a renter the right to receive the wireless service.

In that original order the FCC considered and rejected the idea that any OTARD installations gave the wireless carrier the right to also install a wireless repeater or other device that would re-originate the wireless signal and send it to another nearby location, such as a neighboring home. At the time such devices were relatively large and added to the bulk and appearance of a wireless receiver.

The new docket proposes to reverse part of that original order and provide rights to wireless carriers that were not included in the first order. Under the proposed rules the wireless carriers would be automatically allowed to place a repeater or other similar device anywhere they have been given permission to mount a receiver. Effectively, when a customer grants a wireless carrier the right to mount a receiver on their home, they will also be conveying ‘ownership rights’ to the carrier for that small portion of their building.

Unlike in 2000 when repeaters were bulky, the repeaters used for millimeter wave radios are tiny and can easily be incorporated in any receiving dish. Very few homeowners or apartment owners will know or care that an active receiving antenna is also being used to bounce a signal to a neighboring customer. However, the controversy will arise when a customer stops using a wireless service and wants to take down the antenna. According to this new docket, that little circle of real estate around the receiver would now belong to the wireless carrier instead of the home or apartment owner and the carrier could insist that it stays in place.

The wireless carriers want this right due to the physics of delivering 5G using millimeter wave spectrum. Both lab tests and reports from the early 5G deployments from Verizon show that local obstructions can easily block a millimeter wave signal coming from a pole-mounted transmitter. However, a home that can’t get a clear shot from the pole unit might instead be able to get a clear signal that is bounced from a neighbor’s home. This kind of mesh network is going to be an integral part of distributing 5G broadband from poles.

This is clearly another land grab by the wireless carriers. If a customer disconnects service, they are likely to want to take down an unused antenna. This docket would give the wireless carrier the right to claim access to the area that was occupied by the former receiver. It’s not hard to picture the numerous disagreements and fights this will result from this order.

However, it’s also easy to sympathize with the wireless carriers. If a customer that is near to a pole drops service, the ISP might lose several other customers that relied on a signal from the disconnecting home. I can easily envision the controversies that will happen in neighborhoods if customers lose service due to an action taken by one of their neighbors. It’s not even hard to envision a homeowner taking down an antenna just to spite a neighbor.

This is ultimately an issue of authority. Many cities are already suing the FCC over the last wireless ruling saying that the placement of electronics in the right-of-way is a matter of local jurisdiction, not federal. The FCC’s authority seems even sketchier when extended to any home or structure within a thousand feet of a wireless transmitter. Can a wireless carrier be allowed to carve out a small piece of real estate on a building in perpetuity simply because that building once subscribed to a wireless service? Should the homeowner expect compensation for use of that real estate (like has been ordered by pole owners). Would a homeowner be expected to power a repeater when they no longer recieve service?

The FCC is clearly in favor of giving the authority to wireless carriers to deploy as they see fit. I am fairly certain that these issues are going to be resolved ultimately in the courts.

Rural America Deserved Better

I’ve often contended that the large telcos have made their money back several times over in rural America and could have comfortably rolled those profits back into rural networks. If they had done so then by now most of rural America would have at least 25/3 Mbps DSL and an upgrade to rural fiber would be underway.

Since the big telcos haven’t modernized rural networks for decades we are now faced with making the leap from poorly maintained copper straight to fiber. Sadly, the big telcos could have copied what smaller telcos have done – continually build a little fiber each year deeper into the rural areas to reduce the length of the copper loops. I’ve watched small telco clients over the last twenty years that have upgraded rural DSL from 1 Mbps to 6 Mbps to 15 Mbps and then to 25 Mbps or faster.

Instead, the big telcos built DSL in county seats and some other small towns in their service areas. Where the small telcos might have upgraded electronics three or four times since the late 1990s, the big telcos have likely upgraded the DSL in towns once, and perhaps in some lucky towns twice. This is why it’s still easy to go to rural towns all over the US and find maximum DSL speeds of 6 Mbps or 12 Mbps. The DSL electronics in many of these towns are now over ten or fifteen years old. The big telcos also rarely extended DSL outside of the town hubs. Customers that lived within a few miles of town were given DSL of perhaps 1 Mbps or 2 Mbps and customers further out were offered DSL that is often barely faster than dial-up.

This was all a deliberate decision. Upper management of the big telcos decided before 2000 that they weren’t going to extend DSL into the rural areas surrounding towns and they’ve made zero effort to do so since then. The big telcos failed their rural customers when they walked away from upgrading the copper and regulators mostly let them get away with it. The telcos had collected telephone revenues from the rural areas for decades before 2000. The telcos were all still regulated in 2000 and were all still considered as the carrier of last resort for telephone service. I think the FCC and state regulators screwed up when they didn’t also make them the carrier of last resort for broadband.

Some states tried to force the telcos to provide rural broadband. Pennsylvania is a famous example of bad behavior by the big telcos. In 1993 Bell Atlantic promised state regulators that they would bring universal broadband to cover over two million rural homes in the state. The state rewarded the telco by allowing a major rate increase, supposedly to help pay for the upgrades. It’s now 26 years later and the company that renamed itself as Verizon never made any of the promised upgrades. The rural valleys of central and western Pennsylvania have some of the worse rural broadband in America due to this broken promise.

The sad thing is that states like Pennsylvania had to try to bribe the telco to do the right thing. As regulated telcos, the companies should have routinely spent annual capital to improve the rural networks, a little each year. They were collecting the revenues to make it happen. What I find shortsighted about this decision by the telcos is that, if they had upgraded to decent rural broadband they likely would enjoy 80%+ broadband penetration rates in rural areas – all with zero competition. The telcos passed on the opportunity to make a lot of money.

It’s a lot harder today to make a business case to leap from copper to fiber – mostly because little rural fiber has already been built in many counties. If the big telcos had built fiber deep into the last mile, then the upgrade to fiber could have been gradually introduced over time. Instead, the big telcos simply all decided that they were quietly going to walk away from rural America without making any announcement they were doing so. For years they have talked about their commitment to rural America. They are putting out press releases even today patting themselves on the back for the CAF II upgrades – which was funded by the FCC but which should all have been funded over past decades using the revenues collected from rural customers.

If the big telcos had done what they were supposed to have done as regulated carriers, then the CAF II subsidies could have been used to aid them in upgrading to fiber in the last mile. We know this could work because most small rural telcos are making upgrades to fiber from the ACAM funds, which is equivalent to the CAF II funds, but for smaller telcos.

I lay a lot of blame on the regulators. Everybody in the industry understood what the big telcos were doing (and not doing). Regulators could have been a lot tougher and threatened to yank the big telco franchises in rural America. In the perfect world, regulators would have handed the rural service areas of the big telcos to somebody else twenty years ago when it was clear the telcos had all but abandoned the properties.

Telco regulation helped to build the copper networks that reach to rural homes and regulation should have been used to expand broadband. The sad part of all of this is that, if the telcos had done the right thing, then millions of homes in rural America would have decent broadband today, provided by the telcos, and the telcos would be benefitting from the revenues from those customers. Rural America deserved better.

The End of the Bundle?

There are a few signs in the industry that we are edging away from the traditional triple play bundle or telephone, cable TV and broadband. The bundle was instrumental in the cable company’s success. Back in the day when DSL and cable modems had essentially the same download speed the cable companies introduced bundles to entice customers to use their broadband. The lure of getting a discount for cable TV due to buying broadband was attractive and gave the cable companies an edge in the broadband marketing battle.

Over time the cable companies became secure in their market share and they created mandatory bundles, meaning they would not sell standalone broadband. Over time this spit the broadband market in cities – the cable company got customers who could afford bundles and the telco with DSL got everybody else. Many of the cable companies became so smug about their bundles that they forced customers to buy cable TV just to get their broadband. I’ve noticed over the last year that most of the mandatory bundles have died.

The bundle lost a little luster when the Julia Laulis, the CEO of CableOne, told her investors in February on the 4Q 2018 earnings call that the company no longer cares about the bundle. She said what I’m sure that many other cable companies are discussing internally, which is that the bundle doesn’t have any impact in attracting customers to buy broadband. On that call she said, “We don’t see bundling as the savior for churn. I know that we don’t put time and resources into pretty much anything having to do with video because of what it nets us and our shareholders in the long run. We pivoted to a data-centric model over five, six years ago, and we’ve seen nothing to derail us from that path.”

Her announcement raises two important issues that probably spell the eventual end of bundling. First, there is no real margin on cable TV. The fully loaded cost of the product has increased to the point where the bottom line of the company is not improved by selling cable. The only two big cable providers who might see some margin from cable TV are Comcast and AT&T since they own some of the programming but for everybody else the margins on cable TV have shrunk to nothing, or might even be negative.

I’ve had a number of clients take a stab at calculating the true cost of providing cable TV. The obvious big cost of the product is the programming fees. But my clients tell me that a huge percentage of their operational costs come from cable TV. They say most of the calls to customer service are about picture quality. They say that they do far more truck rolls due to cable issues than for any other product. By the time you account for those extra costs it’s likely that cable TV is a net loser for most small ISPs – as it obviously is for CableOne, the seventh largest cable company.

The other issue is cable rates. High programming rates keep forcing cable providers to raise the price of the TV product every year. We know that high cable prices are the number one issue cited by cord cutters. Perhaps more importantly, it’s the number one issue driving customer dissatisfaction with the cable company.

I have to wonder how many other big cable companies have come to the same conclusion but just aren’t talking about it. Interestingly, one of the metrics used by analysts to track the cable industry is average revenue per user (ARPU). If cable companies bail on the bundle and lose cable customers their ARPU will drop – yet margins might stay the same or even get a little better. If there is a new deemphasis on bundles and cable TV subscription the industry will need to drop the ARPU comparison.

It’s not going to be easy for a big cable company to back out of the cable TV business. Today there is still a penalty for customers who drop a bundle – dropping cable TV raises the price for the remaining products. We’ll know that the cable companies are serious about deemphasizing cable TV when that penalty disappears.

Why is the FCC Still Spinning Net Neutrality?

Chairman Ajit Pai and several other FCC Commissioners are still sticking with the story that regulation and net neutrality were quashing capital spending and innovation in the industry. This was the primary argument that justified killing net neutrality and gutting Title II regulation. Pai claimed that net neutrality was disrupting the big ISPs so much that they were reining in capital spending. Chairman Pai further claimed that killing regulation would free the big ISPs to expand their networks and to improve broadband coverage – he’s also repeatedly argued that without regulation that ‘the market’ would solve the rural broadband divide. Chairman Pai launched this story on his first day as Chairman and hasn’t let up – even now, over a year after the FCC successfully killed net neutrality and Title II regulation.

I find this to be unusual. Normally, when somebody in the industry wins a regulatory battle they quietly move on to the next issue, but at almost every public speaking opportunity the Chairman is still repeating these same talking points. I’ve been thinking about why Chairman Pai would keep harping on this argument long after he successfully killed net neutrality. I can think of a few reasons.

The Lawsuits. The FCC is probably concerned about the lawsuits challenging net neutrality. That order used some legal gymnastics in the FCC argument to kill Title II regulation. So perhaps Chairman Pai is continuing to make these same arguments as a way to let the courts know that keeping Title II regulation dead is still the number one priority of this FCC. I’m sure that if the courts challenge the FCC order that the agency will appeal, and so perhaps he continues to make the same arguments in anticipation of that coming court battle.

5G Deployment. In a very odd back-door way, the FCC has been using the net neutrality argument to grease the skids for an unregulated roll-out of 5G. The FCC’s message couldn’t be simpler: “all regulation bad / 5G and innovation good”.

I doubt that the average American understands the magnitude of what this FCC did when they killed Title II regulation. The agency basically killed its own authority to regulate what is probably the most important product it has ever regulated. Broadband is vital to both the economy and to people’s everyday lives. Yet this FCC thinks that their best regulatory role is to not regulate the industry in any manner. That means not regulating the many issues covered by net neutrality. It means not caring about consumer privacy on the web. It means not being concerned with runaway price increases and data caps. Killing Title II regulation means that future FCCs might have a hard time trying to reintroduce any regulation of broadband. The FCC handed the keys of the broadband industry to the monopoly ISPs and told them to run the industry as they see fit.

At the strong urging of the big wireless companies, this FCC wants to also make sure there are no restraints on 5G. It seems the only parties the FCC wants to regulate are those that might create roadblocks for 5G, such as cities that control rights-of-way.

Congress. Congress has the ability to permanently resolve the Title II and net neutrality battle. Congress could codify the current deregulated state-of-affairs or they could put Title II and net neutrality permanently back on the books. In fact, it’s the lack of Congressional action that led the FCC to kill net neutrality – they would much have preferred that Congress did it. But the Congress hasn’t undertaken any policy initiatives in the telecom industry since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, when most of us still were using dial-up.

There has been a lot of recent discussion in Congress on telecom issues and perhaps one of the reasons that Chairman Pai continues to lobby against net neutrality is to keep that position in front of Congress. However, it seems unlikely that any significant regulation is going to come out of a split Congress.

No Better Argument? Finally, and what is my favorite theory, perhaps the FCC doesn’t have any better argument about why they should be killing regulation. They’ve had years to come up with a story that the American people will buy, and the best they’ve come up with is that killing regulation will unleash innovation.

I think the FCC is afraid to touch the policy issues that the public really cares about. People in rural areas are adamant that the FCC finds a way to get them real broadband. The vast majority of broadband users are worried about being hacked and are worried about how the big ISPs are spying on them and selling their data. Everybody is concerned about the talk on Wall Street that encourages the big ISPs to significantly jack up rates. A large majority of the country cares about net neutrality and an open Internet. I can see why the FCC would rather stick with their story about how killing regulation unleashes innovation – because they are afraid of opening Pandora’s box to let all of these other issues into the open.

City Authority in Rights-of-Way

The California Supreme Court just joined the fray in the battle over the placement of small cells and other wireless equipment in public rights-of-ways. Currently, there are numerous lawsuits challenging the FCC ruling that wireless carriers can put their devices anywhere in the public rights-of-way. The California lawsuit preceded that order and was asking if a City has the right to dictate the appearance of wireless electronics.

We’ve recently seen wireless carriers hanging some fairly hideous devices on poles. The FCC order allows them to hang devices as large as 28 cubic feet, and that’s large enough to hang devices that sprawl across the sightlines on poles. Cities look at some of the early examples of devices on poles and are fearful of the proliferation of similar devices as each large wireless carrier and others begin hanging small cells and 5G fixed wireless loop devices.

The original suit came from T-Mobile that claimed that San Francisco had no authority to set aesthetics requirements for wireless devices. It is an interesting challenge because government entities have been dictating aesthetics requirements for years – such as cell sites one sees all over Florida that are disguised to look like palm trees – but which never do.

My guess is that T-Mobile has been emboldened by the recent federal law that guarantees wireless carriers access to utility poles, light poles and other locations inside of public rights-of-way. The FCC order effectively tells municipalities that they can’t reject requests to place devices and I’m guessing T-Mobile hoped that meant that cities had no authority over them.

T-Mobile relied on language in section 7901 of the California public utilities code:

Telegraph or telephone corporations may construct lines of telegraph or telephone lines along and upon any public road or highway, along or across any of the waters or lands within this State, and may erect poles, posts, piers, or abutments for supporting the insulators, wires, and other necessary fixtures of their lines, in such manner and at such points as not to incommode the public use of the road or highway or interrupt the navigation of the waters. (I must admit that one of the reasons I like to read legal cases is the language used in laws. This one uses the term incommode which means to inconvenience or impede.)

T-Mobile interpreted that law to mean that they have the right to construct facilities as long as they don’t obstruct the transmission path. They further argued that San Francisco could not regulate anything that is not specifically allowed by this same language.

The courts disagreed with T-Mobile’s reading of the law. The courts said that a city has inherent local authority to determine the appropriate use of land within its jurisdiction. That authority includes the right to establish aesthetic conditions for land use. The Court said the case boiled down to whether Section 7901 somehow divested the city of that inherent authority.

The Courts also said that T-Mobile’s interpretation of the term incommode was incorrect, in that T-Mobile thought they could hang a wireless device anywhere as long as they didn’t impede public road use or the ability of other utilities to use the poles. The Courts said that incommoded generally means inconvenience and that the city could object to a pole placement if it inconvenienced the city in other ways such as generating noise, causing negative health consequences, or creating safety concerns.

While the California ruling was very specific and ruled that the City of San Francisco could require wireless carriers to meet aesthetic requirements, the ruling and the discussion in the decision can be interpreted as being directly in opposition of the FCC order that allows wireless carriers to place small cells anywhere they want, without city interference.

Lawsuits generally rely on precedents and judges often consider rulings made in other courts on similar issues. It seems likely that this California Supreme Court ruling is going to make it into the challenges to the FCC ruling that preempted local control over small cell placement. That FCC ruling loses its teeth if cities can consider things like public safety or the safety of technicians that work on poles.

Wireless carriers are currently acting as if the FCC order is a done deal, even as it is being challenged by numerous states and cities. I’ve heard several people refer to carrier behavior as a land grab, where the carriers are grabbing connection space on poles even when they have no immediate use for them – they are getting on poles before courts might make it harder to do so. This Supreme Court ruling makes it clear that the small cell issue is far from resolved and we’re probably going to be following this in courts for at least a few more years.

Broadband Have-nots

In one of my recent blogs I talked about a few cities that had broadband penetration north of 90%, meaning that most households in those cities have broadband. I’ve run across three such cities this year. But there are also cities with a very different story. I saw a recent article about Syracuse, New York that claimed that 66% of the homes in the city have a landline broadband connection and only a little more than half of households have a connection that meets the FCC definition of broadband at 25/3 Mbps.

It’s easy to look at the national average broadband penetration rate of 84% and think that most people in cities across the country have broadband. This is particularly true when you adjust that national average to remove the millions of rural households that still have no landline broadband option, which adjusts the national average to over 90%.

We’ve always known that there is a correlation between income and broadband subscription rates – in fact, the basic definition of the urban digital divide is households that can’t afford broadband. We also know that in every larger city that the broadband penetration rates are not uniform but are lower in poorer neighborhoods.

I am concerned that the urban digital divide is going to get worse. Most industry analysts believe that we’ll see significant increases in broadband prices over the next decade. The big cable companies have little choice but to raise broadband rates if they want to maintain the steady bottom line revenue growth expected by Wall Street. This means that’s it’s likely over time that broadband penetration rates in cities are going to drop even lower.

Cities badly want to find a solution to the digital divide that is so heavily impacting low-income neighborhoods. They know there are huge negative impacts on households without broadband. There have been several recent studies showing that school students without home broadband lag behind students with broadband, and they never close the gap. Having whole neighborhoods that can’t afford broadband will be condemning whole generations of underperforming students, helping to perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

Syracuse is considering a solution that would bring some broadband to the neighborhoods that most need it. The city has a plan to buy 18,000 streetlights that would include outdoor WiFi hotspots. These WiFi units can produce decent broadband outdoors, but the strength of WiFi signals decrease significantly when passing through the exterior walls of buildings. While any broadband is better than nothing, outdoor WiFi units are not going to provide the same quality of broadband as a landline connection. Such efforts will likely be welcomed by residents without broadband, but this is still second-rate broadband compared to that given to households that can afford to buy broadband from the incumbent ISPs.

The dilemma for cities is that there is no easy solution to the digital divide. For Syracuse, the problem is mostly affordability and not access. Most of the homes without broadband probably have the option to buy from the incumbent providers. I say most because there are still poor neighborhoods present in almost every city that don’t have the same broadband infrastructure as the rest of the city. I’ve seen estimates that there are nearly as many residences in cities with no broadband option as are rural homes without broadband. It’s hard to know for sure because the areas without broadband are comprised of an apartment building here and a dead-end street there rather than big neighborhoods without broadband.

Cities often consider building their own broadband network as a solution to the digital divide. I undertake numerous broadband feasibility studies every year, and almost every city I’ve ever worked for has universal access to fiber as one of their primary goals. However, building fiber or any broadband infrastructure is expensive, and it’s usually hard to justify the cost of providing free or low-cost broadband to low-income homes. It’s challenging in a competitive environment to make enough profit from normal broadband customers to subsidize low-income homes.

We’ve been talking about the digital divide since the late 1990s when we saw the introduction of DSL and cable modems. In my mind, the problem is far worse today than it was then since broadband has grown to become a necessity of the same magnitude as having electric or water in a home. Unfortunately, I think the urban digital divide will be growing as broadband prices climb year after year.

Why We Have Crappy Rural Broadband

I believe that there are two simple reasons why we such poor landline infrastructure in rural America – the big telcos decided to walk away from rural America and the regulators let them do it.

It’s easy to contrast the rural areas served by the big telcos and the smaller telephone companies. A large percentage of the smaller telcos have built fiber in rural America and are offering broadband today as good as anything found in any city.

By contrast, the big telcos all stopped supporting copper many decades ago. The existing copper networks were largely built or rebuilt in the 1960s and 1970s by AT&T. However, soon after AT&T was split into the Baby Bells they decided to stop spending money to support rural America.

For example, I clearly remember in the 1980s when Bell Atlantic, which became Verizon, wanted to sell off the entire telco property in West Virginia. I worked with several groups trying to buy the network there. It became quickly clear that the telco had slashed maintenance for the West Virginia copper network. Bell Atlantic had shut down local customer service centers and steadily reduced the number of repair technicians. Bell Atlantic still happily collected the monopoly revenues in the state but didn’t roll any profits back into the network.

The big telcos didn’t only walk away front rural America. To rub salt in the would they worked hard to keep others from serving in the areas they abandoned. The big telcos undertook an aggressive policy of stopping anybody else from competing against them. They lobbied in every state legislature to pass laws to stop municipalities and electric cooperatives from competing against them. They worked tirelessly to weaken the 1996 Telecommunications Act and dragged their feet and took every opportunity to make it harder for CLECs to compete.

Their fight against competition hasn’t stopped. Just last year the big telco lobbyists were able to insert language in the new federal $600 million ReConnect grant / loan program that makes it hard to use the grant money to compete against the big telcos.

I was recently on a panel at the Broadband Properties convention and another panelist made a comment along the lines of, “it’s natural for the big ISPs in the industry to try to squash competition – that’s what big companies are expected to do”. That sentiment only works if the big telcos have been engaging in normal competition – but instead their actions have been monopoly abuse.

I don’t think you can find another industry where the monopoly abuses have been so blatant. I can’t think of another industry where the biggest companies not only kill off small competitors, but also aggressively lobby to keep competition out of the market. There is a gigantic difference between competition and monopoly abuse, and the lack of rural broadband can be chalked up almost entirely to monopoly abuse.

Susan Crawford recently suggested that the only long-term solution for rural broadband is to treat rural broadband networks as a regulated utility. What’s sad is that before 1980 that’s exactly what we had, but the regulators blew it and allowed the big telcos to walk away from their regulatory responsibilities.

I firmly believe that both state and federal regulators were completely complicit in allowing the big telcos to walk away from their networks. Some states tried to make the telcos do the right thing, but over time the big telcos wore down regulators by constant lobbying and by non-stop foot-dragging on anything required by regulators.

Not only did regulators not enforce existing regulations, but in most states they unbelievably deregulated the big telcos and lowered or removed any obligation of the big telcos to do a good job. It was easy to justify deregulation in urban competitive markets where cable companies competed with the telcos, but deregulation should never have been allowed in rural America where the telcos own the only landline network.

Regulators turned a blind eye as the big telcos ignored rural America for decades and then rewarded them by deregulating and shielding them from the consequences of the mess they had made of rural copper networks. I defy any regulator to tell me that they were looking out for their rural constituents when they deregulated the telcos. They should honestly all be ashamed, because protecting the public against monopoly abuse is one of the primary purposes of regulation. Regulators are the second culprit in why we have crappy rural broadband.

I’ve always wondered why some smart lawyers haven’t latched onto this story as the basis for a huge class action suit. The damage to rural America from not having broadband are almost incalculable. How do you even begin to quantify the damage to households with no broadband connection today – when it was clearly the responsibility of the big telcos to serve their monopoly customers and the responsibility of the regulators to make them do it?

Amazon Joins the Broadband Space Race

I wrote a blog just a few weeks ago talking about how OneWeb had fully leaped into the race to place broadband satellites by launching a few test satellites and also by raising a few more billion dollars to fund the venture.

It’s been rumored for several years that Amazon was also interested in the idea, but their plans have been under wraps. It just came to light that Amazon has taken the first public steps and had the FCC file paperwork with the International Telecommunications Union to make notice of Amazon’s intent to launch satellites.

Amazon filed with the FCC under the name of Kuiper Systems LLC. Space fans will recognize the corporate name as a reference to the Kuiper belt, which is the area of the solar system past Neptune that is believed to contain numerous comets, asteroids and other small objects made largely of ice.

Amazon has big plans and the ITU filing said the company wants to launch a constellation of 3,236 satellites in low earth orbit. That’s 784 satellites in orbit at 367 miles above the earth, 1,296 in orbit at 379 miles, and 1,156 in orbit at 391 miles. Added to the other companies that are talking about getting into the business that’s now more than 10,000 planned satellites.

We know that Jeff Bezos is serious about space. He owns a rocket business, Blue Origins, that is developing an orbital-class rocket called the New Glenn. That company already has some future contracts to make private launches for OneWeb and Telesat. Amazon also recently launched a cloud computing service knows as AWS Ground Station that is intended to provide communications data links between earth and object in outer space. We also found out recently that Bezos kept 100% control of Blue Origins as part of his divorce settlement.

None of the low-orbit satellite ventures have talked about broadband speeds, prices or customer penetration goals. The only one making any announcement was SpaceX who said that his Starlink satellites would be capable of making a gigabit connection to earth. But that’s a far cry from a realistic estimate of a broadband product and is the satellite version of the Sprint cellphone test that showed that millimeter wave spectrum could deliver gigabit speeds to a cellphone. It can be done but is incredibly hard and would involve synching big data pipes from multiple satellites to a single customer.

We got another clue recently when OneWeb asked the FCC for permission to eventually create 1 million links to earth-based receivers, meaning customers. That puts some perspective on the satellites and shows that they are not trying to bring broadband to every rural customer. But still, one million satellite connections would represent about 10% of the rural homes in the US that don’t have broadband today. If that’s their US goal it automatically tells me that prices will likely be high.

NASA and others in charge of space policy have also started talking recently about the potential dangers from so many objects in orbit. We don’t know the size of the Amazon satellites yet. But Elon Musk said his satellites would range in size from a refrigerator down to some that are not larger than a football. NASA is worried about collisions between manned space flights with satellites and space debris.

Amazon is still early in the process. They haven’t yet filed a formal proposal to the FCC discussing their technology and plans. They are several years behind OneWeb and Starlink in terms of getting a test satellite into orbit. But an Amazon space venture has the built-in advantage of being able to advertise a satellite broadband product on the Amazon website where the vast majority of Americans routinely shop. I can envision Amazon measuring the broadband speed of a customer connected to the Amazon website and popping up an offer to buy faster broadband.

It’s absolutely impossible to predict the impact these various satellite companies will have on US broadband. A lot of their impact is going to depend upon the speeds and prices they offer. A lot of rural America is starting to see some decent speeds offered by WISPs with newer radios. Every year some pockets of of rural America are getting fiber and gigabit speeds. Where might the satellites fall into that mix? We can’t forget that the need for broadband is still doubling every three years, and one has to consider the speeds that homes will want a decade from now – not the speeds households want today. We’re at least a few years from seeing any low-orbit broadband connections and many years away from seeing the swarm of over 10,000 satellites that are planned for broadband delivery.

Why Offer Fast Data Speeds?

A commentor on an earlier blog asked a great question. They observed that most ISPs say that customer usage doesn’t climb when customers are upgraded to speeds faster than 50 Mbps – so why does the industry push for faster speeds? The question was prompted by the observation that the big cable companies have unilaterally increased speeds in most markets to between 100 Mbps to 200 Mbps. There are a lot of different answers to that question.

First, I agree with that observation and I’ve heard the same thing. The majority of households today are happy with a speed of 50 Mbps, and when a customer that already has enough bandwidth is upgraded they don’t immediately increase their downloading habits.

I’ve lately been thinking that 50 Mbps ought to become the new FCC definition of broadband, for exactly the reasons included in the question. This seems to be the speed today where most households can use the Internet in the way they want. I would bet that many households that are happy at 50 Mbps would no longer be happy with 25 Mbps broadband. It’s important to remember that just three or four years ago the same thing could have been said about 25 Mbps, and three or four years before that the same was true of 10 Mbps. One reason to offer faster speeds is to stay ahead of that growth curve. Household bandwidth and speed demand has been doubling every three years or so since 1980. While 50 Mbps is a comfortable level of home bandwidth for many today, in just a few years it won’t be.

It’s also worth noting that there are some households who need more than the 50 Mbps speeds because of the way they use the Internet. Households with multiple family members that all want to stream at the same time are the first to bump against the limitations of a data product. If ISPs never increase speeds above 50 Mbps, then every year more customers will bump against that ceiling and begin feeling frustrated with that speed. We have good evidence this is true by seeing customers leave AT&T U-verse, at 50 Mbps, for faster cable modem broadband.

Another reason that cable companies have unilaterally increased speeds is to help overcome customer WiFi issues. Customers often don’t care about the speed in the room with the WiFi modem, but care about what they can receive in the living room or a bedroom that is several rooms away from the modem. Faster download speeds can provide the boost needed to get a stronger WiFi signal through internal walls. The big cable companies know that increasing speeds cuts down on customer calls complaining about speed issues. I’m pretty sure that the cable companies will say that increasing speeds saves them money due to fewer customer complaints.

Another important factor is customer perception. I always tell people that if they have the opportunity, they should try a computer connected to gigabit speeds. A gigabit product ‘feels’ faster, particularly if the gigabit connection is on fiber with low latency. Many of us are old enough to remember that day when we got our first 1 Mbps DSL or cable modem and got off dial-up. The increase in speed felt liberating, which makes sense because a 1 Mbps DSL line is twenty times faster than dial-up, and also has a lower latency. A gigabit connection is twenty times faster than a 50 Mbps connection and seeing it for the first time has that same wow factor – things appear on the screen almost instantaneously as you hit enter. The human eye is really discerning, and it can see a big difference between loading the same web site at 25 Mbps and at 1 Gbps. The actual time difference isn’t very much, but the eye tells the brain that it is.  I think the cable companies have figured this out – why not give faster speeds if it doesn’t cost anything and makes customers happy?

While customers might not immediately use more broadband, I think increasing the speed invites them to do so over time. I’ve talked to a lot of people who have lived with inadequate broadband connections and they become adept at limiting their usage, just like we’ve all done for many years with cellular data usage. Rural families all know exactly what they can and can’t do on their broadband connection. For example, if they can’t stream video and do schoolwork at the same time, they change their behavior to fit what’s available to them. Even non-rural homes learn to do this to a degree. If trying to stream multiple video streams causes problems, customers quickly learn not to do it.

Households with fast and reliable broadband don’t give a second thought about adding an additional broadband application. It’s not a problem to add a new broadband device or to install a video camera at the front door. It’s a bit of the chicken and egg question – does fast broadband speeds promote greater broadband usage or does the desire to use more applications drive the desire to get faster speeds? It’s hard to know any more since so many homes have broadband speeds from cable companies or fiber providers that are set faster than what they need today.

An IoT Bill of Rights

Parks Associates recently released a report saying that the average broadband home now has 10 connected IoT devices. This includes desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones but also today includes a wide arrange of other devices such as smart TVs, smart speakers and a wide range of smart home devices.

I remember back in 2013 when IoT was first being discussed that there was a lot of talk about creating an IoT Bill of Rights that would define the ethics that ought to be required for any smart device placed into people’s homes. The discussion then was that the benefits of smart devices could be outweighed by the harm that could come from IoT manufacturers secretly spying on us and collecting and selling personal data. There was also a lot of concern that IoT devices could provide entry points for hackers into home networks. That discussion largely died, and here we are six years later introducing IoT devices into our homes without any policies or standards defining the rights of smart device users or the obligations of manufacturers to protect privacy.

There were numerous concerns voiced in 2013 that are still valid concerns today, and unfortunately, are issues that most buyers of smart devices don’t think about:

Software Updates. We are used to routinely getting security patches and other software updates for our laptops and smartphone to keep us safe. However, few smart devices come with any mechanism for updates and over time become more vulnerable to hacking. You’ve probably heard the story of the casino that got hacked through a connection into a smart water pump in a fish tank. Hackers used that unprotected connection to gain access to the casino network. There ought to be a requirement that IoT software and firmware is somehow updated, and that would include figuring out how to deal with cases where a device manufacturer goes out of business for some reason. Unfortunately, most of our smart devices are never updated after we buy them.

Full Disclosure. There have been well-publicized cases where the public found out that IoT devices were listening in without their knowledge. There were big headlines when it was revealed that Samsung TVs could both listen and see into the living room. Parents panicked when it was revealed that Cayla dolls were listening to kids and sending conversations to unspecified data center. It’s nearly impossible today to know if a smart device includes a hidden microphone or camera since those devices are so small. Sellers of IoT devices should be required to clearly disclose when devices can watch or listen to buyers. There also should be required to provide clear instructions on how to disable unwanted surveillance.

The Sharing and Sale of IoT Data. Sellers of IoT devices ought to be required before purchase to provide full disclosure on what they do with data they collect from users. And these disclosures should be prominent and not buried in a fine print legalese terms of service document.  I read late last year that as many as 1,500 data points are now gathered on the average connected adult every day. A lot of these comes from location data on our smartphones, but much of it also comes from IoT devices in the home. Manufacturers that violate privacy promises given to customers should be fined heavily.

Data Retention. IoT device manufacturers also ought to disclose how long they keep our data. It’s always an eye-opener to do a Google search on yourself and see things from fifteen and twenty years ago. At the early stage of search engines there was talk about having non-headline data purged after six months – that obviously never happened. We are just now seeing large companies figure out how to make sense out of mountains of data. It’s dismaying to think that years of old data about us, that was probably never used, can be sold to create personal profiles on each of us.

User Control of Devices. In a perfect world, the user would have complete control over the IoT devices in the home. We ought to be able to decide what data is and is not shared. We ought to be to disable surveillance. We ought to be able to encrypt and store data locally that we want to use for ourselves.

We’ve come a long way with IoT since 2013. Then there were a handful of IoT devices like the Nest smart thermostat. If you believe the Parks Associates numbers most of us have brought numerous smart devices into our homes. I’m personally going to bet the Parks number of ten devices is low because many of us own devices that are capable of connecting to our WiFi that we don’t even think about.

We’re allowing all of these devices in our homes without full disclosure from the manufacturers, with no mechanism for keeping device security up-to-date, and with no idea what data is collected on us and how it’s being used.

As consumers we ought to be able to trust that the manufactures of IoT devices are protecting our data and privacy. It’s more likely though that many IoT device makers are hoping to monetize our data, and there’s no part of the government that I’m aware of that is working on the side of the consumer for these issues. We need an IoT bill or rights a lot more now than we did in 2013.