A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about the misuse of the term overbuilding. Big ISPs use the term to give politicians a phrase to use to shield the big companies from competition. The argument is always phrased about how federal funds shouldn’t be used to overbuild where an ISP is already providing fast broadband. What the big ISPs really mean is that they don’t want to have competition anywhere, even where they still offer outdated technologies or where they have neglected networks.
Today I want to take on the phrase ‘technology neutral’. This phrase is being used to justify building technologies that are clearly not as good as fiber. The argument has been used a lot in recent years to say that grants should be technology neutral so as not to favor only fiber. The phrase was used a lot to justify allowing Starlink into the RDOF reverse auction. The phrase has been used a lot to justify allowing fixed wireless technology to win grants, and lately, it’s being used more specifically to allow fixed wireless using unlicensed spectrum into the BEAD grants.
The argument justifies allowing technologies like satellite or fixed wireless using unlicensed spectrum to get grants since the technologies are ‘good enough’ when compared to the requirement of grant rules.
I have two arguments to counter that justification. The only reason the technology neutral argument can be raised is that politicians set the speed requirements for grants at ridiculously low levels. Consider all of the current grants that set the speed requirement for technology at 100/20 Mbps. The 100 Mbps speed requirement is an example of what I’ve recently called underbuilding – it allows for building a technology that is already too slow today. At least 80% of folks in the country today can buy broadband from a cable company or fiber company. Almost all of the cable companies offer download speeds as fast as a gigabit. Even in older cable systems, the maximum speeds are faster than 100 Mbps. Setting a grant speed requirement of only 100 Mbps download is saying to rural folks that they don’t deserve broadband as good as what is available to the large majority of people in the country.
The upload speed requirement of 20 Mbps was a total political sellout. This was set to appease the cable companies, many which struggle to beat that speed. Interestingly, the big cable companies all recognize that their biggest market weakness is slow upload speeds, and most of them are working on plans to implement a mid-split upgrade or else some early version of DOCSIS 4.0 to significantly improve upload speed. Within just a few years, the 20 Mbps upload speed limit is going to feel like ancient history.
The BEAD requirement of only needing to provide 20 Mbps upload is ironic for two reasons. First, in cities, the cable companies will have much faster upload speeds implemented by the time that anybody builds a BEAD network. Second, the cable companies that are pursuing grants are almost universally using fiber to satisfy those grants. Cable companies are rarely building coaxial copper plant for new construction. This means the 20 Mbps speed was set to protect cable companies against overbuilding – not set as a technology neutral speed that is forward looking.
The second argument against the technology neutral argument is that some technologies are clearly not good enough to justify receiving grant dollars. Consider Starlink satellite broadband. It’s a godsend to folks who have no alternatives, and many people rave about how it has solved their broadband problems. But the overall speeds are far slower than what was promised before the technology was launched. I’ve seen a huge number of speed tests for Starlink that don’t come close to the 100/20 Mbps speed required by the BEAD grants.
The same can be said for FWA wireless using cellular spectrum. It’s pretty decent broadband for folks who live within a mile or two of a tower, and I’ve talked to customers who are seeing speeds significantly in excess of 100/20 Mbps. But customers just a mile further away from a tower tell a different story, where download speeds are far under 100 Mbps download. A technology that has such a small coverage area does not meet the technology neutral test unless a cellular company promises to pepper an area with new cell towers.
Finally, and a comment that always gets pushback from WISPs, is that fixed wireless technology using unlicensed spectrum has plainly not been adequate in most places. Interference from the many users of unlicensed spectrum means the broadband speeds vary depending on whatever is happening with the spectrum at a given moment. Interference on the technology also means higher latency and much higher packet losses than landline technologies.
I’ve argued until I am blue in the face that grant speed requirements should be set for the speeds we expect a decade from now and not for the bare minimum that makes sense today. It’s ludicrous to allow award grant funding to a technology that barely meets the 100/20 Mbps grant requirement when that network probably won’t be built until 2025. The real test for the right technology for grant funding is what the average urban customer will be able to buy in 2032. It’s hard to think that speed won’t be something like 2 Gbps/200 Mbps. If that’s what will be available to a large majority of households in a decade it ought to be the technology neutral definition of speed to qualify for grants.
One of the most interesting aspects of the BEAD grants is that the funding is intended to make sure that everybody gets broadband. There is one section of the grant rules that talk about how the funding can be used to serve areas as small as a single home. Following are two quotes from the BEAD rules:
Project—The term “project” means an undertaking by a subgrantee to construct and deploy infrastructure for the provision of broadband service. A “project” may constitute a single unserved or underserved broadband-serviceable location, or a grouping of broadband-serviceable locations in which not less than 80 percent of broadband-serviceable locations served by the project are unserved locations or underserved locations.
Unserved Service Project—The term “Unserved Service Project” means a project in which not less than 80 percent of broadband-serviceable locations served by the project are unserved locations. An “Unserved Service Project” may be as small as a single unserved broadband-serviceable location.
This is something that is badly needed because in every county I’ve worked in, there are small pockets of folks that have been left out of other broadband expansion projects. To give an example, I was working with a county where there is a small pocket of about fifteen homes that are between the areas funded by two state grants. The homes are along a State highway, which means higher construction costs. The earlier state grant applicants ignored the area because of the high costs.
I’m curious about how small areas like this one can fit into the complicated BEAD grant rules. I’m sure the two different ISPs that decided not to build these area would do so if they got enough funding – which should be available from BEAD. But I can’t picture any ISP going through the massive hassle of plowing through the BEAD application and the myriad of rules to get the money to serve fifteen homes. I already know a lot of small ISPs that are thinking about skipping the BEAD grants entirely because of the complexity.
I’ll be interested to see how the State Broadband offices tackle this issue when they publish their draft grant rules. I would not expect any ISP to ask to serve small pockets of customers if they have to jump through the full gamut of the BEAD hoops. Will State Broadband offices come up with a simpler mechanism for these stray pockets of homes?
We’ve seen simpler mechanisms used for small pockets of homes in some state grants. For example, several states have used the concept of loop extension grants to fund homes that are close to an existing broadband network. These grants fund drops and customer electronics only and not the infrastructure wiring along the streets. The loop extension grants can be requested for a single home or groups of homes in a neighborhood.
Will a State be allowed to deviate from the NTIA grant rules to reach the many tiny clusters that will otherwise not get broadband? A lot of the complicated rules for BEAD were dictated by Congressional legislation, and it might not be possible to hand out money to anybody that doesn’t meet all of those federal requirements. If an ISP needs a letter of credit, an environmental study, and to jump through many other onerous hoops, I can’t picture any ISP that will be willing to tackle small pockets of customers. Unfortunately, the language above classifies building to a single home as a project probably means that all of the rules associated with the BEAD grants will apply.
The FCC recently opened a docket, at the prompting of federal legislation, that asks for examples of digital discrimination. The docket asks folks to share stories about how they have had a hard time obtaining or keeping broadband, specifically due to issues related to zip code, income level, ethnicity, race, religion, or national origin.
The big cable companies and telcos are all going to swear they don’t discriminate against anybody for any reason, and every argument they make will be pure bosh. Big corporations, in general, favor more affluent neighborhoods over poor ones. Neighborhoods that don’t have the best broadband networks are likely going to be the same neighborhoods that don’t have grocery stores, gas stations, retail stores, restaurants, banks, hotels, and a wide variety of other kinds of infrastructure investment from big corporations. The big cable companies and telcos are profit-driven and focused on stock prices, and they make many decisions based on the expected return to the bottom line – just like other large corporations.
There is clearly discrimination by ISPs by income level. It’s going to be a lot harder to prove discrimination by ethnicity, race, religion, or national origin, although it’s likely that some stories of this will surface in this docket. But discrimination based on income is everywhere we look. There are two primary types of broadband discrimination related to income – infrastructure discrimination and price discrimination.
Infrastructure discrimination for broadband has been happening for a long time. It doesn’t take a hard look to see that telecom networks in low-income neighborhoods are not as good as those in more affluent neighborhoods. Any telecom technician or engineer can point out a dozen of differences in the quality of the infrastructure between neighborhoods.
The first conclusive evidence of this came years ago from a study that overlaid upgrades for AT&T DSL over income levels, block by block in Dallas. The study clearly showed that neighborhoods with higher incomes got the upgrades to faster DSL during the early 2000s. The differences were stark, with some neighborhoods stuck with first-generation DSL that delivered 1-2 Mbps broadband while more affluent neighborhoods had been upgraded to 20 Mbps DSL or faster.
It’s not hard to put ourselves into the mind of the local AT&T managers in Dallas who made these decisions. The local manager would have been given an annual DSL upgrade budget and would have decided where to spend it. Since there wasn’t enough budget to upgrade everywhere, the local manager would have made the upgrades in neighborhoods where faster cable company competition was taking the most DSL customers – likely the more affluent neighborhoods that could afford the more expensive cable broadband. There were probably fewer customers fleeing the more affordable DSL option in poor neighborhoods where the price was a bigger factor for consumers than broadband speeds.
These same kinds of economic decisions have been played out over and over, year after year by the big ISPs until affluent neighborhoods grew to have better broadband infrastructure than poorer neighborhoods. Consider a few of the many examples of this:
I’ve always noticed that there are more underground utilities in newer and more affluent neighborhoods than in older and poorer ones. This puts broadband wires safely underground and out of reach from storm damage – which over time makes a big difference in the quality of the broadband being delivered. Interestingly, the decision of where to force utilities to be underground is done by local governments, and to some degree, cities have contributed to the difference in infrastructure between affluent and low-income neighborhoods.
Like many people in the industry, when I go to a new place, I automatically look up at the conditions of poles. While every place is different, there is clearly a trend to have taller and less cluttered poles in more affluent parts of a city. This might be because competition brought more wires to a neighborhood, which meant more make-ready work done to upgrade poles. But I’ve spotted many cases where poles in older and poorer neighborhoods are the worst in a community.
It’s easy to find many places where the Dallas DSL story is being replayed with fiber deployment. ISPs of all sizes cherry-pick the neighborhoods that they perceive to have the best earnings potential when they bring fiber to a new market.
We are on the verge of having AI software that can analyze data in new ways. I believe that we’ll find that broadband discrimination against low-income neighborhoods runs a lot deeper than the way we’ve been thinking about it. My guess is that if we map all of the infrastructure related to broadband we’d see firm evidence of the infrastructure differences between poor and more affluent neighborhoods.
I am sure that if we could gather the facts related to the age of the wires, poles, and other infrastructure, we’d find the infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods is significantly older than in other neighborhoods. Upgrades to broadband networks are usually not done in a rip-and-replace fashion but are done by dozens of small repairs and upgrades over time. I also suspect that if you could plot all of the small upgrades done over time to improve networks, you’d find more of these small upgrades, such as replacing cable company power taps and amplifiers, to have been done in more affluent neighborhoods.
We tend to think of broadband infrastructure as the network of wires that brings fast Internet to homes, but modern broadband has grown to be much more than that, and there is a lot of broadband infrastructure that is not aimed at home broadband. Broadband infrastructure has also come to mean small cell sites, smart grid infrastructure, and smart city infrastructure. I believe that if we could map everything related to these broadband investments we’d see more examples of discrimination.
Consider small cell sites. Cellular companies have been building fiber to install small cell sites to beef up cellular networks. I’ve never seen maps of small cell installations, but I would wager that if we mapped all of the new fiber and small cell sites we’d find a bias against low-income neighborhoods.
I hope one day to see an AI-generated map that overlays all of these various technologies against household incomes. My gut tells me that we’d find that low-income neighborhoods will come up short across the board. Low-income neighborhoods will have older wires and older poles. Low-income neighborhoods will have fewer small cell sites. Low-income neighborhoods won’t be the first to get upgraded smart grid technologies. Low-income neighborhoods won’t get the same share of smart city technologies, possibly due to the lack of other infrastructure.
This is the subtle discrimination that the FCC isn’t going to find in their docket because nobody has the proof. I could be wrong, and perhaps I’m just presupposing that low-income neighborhoods get less of every new technology. I hope some smart data guys can find the data to map these various technologies because my gut tells me that I’m right.
Price discrimination has been around for a long time, but I think there is evidence that it’s intensified in recent years. I first noticed price discrimination in the early price wars between the big cable companies and Verizon FiOS. This was the first widespread example of ISPs going head-to-head with decent broadband products where the big differentiator was the price.
I think the first time I heard the term ‘win-back program’ was related to cable companies working hard not to lose customers to Verizon. There are stories in the early days of heavy competition of Comcast keeping customers on the phone for a long time when a customer tried to disconnect service. The cable company would throw all sorts of price incentives to stop customers from leaving to go to Verizon. Over time, the win-back programs grew to be less aggressive, but they are still with us today in markets where cable companies face stiff competition.
I think price competition has gotten a lot more subtle, as witnessed by a recent study in Los Angeles that showed that Charter offers drastically different online prices for different neighborhoods. I’ve been expecting to see this kind of pricing for several years. This is a natural consequence of all of the work that ISPs have done to build profiles of people and neighborhoods. Consumers have always been leery about data gathered about them, and the Charter marketing practices by neighborhood are the natural endgame of having granular data about the residents of LA.
From a purely commercial viewpoint, what Charter is doing makes sense. Companies of all sorts use pricing to reward good existing customers and to lure new customers. Software companies give us a lower price for paying for a year upfront rather than paying monthly. Fast food restaurants, grocery stores, and a wide range of businesses give us rewards for being regular customers.
It’s going to take a whistleblower to disclose what Charter is really doing. But the chances are it has a sophisticated software system that gives a rating for individual customers and neighborhoods based on the likelihood of customers buying broadband or churning to go to somebody else. This software is designed to offer a deeper discount in neighborhoods where price has proven to be an effective technique to keep customers – without offering lower prices everywhere.
I would imagine the smart numbers guy who devised this software had no idea that it would result in blatant discrimination – it’s software that lets Charter maximize revenue by fine-tuning the price according to a computer prediction of what a given customer or neighborhood is willing to pay. There has been a lot of speculation about how ISPs and others would integrate the mounds of our personal data into their businesses, and it looks like it has resulted in finely-tuned price discrimination by city block.
Is There a Fix for Digital Discrimination?
The big news in the broadband industry is that we are in the process of throwing billions of dollars to solve the ultimate case of economic discrimination – the gap between urban and rural broadband infrastructure. The big telcos completely walked away from rural areas as soon as they were deregulated and could do so. The big cable companies never made investments in rural areas due to the higher costs. The difference between urban and rural broadband networks is so stark that we’ve decided to cure decades of economic discrimination by throwing billions of dollars to close the gap.
But nobody has been seriously looking at the more subtle manifestation of the same issue in cities. The FCC is only looking at digital discrimination because it was required by the Infrastructure Act. Does anybody expect that anything will come out of the stories of discrimination? ISPs are going to say that they don’t discriminate. If pinned down, they will say that what looks like discrimination is only the consequence of them making defensible economic decisions and that there was no intention to discriminate.
Most of the discrimination we see in broadband is due to the lack of regulation of ISPs. They are free to chase earnings as their top priority. ISPs have no regulatory mandate to treat everybody the same. The regulators in the country chose to deregulate broadband, and the digital discrimination we see in the market is the direct consequence of that choice. When AT&T was a giant regulated monopoly we required it to charge everybody the same prices and take profits from affluent customers to support infrastructure and prices in low-income neighborhoods and rural places. Regulation wasn’t perfect, but we didn’t have the current gigantic infrastructure and price gaps.
If people decide to respond to this FCC docket, we’ll see more evidence of discrimination based on income. We might even get some smoking gun evidence that some of the discrimination comes from corporate bias based on race and other factors. But discrimination based on income levels is so baked into the ways that corporations act that I can’t imagine that anybody thinks this docket is going to uncover anything we don’t already know.
I can’t imagine that this investigation is going to change anything. The FCC is not going to make big ISPs spend billions to clean up broadband networks in low-income neighborhoods. While Congress is throwing billions at trying to close the rural broadband gap, I think we all understand that anywhere that the big corporations take the rural grant funding that the infrastructure is not going to be maintained properly and that in twenty years we’ll be having this same conversation all over again. We know what is needed to fix this – which is regulation that forces ISPs to do the right thing. But I doubt we’ll ever have the political or regulatory will to force the big ISPs to act responsibly.
Every once in a while I hear a customer story that reinforces the big mistake we made in largely eliminating broadband regulation. This particular story comes from the Chatham News + Record in Chatham County, North Carolina. Some customers there experienced what can only be described as epic outages.
The first outage occurred on October 1 to residents near Charlie Cooper Road from a downed line as the result of hurricane Ian. Duke Power restored power within two days, but it took twenty days for Brightspeed to repair the damage. This is the new incumbent telephone company that purchased the property from CenturyLink. Not to give Brightspeed an excuse, but the outage occurred while the network was still owned by CenturyLink – the sale of the network closed on October 3, two days after the outage. Twenty days is still an extraordinarily a long time to make a line repair, but I’ve been part of the aftermath of the sales of telecom properties, and the first thirty days are often rough on the buyer.
The second outage occurred in the same rural neighborhood on November 28 when a tractor-trailer pulled down wires that were hanging too low. Residents believe that the low wires were a result of a shoddy repair from the hurricane Ian outage. By this time, Brightspeed had owned the company for two months, and it took a full month, until December 27, to restore service.
Customers were highly frustrated because they got no useful response from Brightspeed customer service. There seemed to be no acknowledgment that there was an outage, even as multiple people called multiple times to complain about the outage.
This is not an unusual story in rural America. I’ve talked to dozens of folks who are rural customers of big telcos who have lost broadband for more than a week at a time, and some of them regularly lose service multiple times per year.
The article describes the problems the outages caused for residents. One resident was quoted as saying that broadband access has become as important as having water to the home.
One would think that consumers with this kind of problem could seek relief from the State – that a regulator could intervene to get the telephone company’s attention. When I was first in the industry, a customer complaint that was referred from sent a state commission got an instant priority inside a telephone company.
But a workable complaint process is now a thing of the past. The rules for making a consumer complaint with the North Carolina Utility Commission are a barrier to the average consumer and seem to favor big telcos. It’s not even clear if the NCUC has jurisdiction over broadband – that’s not clear anywhere after the FCC under Ajit Pai walked away from all broadband regulation. The NCUC still lightly regulates telephone service, but it’s not clear if that applies in the same way to broadband.
Regardless of the regulatory issues, the process for filing a complaint is not simple. A consumer must complete an official complaint form and file an original and 15 paper copies – complaints cannot be filed online or by email. The NCUC sends a copy of the complaint to the utility, which must respond in ten days. If the suggested solution from the utility is not adequate, the consumer can either drop the complaint or ask for a formal hearing – which would be an intimidating process for most folks, because the hearing is held in a formal court setting following normal court rules. Not many consumers are going to wade through this highly formal process, which is slanted in favor of utilities and their attorneys and not consumers.
The reality is that consumers have been at the mercy of the big telcos ever since state commissions deregulated telephone service. I’ve heard hundreds of stories over the years of big telcos who have run rough-shod over folks. One of the most common stories I’ve heard in the last few years is of telcos disconnecting DSL rather than trying to fix it.
The first outage for these folks could have slipped through the cracks due to the extraordinary event of the telephone company changing ownership right after the outage. But there is no possible excuse for the second month-long outage. Most of my clients are small ISPs, and they all would have fixed this second outage within a day. I’ve repeatedly cautioned about giving large rural grants to the large telcos, and this outage is one of a thousand reasons not to do so.
All of the discussion of the FCC maps lately made me start thinking about broadband connections. I realized that many of my clients are providing a lot of broadband connections that are not being considered by the FCC maps. That led me to think that the old definition of a broadband passing is quickly growing obsolete and that the FCC mapping effort is missing the way that America really uses broadband today.
Let me provide some real-life examples of broadband connections provided by my clients that are not being considered in the FCC mapping:
Broadband connections to farm irrigation systems.
Broadband to oil wells and mining locations.
Broadband to wind turbines and solar farms.
Fiber connections to small cell sites.
Broadband electric substations. I have several electric company clients that are in the process of extending broadband to a huge number of additional field assets like smart transformers and reclosers.
Broadband to water pumps and other assets that control water and sewer systems.
Broadband to grain elevators, corn dryers, and other locations associated with processing or storing crops.
I’m working with several clients who are extending broadband for smart-city applications like smart streetlights, smart parking, and smart traffic lights.
Broadband to smart billboards and smart road signs.
Broadband for train yards and train switching hubs.
There are many other examples, and this was just a quick list that came to mind.
The various locations described above have one thing in common. Most are locations that don’t have a 911 street address. As such, these locations are not being considered when trying to determine the national need for broadband.
A lot of these locations are rural in nature – places like grain elevators, mines, oil wells, irrigation systems, wind turbines, and others. In rural areas, these locations are a key part of the economy, and in many places are unserved or underserved.
We are putting a huge amount of national energy into counting the number of homes and businesses that have or don’t have broadband. In doing so, we have deliberately limited the definition of a business to a place with a brick-and-mortar building and a 911 address. But the locations above are often some of the most important parts of the local economy.
I’ve read predictions that say in a few decades there will be far more broadband connections to devices than to people, and that rings true to me. I look around at the multiple devices in my home that use WiFi, and it’s not hard to envision that over time we will connect more and more locations and devices to broadband.
After a decade of talking about the inadequate FCC broadband maps, we finally decided to throw money at the issue and devise new maps. But in the decade it took to move forward, we’ve developed multiple non-traditional uses for broadband, a trend that is likely to expand. If we are really trying to define our national need for broadband, we need to somehow make sure that the locations that drive the economy are connected to broadband. And the only way to do that is to count these locations and put them on the broadband map, so somebody tries to serve them. The current maps are doing a disservice by ignoring the huge number of these non-traditional broadband connections.
You might not be surprised to hear that I am tired of talking about the FCC map. I spend way too much time these days answering questions about the maps. I understand why folks are confused because there are several major mapping timelines and issues progressing at the same time. It’s nearly impossible to understand the significance of the many dates that are being bandied around the industry.
The first issue is the FCC mapping fabric. The FCC recently encouraged state and local governments and ISPs to file bulk challenges to the fabric by June 30. This is the database that attempts to locate every location in the country that can get broadband. The first mapping fabric issued in June 2022 was largely a disaster. Large numbers of locations were missing from the first fabric, while the fabric also contains locations that don’t exist.
Most experienced folks that I know in the industry are unhappy with the fabric because its definition of locations that can get broadband is drastically different than the traditional way that the industry counts possible customers, which is commonly called passings. For example, the FCC mapping fabric might identify an apartment building or trailer park as one location, while the industry would count individual living units as potential customers. This disconnect means that the fabric will never be useful for counting the number of folks who have (or don’t have) broadband, which I thought was the primary reason for the new maps. Some folks have estimated that even a corrected fabric might be shy 30 or 40 million possible broadband customers.
Meanwhile, ISPs were instructed to use the original mapping fabric to report broadband coverage and speeds – the FCC 477 reporting process. The first set of the new 477 reporting was submitted on September 1, 2022. Many folks that have dug into the detail believe that some ISPs used the new reporting structure to overstate broadband coverage and speeds even more than was done in the older maps. The new maps globally show a lot fewer folks who can’t buy good broadband.
There is a second round of 477 reporting due on March 1. That second 477 reporting is obviously not going to use the revised mapping fabric, which will still be accepting bulk challenges until June 30. It could take much longer for those challenges to be processed. There have been some revisions to the fabric due to challenges that were made early, but some of the folks who made early map challenges are reporting that a large majority of the challenges they made were not accepted. This means that ISPs will be reporting broadband on top of a map that still includes the mistakes in the original fabric.
The FCC’s speed reporting rules still include a fatal flaw in that ISPs are allowed to report marketing broadband speeds rather than actual speeds. This has always been the biggest problem with FCC 477 reporting, and it’s the one bad aspect of the old reporting that is still in place. As long as an ISP that delivers 10 Mbps download still markets and reports its speeds as ‘up to 100 Mbps’, the maps are never going to be useful for any of the stated goals of counting customers without broadband.
Finally, the NTIA is required to use the FCC maps to determine how much BEAD grant funding goes to each state. NTIA announced that it will report the funding allocation on June 30. That date means that none of the mapping challenges that states and counties have been working on will be reflected in the maps used to allocate the grant funding. The NTIA announcement implies that only the earliest challenges to the maps might be included in the database used to determine the number of unserved and underserved locations in each state. States that have already made challenges know that those numbers include a lot of mistakes and missed a lot of locations.
Not only will the NTIA decision on funding allocation not include the large bulk challenges filed or underway by many state and local governments, but it won’t reflect the latest 477 reporting being submitted on March 1. There are several states that have made rumblings about suing the NTIA if they don’t get what they consider to be a fair allocation of the BEAD funding. If that happens, all bets are off if a court issues an injunction of the grant allocation process until the maps get better. I can’t help but be cynical about this since I can’t see these maps ever being good enough to count the number of homes that can’t buy broadband. This whole mapping process is the very definition of a slow-motion train wreck, and that means I’ll likely be answering questions about the maps for the indeterminate future.
As of the date that I wrote this blog, there are almost 15.6 million households using the broadband subsidy from the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). This program provides a $30 monthly discount for broadband to eligible households and up to a $75 monthly discount to households residing on an Indian reservation. The program started with a little over 9 million households at the start of 2022 and added over 500,000 new enrollees per month during the year. You can see the enrollment statistics on this website.
ACP was originally funded with $14.2 billion from the IIJA legislation. There was rollover funding of $2.2 billion added from the previous Emergency Broadband Benefit program that had been funded from the CARES Act. At the current level of enrollment, the ACP is paying out $477 million in a month, a number that gets bigger each month as more homes are added. Several folks who track the size of the fund say that it is going to run out of money sometime in the summer of 2024.
The obvious solution to keep ACP operating is for Congress to refill the ACP funding bucket. ACP was not created through a normal budget appropriations bill but was funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). That was a one-time funding event, and that means specific legislation will be needed to keep the program running. Anybody who understands the implications of having a Congress divided between the two parties knows that this will be a major challenge in 2023 or 2024. Most DC pundits are predicting that there will be very little bipartisan legislation passed in the next two years. The chances of getting bipartisan approval of what many will consider a social program seem even lower.
That means that it’s time to think about what happens when the ACP fund runs dry. Nobody has an answer for how many households will drop broadband when the subsidy stops. Hopefully, a lot of ACP recipients will find a way to pay for more costly broadband. Almost 8.3 million, or 55% of the ACP recipients, get the subsidy for a cell phone. It’s likely that many of these folks will keep their cell phones. The remaining 6.8 million recipients use the ACP subsidy to offset home broadband prices. The entire premise of the ACP was to make it viable for low-income homes to afford home broadband, and it’s likely that many of these households won’t be able to afford broadband without the discount.
For the ISP industry, the end of ACP means seeing broadband customers drop over a few months by at least a few million subscribers. That will cause a footnote for the giant ISPs that regularly report customer counts as a success metric. Unfortunately, the biggest impact of ACP ending will be on any ISPs that most aggressively pushed the discount for customers. Some ISPs might try to counter the end of ACP by offering a lower-price product to low-income households, but few will find it feasible to discount broadband by $30.
This timing also has an interesting implication for the BEAD grant program. The grant legislation requires that grant winners participate in ACP, which will obviously be impossible if the plan ends. It’s obvious that whoever wrote that requirement into the grant rules thought that ACP would be funded into the future. It is looking unlikely that any households that get better broadband from a BEAD grant will have the opportunity to use the ACP discount.
I was uncomfortable from the day that ACP was announced that it would have staying power. From a funding perspective, the ACP program sits out on an island and is an easy target for politicians who are against spending money on social programs. Sustainable social programs like social security bring along a funding source – but ACP must periodically be funded from general funds to keep going.
What I find most distressing is the idea of bringing affordable broadband to homes, knowing that the discounts will likely disappear 18 months from now. It’s heartbreaking to think about the households who get a subsidized computer and an affordable broadband rate to support students, but who will see the rate climb higher sometime in 2024. It’s not impossible that some way will be found to continue the program, but the reality of politics in Washington DC doesn’t make that sound likely.
I’ve always tried to keep politics out of this blog. That hasn’t been too hard since I’ve found that getting better broadband for any community is almost always a non-partisan issue. I’ve worked with City and County Councils and Boards all over the country, and I haven’t seen that the political makeup of the local governing body has much impact on the degree to which they want to find better broadband for citizens.
That’s why I was surprised to see that the newly seated House of Representatives immediately announce a set of hearings to look at broadband grants. You know from reading my blog that I think there is a lot of room for improvement in the BEAD grant program – due in large degree to the complicated grant rules established by Congress. I would welcome hearings that would examine some of the over-the-top grant rules if the purpose of the hearings was to create legislation to make it easier to award and spend the BEAD grant funds.
But that doesn’t seem to be the intent of these hearings. The hearings want to look at two issues. The first is to make sure that the grants are only used for connecting to unserved locations and not used for ‘overbuilding’. This has been a major talking point for the big cable companies for years – they don’t want to see any grant money used to encroach on areas they think of as their service territories. The whole idea of not using grants for overbuilding is ludicrous – there are not many homes in the country where at least one ISP can’t provide service – so every new broadband network that is constructed is overbuilding somebody.
The vast majority of the BEAD grants will be used in rural areas, and the idea that rural funding will be used for ‘overbuilding’ is ludicrous. I don’t know anybody who advocates using grant funding to overbuild rural fiber networks or other existing fast networks. All of the state grant programs I’ve worked with have a challenge process to make sure this doesn’t happen, and it looks like the BEAD grants have several crosschecks to make sure this doesn’t happen. Even if a BEAD grant is awarded in error, I would think a State Broadband office would yank the grant award before letting grant money be used to overbuild rural fiber.
The issue that has the big cable companies up in arms is that the IIJA grant legislation says that once a state has satisfied bringing broadband to unserved and underserved locations, grant funding can be used to improve broadband in inner cities and places that the big ISPs have ignored. There will not likely be a lot of BEAD grant money that goes to this purpose, but there will be some.
It’s hard to understand the reason to have a hearing on this issue. The BEAD rules are clearly defined by language crafted and enacted by Congress. The hearings will likely involve grilling officials from the NTIA on this issue. It’s an absurd scenario to picture, because the NTIA has no choice but to follow the law as written by Congress. Any hearings on this issue will likely beat up n officials at the NTIA or FCC, but will really be Congress investigating its own law.
The other stated purpose of the hearings is to make sure that the grants don’t have waste, fraud, or abuse. It’s going to be really interesting to see where this leads in hearings. The only big historical cases of grant waste and abuse I know of are the way the big telcos often took CAF II funding and made no upgrades. I don’t picture these hearings dredging up past abuses by the big ISPs, so I’m having a hard time imagining where else this line of inquiry might go.
I fear that the biggest repercussion of this kind of hearing is that it’s going to make already-cautious grant officials even more cautious. The folks at the NTIA and State Broadband offices are going to worry that everything they do will be under a microscope from Congress – and they are going to get even more careful not to make any bad mistakes in awarding grants. Nobody wants to be yanked in front of Congress in a year and be grilled about a specific grant award. And perhaps that’s the purpose of these grants – to intimidate officials into funneling more grant funding to the safe choice of giving it to big ISPs.
What puzzles me the most is why hold broadband hearings of this sort. Bringing better broadband to communities is immensely popular. In the many surveys we’ve administered on the issue, the public support for bringing better broadband has always been above 90%. This is true even in communities where there is already fast broadband offered by a cable company – folks want competition. It’s hard picturing any headlines coming from these hearings that can benefit the politicians holding the hearings.
These hearings only make sense as a way to appease the large ISPs which contribute heavily to politicians. It’s hard to imagine that these hearings will change anything. Congress can change the BEAD grant rules any time this year, but that will take bipartisan cooperation – something that seems to have disappeared from Washington DC. But the hearings will only allow for the airing of the big ISP grievances, and I guess that is something.
It is unfortunate timing that the new FCC maps were issued in the middle of the process of trying to determine the BEAD grant funding. Congress said that the amount of funding that will go to each state must be based upon the FCC maps – and the first draft of the FCC maps is clearly flawed. The FCC maps whiffed in many cases in counting the location of homes and business, and too many ISPs have clearly exaggerated both the coverage and the broadband speeds that are available to customers. This really bollixes the BEAD grant allocations, but I don’t know anybody who thought the first version of the new maps would have any merit.
Assuming that that grant funding question gets resolved somehow, there remains the bigger issue of whether the new FCC maps will ever accurately portray broadband availability. Is there any hope for these maps to get better? Getting better maps requires improving the three basic flaws of the new FCC maps – the mapping fabric that defines the location of possible customers, the claimed coverage that defines where broadband is available, and the broadband speeds available to customers.
The mapping fabric will get better over time if state and local governments decide this is something that is important to fix. Local folks understand the location of homes and businesses far better than CostQuest. But there are two reasons why the fabric might never be fixed. First, many rural counties do not have the staff or resources to tackle trying to fix the mapping fabric. There are still a lot of counties that don’t have a GIS mapping system that shows the details of every home, business, land plot, etc. But counties with GIS systems are not easily able to count broadband passings. Questions like how to count cabins or farm buildings are always going to be vexing. One of the flaws of asking local governments to fix the maps is that local governments don’t spy on citizens to see which homes are occupied or how many months a year somebody uses a cabin. My bet is that once the BEAD funding has been allocated that state and local governments will quickly lose interest in the FCC mapping fabric. I expect a lot of counties will refuse to spend the time and money needed to fix a federal database.
The FCC has held out hope that the coverage areas claimed by ISPs will become more accurate over time. One of the new aspects of the FCC maps is an individual challenge by any homeowner who disputes that a given ISP can deliver broadband to their home. If Comcast incorrectly claims a home can get broadband, the homeowner can challenge this in the FCC map – and if the homeowner is correct, Comcast must fix its mapping claim. But I have to wonder how many homeowners will ever bother to tackle a broadband challenge. The real kicker is that there is no big benefit to a homeowner to make the challenge. Using this example, Comcast would fix the map, but that doesn’t mean that Comcast is likely to offer broadband to the homeowner who challenged the map – it just means the map gets fixed. Once folks realize that a challenge doesn’t change anything, I’m not sure how many people other than the broadband diehards will care much.
The coverage challenge is only going to get better if ISPs report honestly. Using this same example, there would not be much improvement in the FCC map if Comcast were to fix a false speed claim for a specific homeowner challenge unless Comcast was to fix the maps for neighboring homes – something that a challenge does not require.
The issue that most people care about is broadband speeds. Unfortunately, the new maps are as badly flawed on this issue as the old ones – maybe worse. ISPs are still allowed to claim marketing speeds instead of some approximation of actual speeds – and an ISP gets to define what it means by marketing speeds. For example, it’s hard to dispute a marketing speed if it’s something the ISP displays on its website.
Other than the challenge process, there is another possible remedy for fixing mapping problems. The Broadband Deployment, Accuracy, and Technology Availability (DATA) Act that created the new maps gives the FCC the ability to levy fines against ISPs that knowingly or recklessly submit inaccurate mapping data. But does anybody really think that the FCC is going to fine some small local WISP that exaggerates broadband speeds? I have a hard time thinking that the FCC will ever wade into the issue of disputing claims of marketing speeds versus actual speeds. Doing so would just highlight the fact that reporting marketing speeds is acceptable under the FCC rules.
The State of Vermont reacted quickly to the new FCC maps and showed the extent of the problems. The State sent a challenge letter to the FCC saying that 11% of the locations in the FCC mapping fabric don’t exist. Worse, Vermont says that 22% of locations are missing from the FCC map. Vermont also said the speeds portrayed in the new maps don’t align with its own local mapping effort. The new FCC map shows that over 95% of Vermont homes have access to broadband of at least 100/20 Mbps. The State’s broadband maps show that only 71% of homes in the state can receive broadband at 100 Mbps or faster at the end of 2021.
I really hate to say this, but I doubt that the new maps will ever be significantly better than the old ones. I don’t enjoy being pessimistic, and I should probably let the various challenge processes run the course before complaining too loudly. I think after the flurry associated with allocating the BEAD grant funding ends that most people and local governments will quickly lose interest in the map challenge process. I can’t think of any reason why ISPs won’t continue to misreport broadband speed and coverage if they think it somehow benefits them. And I’m doubtful that the FCC will take any meaningful steps to make the maps better.
There has been a lot of recent press about the new ability for households to challenge broadband coverage claimed at their homes by ISPs. The new FCC National Broadband Map also allows folks to challenge the coverage claimed by cellular carriers. Anybody who lives in rural areas knows that the big national cellular coverage maps have always been badly overstated.
The new FCC maps require each cellular carrier to separately declare where it provides, 3G, 4G, and 5G coverage. You can easily see the claimed cellular broadband coverage at your house by toggling between Fixed Broadband and Mobile Broadband on the map. The FCC has plotted cellular coverage by neighborhood hexagons on the map.
There are two ways to challenge the claimed cellular coverage – by individuals or by local governments. The process of challenging the maps is not as easy as challenging the landline broadband map. The challenge process for individuals is as follows:
First, a challenger must download the FCC Speed Test App, which is available on the Google App store for android or the Apple Store for IOS devices. This App has been around since 2013. The app is set to not use more than 1 gigabyte of data in a month without permission. Folks probably don’t realize that repeated speed tests can use data a lot of data.
Tests should only be taken between 6:00 AM and 10:00 PM.
Users will have to make sure to disconnect from a WiFi network since the goal is to test the cellular connection. Many people don’t realize that cell phones use your home broadband connection for moving data if set on WiFi.
The FCC provides only two options for taking the test – either outdoors and stationary, or in a moving car. You’ll have to verify that you are not taking the test indoors.
You can take the test anonymously. But if you want the FCC to consider the test results, you’ll have to provide your contact information and verify that you are the authorized user of the cellphone.
Individual speed tests are not automatically sent to the carriers until there are enough results in a given local area to create what the FCC is calling a crowdsourced data event.
There are some major flaws for testing rural cellular coverage. If you are in any areas where a certain carrier doesn’t provide service, you obviously can’t take the speed test if you can’t make a cellular connection. You can also only challenge your subscribed carrier and you can’t claim that another carrier doesn’t have the coverage that is claimed in the FCC map. On the plus side, you can take the speed test from anywhere, not just your home, and I picture folks taking the test just to help document cellular coverage.
The other flaw is the low thresholds that constitute a successful test. The tests are based on the FCC’s massively outdated definition of acceptable cellular broadband speeds. The test for acceptable 4G coverage is a paltry 5/1 Mbps. The FCC has two thresholds for 5G at 7/1 Mbps and 35/3 Mbps. These speed definitions are out of touch with actual cellular performance. According to Ookla’s nationwide speed tests, the national average cellular speed at the end of the third quarter of 2022 was 148 Mbps download and 16 Mbps upload. The national median speed (meaning half of people are either faster or slower) was 75 Mbps download and 9 Mbps upload. This is another outdated definition that probably won’t be updated unless the FCC gets the much-needed fifth Commissioner.
I don’t know how useful it is to find out that a carrier can deliver 5/1 Mbps to my home. That’s what is claimed at my home by AT&T for 4G (the company is not yet claiming any 5G). A recent speed test from inside my house showed 173/10 Mbps. How can the FCC adopt any policies for cellar broadband if they are only asking carriers to certify that they meet an absurdly low threshold?
Local governments can also initiate challenges. This can be done by coordinating multiple people to take the tests at various locations to paint a picture of the cellular coverage across a city or county. Local governments can also use engineering-quality devices to take the test, which provides more guaranteed results than a cell phone. Local governments have the ability to document areas with no cellular coverage – something that will be hard to document without a huge number of individual speed tests.
The next time you’re driving in a place where the cellular coverage is lousy, stop by the side of the road, get out of your car, and take the speed test. It’s going to take all of us to document the real rural cellular coverage map. Also, let’s collectively push the FCC to increase the definition of acceptable broadband speeds. We talk about landline broadband speeds all of the time, but cellular coverage in rural areas is equally, or even more important.