Grant Money Should Build for the Future

I filed comments with the Department of Treasury concerning the questions they asked about broadband speeds in the Interim Final Rules for how states, cities, and counties can spend the ARPA grant funds. The following is the gist of my comments.

Question 22: What are the advantages and disadvantages of setting minimum symmetrical download and upload speeds of 100 Mbps? What other minimum standards would be appropriate and why?

Treasury is asking the wrong question when asking about current speed requirements. Federal grant money should only be used to build technology that will be capable of meeting broadband demands at least a decade from now. A technology deployment built to meet today’s speed requirements starts being obsolete almost immediately after it’s constructed.

I think 100 Mbps download is an adequate definition of broadband in 2021, and I doubt that there will be many arguments against a 100 Mbps requirement since most currently deployed technologies can deliver this speed.

There will be a huge outcry against 100 Mbps upload speeds since major technologies like cable company HFC networks, fixed wireless, and fixed cellular can’t deliver fast upload speeds. Treasury can’t be swayed by this argument – grant money should only be used to deploy technology that meets public broadband demand both today and into the future. ISPs are free to use their own money to deploy any technology – but federal money is precious and should be held to a higher standard.

In looking out only a decade, and using a conservative 21% annual growth rate in broadband speeds, the definition of broadband a decade from now should conservatively be 600/200 Mbps. That’s what I recommend as a reasonable goal for federal grant funding.

Question 24: What are the advantages and disadvantages of setting a minimum level of service at 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload in projects where it is impracticable to set minimum symmetrical download and upload speeds of 100 Mbps? What are the advantages and disadvantages of setting a scalability requirement in these cases? What other minimum standards would be appropriate and why?

As described earlier, I think federal grant funding ought to be used to support a network that will still be viable a decade from now. My best guess of the upload requirement for a family of four today is between 30 Mbps and 40 Mbps. In looking forward a decade, that means upload speed requirement for a federal grant should be between 200 Mbps and 270 Mbps.

I think there are ISPs using major technologies like cable HFC networks, fixed wireless networks, and fixed cellular networks that are going to suggest that the proper upload speed for a grant should be 20 Mbps or less. Our vast experience of conducting broadband surveys all over the country during the pandemic showed us that a 20 Mbps upload path is already not always adequate today for a home with multiple people working or schooling from home at the same time. If Treasury sets the definition as low as major industry players are likely to suggest, then those networks will launch as already inadequate and will become badly obsolete as time goes by.

Question 25: What are the advantages and disadvantages of focusing these investments on those without access to a wireline connection that reliably delivers 25 Mbps download by 3 Mbps upload? Would another threshold be appropriate and why?

I think Treasury has identified one of the biggest problems with previous federal broadband grants by now saying that the test for grant eligibility is that an ISP can “reliably” deliver at least 25/3 Mbps. The reality is that much of the technology that is reported to the FCC today as being capable of 25/3 Mbps delivers far slower speeds.

We need to talk about real-life networks using three different definitions of speed – maximum speed, minimum speed, and marketing speed. The maximum speed is the fastest speed that a given technology can achieve in ideal conditions. But network conditions are rarely ideal, except perhaps when a single home is using a node at 3:00 AM – and even then, there could be slowdowns from node congestion outside of the neighborhood.

Minimum speeds are something we’ve always referred to as actual speeds. These are the speeds we see on speed tests, and they rarely equal the maximum speed.

Marketing speeds are something else altogether, and some ISPs advertise numbers close to actual speeds while others advertise purely fictional speeds that are greater than the maximum speeds. Unfortunately, the FCC allows ISPs to report marketing speeds, and this is one of the big contributors to the lousy FCC mapping data.

Areas should qualify for federal grant funding based upon the minimum speeds actually delivered to customers and should not use the maximum theoretical speed or the advertised marketing speeds.

My full comments are here: CCG Consulting Comments on Broadband Speeds.

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