In the continuing saga of the FCC’s CAF II program, Frontier and CenturyLink recently notified the FCC that the companies did not fully meet upgrade obligations. The CAF II program flowed $11.2 billion to the big telcos over six years between 2015 and 2020. Frontier, CenturyLink, and AT&T were the three biggest recipients of the funding – but some also went to other big telcos like Fairpoint, Consolidated, Verizon, and Windstream. For agreeing to accept the funding, the telcos agreed to increase rural broadband speeds to 10/1 Mbps – which even in 2015 was slower than the FCC’s definition of broadband at 25/3 Mbps.
CenturyLink was the largest recipient of CAF II funding, accepting over $3 billion to improve broadband speeds to more than 1.1 million rural homes. CenturyLink just told the FCC that it met or exceeded its requirements in 10 states but failed to meet obligations in 23 states. Frontier accepted $1.7 billion to upgrade broadband to over 659,000 homes. Frontier just told the FCC that it met its obligations in only 8 states but didn’t meet the obligations in 17 other states. As a reminder, the companies had six years to make the needed upgrades.
I think that the real story on the street is far different than what these companies are telling the FCC. We have been working with rural counties all over the country, and part of that effort includes conducting speed tests. We have never yet found a rural DSL customer of CenturyLink, Frontier, or Windstream that had a speed of 10/1 Mbps or faster. The more typical download speed of rural DSL is just a few Mbps, with some homes seeing speeds under 1 Mbps. This is not to say there these telcos didn’t upgrade any DSL households – but we’ve never seen one. Our findings are bolstered by customers that have taken speed tests collected by M-Lab which show that a rural DSL customer achieving 10/1 Mbps is a rarity.
I can’t just point out Frontier and CenturyLink. We’ve worked in counties where the telco is Windstream and couldn’t find 10/1 Mbps rural DSL. AT&T claims that it has met its rural obligations through the use of rural cellular broadband. Customers have been telling us that it’s exceedingly hard to buy this product, and in many cases, it doesn’t meet the FCC’s speed requirements. That’s not hard to believe since many of the CAF II areas also have poor cellular coverage.
To add insult to injury, the FCC is flowing a seventh year of CAF II funding this year, with no specific obligations for the telcos to use the money to improve anybody’s broadband. That’s an additional $1.5 billion to the telcos in 2021, including $505 million to CenturyLink and $283 million to Frontier. I’m sure that rural residents are thrilled to hear that AT&T is getting an additional $49.8 million this year in Mississippi, CenturyLink is getting an additional $74.9 million in Missouri, and Frontier is getting an additional $38.1 million in West Virginia.
As if this story could get any worse, the FCC’s plans to police this program is largely a joke. The FCC will be conducting speed tests on CAF II areas to see if customers are achieving the desired speeds. Unbelievably, the telcos get a say on who gets tested. – and will choose the handful of customers that might meet the CAF II requirements. I call the tests a joke because a telco is going to pass the CAF II speed requirements if 70% of customers achieve 70% of the required speeds. That test means that the FCC was never serious about the telcos needing to upgrade to 10/1 Mbps. Even if the tests were given to all CAF II homes, a telco would still pass the test if it had made no upgrades to 30% of the CAF II households and then achieved download speeds of 7 Mbps for the rest. I’m positive that the telcos can’t come close to meeting even this watered-down test.
Rather than flowing extra money to the carriers in 2021, the FCC should be asking for a return of much of the original funding. The FCC doesn’t need to go through the fiction of conducting speed tests on a tiny fraction of the CAF II household. I’m positive that rural county administrators would love to tell their broadband story to the FCC. If the agency asked local officials to do speed tests in the CAF II areas, the agency could quickly get the real picture of the CAF II upgrades, instead of the fictions being told by the telcos.
The FCC is contemplating something along these lines. The agency is finally pursuing revamping the FCC broadband mapping, and one aspect of that revised program is to ask for citizen feedback on actual broadband speeds. If the FCC does that properly, then it will quickly see that much of what the telcos have reported as CAF II upgrades has been a sham. Until then, the FCC really needs to put 2021 CAF II payments on hold. And the agency needs to give serious thought to reclaiming the original funding that padded telco bottom lines rather than being used to upgrade rural broadband.