Funding Copper Again? Really?

One of the oddest things in an extremely odd RDOF auction is that the FCC allowed bidders to seek funding with promises of upgrading telephone fiber. Both CenturyLink and Windstream won funding in some places for improving rural DSL. This is disturbing on several levels.

First, these companies took money in the past to make these same upgrades, in some instances to the same properties. The FCC awarded over $11 billion in 2015 with the CAF II grants for the big telcos to upgrade rural DSL to speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps. That grant program just finishes this month since the telcos had six years to make the upgrade. Anybody working in the CAF II areas will tell you that the speed increases never happened. We conducted speed tests in rural counties without ever seeing a single DSL reading even approaching the 10/1 goal. We’ve had engineers crawl around the rural DSL deployments in counties and could see no evidence of upgrades.

I can’t say that the big telcos didn’t make any upgrades in CAF II. I’ve seen evidence of DSL getting better in county seats, and by definition, such improvements might stretch a mile or so into the areas surrounding towns. But such upgrades don’t help the rural areas covered by CAF II that are farther outside of towns. There may be entire counties where the big telcos legitimately made the rural upgrades, but I haven’t seen or heard about any of them.

To add insult to injury for the rural people that never saw faster broadband, the FCC is allowing the big telcos to get a seventh year of CAF II funding, to be paid in 2021. The telcos have zero obligations to make any improvements with the nearly $2.4 billion that will be coming their way. That money could have been better used being given to a program to expand rural broadband.

Or could it? The FCC has not learned any lessons from the CAF II debacle and allowed big telcos to again receive funding to improve rural DSL in the RDOF auction. This time the funding will be paid out over ten years and the winners of the RDOF grant have six years to make the upgrades. And this time the speed requirements are a lot higher, depending upon what the telcos promised in the RDOF short forms. The minimum speeds required from RDOF are 25/3 Mbps, although I’m hearing the telcos promised even faster speeds from DSL in some cases.

The real situation on the ground is that the big telcos can’t make these kinds of upgrades in rural America even if they wanted to. The big telcos have ignored maintenance on rural copper for decades and the copper is dead or dying. Month after month, additional pairs of rural copper go permanently dark and can’t be used. The networks are now dying.

Any big telco that says that they can bring rural copper to speeds of 25/3 Mbps or faster is lying – ask any of the big telco copper technicians. That would be a challenge in a rural area even somebody built brand-new copper plant. The smaller telcos made upgrades to DSL on rural copper twenty years ago, and even then, it was a big challenge. The expected life on a copper network is between 40 and 50 years, and most of the rural copper plant was built in the 1960s and 1970, with some even older. We’re entering a new decade where most of our rural copper networks are between 50 and 70 years old.

We need to stop pretending that allowing big telcos to take money to upgrade copper is anything other than a regulatory gift. AT&T finally told the truth about copper networks and is no longer adding any new customers onto DSL. It’s now only a matter of time before the company starts tearing down copper.

Most people don’t realize how remote and rural the areas are that are being funding by the RDOF grants. These are not areas that are close to county seats – but are instead the most remote parts of counties. These networks probably could not be upgraded to 25/3 Mbps speeds on copper with twice the money being awarded by the RDOF grants.

And the real killer of all of this is that any such upgrades would be a giant waste of federal money even if the upgrades could be made. The same FCC that is still allowing telcos to get grant money for DSL also has its head in the sand pretending that 25/3 Mbps is adequate broadband.

The big losers in all of this are people that live in the areas that will see grant awards go to copper. They were told they would get better broadband in 2015 with CAF II and that never happened. They now will be string out until 2027 with no improvement in broadband. When you reduce this debacle to homes where people can’t work from home and where students can’t do homework, this is a tragedy. But obviously not enough of a tragedy for the FCC to stop funding upgrades to telephone copper.

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