The Resurgence of Voice

One of the most interesting outcomes of the COVID-19 crisis has been a huge resurgence of telephone calls. While broadband usage is up 40% or more in some markets, the volumes of traditional voice calls have skyrocketed.

Verizon says it’s now seeing an average of 800 million calls per day, which is double the number of calls made on the last Mother’s Day. Verizon also says the average length of calls has increased by one-third over recent averages. AT&T is seeing similarly increased volumes of cellular calls which are up 35%. They have also seen the volume of WiFi calls made using home broadband on cellphones double in recent weeks. The carriers said they are handling the volumes of calls well and have only had to make a few network adjustments. I’m quoting these statistics from Cecelia Kang in the New York Times, but I’ve been hearing a few similar stories from my smaller clients as well.

Voice has been on a steady decline for years, particularly with young people who communicate by texting or by the use of apps like WhatsApp. There are plenty of kids who will tell you they rarely use their phone to initiate phone calls. There was a time when my daughter was a teenager that it seemed like torture to expect her to talk on the phone.

But the COVID-19 crisis has turned the way we communicate on its ear. People need to call a lot more as part of working from home. Conversations that were done by walking down the hall now need to be done phone or computer.

I’ve been on a lot of computer meetings and calls in the last few weeks. I happen to have decent broadband and the quality of Zoom or GoToMeeting works great at my end, but I’ve connected to a lot of people who are struggling with poor quality broadband. A lot of people are connecting into computer meetings by phone out of necessity. The carriers report that the biggest surge in voice traffic is now in the daytime, which has historically been the time when phone traffic from residential neighborhoods was at its lowest. Call volumes now seem to have surged because of remote working.

A lot of the surge of voice traffic likely comes from people reaching out to friends and relatives they can no longer visit. I’ve seen a big increase in solo walkers in my neighborhood who are getting out of the house by taking a walk. The big majority of walkers are now talking as they walk – something that used to be fairly rare.

Most people are surprised to hear that over 40% of homes still have a traditional landline. Many households have ditched landlines completely for cellphones over the last decade. A number of homes with landlines have no choice because they live in areas with poor or no cellular coverage. These households are worried every time they hear something bad about their carrier, like with the recently announced Frontier bankruptcy. While many homes are struggling with poor broadband connections when being forced to stay home, there are millions of homes with no broadband and for whom the traditional landline is their only connection to the world. Many of these people have commuted to places where cellphones work and where the office has broadband, and being stuck at home with only a landline is a throwback to the days before dial-up.

It’s almost certain that voice volumes won’t stay this high after the end of the crisis. However, voice calling probably also won’t revert quickly to old volumes. I think there are likely to be a lot of people who will continue to work from home. I’ve been hearing from folks who say they’ve never been so productive before and will continue to work at home more when the crisis is over. I know that’s what drove me to work from home years ago.

We’ll probably adopt new habits. Young people who are calling and talking to family now might continue to do so when the crisis is over. People who have reconnected with old friends or began talking to existing friends daily by phone might continue to do so. This will all be made easier if the FCC is successful in finally tamping down the volume of nuisance calls we all get.

For the most part, this is a temporary situation, a throwback to the old days when the family phone was in use for most of each evening. It’s interesting to those of us who grew up in the voice business to see this resurgence.

Congress, Don’t Be Too Hasty

As Congress is handing out relief money for the COVID-19 crisis, rumors are flying around that rural broadband relief is one of the issues being discussed. The plight of employees and students unable to work from home has certainly bubbled up to a majority of those in Congress.

My advice to Congress is to not be to hasty. Don’t have the knee-jerk reaction of just tossing big bucks towards the rural broadband problem, because if you do much of the money will be wasted. There have been back-of-the-envelope estimates made that it would take anywhere from $60 billion to well over $100 billion to bring fiber to everywhere in rural America. Nobody knows the number and my guess is that it’s towards the upper end of that scale.

The typical Washington DC approach to the problem would be to earmark a pile of money to solve the problem, with no forethought of how to use the funds. This tendency is bolstered by the fiscal year spending nature of government funding, and Congress would likely expect broadband money to be spent quickly.

And that’s where the rub comes in. The broadband industry is not prepared to handle a sudden huge influx of funding. Consider all of the following issues that would quickly become apparent if this were to happen:

  • The first big question that would be asked with funding is where to spend the money – which parts of the country need the funding help? Unfortunately, the FCC will be of nearly zero help in this area, so you can’t run a giant grant program through them. The upcoming RDOF grants are supposedly aimed at bringing broadband to all of the places that don’t already have 25/3 broadband. But due to the dismal FCC mapping process, the current maps miss huge swaths of rural America that also need better broadband but that are misclassified by the FCC maps. If Congress gives the money to the FCC to disperse, the agency has no idea where to spend it according to its flawed data.
  • The next big question is how to award funds. The FCC’s RDOF grant program is using a reverse auction to award funds – but this only works when the funding is awarded to a specific footprint of grant areas. More traditional grant awards require the writing of extensive grant requests to prove the worthiness of a grant applicant and the worthiness of grant project. Anybody that remembers the Stimulus grants for broadband recalls that even at that time there were almost no qualified and experienced people available to review grant applications – and a lot of the Stimulus funding went to unworthy projects. A poorly run grant program also invites fraud and waste – the bigger the dollars the bigger the problems.
  • In perhaps the hardest issue for many to believe, there are not enough qualified ISPs ready and able to handle a big influx of funding and of operating the ensuing broadband businesses. We hear about small ISPs offering service all over the country, but all of them together don’t serve more than perhaps 5% of the broadband customers in the country today. Most small ISPs are already fully leveraged today as they’ve borrowed money to expand their footprint. Any grants that require matching funds might find a dearth of takers. If we throw money at the industry too quickly, it’s going to all end up going to the big telcos – and that likely just means pouring money down a black hole. It’s not hard to look back at the total bust of the CAF II program where the big telcos spent $11 billion in FCC funding and didn’t make any dent in the rural broadband problem. If Congress spreads awards out over time, then big new ISPs like electric cooperatives can prepare to go after the awards – most of them are not close to ‘shovel-ready’ today.
  • You can’t ask for broadband funding without some sort of engineering estimate of the cost of building a network and some sort of business plan showing that the network can operate profitably at the end of the funding. There are not a lot of ‘shovel-ready’ broadband projects laying around waiting for funding, and so the first step after a big Congress funding program would be to develop hundreds of new business plans. All of the consultants and engineers I know are already full-time busy helping companies to prepare for the $16.4 billion RDOF grants and the various state grant awards around the country.
  • The same is true of fiber construction companies. During this last construction season, we started seeing construction companies bidding up rates to go to the builder willing to pay the most for their services. There are not a lot (if any) idle fiber construction crews sitting around waiting for work. Fiber construction is not something that can be taught quickly to new workers – it takes years to develop a good fiber splicer or to train somebody to be able to determine pole make-ready.
  • We’re also starting to see backlogs for fiber materials. The waiting times for ADSS fiber that goes into the power space recently crept up to six months. The far bigger concern is electronics. Right now, the world supply chains are a mess due to COVID-19 and the industry is expecting delays in electronics delivery in the coming construction season. Supply houses and vendors aren’t talking about this, hoping it will magically go away, but there will likely be electronics shortages in the 2020 construction season even without pressure from new grants. Such shortages can cripple construction projects.
  • Finally, I am positive that any federal broadband grant money will come with stupid rules, many slapped on the funding by the big ISP lobbyists. There will be needless hoops to jump through and rules that make it hard to spend the money well. There is zero chance that federal grant funding wouldn’t come with ridiculous rules and ridiculous restrictions. If Congress is going to award big money they need to take a little time that the rules are fair and efficient.

There will be people reading this in amazement and wondering how a rural broadband advocate could be recommending caution. One only has to look back to the stimulus grants to recall that probably half of that money was wasted due to the haste of the grant programs. My fear is a knee-jerk federal reaction that will throw giant bucks at the problem when the proper solution would be a series of grants awarded over five or more years to allow ISPs time to get ready. Funding in one giant lump would result in a mess of epic proportions. I fear that DC would then wash their hands of rural broadband by saying that they already funded it, and any communities left behind after a flawed grant program would likely be left behind for decades to come. Congress, if you want to help your constituents, please ask for advice and get it right.

The Frontier Bankruptcy

To nobody’s surprise, Frontier declared bankruptcy. What is somewhat ironic is that the company blamed their problems on the lack of fiber – something that the company had the last decade to address. The company lost 6.3% of broadband customers and 21% of video customers in 2019.

People that live in rural areas in the Frontier service areas know them as a dreadful ISP. They probably don’t know the company’s history. Frontier was originally Citizens Utilities based in Minneapolis. The company decided to grow by acquisition. The company first acquired 500,000 telephone lines from GTE starting in 1993 – customers that had originally been served by Contel. In 1994 they acquired 117,000 telephone lines from Alltel – properties that were originally operated by CP National. The company picked up another 187,000 rural access lines when GTE merged with Verizon since Verizon wasn’t interested in acquiring more rural customers. In 1999, Citizens purchased Rochester Telephone that served Rochester, New York. In 2001 the company acquired the assets and customers of Global Crossings, which included local telephone customers, a long-distance network, and long-haul fiber. In 2006 the company purchased Commonwealth Telephone in Pennsylvania.

The biggest acquisitions came in 2009 when Frontier purchased the Verizon customers in thirteen states for $8.6 billion. This was followed by the purchase of Verizon customers in California, Florida, and Texas in 2016 for $10.5 billion. In 2014 the company purchased AT&T’s customers in Connecticut, which had formerly been called the Southern New England Telephone (SNET). Everybody I talked to who was knowledgeable about acquisitions thought that Frontier massively overpaid for the last three purchases. The prices paid per customer were high considering the condition of the properties they were purchasing.

There is probably no better example than West Virginia. When Frontier purchased the customers in that state, Verizon had already had the market up for sale for over a decade. During that time Verizon had stopped doing maintenance, had cut staff and had taken the normal steps to ‘dress-up’ the bottom line to enhance a sale by cutting costs wherever possible. Frontier bought a telco in West Virginia that was already in dreadfully bad shape, as were many of the other properties purchased from big telcos.

Frontier’s shortcomings were recently addressed in a 164-page report by Schumaker and Company that was funded by the West Virginia Public Service Commission. The report looked in detail at Frontier’s problems in West Virginia – a state where Frontier is the only ISP for the vast majority of the state.

Unfortunately, the current version of the report is highly redacted since Frontier claimed that details of their operations in the state are proprietary. Hopefully, the redactions will be overruled due to the fact that the company is the carrier of last resort in a state where there are still huge areas with little or no cellular coverage. However, even with the redactions it’s clear from the report that the Frontier spends little money in rural areas, has cut staff significantly in recent years, and has done very little to upgrade the networks since the original purchase. Frontier recently sold some of their properties in the Northwest as a way to raise cash.

The Frontier bankruptcy plan asks for a quick restructure and the ability to walk away from $11 billion in debt. I’ve read several analysts who are skeptical that the bankruptcy will be that easy. If the company keeps losing customers at the current pace, I find it hard to think there will be many lenders willing to front big loans for the company to rebuild.

A giant telco comprised of huge rural areas never made sense. I predicted that Frontier would eventually fold when they purchased some of the most neglected telco properties in the country. It took a decade, but those purchases finally brought the company down.

Any restructuring is not going to help the rural properties served by Frontier. The best possible solutions in terms of benefits to customers would be to restructure Frontier to just operate in its larger markets and to force it to divest of rural properties to the highest bidder – even if that offer is pennies on the dollar. New owners of the rural properties would be more likely to tackle upgrades, while Frontier is not likely to care about rural America even should they start over out of the bankruptcy.

Another FCC Disaster?

Anybody thinking of filing an RDOF grant needs to pay a lot of attention to the challenges being made to the $16.4 billion RDOF grant footprint. The FCC invited ISPs to notify them if there are any Census blocks where the ISP has added broadband of at least 25/3 since June 30, 2019. Even though the RDOF is covering the most remote households that supposedly don’t have even 10/1 Mbps broadband, you’d expect that some ISPs have built into the RDOF footprint over the last 9 months. However, that’s not the response that the FCC got. While there were a number of ISPs that claimed to have built into a few Census blocks, the large incumbent telcos are claiming to have built into a huge numbers of blocks since last June. Frankly, the responses of the of large telcos are not credible and the FCC needs to take a pause and challenge these results.

Here’ what the big telcos claimed:

  • AT&T claims about 1,500 Census blocks that have been upgraded to at least 25/3 since June 30, 20198.
  • Frontier claims over 16,000 Census blocks have been upgraded.
  • CenturyLink claims over 5,400 Census blocks have been upgraded.
  • Windstream claims 1,713 upgraded Census blocks.
  • Consolidated claims over 7,300 Census blocks.

To put these numbers into perspective, the Census Bureau says that the average Census block contains 40 – 45 people. Rural Census blocks often have fewer residents than urban blocks, and even if the average for these blocks is 40 people, the big telcos are asking to remove about 1/3 of the people out of consideration for RDOF grants. That number is mind-boggling. If the big telcos had been making this kind of progress in expanding 25/3 Mbps rural broadband before June 30, 2019, then we wouldn’t have a rural digital divide.

Consider the individual claims:

  • Frontier lost 235,000 broadband customers in 2019, representing 6.3% of their customer base. The company has been cash-strapped and has not been making rural capital investments. It’s fairly well understood in the industry that the company didn’t even spend much of its CAF II funding to upgrade rural customers to 10/1 Mbps. It’s inconceivable that the company that just entered bankruptcy upgraded over 16,000 Census blocks in the last 9 months.
  • Consolidated Communications is next on the list claiming upgrades in 7,300 Census blocks. The company purchased Fairpoint in July 2017 and has been actively making upgrades since then. But even for a company actively making upgrades, a claim of improvements in this many Census blocks seems hard to believe over a 9-month period that includes the winter months.
  • CenturyLink claims upgrades in 5,400 Census blocks. The company has loudly proclaimed a number of times that it is not making investments that earn ‘infrastructure returns’. It’s frankly hard to believe that they would have spent the money in rural America needed to make these upgrades.
  • Windstream is claiming over 1,700 Census blocks. The company has been flirting with bankruptcy during the last nine months and it’s reasonable to ask if they were really this active in making upgrades in the last 9 months.
  • AT&T claims over 1,500 Census blocks have been upgraded. This is the company that wants badly to get out of the rural wireline business. These upgraded Census blocks need to have come from the AT&T Fixed wireless technology. I’m not aware of AT&T having launched any mass marketing effort aimed at rural census blocks. Consider AT&T’s broadband subscriber numbers for 2019. AT&T lost a little over 300,000 broadband customers during the year. To offset that loss, AT&T claims to have added over 1 million customers on fiber. One would think it would be obvious if AT&T was also out heavily promoting the rural fixed-wireless product.

It’s easy to understand why an incumbent telephone company would make these claims. Any Census blocks that remain in the RDOF grant process are going to be overbuilt by faster technology than the rural DSL offered by these telcos. The incumbents can only remain as the monopoly provider by removing Census blocks from the RDOF footprint.

The FCC needs to investigate these claims. This is reminiscent of the overstated wireless coverage claimed last year by Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint that prompted the FCC to delay the rural cellular grants, now labeled as 5G Grants, for a year. It was obvious to the FCC that those wireless carriers were making the erroneous coverage claims to keep out competition. There has to be a whole lot of that going on here as well.

Remember that these claims are being made under the existing rules for the FCC’s 477 process. In the current process an ISP only has to have one customer in a Census block getting the declared speed. The easiest way for the FCC to check these numbers is to require each telco to provide the addresses of customers in each Census block that supposedly now has 25/3 Mbps broadband. The FCC could call and talk to those homes and ask them to take a speed test to see if the telco claims are even remotely plausible. I expect the lists would quickly revised and shrink if the carriers are required to get that specific.

The FCC also needs to allow Census blocks that have only a few 25/3 customers to remain in the RDOF grant. It would be a huge disservice to the other customers in these Census blocks to doom them to remain as monopoly customers for another decade.

These filings are so blatantly suspicious that the FCC has to pause, even if that means delaying the RDOF grants. Considering the hardships being experienced by everybody in these areas during the current COVID-19 crisis, the FCC cannot accept these crazy claims without challenging them. It would have been possible credible if each of these big telcos claimed a few hundred Census block upgrades – but in aggregate this filing looks like a monopoly land grab more than anything else. If these claims prove to be false the FCC needs to fine these telcos into the stone age – such fines deserve to be in the billions.

Predictions for a Post-COVID-19 World

While it might still be too early to make predictions, there are dozens of articles on the web predicting how the COVID-19 pandemic might change our long-term behavior. Here are some of the more interesting predictions I’ve seen that involve broadband and telecom:

An Outcry for Better Home Broadband. Millions of people were sent home for work or school to homes that didn’t have good broadband. These folks have been telling the world for years that they don’t have good broadband. When this crisis is over these people are going to insist on being heard, and they are going to take out their anger on politicians who don’t help to find broadband solutions. This means Mayors and City Councils that are not pro-broadband. This means County Boards and Commissions that don’t offer matching grants to attract ISPs. This means any state politician who votes against significant state broadband grants or who votes against municipal participation in broadband. And this means federal Senators and Representatives that support the big cable companies and telcos over their constituents. Folks are not likely to be fooled any longer by false legislation that supposedly is pro-broadband but which is the exact opposite – because folks are going to be paying attention to any news concerning their home broadband.

Digital Meetings Are Here to Stay. We are all seeing how effective it can be to meet online. People are going to be a lot less willing to travel for a one or two-hour meeting. I know my days of doing that kind of traveling are over. This means airline business travel is likely never coming back to former levels, but it means a lot more. I was talking to somebody in local government the other day who told me that they spend over 10 hours of every workweek driving between meetings around a large county. He said he thinks the day or required live attendance at such meetings is likely over.

Demand for Faster Upload Speeds. The permanent uptick in more video meetings means there will be an increased demand for faster upload broadband speeds. The FCC still talks about 25/3 Mbps as acceptable broadband, but a home or office getting only 3 Mbps upload is not able to hold multiple simultaneous video calls. Homes and businesses are going to favor technologies willing to meet that upload speed demand.

Telemedicine has Arrived. I have been watching the glacial acceptance of telemedicine for fifteen years. The biggest hurdles have been the reluctance of doctors to try telemedicine and the willingness of insurance companies to pay for it. We’ve broken both of those barriers and telemedicine is here to stay. There are numerous routine doctor visits that don’t require an office visit. It’s never made sense to force patients who aren’t sick to march through a waiting room that has been filled all day with those with colds, the flu, or worse.

Expect Contactless Payments. I can remember being promised twenty years ago that we’d be able to pay for things by waving a cellphone. Nobody wants to hand a credit card to a clerk or even pass a credit card through a device that other people have used all day – so stores that install touchless payment systems are quickly going to become preferred. Expect an expansion of telephone, voice, and vision interface at checkout locations and a phase-out of credit card swiping. Also, expect an increased reluctance to take cash. There were already stores in New York City last year that made headlines by refusing to accept cash – expect a lot more of that.

More Telecommuting. Businesses have seen that people can be effective when working from home. Expect to see businesses more easily allowing for working from home at least part-time. This likely means a downturn in business real estate. For example, my neighbor is an architect who works at a small local branch of a larger firm. They’ve already seen the effectiveness of working from home and have already discussed not reopening the local office when the crisis is over. More telecommuting means more daytime use of neighborhood bandwidth and an increased expectation of residential broadband signal quality.

A Reboot for Corporate Security. We just spent a decade moving corporate data behind firewalls and restricting access to data from outside the business. Many businesses scrambled to find ways to allow employees to work from home, and in doing so undid many of their security protocols. Expect a major reboot as companies implement security solutions that support telecommuting.

Where’s My Refund?

Today’s blog is a little tongue-in-cheek, but not entirely so. The blog was prompted by seeing that auto insurance companies are sending refunds to customers since they are no longer driving their cars much during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is pretty obvious when the web is full of pictures of major urban highways with practically no traffic at rush hour.

My question is why my cable company doesn’t reimburse me for sports channels that no longer carry sports. On the flip side, why would the cable company pay the sports networks since they aren’t delivering what was promised? This is not an inconsequential amount of money. In 2018 Kagan, a media research group within S&P Global Markets Intelligence reported that the average cost of sports programming in the US was $18.55 per subscriber per month. Since then, that cost will have climbed and is likely at least $20 per cable subscriber per month – even higher in metropolitan markets with local sports networks that carry baseball or basketball.

That’s a substantial amount of customer billing that ought to be refunded. With over 83 million traditional cable customers at the end of 2019, that’s over $1.6 billion per month in subscriber fees. The customers of Sling TV, YouTube TV, and other online programmers pay similar monthly fees. There are additional customers subscribing to extra programming such as ESPN+ and BIG 10 TV. Altogether it’s likely that the public is paying at least $2 billion per month for sports content that currently isn’t being delivered.

Sports networks are currently sad for any sports fans. The NCAA basketball tournament would have just concluded. It’s almost time for the NBA and NHL playoffs. This would be the early weeks of a new professional baseball season. College baseball would be well underway marching towards the college world series. There would also be plenty of coverage for soccer and NASCAR. Sports networks would be covering other college sports like lacrosse, gymnastics, and track and field. There would be boxing, wrestling, and the UFC and MMA.

Instead, the sports networks sit empty of sports. These networks are filling the day by playing older sporting events or showing talking heads talking about sports – but there are no sports on the air. I watched a couple of old Maryland basketball games at the start of the COVID-19 shutdown as a substitute for the NCAA tournament, but I suspect most sports fans have stopped watching the sports networks.

The money streams for sports programming is complex. Consider ESPN, the flagship sports network as an example of how this industry segment operates. The monthly fee charged to cable operators to carry the ESPN channels is around $9 per customer. Disney doesn’t report ESPN numbers separately, but industry analysts estimated that those fees account for about 60% of ESPN’s revenues. Most of the rest of the revenue stream comes from the advertising shown on ESPN. The most expensive advertising rates are charged during sporting events.

ESPN’s biggest costs are fees paid to sports leagues for rights to carry the sporting events. The latest figures I could find for these fees was from a 2017 study done by the Sports Business Journal. The annual payments made by ESPN in that study included payments such as $608 million per year for the college playoffs, $700 million for major league baseball, $38 million for major league soccer, $1.4 billion per year for the NBA, $1.9 billion per year for the NFL, $75 million per year for US Open Tennis, $40 million per year for Wimbledon, $240 million per year to the Atlantic Coast Conference, $100 million for the Big 12, $100 million for the Big 10, $125 million for the Pac-12, $300 million for the Southeastern Conference, plus a number of smaller payments for other sports. These payments have likely climbed since 2017.

The dollar impact of sports advertising gets complicated during the COVID-19 crisis because of the contractual relationships among the parties. Many of the above payments to sports leagues are guaranteed even if there are no sports being played. However, these same contracts likely require the leagues to compensate networks like ESPN for lost advertising revenue. That makes it hard to estimate the net impact of sports coming to a grinding halt. Ultimately the advertising money should roughly be a wash. If there are no sports, there are no big advertising dollars and leagues and networks both suffer losses.

But the payments from customers continue. I’ve canceled my subscription to YouTube TV since I only purchased it to watch sports – and I suspect many other households are cutting the cord right now. But the $2 billion monthly payments to networks like ESPN continue. If my car insurance company is going to send me a check for not driving, then I don’t know why cable providers shouldn’t return my money for sports channels that carry no sports. This sounds to me like a ripe opportunity for a class action lawsuit.

Are You Covered by the RDOF Grant?

The FCC has published a detailed map of the upcoming RDOF grant program that is overlaid on Google Maps. This let’s everybody in rural America see if they might be getting covered by the $16 billion grants that will be awarded in October of this year. This is the largest broadband grant to ever be awarded and will serve only rural areas. You can zoom in on this map to see if your home or business will be covered by this giant grant program.

If it turns out your neighborhood is covered by this grant, here are a few things you should know:

  • The money is being awarded by reverse auction with different ISPs competing for the money. The ISP willing to take the least amount of federal grants will win the award for your area. There is one twist on the auction in that any ISP offering gigabit speeds wins the grant after a few rounds of bidding.
  • ISPs can use any technology that delivers at least 25/3 Mbps broadband to participate in the grant auction. The auction is weighted to try to give the money to faster technologies. However, the winner in your area could be proposing to use DSL, fixed wireless, satellite broadband, or fiber. The technology you will be served with is going to depend on the ISP that wins your area. You should be able to find out the technology that is coming to your neighborhood when the auction is finished sometime near the end of this year.
  • You might not see a solution quickly. Winners will have 6 years to complete construction, meaning that some homes in the winning areas won’t get broadband until 2026. Since people are being asked to work and school from home, that’s a really long time to wait.
  • If nobody wins the grant money in your area it would go back into the pot for a smaller $4 billion grant to be awarded in 2021.

What if you aren’t covered by these grants and don’t have good broadband? What are your chances of seeing a broadband solution?

It’s possible that your area would have been covered by the $1.5 billion reverse auction grants awarded last year. However, if your area was awarded one of these grants then hopefully you’ve already heard about it.

If you live really close to one of these RDOF areas, there is a chance that the winner of these grants might build to your home. However, that’s something that you aren’t likely to know for a long time, and the chances are not good that you’ll be covered.

There will be a second FCC auction in 2021 for $4 billion that will cover additional areas that are not on this map. $4 billion will cover a much smaller area than this map – but some folks will get a second chance. That auction is likely to have the same rules, meaning that you might not see a broadband solution until 2027. It’s likely that the FCC will issue a second map similar to this one for the areas covered by those grants.

There are other federal grant programs such as the ReConnect grants that are awarding smaller dollars. The ReConnect grant for this year is $300 million for the whole country and was boosted by $100 million in the COVID-19 stimulus package. There is no guarantee that this grant program will carry into the future – it’s been funded now for the last few years as part of the annual agriculture bill.

There are also state grant programs that might cover you. Most of the state grant programs are relatively small, but they are helping to spread broadband. However, there is a significant chance that a lot of state grant money will be used as matching funds for the RDOF grants.

If you have poor broadband options and you aren’t covered by this grant there is a good chance that you just got screwed. There are many millions of homes and business that don’t have good broadband that are not covered by this grant. That blame can be laid squarely on the FCC. The FCC is using information supplied by ISPs to define areas that are eligible for this grant. There are huge parts of rural America where the ISPs are falsely claiming to offer 25/3 speeds, and such areas are not included in this grant.

The FCC knows they are using faulty data and they decided to move forward with these grants anyway. The areas covered by the RDOF grants don’t have good broadband, but there is an even larger geographic area of the country that should be eligible for federal grants that have been shut out due to the FCC never insisting on good mapping data from ISPs.

If your neighborhood has poor broadband and isn’t covered by these grants, then you need to yell bloody murder to anybody and everybody. Complain to local, state and federal politicians. The fact is that if your neighborhood isn’t on these maps, or isn’t covered by a few other existing grant programs, then you are not likely to be getting broadband with federal grant assistance any time soon. You aren’t going to be alone and there are millions of other rural residents in this same situation – so join forces and shout until there is a solution.

The FCC Releases Needed Spectrum

The FCC made two moves in the last week concerning spectrum. Chairman Ajit Pai announced intentions to vote later this month to release the entire 1,200 MHz band of 6 GHz spectrum for unlicensed usage. They also awarded special temporary authority for 33 WISPs to use 45 MHz out of the 5.9 GHz band to boost rural fixed broadband during the COVID-19 crisis.

It’s expected that the recommendation for the 6 GHz spectrum will be approved unanimously by FCC Commissioners. This announcement is huge news. This would increase the bandwidth available for WiFi by almost a factor of 5. The WiFi band already carries far more data than any other swath of spectrum and this bolsters WiFi for the next few decades. The order proposes to uses for the new spectrum. The entire 1,200 MHz of frequency would be released for indoor usage at low power. 850 MHz of the band would be released at standard power levels and can be used outdoors in hot spots and for point-to-multipoint fixed wireless networks.

The cellular carriers have been lobbying hard to have some of the bandwidth sold as licensed spectrum. Instead, the FCC order would allocate it all to public use, but allows anybody, including the cellular carriers to use the spectrum subject to automated frequency coordination. That’s the system that senses existing use of the spectrum before allowing a second interfering use. The cellular carriers might elect to use this spectrum heavily, on an as-needed basis, in urban areas, but likely won’t bother in rural areas – freeing this bandwidth mostly for rural broadband usage.

This is big news because until this announcement there was still the possibility that some of the spectrum would be allocated to a licensed auction. The Chairman did say that he was considering making this all public spectrum a year ago, but a decision was never official until now. This is big news for the whole WiFi industry as well, since any spectrum allocated to licensed spectrum would have been off-limits for indoor WiFi use. As I’ve written in other blogs, this new spectrum, along with the introduction of WiFi 6 technology means a massive upgrade in capability for home and office WiFi performance. This should enable multiple simultaneous large-bandwidth uses of bandwidth within the home or office without interference. WiFi 6 also uses techniques that cut down on interference from neighboring hotspots.

The second action by the FCC is interesting. They granted special temporary authority to 33 rural WISPs to use 45 MHz of the 5.9 GHz spectrum for the next 60 days. This will allow these WISPs to beef up rural bandwidth during the COVID-19 crisis. The WISPs report that they are seeing a 35% increase in traffic volumes along with a requests for more bandwidth due to students and employees suddenly working from homes.

The extra bandwidth will allow these ISPs to boost bandwidth since they use software-defined radios that already work in the nearby 5 GHz WiFi spectrum band. I would expect the FCC to continue the temporary use of the spectrum if shelter-in-place extends in some places past the 60-day window.

These temporary uses of the spectrum might presage a more permanent use of this spectrum band. The 5.9 GHz spectrum was set aside many years ago for vehicle-to-vehicle communications. The self-driving and assisted driving vehicle technology has advanced much more slowly than originally anticipated, plus some car manufacturers are using a different spectrum solution for communicating from car to car. The FCC was already considering splitting the spectrum band and cutting the amount of spectrum available to vehicles in half, with the rest likely going to public auction. The cellular carriers claim that they still only have half of the mid-range spectrum they need to support full deployment of 5G, and the FCC seems likely to grab this spectrum for that purpose.

Free the Fiber Now

A few blogs ago I mentioned that the FCC had taken away restrictions to allow broadband supplied by E-Rate funding to be used to provide free WiFi for the public. That’s a good idea that will provide some relief for areas with little or no other broadband. But the announcement raises a more fundamental question – why was such a restriction in place to begin with?

I see such restrictions all of the time where broadband infrastructure that is built with public dollars cannot be used for commercial purposes, or in the case of school bandwidth, can’t even be used to distribute broadband to the public for free.

The first time I ran across this was over twenty years ago when I was working with a city in Virginia that wanted to build a backbone fiber to connect city buildings, but also to connect to a few business districts that had lousy broadband. The city had a fairly robust fiber network that was used to control streetlights and there was enough spare fiber in this network to provide a significant portion of the needed solution. Upon investigation, it turns out that about one-fourth of that fiber had been funding through a grant from the state highway department that came with a clear prohibition from using the fiber for any other purpose other than traffic control. The city attorney read that grant prohibition to even mean the city couldn’t use the fiber to connect city buildings, let alone run the fiber to a business district. And this was after the city had paid for most of the fiber out of local tax dollars. The city would have been far better off financially had it never taken the highway grant.

This happens all of the time. I’ve seen similar restrictions on fiber networks built to reach schools. There are often similar restrictions on fiber built to connect public buildings. Some states have laws that prohibit fiber built by a municipal electric or water utility to be used for any other purposes.

There are other fibers funded 100% by taxpayer dollars that are also off-limits for other purposes. For example, there was a lot of middle-mile fiber built as part of the $11 billion CAF II program that was given to the large telcos. The fiber was built as middle-mile fiber to reach DSL huts and cellular towers. None of that fiber was made available to anybody else, although the fiber was funded by federal money and most of the fiber sits unused today.

There are a few reasons such restrictions exist. In the case of the Virginia city, after a lot of investigation, we figured out that Comcast and Verizon had lobbied to restrict the use of state-funded fiber. The restriction wasn’t from a specific law in this case but had been written into state grant awards. In some cases such restrictions are written in state law, which likely is also due to lobbying by the big telcos and cable companies. We’ve found a few restrictions against using government-funded fiber that seem to come from bureaucrats who simply invented the rules without understanding the long-term ramifications.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that all of these restrictions must go. Government-funded fiber ought to be made available to ISPs, cities or others that want to use it to solve the digital divide. It’s ridiculous for the country to be sitting on huge amounts of empty fiber due to stupid political restrictions or boneheaded bureaucratic decisions at a time when people don’t have broadband in their homes.

The only way to fix this is in Congress. They could write and a pass a short simple bill that would remove all restrictions against using fiber funding by the government. The federal law should override contracts, state laws, and any restrictions created by state or federal agencies. The FCC sadly can’t consider this kind of ruling since they have written themselves almost completely out of the broadband regulation business. Since the FCC killed its own regulatory powers, a federal law should give the power to state regulatory commissions to work out any details.

I run into people all of the time who are upset because they live close to fiber but have no broadband. They get doubly mad when they find out that the fiber was funded by their tax dollars to provide broadband to highway signs or to serve a nearby school. A new law won’t automatically bring relief to everybody who lives near fiber because you shouldn’t cut into a long-haul fiber anywhere except existing access points. However, there is a huge amount of government-funded fiber in the world and this one simple change would unleash ISPs to find many more last-mile solutions.

T-Mobile Needs to Step Up

The T-Mobile Sprint merger became official on April 1. Since we are in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, the country needs T-Mobile to keep a few of the promises it made that were contingent upon the merger.

First, T-Mobile promised to offer wireless home broadband immediately after the merger for 50% of the people in the US, including many rural subscribers. T-Mobile envisions packaging excess cellular capacity as home broadband, at a reasonable price. The company does not envision putting fixed wireless antennas on homes like the products of AT&T and Verizon. The T-Mobile home product just requires a billing change where people pay less for cellular data usage inside their home. T-Mobile could effectuate this product almost immediately. This product could immediately help millions of homes that are struggling without affordable broadband right now.

The other T-Mobile promise addressed the digital divide and the company promised to serve 10 million homes that don’t have broadband today. This offer came with a promise to provide free devices to homes to receive the broadband. This is a digital divide product and could bring relief to poor households struggling with students trying to work from home. The product had a catch, in that annual usage was limited to 100 GB for free – but that’s enough usage to get students through the rest of this school year. As cellular plans in general go that’s not bad, meaning a monthly data allowance of over 8 GB per month in data allowance.

If T-Mobile is brave enough to launch these products immediately, they will reap mountains of marketing goodwill, which is exactly what the newly merged company needs. They will have created millions of fans who likely would become loyal to the company for helping them during this pandemic.

If T-Mobile doesn’t step up, ideally the FCC would turn the screws hard to make the company meet these promises now, rather than years from now. However, these plans involve broadband data and the feckless FCC has written themselves out of the broadband business. The FCC can huff and puff, but they no longer have the power to blow anybody’s house down.

Unfortunately, the history of the telecom industry is full of broken promises made as part of mergers. One of the biggest wireless mergers in the past was the 2005 merger of Sprint with Nextel. The companies had promised that the merger would allow them to bring Nextel’s popular ‘push to talk’ technology everywhere. The companies also promised they would blanket the country with cellular data, including rural America, using the 2.5 GHz spectrum. None of those promises ever came to pass – which was perhaps the first of many broken promises made for rural broadband. Like with most mergers, this merger also promised a lot of new jobs, but instead cut jobs.

There are plenty of other failed mergers. Consider the 2011 merger of Comcast with NBC Universal. Comcast promised it would offer affordably-priced standalone Internet everywhere – a product that was created but never marketed. Comcast promised to not discriminate against other programmers, but immediately disadvantaged Bloomberg by moving it to an obscure part of the channel lineup since it competed against the newly acquired MSNBC and CNBC. Comcast also promised to not discriminate against rival streaming services, but soon after the merger implemented its data caps, which applied to everybody’s video except Comcast’s.

One of the most blatant examples of carriers that tossed away pre-merger promises came after the 2006 merger of AT&T and BellSouth. Almost none of the promises made were kept. For example, AT&T promised to bring affordable broadband to all rural customers in the 22 states served by the two companies. Ask the folks in Mississippi and Alabama if this promise was fulfilled. AT&T has promised to build wireline networks in at least 30 cities outside its footprint and compete for voice and data – but this never happened. The companies promised to spend $16.5 billion to upgrade broadband in California and instead shut down expansion soon after the merger. The company claimed it would spend $1 billion wiring schools and libraries – another promise never met.

T-Mobile has an opportunity right not to become a legend in the industry by aggressively bringing affordable broadband to the students and workers who were sent home without broadband. This would distinguish them for the next decade as the carrier that met its promises and would likely propel them into the number one position in the industry. Let’s all hope they step up and do what they promised and do it quickly. Unfortunately, history has shown us that pre-merger promises are often forgotten before the ink is dry. But it would be so refreshing to see a company do what it promised, so we can hope.