Grants and Upload Speeds

The NTIA set a new definition of broadband at 100/20 Mbps for purposes of the BEAD grants – if a customer fails that test they are considered either unserved or underserved. Everybody nationwide has been so focused on download speeds that we are largely ignoring the fact that a huge number of nationwide broadband customers are not getting upload speeds of 20 Mbps. All of the speed test efforts I’ve seen have focused on whether homes and businesses are receiving 100 Mbps download and have largely ignored any implications of customers not achieving the NTIA’s 20 Mbps upload stream to qualify for a broadband grant.

My consulting firm helps clients conduct a lot of speed tests, and I also have been poring through the large number of speed tests gathered by Ookla and MLabs. I mostly work in rural counties, county seats, and suburban cities. I would venture to say that the vast majority of speed tests we see from cable customers do not meet the upload speed. The same is true for a large percentage of WISPs.

Sometimes the evidence is overwhelming. I recently worked with a county seat of about 20,000 people and the only customer in the community seeing upload speeds of 20 Mbps or faster were those who subscribed to the cable company’s gigabit product. Not one other cable customer had a 20 Mbps, and most weren’t even close, with an average of 11 Mbps. This was true for customers buying both a 100 Mbps, 200 Mbps, and 400 Mbps download product.

This raises an interesting question, which I’m sure is going to be the core of the cable company’s response to this question. In that particular city, the gigabit customers were getting upload speeds between 30 Mbps and 40 Mbps. I’m sure the cable company will argue that since a few customers are getting speeds over 20 Mbps that the network is capable of faster speeds.

I’ve talked to several knowledgeable engineers on the topic, and they tell me that the cable company in this case could not give faster speeds to everybody – or they would. The cable company is somehow giving a preference for gigabit customers at the expense of everybody else. If the cable operator opened the gates for everybody to get the fastest upload speed possible, the likely outcome would be that the gigabit customer speeds would drop to match everybody else’s speeds – the other customers would not get any faster.

This is an interesting question for state broadband grant offices to consider because it’s inevitable that people are going to seek grants where there is a cable company operating, using the argument that the cable company doesn’t meet the NTIA’s definition of broadband.

It makes sense to me that an ISP must meet both components of the speed definition to be considered as served. It shouldn’t matter if an ISP misses on the download or upload speed – if it fails one of the two benchmarks, it is not meeting the NTIA’s definition of served. If you don’t believe that logic, consider an ISP that is delivering 50/20 Mbps on licensed fixed wireless. I think there would be a consensus that this customer is not served since it is achieving only half of the definition of download speeds. But isn’t the same true for an ISP that is delivering 120/10 Mbps broadband?

To be fair to cable companies, they deliver speeds greater than 20 Mbps in many markets. I buy 400 Mbps download from Charter and routinely see upload speeds of 30 Mbps. But we all know that the performance of cable companies varies widely from town to town, and often inside of a town.

I had to laugh last year when the big cable companies fought so hard to reduce the definition of served from 100/100 Mbps to 100/20 Mbps. I knew then that this battle would be coming since the majority of cable customers, at least in the markets I have studied, are not seeing upload speeds of 20 Mbps.

One thing I think we can all count on is that if any grant office awards funding to overbuild a cable company because of this issue, we’re going to see the cable industry go ape. They’ve been quiet about the poor upload speeds, but they won’t stay that way if they see grant money coming to overbuild them.

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