The BEAD grant establishes a clear definition of areas that are eligible for grants as any place where broadband speeds are less than 100/20 Mbps. During the lobbying of creating the IIJA legislation that created the BEAD grants, the cable companies and WISPs lobbied hard to get that speed definition when there were pro-broadband members of Congress wanting to set that definition at 100/100 Mbps.
I’ve been wondering lately how State Broadband offices are going to deal with cable companies that don’t meet that speed today. In working around the country, I keep encountering cable networks that don’t meet that definition.
Some of the areas served by cable companies are clearly grant eligible. While the big cable companies have all said that they’ve upgraded all of their networks to be fast, there are still tiny systems owned by the big cable companies that are using older technologies. We were recently working in a county in New Mexico where Comcast was still reporting 50 Mbps speeds for a cable network in the county seat. This system was still operating at DOCSIS 2.0, but to Comcast’s credit, it is finally upgrading the technology to the latest DOCSIS 3.1. If Comcast didn’t make this upgrade, this network would be eligible for BEAD funding.
But the issue that is more normal is cable networks that don’t meet the 20 Mbps upload speed test. I’m seeing a lot of networks, particularly in county seats in smaller counties where the upload speeds can’t deliver 20 Mbps. Should an area where the cable network is only delivering 10 Mbps or 15 Mbps upload be eligible for BEAD grants?
In most cases, the cable companies report the upload speed as exactly 20 Mbps in the FCC maps. But speed tests often show that few households meet that speed. I’m working with a few communities that are up in arms over this because many of the homes and businesses struggle with the restrictions that come with slow upload speeds.
Businesses have embraced functions that need upload speeds. They might want to allow multiple employees to conduct separate Zoom calls at the same time. Businesses have embraced software that operates in the cloud that requires constant upload connections. Businesses have converted to VoIP and need upload bandwidth to maintain telephone calls. Businesses use security systems that upload videos from security cameras to the cloud. I’ve interviewed dozens of businesses that say that they feel restricted by problems with upload speeds – particularly on older networks with a lot of jitter and latency.
Communities are confused about how to deal with this issue. I’ve not heard of any communities served by a cable company that got reclassified as underserved in the flurry of map challenges over the last six months – if readers know of any such reclassifications, I’d love to hear about it. Many communities are hoping that State Grant offices will be open to allowing for BEAD grants in these communities – but that feels like a big uphill battle.
The reality is that when an ISP declares in the FCC broadband maps that it is exactly meeting one of the speed thresholds of either 100 Mbps download or 20 Mbps upload, there should be an opportunity for a community to challenge the FCC maps.
Clearly, a local cable network delivering 10 or 12 Mbps upload speeds does not meet the definition of being served. But I have to wonder about the practical chances of somebody getting a BEAD grant to overbuild such a community.