Broadband Satellite Issues

One of the most interesting aspects of serving broadband from low-orbit satellites is that it brings issues related to space into the broadband discussion. Space issues were less important for high earth orbit satellites that sit 20,000 miles above the earth. Other than an occasional impact from sunspots, there wasn’t much of note. But there are two recent events that highlight our new focus on low-earth orbit satellites. I would never have imagined a decade ago that I would be interested in these topics in terms of the impact on broadband.

The first is a piece of legislation introduced by Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), John Hickenlooper (D-CO), Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), and Roger Wicker (R-MS). The legislation is called the Orbital Sustainability (ORBITS) Act. The bill is intended to begin the development of a technology called active debris removal (ADR) that would be used to remove dangerous debris from low earth orbit.

The risk of space debris has been well documented by NASA and others. There are over one hundred million pieces of debris orbiting the earth today. These range in size from dust-sized up to out-of-service satellites and rocket boosters. Space will be getting a lot more crowded as the industry plans to launch tens of thousands of additional satellites in the coming years. Space is going to get crowded.

So why is debris a problem? The issue was described by NASA scientists Don Kessler in 1978. He postulated that as mankind put more objects into orbit that the inevitability of collisions would increase and that over time there would be more and more debris. This is easy to understand when you realize that every piece of debris is circulating at over 20,000 miles per hour. When objects collide, even more debris is created, and Kessler postulated that there would eventually be a cloud of debris that would destroy anything in orbit, making low-space unusable.

The legislation would fund research into different technologies that can be used to clean debris, with NASA tackling some of the trials. The hope is for an eventual system that scrubs space of debris as it is created to keep the valuable low-orbit space usable.

In other news, President Putin of Russia has threatened to destroy Starlink and other satellites that are helping Ukraine in the war between the two countries. Targeting satellites as part of war is an idea that has been used by Hollywood for years. The first such movie I remember is Moonraker, the James Bond movie that sent the British secret service agent into space.

In September, a Russian diplomat said at the United Nations that satellites could be legitimate military targets. He argued that civilian satellites that provide broadband might be a violation of the Outer Space Treaty that provides for only peaceful uses of satellite technology. He is obviously aiming his comments at Starlink, although in a few years, there will be multiple companies in the same category.

Russia has already been targeting Starlink with cyberwarfare hacking to try to corrupt the satellite software. It’s been reported that Russia was also looking for a way to identify the location of the satellite receivers on the ground.  But it was clear from recent threats that Russia is hinting at some method of crippling or destroying satellites in orbit.

The earth has become massively reliant on satellite technology. It’s now becoming a source of broadband, but there are many other vital uses such as GPS technology, weather forecasting, studying and tracking resources like water and minerals, and numerous other uses.

The idea of attacks on satellites is scary. This might range from some sort of hunter satellites that attack other satellites or more indiscriminately through something like nuclear blasts that would disable all electronics. But the investment in satellites is huge and would not easily be replaced. The bigger question raised is if it is worth spending money on satellites that can be destroyed.

It’s likely that the threats are just rhetoric because every country depends on satellites for a lot of everyday functions. But countries have done insane things in wartime before, so it’s not off the table.

ISP Liability

Charter was recently ordered to pay over $1.1 billion to the estate of the family of an 83-year-old Charter customer that was murdered by a Spectrum technician in 2019. A jury had originally ordered Charter to pay $337 million in compensation plus $7 billion in punitive damages. The judge lowered the punitive damages to be more in line with comparable punitive damage calculations.

This was a case that should concern all ISPs. The technician, Roy Holden, was seemingly a good technician. He had completed over 1,000 service calls with no customer complaints. It turns out that the technician had stolen credit cards and checks from a few elderly customers, but this wasn’t discovered until after the murder. Charter had done a routine background check when he was hired that showed no arrests, convictions, or other criminal behavior. There was nothing about Roy Holden that made him look any different on paper than the many technicians hired by other ISPs.

It’s likely that the award was so large due to Charter being such a large and profitable company. But even the base award of $337 million would ruin all but the largest ISPs in the country.

This is obviously a pretty rare event and, as Charter argued in court, was totally unforeseeable. How can any ISP know when it has a rogue or unbalanced technician? Unless an employee is acting erratically, it’s impossible to think that an ISP, or the many other kinds of companies that do in-home customer service calls can protect against this kind of event.

ISPs have no financial backstop for this kind of large court award. Most of my clients carry general business insurance in the range of perhaps $5 million. That level of coverage won’t come close to covering the damages awarded in this case. I don’t know many ISPs that could survive a lower award – even $20 – $50 million would ruin most of my clients.

This kind of event is rare, and I can’t imagine that insurance can be purchased to protect against it. If there is such a policy, it would have to be extraordinarily expensive, and ISPs would have a hard time justifying the premiums due to the low risk of ever having such an event.

Facility-based ISPs generally don’t carry a large amount of insurance. It’s not feasible to insure expensive networks against things like storm damage. Instead, ISPs rely on big storm damage to be covered by FEMA along with other infrastructure that is damaged in big natural disasters like storms, fires, and floods.

I suspect this award will send some ISPs to talk to their insurance agent – and they will find that there is no practical way to insure against this kind of event. But that doesn’t make ISPs any different than companies that install appliances, countertops, or air conditioners. I think this is one of those things that ISPs shouldn’t think too hard about. I’ve read articles on the issue that suggest that ISPs need a more vigorous vetting process for new employees. But realistically, that probably makes almost no difference, although it might convince a jury to set a smaller award.

Lobbying the BEAD Rules

Thirteen Republican Senators sent a letter to the NTIA asking the agency to change its approach in administering some of the provisions of the $42.5 billion BEAD grants. This is just one of the first of what I think will be many attempts to influence how the grant funding is awarded. We can’t ignore that there will be politics involved in determining who gets grant awards. That became inevitable for a grant program of $42.5 billion that also involves the States.

The letter specifically asked for changes related to rate regulation, technology preference, provider preference, workforce requirements, middle mile deployments, and the application review process.

Rate Regulation. The Senators point out that the legislation has a specific prohibition of the BEAD program suggesting or requiring broadband rates. The letter argues that the NOFO for the program suggests several requirements that will set or restrict rates, such as a suggestion that there should be a low-cost option established at $30 along with a still-undefined middle-class affordability plan.

Technology Neutrality. The Senators take exception to the NTIA’s clear preference for fiber and want to make sure that fixed wireless and cable technologies can be considered for grants.

Preferences for Grant Recipients. The Senators are concerned that the NOFO for the program insists that there is an equitable and nondiscriminatory focus for choosing grant winners. They fear that this is going to push state grant offices to favor non-traditional broadband providers instead of existing proven ISPs.

BEAD and Digital Equity Participation. The Senators want to make sure that there is no automatic link between a State participating in both the BEAD program and the Digital Equity program. This is the first time I’ve heard of this issue, and this means there are States considering not accepting the funding that will be used for getting computers into homes and offering digital literacy training.

Workforce Preference. The Senators believe that the BEAD rules favor ISPs that use a ‘directly employed workforce’ as opposed to contractors and subcontractors. That observation was a new one for me and will send me back to reading the NOFO more carefully. The Senators are also worried about the requirement that projects greater than $35 million must enter into a project labor agreement – something they say will be challenging in a market with a skilled labor shortage.

Middle-Mile Deployment. The Senators don’t like the requirement that any project that includes middle-mile routes must allow for interconnection with other carriers that want to use the fiber routes.

Unnecessary Burdens. The Senators say there are requirements that add burdens on grant applicants that were not included in the legislation. This includes issues such climate resiliency and system hardening for the useful life of fiber. They say such requirements add unnecessary costs and will delay the deployment of networks.

It’s an interesting list of objections. A few of the objections are on everybody’s hate list of the grant rules. Grant applicants do not want to figure out a climate resiliency plan and will be fearful if they do it poorly, they might not win a grant.

A few of the requests are clearly in favor of incumbent ISPs, such as any requirement that might force a State broadband office to consider non-traditional ISPs like cities.

And a few requests are things that concern all ISPs, such as the NTIA requiring broadband rates that are too low to make a business plan work.

Just as interesting are the items not included on the list. Small ISPs are worried about the requirement to have a certified letter of credit – something that doesn’t concern large ISPs. Not having this on the list makes me think the Senators are being prompted by big ISPs.

This blog is not meant as a criticism of the Senators’ suggestions. Every constituency in the country is going to have its own wish list of things the BEAD grants should emphasize or deemphasize. I’m hoping to collect these as I see them – it will be interesting when the dust clears to see who had the most influence on the BEAD rules.

Satellite Cell Service

T-Mobile and Starlink made a joint announcement recently about an arrangement where Starlink will enable voice and texting capabilities to T-Mobile cellphones by the end of 2023. This is a service that would work with existing cell phones and would supposedly kick in when a phone can’t find a signal from a cell tower. Starlink said the technology would be enabled by new satellites that have significantly larger antennae than the current satellites in the constellation. In the press release, Elon Musk touted this as being able to reach people lost in the wilderness, but the much bigger use will be to fill in cellular coverage in rural areas for T-Mobile.

While the two companies made a big splashy announcement about the arrangement, they are late to the game as other industry players already have similar plans underway.

AST SpaceMobile has been working on deploying satellites aimed specifically at the cellular market. The company plans to launch its first five satellites in 2024. The company’s business plan is to launch fairly large satellites weighing over 3,300 pounds to create a constellation dedicated to cellular coverage. The company has already created partnerships with more than 25 mobile operators around the world, including the giant cellular company Vodaphone.

Lynk is taking a different approach and will launch small satellites around the size of a pizza box. The company has one test satellite in orbit with another schedule this December. The company plans to have 50 satellites in orbit by the end of 2023. Lynk already has 14 commercial agreements in place and will support large corporations and governments as well as mobile providers.

Just yesterday, Apple announced that it will offer a texting service for those lost in the wilderness in a partnership with Globalstar. This service is going to be text only and is going to be exceedingly slow, but it will supposedly work for folks who have the latest iPhone and who also are able to point the phone directly at the satellite. There will be an app that will tell a user where the satellite can be found.

All of these plans raise a lot of questions that we won’t get answered until somebody has a working satellite product. For example, could somebody inside a vehicle connect to a satellite? I have no problem connecting to the Sirius XM satellite service, so this might not be a problem. Will these connections somehow roam and connect back to cellular carriers when the user is in reach of a cell tower? That would be really complicated, and my guess is that this won’t work. Mike Sievert, the CEO of T-Mobile said this project is like putting a cell site in the sky, but much harder – and I believe him. I’ve been trying to picture how the satellites will pick out the right calls because filtering through the many billions of cellphone calls to find the right ones sounds like a huge data processing challenge.

The service would certainly be a boon to somebody lost in the  woods, but this is a much-needed service for a lot of people. My consulting firm does surveys, and it’s not unusual to find rural counties today where 30% or more of homes say they have no cellular coverage at their homes. The national coverage maps of the big cellular companies are a joke in many rural places.

T-Mobile and Starlink said that these connections would be only for voice calls and texting at first but that using cellular data might be on the horizon. That would be a significant accomplishment since a receiver many times larger than a cell phone is needed today to communicate with a satellite.

The real potential for this product is not in the U.S. and Europe where a large percentage of folks can connect today to cellular networks. The real market is the many parts of the world where modern cellular towers are a rarity. Most Americans probably don’t understand or appreciate that there is still a lot of the world where folks are not connected, or perhaps only connected through one universal connection that is shared by a whole community.

Are Broadband Grants Taxable?

Casey Lide of Keller & Heckman wrote a recent blog that warns that federal grant funding might be considered as taxable income by the IRS. This would be a dreadful outcome for any taxable entity that receives the grant funding since it would create a huge tax liability that would have to somehow be covered outside of the grant funding. This would not affect just the big telcos and cable companies but also the many small telephone companies and cooperatives which are also taxable.

This is not a new issue. There were a lot of questions about federal grants being taxable in 2009 when the NTIA awarded BTOP and BIP grants that were the result of the stimulus spending that came out of the recession. The IRS eventually declared a ‘safe harbor’ for those grants, meaning that it agreed to not tax the grant funding. But the threat of possible taxation stopped many of my commercial clients from pursuing those grants in 2009.

Lide points out that the IRS has always presumed that grant funding is income to the entity receiving the grant and is taxable. Consider a common type of federal grant such as when a research lab gets a grant to pay for the salaries of researchers. Such a grant has always been considered to be taxable income to the lab. The research lab doesn’t worry about this because when it spends that money for salaries, the expenses are deductible from the income, and the lab doesn’t incur any net tax liability. This is one of the reasons that this kind of grant is often awarded each fiscal year to give the grant recipient a chance to spend the grant money in the year the income is received.

But grants given to build infrastructure are different. If a corporation accepts a $10 million grant to build fiber, it cannot expense the fiber immediately to offset the income from the grant. IRS rules have always insisted that hard assets are written off over the economic life of the asset using depreciation expense. I haven’t checked lately, but the IRS suggested tax life for fiber has been set at 25 years, meaning that one-twenty-fifth of the cost of the fiber is recognized as an expense each year over 25 years.

In this example, the corporation that accepted the $10 million grant would be saddled with a $10 million revenue and only be able to wipe out a small portion of it in the first year using depreciation. That would create an instant federal tax liability of 21% on the difference between the grant and one year of offsetting depreciation expense, plus whatever state incomes taxes would be owed. The corporation could not use the grant funds to cover the tax liability – grant money can only be used to build infrastructure. The corporation would eventually see the benefit of depreciation on future taxes, but that relief would be glacially slow over 25 years – it would not stop them from having to write a big check to the IRS this year.

Lide points out the way that the IRS got around this rule with the 2009 grants. There was a legal case in the 1950s, Brown Shoe Co., Inc. v Commissioner where the courts rules that grant funding received by a shoe company for keeping their factory operating was not taxable since none of that money was used to enrich the owners of the business. The IRS was able to make this same determination with the BTOP and BIP grants because, by definition, none of the money was used to enrich the owners of corporations since it was all spent to build infrastructure.

Lide believes that there have been changes in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that might make it impossible for the IRS to make that same ruling for current federal grants. Congress could have avoided this issue by explicitly saying that the new grants aren’t taxable – but that’s not in the various laws.

This is very distressing news for a corporation that has already accepted grant funding from the CAREs Act or from ARPA funds because they might be facing an unexpected tax liability. I know cooperatives and telephone companies that have already accepted some of these funds and who will be shocked if this interpretation holds to be true. One of the problems we have currently in dealing with these kinds of issues is that the IRS is running several years behind and won’t have yet dealt with a tax return from a corporation receiving recent the latest infrastructure grants.

As a further word of warning, this same issue would apply to anybody accepting state infrastructure grants. A state would have to take positive action to forgive the grant from state income taxes, but that would not shield state grant revenue from federal tax liability. Any taxable entity that has already received CAREs or ARPA funding, or anybody thinking about taking ARPA or BEADs funding to reach out to legislators on the issue. It may turn out that Congress might be the only one who can fix this – they certainly didn’t intend for anybody building rural broadband to incur a huge tax penalty. If this doesn’t get resolved, many of the carriers who are planning on using grants to solve the rural broadband gap might have to drop out of the pursuit of grants.

Can Satellite Broadband be Affordable?

When we first heard of the possibility of broadband from low-orbit satellites, there was a lot of speculation that the technology could bring affordable broadband to the masses around the globe. The latest announcement from Starlink shows that affordable broadband is probably not coming in the immediate future.

Starlink announced a premium tier of service with a $500 monthly fee for 150-500 Mbps. The receiver has a one-time cost of $2,500. The product offers faster speeds by doubling the size of the receiving area of the receiver. These prices are a big step up from the current Starlink broadband product that offers 50-150 Mbps service for $99 per month with a $500 fee for the receiver.

I’ve been thinking about the issues faced by a satellite constellation owner in trying to recover the cost of the network to make a profit. At current costs, it’s incredibly expensive to launch Starlink satellites. It’s rumored that it currently costs about $60 million for one launch that can place 49 satellites into orbit. That’s a cost of over $1.2 million per satellite before considering the cost of the satellite hardware. But this cost is supposed to be dropping due to the ability to reuse rocket components, with near-future costs soon to be around $30 million per launch. That would still mean a cost per satellite of $600,000 each. Elon Musk says his goal is to get the cost per launch down to $10 million, and that would still mean a launch cost per satellite of over $200,000.

These costs wouldn’t be bad if the satellites had some longevity, but it’s estimated that low-orbit satellites will remain in orbit from 5-7 years, meaning a satellite owner must recover its launch costs in a relatively short period of time.

This is not to say that Starlink can’t make money, and I have to assume that the current prices are set so that the company can become profitable. But it’s hard to imagine lowering prices until a satellite company has a large enough customer base to cover operating costs and the continued cost of replacing satellites.

Starlink also admits that it is subsidizing the home receivers it sells for $500. But with mass production, that cost is likely to plummet. But for now, it’s one more financial hurdle to overcome.

The other component of cost to consider is the cost of backhaul. In the U.S., it will be easy for Starlink to build a series of earth stations that can download and upload data with the satellite constellation. We have fiber backhaul routes crisscrossing the country, and there are numerous carriers willing to negotiate good prices with Starlink for connecting earth stations to the Internet.

But this is not going to be so in much of the rest of the planet. Consider places like inland Africa where there are far fewer fiber middle-mile routes, and where the amount of bandwidth is limited and expensive. Lack of backhaul could make it a challenge to operate in markets like Africa.

There are also countries that will block Starlink or that might impose big license fees to deliver the broadband. China is unlikely to allow broadband connections that bypass the Great Firewall of China. India is discussing license fees with Starlink, and could make it expensive to do business there. Those two countries alone contain 36% of the world’s population.

The last complexity faced by any satellite broadband company will be competition from other satellite owners. It’s likely that within five years that we’ll see worldwide coverage from Starlink, OneWeb, and Project Kuiper – and other companies and countries are considering satellite constellations. The industry math will quickly get challenging if there is any downward pressure on prices through competition. Starlink is only going to be able to sell $500 premium connections if no other satellite company offers something less expensive.

Elon Musk has said many times in the last year that there is no guarantee of financial success at Starlink and that the company could easily go bankrupt. The company must be losing money during this early beta stage, but that’s experienced by all new ISPs. Let’s also not forget the stated original reason for funding Starlink. The goal was to create a cash cow that would spin off the funding needed to settle Mars. The need to generate cash isn’t going to tempt the company to have affordable rates. There is a lot of moving parts to operate a satellite business, with many of the long-term costs still unknowable. It will be interesting watching the satellite companies figure out the business on the fly.

Closing the Homework Gap in Chattanooga

There are plenty of skeptics that deride municipal broadband for various reasons, mostly centered on whether local government should be competing against commercial ISPs. What those skeptics are missing is the immense benefits that a municipal broadband network can bring to a community.

Witness the huge undertaking in Hamilton County, Tennessee, home to Chattanooga’s municipal EPB fiber broadband network. At the start of the pandemic, the school districts quickly discovered that roughly one-third of the 45,000 households with students didn’t have home broadband, making remote school impossible.

The community is responding in a big way and has decided to solve the homework gap in the county, by making sure that every home with a student has broadband access. Even before the pandemic, EPB had offered a low-cost broadband product for $26.99 that had reached about 10% of the homes in the community – but EPB found that even that price was a barrier for a lot of households. The county also has a lot of students that live outside of the footprint of the fiber network.

The community has come together to create a partnership called HCS EdConnect. This is a collaboration between the EPB fiber business, the City of Chattanooga, Hamilton County, Hamilton County Schools, a local non-profit the Enterprise Center, and several private funders. HCS EdConnect has pledged that all low-income students in Hamilton County will have free broadband for the next ten years.

https://www.edconnect.org/

This is an expensive undertaking, and Deb Socia, the CEO of the Enterprise Center, says the total cost will be $15 million over ten years to fund broadband connectivity. That includes $8.2 million upfront to fund the cost of connecting homes to broadband. That money was raised with $1 million from Hamilton County Schools, $1.5 million each from the City of Chattanooga and Hamilton County, and generous donations from the private sector, including $1 million each from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Tennessee and the Smart City Century Fund.

Qualifying homes with students will get free broadband for at least ten years, as long as they stay in the district and have students at home. Households qualify if they are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches and those receiving SNAP or TANF benefits.

By Tennessee law, EPB cannot provide free broadband, so the remaining funding will be to cover the monthly cost of the EBP low-cost broadband program in the city or to provide a free cellular hotspot outside the city. However, EPB is still a big participant in the project and has hired eight new technicians to implement the program.

The difference-maker in this case is having a municipal fiber network that puts the needs of the community above profits. There is no reason that a commercial ISP like Comcast or Charter couldn’t engage in a similar partnerships – but I’ve never heard of any discussions of this nature.

It’s almost impossible to stress the importance of this effort for the county. The benefits of having good home broadband transcend the temporary issues of the pandemic. A definitive study of the negative impact of students living in homes without broadband was published in early 2020 by the Quello Center, part of the Department of Media and Information at Michigan State. The results of that study were eye-opening. The study showed that students with no Internet access at home tested lower on a range of metrics, including digital skills, homework completion, and grade point average. Some of the specific findings include

  • Students with home Internet access had an overall grade point average of 3.18, while students with no Internet access at home had a GPA of 2.81.
  • During the study, 64% of students with no home Internet access sometimes left homework undone compared to only 17% of students with a high-speed connection at home.
  • Students without home Internet access spend an average of 30 minutes longer doing homework each evening.
  • One of the most important findings identified a huge gap in digital skills for students without home broadband. To quote the study, “The gap in digital skills between students with no home access or cell phone only and those with fast or slow home Internet access is equivalent to the gap in digital skills between 8th and 11th grade students.” It’s hard to grasp that the average 11th grade student without home broadband had the equivalent digital skills an 8th grader with home broadband.

Hamilton County is going to see transformational benefits from this effort. Students who grow up with good digital skills are going to grow up ready to thrive in a digital economy. Hamilton County has a lot of homes below the poverty level, and my bet is that in the decades to come that the county will become a different place.

This move by Hamilton County answers the big question of why cities might consider building a municipal broadband network – it can be transformational for the long-term well-being of the community. This move also throws a gauntlet at the feet of the cable companies. They never miss an opportunity to quash municipal and other potential competitors. Perhaps a better tactic would be to become a valuable partner with local government to tackle the digital divide.

Employees Favor Working from Home

USA Today reported on the results of the fifth annual survey of the State of Remote Work conducted by Owl Labs and Global Workplace Analytics. The nationwide survey was done last summer at a time when almost one-fourth of workers continued to work at least part-time from home.

The survey showed a strong desire of employees to work from home, at least part-time. Here are a few of the most interesting findings from the survey:

  • A little more than half of all employees would choose to work full-time from home. 74% of those interviewed said that working at home made them happier.
  • Almost half of workers said they would take a 5% pay cut to continue to work remotely, at least part of the time.
  • 91% of those working at home say they are as productive or more productive than when in the office. 55% say they work more hours at home than when they are in the office.
  • Almost one-fourth of employees said they would quit their jobs if they aren’t allowed to work remotely. For context, this survey was done at a time when employees were quitting jobs at historic rates.
  • A lot of employees changed jobs during the pandemic. 90% of them were looking for a better career. 88% also wanted a better work-life balance. 87% were looking for less stress. 84% wanted more flexibility for where they work, and 82% wanted more flexibility of when they work.
  • A lot of people relocated during the pandemic, which was made easier through working from home. Two-thirds of employees who relocated were between the ages of 26 and 40. Interestingly to those reading this blog, 63% of employees who moved from urban areas to rural areas were in this age group. More than half of those that moved from suburban to rural areas also were in the younger age group.

This survey shows similar results to other surveys taken over the last few years. It seems that many people got a taste of working from home and decided that they like it more than going to the office every day. A lot of employers are starting to demand that workers return to the office, and many have been reporting a mass exodus of employees who don’t wish to come back.

This has a lot of implications for rural and suburban communities. Many people want to get away from the stress of urban life and lead a more relaxing lifestyle – but they need good broadband to do so. Remote workers don’t want so-so broadband, but reliable broadband that means they can always connect remotely as needed. 56% of younger workers said they would love to incorporate virtual reality and virtual meetings into the workday – something that will require fast upload and download speeds.

From an economic development perspective, work-from-home employees are a huge boon to a rural community that has likely been aging and slowly shrinking over time. Employees making good salaries can provide a huge boost to a local economy. For years, rural communities have sunk big tax incentives into trying to attract new employers. It probably costs a lot less to attract one hundred remote workers than to lure a traditional employer that will bring a hundred jobs.

I have rural clients that operate rural fiber networks who tell me that their communities are seeing a new demand for building new homes and that housing prices are increasing as people want to move to the community.

This presents an interesting challenge to rural communities wondering how to get the word out to prospective work-from-home employees. This new trend is a 180-degree turn from traditional economic development efforts – but communities that master this ought to grow and thrive and bring fresh breath into aging communities.

Grants for Low-Income Apartments

There is one section of the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment  (BEAD) grants that cities should find interesting. These grants can be used for installing internet and Wi-Fi infrastructure or providing reduced-cost broadband within a multi-family residential building, with priority given to a residential building that has a substantial share of unserved households or is in a location in which the percentage of individuals with a household income that is at or below 150 percent of the poverty line applicable to a family of the size involved (as determined under section 673(2) of the Community Services Block Grant Act (42 U.S.C. 9902(2)) is higher than the national percentage of such individuals.

The BEAD grants are mostly aimed at solving the rural digital divide, but this is an open invitation for cities to seek grant funding to bring better broadband to low-income apartment complexes.

As is usual with most new laws, this one has one interesting incongruity. The BEAD grants establish a priority for States to follow – States should first use BEAD grants to bring broadband to unserved locations with broadband under 25/3 Mbps, then underserved locations with broadband slower than 100/20 Mbps, and finally to anchor institutions. My reading of the language is that serving low-income housing shares top priority along with rural unserved locations – the language says that grants can be used for unserved apartment buildings OR for low-income apartment buildings. This language seemingly gives low-income apartment buildings a higher priority than underserved locations. This language also implies that there is no speed requirement for low-income apartments to qualify for grant funding – the only requirement is the level of poverty.

It’s going to be interesting to see how States interpret this. States with big cities could see huge demand for broadband grants from cities that see this as the chance to solve the urban digital divide. I know that $42.5 billion is a lot of money, but it’s not going to stretch as far as Congress might have believed if every major city sees this as a chance to bring fiber to low-income neighborhoods.

The language is interesting in that it allows for bringing either Wi-Fi or reduced-cost broadband. The term Wi-Fi suggests what I call centralized Wi-Fi that floods hallways and common areas in apartment buildings. It’s a nice thing to have, but it is not the future-looking broadband that is needed for the next twenty years. I’d hate to see a lot of grants asking to install Wi-Fi instead of bringing real broadband to apartment units.

Bringing broadband to apartments will require an ISP. That could be almost anybody under the BEAD grants. Cities could be the ISP in a state that allows municipal ISPs. Cities could partner with the large incumbent ISPs or with smaller commercial ISPs. The most interesting idea is to partner with a non-profit ISP. It would even be possible for cities to hand these networks off to an urban cooperative. Anybody interested in the last two possibilities needs to be moving quickly to have the non-profit or cooperative formed by the time the grant requests are filed in a year.

A year is not a lot of time for cities to capitalize on this possibility. The specific apartments to be served should be identified. Somebody has to design and price out a technical solution. A city will have a better chance of winning funding if it has identified the ISP partner. And cities need to get active over the next few months to make sure that States build this option into the broadband plan that must be approved by the NTIA.

This $42.5 billion grant program is extraordinary in its size and scope – and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to solve persistent broadband gaps. Cities need to marshal their resources quickly to make this happen because there probably won’t be another funding program for a long time aimed at solving the urban digital divide.

Video Meetings are the New Normal

One of the big changes that came out of the pandemic will have a permanent impact on broadband networks. Holding online meetings on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting, and other video platforms has become a daily part of business for many companies.

This article in the New York Times cites predictions that businesses will cut down on travel by 20% to 50%. This will have a huge impact over time on the airline and hotel industries. As a lifelong road warrior, I recall the relief every year when the school year started back in September and airports returned mostly to business travelers. It will be interesting in the future if airports really get more deserted during the business-only travel months.

But the real boon for businesses from less travel will be lower expenses and increased productivity. I can’t add up the number of times that I traveled somewhere for a one or two-hour meeting – something that has now fallen off my radar. We’re going to replace rushing to make a flight with the use of broadband.

What is interesting is how hard we tried in the past to make video conferencing into an everyday thing. Everybody of my age remembers these AT&T commercials from 1993 that predicted that video conferencing, working remotely, digital books, and GPS navigation would become a part of daily life. Most of the predictions made by these commercials became a reality much sooner than common video calling. Whole new industries have been built around digital books, and GPS is seemingly built into everything.

The business world fought against video conferencing. I recall a client from 20 years ago who had invested in an expensive video conference setup and insisted on either meeting in person or holding a video conference. I recall the hassle of having to rent a local video conferencing center to talk to this client – but even then, I could see how that expense was far better than spending time a wasted day in an airport and a night in a hotel.

I don’t know how typical my workday is, but I probably average 3 hours per day on video calls. I always hated long telephone calls, but I like the experience of seeing who I’m talking to. It’s enabled creating real bonds with clients and colleagues as I talk to them multiple times through video chat compared to an occasional live meeting.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the concept of broadband holding times to account for the fact that we are tying up broadband connections for hours with video chats or connecting to a work or school server. I’m not sure that we’ve fully grasped what this means for broadband networks. Most network engineers had metrics they used for estimating the amount of bandwidth required to serve a hundred or a thousand customers. That math goes out the door when a significant percentage of those customers are spending hours on video chats that use a small but continuous 2-way bandwidth connection.

We’re not likely to fully grasp what this means for another year until the pandemic is fully behind us, and companies settle into a new normal. I know I’m not going to be in airports in the future like I was in the past, and many people I’ve talked to feel the same way.