U.S. Broadband Prices – High or Low?

Over the years, I’ve seen a number of studies that ask how U.S. broadband prices stack up against the rest of the world. Interestingly, in 2021 I saw reports at both ends of the spectrum. One report says that U.S. broadband prices are among the most expensive in the world. At the other extreme is a report that claims that U.S. broadband prices are low and that prices are falling.

Let’s start with the high price claim. The most recent look comes from CompareTheMarket that claims that the average U.S. residential price for broadband is $66.13 and is the ninth most expensive in the world. The study compares a broadband product in each country that offers unlimited bandwidth and that delivers speeds of at least 60 Mbps download. According to this report, the only places with higher prices than the U.S. are Ethiopia, UAE, Qatar, Zimbabwe, Oman, Honduras, Saudi Arabia, and Iceland.

The calculated $66.13 price seems realistic to me and is similar to numbers I’ve been gathering all year through surveys. The CompareTheMarket price is only for broadband and doesn’t include a WiFi modem. I’ve been seeing average prices that include the WiFi modem generally range between $70 and $75 per month. It’s worth noting that the big ISPs have been quietly burying the cost of broadband in the modem fee, with one of the highest fees being the $14 monthly fee from Comcast.

There is another report that claims that U.S. Broadband prices are not only affordable but are falling from year to year. This comes from the 2021 Broadband Pricing Index Report published by USTelecom, the lobbying arm of the biggest ISPs in the country. That report makes some outrageous claims. For example, it claims that the price of the most popular tier of broadband declined by 7.5% between 2020 and 2021 – something that’s impossible to believe when Comcast and Charter, which together are half of the broadband industry, each had a significant rate increase during that period.

It’s impossible to understand what USTelecom is comparing since there are zero statistics cited to back up its numbers. It seems to be relying on the fact that the price per megabit has been decreasing – which I don’t think anybody disputes.  It’s clear that consumer broadband speeds have risen at a faster pace than prices. But that’s not what the report is implying – a casual reader would have to assume the report means that out-of-pocket prices to customers are dropping.

USTelecom puts out this report every year, and I always find it rankling. There is no consumer in the U.S. who thinks their ISP is cutting broadband prices. Some ISPs still negotiate with customers that ask for lower rates, but overall, broadband prices from the big cable companies that control most of the market keep rising year after year.

Comcast just announced an overall 3% price increase across the board for January 2022, but I haven’t yet seen this expressed in specific product prices. This comes on top of the basic broadband at Comcast that I calculate to cost $90. That’s $76 for the basic standalone broadband package (100 Mbps or 200 Mbps in most markets), plus $14 for the WiFi modem. The rate increase would put the new price at around $93.

I have to think that the USTelecom report is aimed at providing cover for politicians that support the big ISPs. There are no consumers who feel like broadband prices are dropping – unless perhaps they are in a market where a new competitor showed up during the last year. But USTelecom and the big ISPs want politicians to think the ISPs are looking out for the public during the pandemic.

I know I shouldn’t get worked up over these kinds of shenanigans from the big ISPs. But it’s aggravating to see them peddle such blather since the purpose behind these untruths is to lobby policymakers. This is a story the ISPs want legislators to hear to tell at a time when the big ISPs know that the FCC is likely to reintroduce broadband regulation. The message from the big ISPs is clear, “Why regulate us? Look how well we’re taking care of the public without regulation”. Tell that to the families paying $90 per month for Comcast broadband – assuming they don’t exceed Comcast’s data cap and pay even more.

The Future of the Universal Service Fund

The FCC adopted a Notice of Inquiry on December 15 that asks for comments about the future of the Universal Service Fund. There is not a lot of time to respond with the holidays in the middle since comments are due on January 18. But the NOI is asking the right questions.

High-Cost Programs. On the topic of the High-cost programs, it asks how the giant BEAD grants will impact the future of the FCC broadband awards. It asks if there should be an additional round of RDOF. It asks if some of the highest-cost areas constructed with the BEAD grants will need ongoing high-cost support. It asks if the FCC should adopt a standard of 100/20 Mbps as a requirement for future high-cost support. It asks about the use of future reverse auctions.

Lifeline. The NOI asks about the future of the existing Lifeline fund in light of the funding given to the EBB program and now to the ACP program that provides a larger monthly broadband subsidy.

E-Rate. The NOI asks if the E-Rate program for schools and libraries should be changed due to anything that came out of the Infrastructure Act. It asks about ways to protect against waste, fraud, and abuse.

Rural Health Care. The NOI asks if the program changes due to telehealth funding in the Infrastructure Act.

Funding. The NOI asks if the method of funding the USF should be changed.

I’ve written about all of these questions before. Here are a few quick thoughts I have on these questions – each question deserves a much longer response:

The FCC’s high-cost funding has outlived its usefulness. While this funding did a lot of good and helped telcos build rural fiber, it also made some telco owners rich through overpayments. The overpayments became obscene when the FCC gave $11 billion in CAF II funding to the big telcos and then ignored the reports that upgrades weren’t being done. The RDOF reverse auction is a giant mess and will turn into a disaster if the FCC doesn’t soon kill off unworthy awards in favor of BEAD grants. It’s time to kill this program completely, get the FCC out of the broadband funding business, and downsize the USF accordingly. The need for broadband funding can always be revisited in a decade if some rural places still need ongoing support. But even revisiting the idea is suspect because the FCC is always going to rely on poor mapping and inadequate cost models to determine who gets funded.

The $9.95 Lifeline fund still has some use to support cellphone for homeless and other forgotten communities. But the monthly subsidy is too small to make home broadband more affordable. The FCC should either re-purpose the Lifeline fund to strictly support low-income cellphones or kill the program.

The E-Rate program provides noticeable benefits to schools and has brought gigabit broadband to some of the poorest parts of the country. I’ve never heard anything but good about the Rural Health Care funding.

As far as funding – if the High-cost fund and Lifeline programs are curtailed or eliminated then the amount of needed funding drops drastically. But I think a more fundamental question needs to be asked. Why is the FCC still being allowed to operate a giant slush fund? A huge percentage of the funding over the years has gone to the big ISPs. The USF has been riddled with stories of abuse and fraud. The primary problem with the USF is that regulators are trying to run national one-size-fits-all programs without the needed facts or staffing to do it right. I think it’s time to have a conversation about ending the Universal Service Fund. The E-Rate and Rural Health Care programs are successful, but they are something that should be funded by Congress. Let’s get regulators out of the funding business and aim the agency back towards their primary goal of regulating the broadband industry – instead of funding the companies the FCC is supposed to be overseeing.

Broadband Mapping Woes Continue

The FCC’s plan to fix broadband mapping is progressing slowly. I think by now that everybody in the industry understands how lousy the FCC maps have been. Through a combination of dumb mapping rules and ISPs overreporting broadband speeds, the current maps sometimes completely miss the mark.

Congress got involved and passed legislation to require the FCC to fix the maps. In March 2020, Congress passed S.1822, the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technology Availability (DATA) Act. That bill requires the FCC to gather granular service data for wired, fixed wireless, and satellite broadband providers. It requires the FCC to consider using state broadband mapping data where states have tried to create a better picture of broadband. It also requires a crowdsourcing process to allow the public to participate in data collection. The Act provides for penalties against ISPs that knowingly or recklessly submit inaccurate mapping data. Finally, the Act requires the FCC to use better maps when making awards for broadband funding.

But as often happens in the government, this bill didn’t provide any funding to make the needed changes. The FCC started the process of formulating new rules after the passage of the Act, but didn’t take any action to fix the maps due to lack of funding.

Congress finally provided $98 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) in December 2020 that included $65 million to create better maps. During that same month, the FCC completed the $7 billion RDOF reverse auction that was still based upon the lousy mapping – seemingly in violation of the Act.

In February of this year, the FCC under acting chair Jessica Rosenworcel established the Broadband Data Task Force with the aim of implementing the goals of the DATA Act and fixing the mapping. The FCC kicked off the new Broadband Data Collection (BDC) program in March 2021 to change the way that mapping data is collected from ISPs. The federal procurement process is slow, and the FCC finally released the RFP to hire a vendor to fix the mapping and eventually awarded a $45 million contract to CostQuest Associates.

In November, LightBox challenged that RFP award. According to federal procurement rules, it will take at least one hundred days for the FCC to deal with that challenge.

Meanwhile, it is raining federal broadband grant monies. There was a huge amount of potential grant funding in the ARPA legislation that gave some grant monies to federal agencies like the NTIA and the RUS. But that legislation gave far more money directly to cities, counties, and states – much of it directed at broadband. In November, Congress added another $42.5 billion in grants to the pile of federal money that is on the way.

All of these grants include some sort of speed test threshold to define what is eligible for grant funding. That’s going to require relying on the FCC maps. People all over the country are already making plans for applying for the BEAD grants, and they will be hindered all next year while waiting on the maps.

The FCC was recently asked by Congress for a status of the mapping update and the FCC has no estimated timeline for the introduction of revised mapping. I’ve talked to several knowledgeable folks who are estimating that it will be at least early 2023 before we get a gander at revised mapping. I think everybody expects the first version of the new maps to be a mess as ISPs try to interpret how to report in the new mapping system. In fact, that was one of the purposes for having a challenge process. It’s hard to think that it won’t be well into 2023 before the maps are scrubbed to the point of making sense.

And after all of that, I still hold out little hope for the new maps. ISPs are still going to be reporting theoretical marketing speeds instead of actual speeds. Further, as I wrote in a recent blog, there is no way to map actual speeds – it’s a futile quest. I personally don’t think it’s possible to create an accurate broadband map when two neighbors can experience different broadband speeds from the same ISP. But hopefully, we can at least improve the mapping to the point where the maps don’t stop neighborhoods from getting broadband upgrades.



Idle Fiber

Just in the last few months, I have talked to several rural residents and businesses who are furious that they can’t get fiber broadband even though there is fiber close to their home or business. They can’t understand why the uncaring company that owns the fiber can’t make the tiny investment needed to connect them to fiber that’s already tantalizingly close to them. I’m pretty sure that none of these folks are satisfied with my explanations of why they aren’t likely to get connected. It’s likely that these folks won’t get fiber for the reasons discussed below.

The most common reason is that the fiber that runs close to the home and business is likely middle-mile fiber. This is fiber that runs between two distant points. At the extreme, the middle-mile fiber might be part of a long-haul fiber route connecting two distant states. It’s economically infeasible to break into the middle-mile fiber. I recently had a conversation with a long-haul fiber provider that quoted a price of $2 million for a long-term contract to snag a single fiber on a fiber route that runs between the East Coast and the Midwest. Obviously, these middle-mile routes are too valuable to serve last-mile customers.

But carriers are also usually reluctant to break into shorter transport fiber routes, like fiber between two neighboring communities. What will drive people nuts is that a fiber owner could use these types of middle-mile fiber routes to serve customers if there are spare fibers. But there are two reasons to not use middle-mile routes for last-mile service. The first is technical. Every fiber splice point added to an existing fiber will slightly degrade a fiber’s performance. If a middle-mile route wasn’t designed to have multiple splice points, the owner is not going to put the middle-mile investment at risk.

But the main reason carriers don’t break into existing middle-mile fiber routes is economic. There is often no reasonable business case for serving just a few customers off an existing fiber. It’s expensive to add a few customers onto an existing transport fiber route. An ISP would have to build an FTTP hub in the area. That might mean land, a hut, core electronics, and an ongoing utility bill to keep electricity at the new hut. The ISP also must consider the cost of the fiber drops – which get expensive after a few hundred feet. The ISP also now haw to make sure there is a technician within easy range of the new customers. Unless there is an opportunity for adding a lot of customers from a new splice point, it probably makes no financial sense. You can’t just drop off a fiber to serve just a few people – the math for doing so is likely not pretty.

There is one situation that I think rightfully infuriates folks. State legislators have typically made sure that fiber built with state funding can’t be used for commercial purposes. This is obviously done at the prodding of big ISP lobbyists. This means that fibers built to connect to city halls or to connect schools together can’t be used for anything else if these fibers include a whiff of state funding.

State-funded fibers don’t just come close to rural households – the fibers often run through towns and cities, often deep into residential neighborhoods to reach schools, firehouses, and other government buildings. In these kinds of cases, it would be economically feasible to use such fiber as the launch point for last-mile fiber.

People can’t blame the school systems or the counties that build such fiber – the fault comes from restriction at the state level. I was flabbergasted a few decades ago the first time I encountered this, but I’ve come to learn that this is a common practice. Even many states that allow municipal competition usually draw a line for using state-funded fiber for any commercial purposes. Such fiber might sit idle and unused forever because of the way they were originally funded.

The final category of fiber that drives people crazy comes from commercial entities that elect to use the fiber only for themselves. A perfect example of this is Duke Power, the electric utility in my part of the world. The company used to have a thriving wholesale fiber business that leased fibers to ISPs. But a few years ago, the company decided to completely get out of the fiber leasing business, and the company now doesn’t let any other entities share its fiber. The utility probably owns the most extensive fiber network in my part of the world, including fiber that reaches deep into neighborhoods. The utility cited security as the reason to stop sharing fiber, but there are easy ways to share fiber with responsible carriers that add zero security risks.

Not Giving Up on CAF II

Brandon Presley, a Commissioner on the Public Service Commission of Mississippi, recently sent a letter to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel asking the FCC to investigate AT&T’s performance under the CAF II program. This FCC program gave AT&T $280 million to improve rural broadband speeds in the state to at least 10/1 Mbps.

Presley’s letter follows a request a year earlier from all three Mississippi Commissioners asking the FCC to conduct a full compliance audit on AT&T. The letter said that the PSC had documented specific examples of where AT&T had not done any upgrades, including listing homes as having improved service that have no broadband service.

This is an issue that I’ve written about many times. My consulting firm helps rural counties across the country undertake large volumes of speed tests – and in some counties, we can’t find any rural DSL customers who are receiving 10/1 Mbps DSL. These counties weren’t just served by AT&T, and we’ve seen the same thing happening in counties served by Frontier, CenturyLink, and Windstream.

To be fair to the telcos, the problem is not universal. We have done speed tests in counties where most rural DSL speeds exceed 10/1 Mbps. But it looks to us like there are a lot of places where the telcos didn’t do much, if anything, with the CAF II funding. In many of our studies, we also do field engineering inspections, and we’ve often found no new fiber construction and rural DSL cabinets still running old DSL technology. We’ve seen in many counties where the DSL speeds in the county seats has improved, and we speculate that the telcos upgraded the town DSL using the CAF II but didn’t spend the money as promised in the rural areas.

We no longer have to rely on our small sample of county speed tests because the recent NTIA maps and the DSL maps created by some states show the same thing. Those maps are often created by huge numbers of speed tests. We know that speed tests are not perfect, but when large-scale speed tests show that nobody is meeting the CAF II 10/1 Mbps target that it’s pretty certain that no upgrades were made.

As you might expect, AT&T denies the allegations in Mississippi. They claim to “have invested billions of dollars, building out our wired and wireless networks across Mississippi, and we are proud of the work we have done as a company to keep communities connected and help fuel Mississippi’s economy. . . We are also proud of the work we have done through federal and state programs that help expand critical connectivity in underserved and unserved areas, including the FCC’s Connect America Fund Phase II program. We have worked closely with the FCC and USAC on this program and any suggestion that we filed false data is patently incorrect.”

The AT&T situation is more complicated than the other big telcos because AT&T largely says it is meeting the CAF II requirements using fixed cellular service. It’s probably true that customers today who are in the range of AT&T towers that have received the new bands of frequency being labeled as 5G can receive faster broadband. But those new cellular networks don’t reach everybody in rural areas, and there are still a lot of cellular dead spots. More importantly, AT&T only started to upgrade the rural cellular networks after the end of the CAF II program.

Hopefully, this issue soon becomes history if the new round of federal grants brings faster broadband to these rural areas. But Commissioner Presley is worried that AT&T and the other big telcos will chase the new funding and will repeat history by underperforming on promises made to regulators.

This also raises the question about whether there should be large penalties against the telcos who didn’t make the upgrades. It would not be hard for the FCC to make a list of counties where upgrades weren’t made. They have access to large amounts of speed tests, and they could also activate local governments to investigate and provide feedback.

I personally think the right remedy is that the telcos must return the full amount of funding in areas where they didn’t make upgrades and that money ought to supplement the BEAD grants and be given to whoever is going to bring better broadband to the affected counties.

Ideally, the FCC or other federal agencies would prohibit any telco that is caught cheating in this manner from getting any further rural subsidies. The big telcos are lining up to pursue the $42.5 billion in BEAD grants that will probably be awarded a year or so from now. AT&T recently announced that these big grants have enticed it to add a goal of 5 million new fiber passings in rural areas. Since those grants are administered by the states, AT&T might have a challenge getting any of the BEAD grants if State officials like Commissioner Presley have any input on the grant winners.

Big Telcos and Federal Grants

Several large telcos have announced big plans to expand fiber coverage, and I assume that also means heavily participating in the upcoming $42.5 billion BEAD grants that are aimed primarily at bringing better broadband to rural areas.

When Frontier came out of bankruptcy, the company announced plans to pass 6 million homes with fiber by 2025. As part of its Build Gigabit America plan, the company raised that goal to 10 million homes. Frontier already has undertaken the first step in that plan. It set a goal of 495,000 new fiber passings for 2021 but recently announced that it expects to hit 600,000 passings for the year.

AT&T also has big plans. The company has been steadily building a fiber customer base and announced at the end of the third quarter that it now has 5.7 million fiber customers, representing a 37% market share of its 15.4 million fiber passings. A year ago, AT&T announced a goal to pass 25 million homes and businesses by 2025 – another 10 million passings. CEO John Stankey announced recently that the federal infrastructure bill will entice AT&T to increase that goal to 30 million passings, adding 5 million rural passings.

Windstream didn’t express expansion plans in terms of passings but announced this past summer that it is embarking on a $2 billion fiber expansion plan. It seems likely that the federal grants will entice the company to tackle even more growth.

Consolidated Communications is passing 300,000 new potential customers with fiber this year and has plans to continue fast growth into the future. I couldn’t find any specific plan related to federal grants, but I speculate that the company is likely going to chase grants close to existing properties.

The big mystery is CenturyLink. The company is passing 400,000 locations with fiber this year. But the company also announced the sale of its copper networks in twenty states.

It’s likely that all of these telcos want to benefit from the huge upcoming federal grants. The easiest ways for telcos to take advantage of the federal grant is to plan to overlash fiber onto existing telco copper where the companies are already the incumbent. But if the grants are lucrative enough, they might seek grants in other areas as well.

It would be interesting to be a fly on the walls of the corporate board rooms of these big telcos to see how they feel having the huge federal funding flowing through the states. The big companies have always done well with subsidies coming directly from the federal government, such as the $11 billion CAF II subsidies.

But will the telcos do as well with funding being decided at the state level? State regulators and state governments across the country have been unhappy with the way that the big telcos abandoned rural telephone networks. Most states have been able to make an easy comparison between smaller telcos and cooperatives that have invested in rural fiber and the big telcos that have done as little as possible to keep rural networks operating.

I’m curious about the degree to which the big telcos might have burned their bridges with past behavior. I know a lot of state regulators and state broadband offices who will not want to see money going to the companies that were largely responsible for creating the rural broadband gap. Are states going to be willing to give another chance to these big telcos?

I am sure that the state politics involving these grants is going to get intense. Most of the broadband offices that will be awarding these grants will be understaffed and under a lot of pressure to spend the grant money on schedule. Legislators are bound to get involved in some states to try to steer the grant process, although the federal money must meet federal grant rules set by the NTIA. Governors will also weigh in on the issue, and in some states, the grant offices are part of the executive branch. State regulators who have tussled with the big telcos will weigh in. And the public is likely to make itself heard as communities are coalescing around grant applications.

It’s going to be nearly impossible to follow grant policies and trends everywhere when all fifty states will be embarking on a giant grant program at the same time. One thing is for sure – the next few years are going to be interesting.

Build It, and They Will Fill It.

I assume that most people know the famous line from Field of Dreams where the disembodied voice promises, “Build it, and he will come.” For twenty years, I’ve been advising broadband clients against taking that advice. It doesn’t make any sense to invest a lot of money into building a broadband network without first having done enough market research to know that people will buy your services.

Today I want to talk about a similar-sounding idea – build it, and they will fill it. This is a shorthand way to describe the unbelievable growth in broadband demand. I’m now warning clients to build new networks that are robust enough to handle the future demand that will inevitably be coming from customers.

We have a lot of evidence of the fast growth of broadband usage. Center stage is statistics from OpenVault that has reported on the average nationwide broadband usage by homes as follows:

1st Quarter 2018          215 Gigabytes

1st Quarter 2019          274 Gigabytes

1st Quarter 2020          403 Gigabytes

1st Quarter 2021          462 Gigabytes

It’s easy to think that the usage spike created by the pandemic is an anomaly, but recent broadband growth has been only slightly higher than the long-term growth trend. The amount of bandwidth used by the average home has been doubling about every three years for several decades.

Another statistic from OpenVault tells a similar story. OpenVault has labeled households that use more than a terabyte of data per month as power users. The percentage of power users has grown from 4% of all homes at the end of 2018 to almost 11% by the middle of 2021.

There are two reasons that average household broadband usage has been growing. Over time, homes are finding new ways to use broadband while also using more broadband for the things we’ve always done.

I think most of us see how familiar tasks are using more broadband. A few years ago, I used Microsoft Word and Excel locally on my computer and the only time I used bandwidth was when I sent a document to somebody else. Today, my files are automatically stored in the cloud as I type, and I also keep another backup copy of everything in a different cloud. I also participate in collaboration software that stores some of the same documents again. For somebody that creates as many spreadsheets and word documents as me, this is a major increase in home broadband usage.

But it’s the new uses of broadband that really add up. New uses of broadband are coming along every day. Just a few years ago, I talked almost exclusively on my cellphone. Today I probably average three hours per day on video calls. As a sports fan, it’s not unusual for me to be streaming two or three 4K games at the same time. I’m not a gamer, but the major game platforms were all in the process of migrating to the cloud just as the pandemic hit. Our Subaru dumps a big file into the cloud every time we pull into our driveway. YouTube has started accepting 8K video that requires a 50 Mbps download stream. There are already early experimental HD virtual reality streams online.

I’m regularly asked why fiber is superior to technologies like wireless or satellite networks – and the answer is easy. Anybody who builds a new broadband network must be prepared for that network to carry ten times more broadband traffic in a decade and one hundred times more traffic in twenty years. Fixed wireless networks are not going to be able to do that. Satellite networks won’t even come close. Until the cable companies make major upgrades, they are already fallen badly behind the demand curve for upload bandwidth.

If you build a fiber network, your customers will fill it. When it gets too busy you can upgrade electronics and start the growth cycle all over again.

My 2022 Predictions

It’s that time of the year for me to get out the crystal ball and peer into 2022.

The FCC Will Tackle Broadband Regulation and Net Neutrality. I have no idea why it took a year for the administration to tee up a new Chairman and recommend a fifth FCC Commissioner. But once a new Commissioner is seated, the new FCC will tackle reinstating some version of Title II regulation, accompanied by net neutrality regulations. For yet another year, this won’t come from Congress, which is the only permanent solution.

The Rural Wireless vs. Fiber Debate Will Heat Up Again. Vendors are starting to make a lot of noise that layering on 6 GHz spectrum will revolutionize rural fixed wireless broadband. Everything I’m hearing says that the spectrum can bring fast broadband for a few miles from towers, but the outdoor operating characteristics of 6 GHz are sketchy. It won’t stop the wireless industry from declaring yet again that gigabit rural wireless is here.

Many States Will be Overwhelmed by BEAD Grant Process. The $42.5 billion BEAD grants are going to be awarded through the states on the tail of large amounts of State ARPA funding. About half of the states already have a broadband grant program, but most have awarded only a few tens of millions of grant funding. States without an existing grant program are facing the daunting task of being ready to process this funding. States collectively must hire hundreds of qualified grant reviewers in a hurry – which won’t be easy when those same people can make a lot more writing grant requests.

Supply Chain will Get Uglier. The wait time for fiber is not going to get any better during the year as demand for fiber is growing at a hockey-stick rate. Much of the rest of the supply chain will ease during the year as the roadblocks from factors like the lack of raw materials and backed-up ports will begin clearing.

The FCC Maps Aren’t Going to Improve Much. Congress finally awarded a contract for $45 million to CostQuest Associates to start the process of fixing the broadband maps. The contract award was immediately challenged by LightBox, which put the contract on hold. In a prediction that breaks my heart, I predict the revised maps are still going to have major problems. The new maps will better pin down broadband coverage areas, but ISPs will still be able to report marketing speeds instead of actual speeds.

The FCC Will Not Kill all of the Bad RDOF Winners. I hope this is my worst prediction and never happens, but I think the FCC will award RDOF funding to a few companies that shouldn’t be funded. If the FCC doesn’t clear out the RDOF long-form backlog in the next three or four months, the still pending RDOF awards will really gum up those wanting to file BEAD grants.

Starlink is Going to be Unspectacular. 2022 is supposed to be the year when Starlink goes live and starts serving millions of rural customers. My prediction is that the company will stay in beta mode for most or even all of 2022 and not make the promised big splash. However, customers who get Starlink working (around the trees and mountains) are going to rave about having broadband that is light years ahead of DSL.

Cities and Counties Will Quietly use ARPA Money for Broadband. Many local governments are still hesitant to use this funding for broadband. But as localities see other bolder local governments move ahead, I predict many will quietly follow suit. Most ARPA projects won’t get much press outside the local community.

Technician Shortage Becomes Noticeable. The technician/engineer shortage is already becoming evident and will get worse as 2022 progresses. Small construction firms and small ISPs are already seeing staff lured away by larger firms. Salaries will have to increase everywhere, and the cost of building fiber will increase accordingly.

Broadband Inflation Will be Higher than General Inflation. A lot of the issues causing general inflation will ease, and inflation will slow. However, material and labor shortages will mean more inflation for the broadband industry than for the rest of the economy.

Buy American. Applying strict buy American rules for the use of federal grant funding is going to stir and disrupt an already messy broadband supply chain.

I Will Bring Home a Boxful of Kittens. I’m just seeing if my wife is still reading my blog!

Pew Investigates Pandemic Homework Gap

Now that most students have returned to live classrooms this fall, there is a lot that can be learned from a post-mortem examination of the ability of students to learn from home. Several studies have shown that students without good home broadband fall behind their peers even when school is back to normal, and so the pandemic gave us a good look at the many homes where students didn’t have broadband or computers.

Pew Research Center released the results of a survey last month that looked at the effectiveness and the problems uncovered when we sent kids home to learn.

93% of parents surveyed said that K-12 children received some online learning during the pandemic. That alone is big news because it means that 7% of students didn’t partake in any online learning. This matches what we’ve been hearing. For example, we recently talked to a high school principal in Arkansas who said that online learning went reasonably well but that the high school ‘lost’ 7% of students. The students never logged into online classes, and the households didn’t respond when contacted by the school. We’ve heard the same story in many other counties where some students seemingly dropped off the grid during the pandemic. That’s going to cause problems for years to come.

30% of the parents in homes that tried online learning said that it was somewhat or very difficult to use technology and the Internet needed to take classes from home. I think it’s fair to say that students who struggled with the technology or who didn’t have adequate broadband fared poorly in terms of learning during the pandemic period.

As might be expected, the households that struggled varies by demographics. Low-income homes were twice as prone to struggling with the technology, with 36% of low-income homes reporting the problem. Rural areas (39%) had more problems with technology and the Internet than other groups like urban (33%) and suburban (18%). What’s scariest about this survey response is that almost one in five suburban kids – areas that likely have the best broadband – struggled with technology and the Internet.

About one-third of parents said that children experienced technology issues that were obstacles in completing schoolwork. 27% of parents said students had to try to do homework on cellphones. 16% said students did not have access to computers. 14% said that kids left home to use public WiFi to complete schoolwork and homework. 46% of low-income homes had the biggest technology obstacles compared to 31% of homes with mid-range incomes and 18% of homes with higher incomes.

Black teens were the most heavily disadvantaged during the pandemic. 13% of black students said they were regularly unable to complete homework due to technology issues compared to 4% for white teens and 6% for Hispanic teens.

Household incomes affected the ability to complete schoolwork. 24% of teens from households making less than $30,000 annually said that the lack of a dependable computer or internet connection sometimes hindered them from completing schoolwork, compared to 9% of students living in homes making more than $75,000 annually.

Hopefully, the pandemic is now behind us and won’t close so many schools again – although even now, schools are closing temporarily due to Covid outbreaks. But even as we return to a normal school year, we need to pause and recognize that the students who struggled with schooling from home continue to be disadvantaged compared to their peers even when school is back to normal. Hopefully, we won’t stop caring about the homework gap.

LAA and WiFi

University of Chicago students conducted a study on and near the campus, looking at how LAA (Licensed Assisted Access) affects WiFi. Cellular carriers began using LAA technology in 2017. This technology allows a cellular carrier to snag unlicensed spectrum to create bigger data pipes than can be achieved with the traditional cellular spectrum. When cellular companies combine frequencies using LAA, they can theoretically create a data pipe as large as a gigabit while only using 20 MHz of licensed frequency. The extra bandwidth for this application comes mostly from the unlicensed 5 GHz band and can match the fastest speeds that can be delivered with home routers using 802.11AC.

There has always been an assumption that the cellular use of LAA technology would interfere to some extent with WiFi networks. But the students found a few examples where using LAA killed as much as 97% of local WiFi network signal strength. They found that when LAA kicked in that the performance on nearby WiFi networks always dropped.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Back when the FCC approved the use of LAA, the cellular carriers all said that interference would be at a minimum because WiFi is mostly used indoors and LAA is used outdoors. But the study showed there can also be a big data drop for indoor WiFi routers if cellular users are in the vicinity. That means people on the street can interfere with the WiFi strength in a Starbucks (or your home).

The use of WiFi has also changed a lot since 2017, and during the pandemic, we have installed huge numbers of outdoor hotspots for students and the public. This new finding says that LAA usage could be killing outdoor broadband established for students to do homework. Students didn’t just use WiFi hotspots when they couldn’t attend school, but many relied on WiFi broadband in the evenings and weekends to do homework. Millions of people without home broadband also use public WiFi hotspots.

LAA usage kills WiFi usage for several reasons. WiFi is a listen-before-talk technology. This means that when a WiFi device wants to grab a connection to the router that the device gets in line with other WiFi devices and is not automatically connected immediately. LAA acts like all cellular traffic and immediately grabs bandwidth if it is available, This difference in the way of using spectrum gives LAA a priority to grab frequency first.

LAA connections also last longer. You may not realize it, but devices using WiFi devices don’t connect permanently. WiFi routers connect to devices in 4-millisecond bursts. In a home where there aren’t many devices trying to use a router, these bursts may seem continuous, but in a crowded place with a lot of WiFi users, devices have to pause between connections. LAA bursts are 10-milliseconds instead of 4-ms for WiFi. This means that LAA devices both connect immediately to unlicensed spectrum and also keep the connection longer than a WiFi device. It’s not hard for multiple LAA connections to completely swamp a WiFi network.

This is a perfect example of how hard it is to set wireless policy. The FCC solicited a lot of input when the idea of sharing unlicensed spectrum with cellular carriers was first raised. At the time, the technology being discussed was LTE-U, a precursor to LAA. The FCC heard from everybody in the industry, with the WiFi industry saying that cellular use could overwhelm WiFi networks and the cellular industry saying that concerns were overblown. The FCC always finds itself refereeing between competing concerns and has to pick winners in such arguments. The decision by the FCC to allow cellular carriers to use free public spectrum highlights another trend – the cellular companies, by and large, get what they want.

It will be interesting to see if the FCC does anything as a result of this study and other evidence that cellular companies have gone a lot further with LAA than promised. I won’t hold my breath. AT&T also announced this week that it is starting to test LAA using the unlicensed portion of the 6 GHz spectrum.