Why Does the FCC Support Data Caps?

Most people may not have noticed that the upcoming RDOF grants allow, and even encourage ISPs to enforce data caps on customers. I have a hard time thinking of even one reason why the FCC would suggest that ISPs use data caps.

The RDOF grants have four performance tiers for ISPs, with the auction rules weighted to give preference to faster data speeds. Each of these performance tiers comes with a suggested monthly usage allotment – which means a data cap. ISPs that will deliver speeds of either 25/3 Mbps or 50/5 Mbps can introduce a data cap of 250 gigabytes or the U.S. average, whichever is higher. ISPs offering speeds of 100/20 Mbps or 1 Gbps/500 Mbps can set a data cap at 2 terabytes.

The natural question is to ask why the FCC is setting any data cap at all? Remember, this is an FCC that no longer regulates broadband, and yet they are suggesting rules that encourage ISPs that win the grant funding to introduce data caps. Past experience says that if the rules allow for data caps, the ISPs that win the money are likely to implement them.

I find the data caps for the 25/3 Mbps and 50/5 Mbps to be intriguing since ISPs can’t set the data caps at less than the US average. Who is going to measure that? The FCC doesn’t gather the kind of data needed to measure data caps around the country. Further, there are companies like CenturyLink that have data caps but that often don’t enforce them. I haven’t the foggiest idea how anybody would measure the national average data cap.

It’s important to put these data caps into perspective. The data caps on the slower products are incredibly stingy at 250 gigabytes per month.  OpenVault reported earlier this year that the average US home used 344 gigabytes of data per month in December 2019, up from 274 gigabytes a year earlier. Due to the impact of COVID-19, that number exploded to 402.5 gigabytes by the end of March. Homes being limited to using 250 gigabytes of data are being told not to use their broadband like everybody else. It’s nearly impossible for a home that has people working from home or students doing schoolwork at home to limit themselves to only 250 gigabytes of data per month.

Even the 2 terabyte data caps for faster broadband will become problematic is a few years. OpenVault says that over 10% of homes were already using more than 1 terabyte of data as of the end of the first quarter of 2020 and 1.2% were using over 2 terabytes. By the time these networks are built with RDOF money it wouldn’t be surprising for 10% of homes to be using more than the 2-terabyte cap.

With these grant rules the FCC is actively supporting ISP to introducing data caps that are smaller than the national average broadband usage at the end of 2018 and that will easily be less than half of the national average usage by the time the networks funded by the RDOF grants are constructed.

It seems like the FCC never learns any lessons. Every grant program they have administered has some major flaws. The FCC is handing out billions of dollars to provide broadband to home that don’t have it today. This program is a major boon for the rural communities that get broadband because of the grants. But with these rules, the RDOF money will be used to bring broadband to homes for the first time and immediately cripple homes from using that broadband due to data caps. For the federal government to support a 250-gigabyte data cap is an incredibly bad policy. They are saying to folks – here, we funded broadband, but don’t use it. I can’t conceive of any reason why data caps are even mentioned in the grant rules unless this is another case of bowing to the lobbyists from the big ISPs or the satellite broadband providers.

Looking at the bigger picture, it’s somewhat surprising that the FCC would take any position on things like data caps since they have given away their authority to regulate broadband. What these grant rules tells us is that this FCC would heartily support data caps if they still had that authority. This provision in this grant program provides tacit support to Comcast and AT&T to bill customers huge amounts of extra money for exceeding arbitrary and stingy data caps.

A New National Broadband Plan?

Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass) introduced a bill that would require that the FCC create a new National Broadband Plan by July 2021. This plan would lay out the national goals needed for broadband going forward and also provide an update on how the COVID-19 crisis has impacted Internet access. I am not a big fan of the concept of a national plan for many reasons.

Can’t Trust FCC Data. The FCC would base any analysis in a new plan on the same flawed data they are using for everything else related to broadband. At this point, the best description of the FCC’s broadband data is that it is a fairy tale – and not one with a happy ending.

Gives Politicians Talking Points rather than Action Plans. A national broadband plan gives every politician talking points to sound like they care about broadband – which is a far cry from an action plan to do something about broadband. When politicians don’t want to fix a problem they study it.

Makes No Sense if Broadband is Unregulated. Why would the government create a plan for an industry over which the government has zero influence? The FCC has gifted the broadband industry with ‘light-touch regulation’ which is a code word for no regulation at all. The FCC canned Title II regulatory authority and handed the tiny remaining remnant of broadband regulation to the Federal Trade Commission – which is not a regulatory agency.

The Last National Broadband Plan was a Total Bust. There is no need for a National Broadband Plan if it doesn’t include a requirement that the FCC should try hard to tackle any recommendations made. Almost nothing from the last broadband plan came to pass – the FCC and the rest of the federal government stopped even paying lip service to the last plan within a year after it was published. Consider the primary goals of the last National Broadband Plan that were to have been implemented by 2019:

  • At least 100 million homes should have affordable access to 100/50 Mbps broadband. Because the cable companies implemented DOCSIS standards in urban areas, more than 100 million people now have access to 100 Mbps download speeds. But only a tiny fraction of that number – homes with fiber, have access to the 50 Mbps upload speed goal. It’s also impossible to make a case that US broadband is affordable – US broadband prices are almost double the rates in Europe and the far East.
  • The US should lead the word in mobile innovation and have the fastest and most extensive wireless network of any nation. US wireless broadband is far from the fastest in the world – our neighbor Canada is much closer to that goal than is the US. Everybody acknowledges that there are giant areas of rural America without good wireline broadband, but most people have no idea that cellular coverage is also miserable in a lot of rural America.
  • Every American Community should have gigabit access to anchor institutions such as schools, libraries, and government buildings. We probably came the closest to meeting this goal, at least for schools, and over 90% of schools now have gigabit access. However, much of that gain came through poorly-aimed federal grants that paid a huge amount of money to bring fiber to anchor institutions while ignoring the neighborhoods around them – and in many cases, the fiber serving government buildings is legally blocked from being used to help anybody else.
  • Every American should have affordable access to robust broadband and the means and the skills to subscribe. A decade after the last National Broadband Plan there are still huge numbers of rural homes with no broadband, or with broadband that barely functions. Instead of finding broadband solutions for rural America, we have an FCC that congratulates itself each year for being on the right trajectory for solving the broadband gap.
  • To ensure that America leads in the clean energy economy, every America should be able to use broadband to track and manage their real-time energy consumption. I can’t come up with anything other than a facepalm for this goal.

As hard as I try, I can’t think of even one reason why we should waste federal dollars to develop a new national broadband plan. Such a plan will have no teeth and will pass out of memory soon after it’s completed.

Enough is Enough

CenturyLink recently petitioned the FCC to allow them to be late in implementing the CAF II upgrades where the FCC doled out $11 billion to upgrade rural broadband speeds to 10/1 Mbps. The ostensible reason for the delay is the COVID-19 pandemic, but CenturyLink was already behind and notified the FCC earlier this year that they hadn’t completed their 2019 CAF II installation in 23 out of 33 states.

I say enough is enough. It’s time for the FCC to demand a reckoning of CAF II and begin handing out draconian penalties to the telcos that didn’t meet their obligations. I’m positive that if this was assessed fairly that the FCC will find that the vast majority of big telco customers have never gotten an upgrade to 10/1 Mbps.

Let’s start by looking at CenturyLink’s request. There is no reasonable explanation they can offer for not meeting their obligations in 2019. That was the fourth of a five-year buildout obligation, and the company has known for years what’s needed to be done – and they had the federal money in their pocket to make the upgrades. The claim for this year is also largely bogus. I have a lot of clients that are being cautious now about entering customer premises, but I don’t know any carrier that has stopped doing work outside of customer homes. I can’t think of any practical reason that COVID-19 would cause a delay for CenturyLink. Even if they upgrade somebody’s DSL, they could mail them a new modem – telcos have been having customers self-install DSL modems for twenty years.

It’s time to stop the pretense that CenturyLink or the other big telcos have been busy upgrading rural DSL. I don’t know anybody who thinks that’s happened. I have anecdotal evidence that it hasn’t, My company has been helping rural counties with broadband feasibility studies for many years. In the last four years, we’ve been asking rural customers to take speed tests – and I’ve never seen even one rural DSL connection that transmits at a speed of 10/1 Mbps. I’ve haven’t seen many that have tested above 5 Mbps. I’ve seen a whole lot that tested at less than 3, 2 or even 1 Mbps. Many of these tests have been in areas that are supposed to have CAF II upgrades.

I’ve also never talked to any County officials who have heard from the telcos that their county got rural broadband upgrades. One would think the telcos would brag locally when they were finished with upgrades as a pitch to get new customers. After all, customers that have only had slow DSL or satellite service should be flocking to 10/1 DSL. I’ve also not seen a marketing campaign talking about faster speeds due to CAF II. I’ve been searching the web for years to find testimonials from customers talking about their free upgrade to 10/1 Mbps, but I’ve never found anybody who has ever said that. This is not to say there have been zero upgrades in the CAF II areas, but I see no evidence of widespread upgrades.

The reality is that CenturyLink got new leadership a few years ago who immediately announced that the company was going to stop making ‘infrastructure return’ investments. We have Frontier that miraculously recently found 16,000 Census blocks that now have speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps when I’m still looking for proof that they upgraded places to 10/1 Mbps. Go interview folks in West Virginia if you think they’ve made any CAF II upgrades.

The FCC has a choice now. They can wimp out and grant the delay that CenturyLink is requesting, or the agency can come down on the side of rural broadband. There is no middle ground when it comes to CAF II. This FCC didn’t make the original CAF II decision – but they are the ones that are supposed to make sure the upgrades are done, and they are supposed to be penalizing telcos that failed to make the upgrades.

The response to CenturyLink’s request should be a giant penalty for missing the 2019 deadlines and a reminder that the company is still on the hook for 2020 unless they want more fines.

The FCC also needs to aggressively start testing in the areas that have supposedly gotten CAF II upgrades. This doesn’t have to be a big expensive testing program. We know exactly where CAF II should have been implemented – the FCC has made it easy by overlaying the CAF II footprint over Google maps. The FCC could ask County administrators across the US to solicit a speed test at CAF II locations – the Counties would be glad to oblige. If the FCC wanted to know the truth about CAF II they could get massive feedback within a few weeks about the abject failure of the CAF II program.

The ultimate penalty ought to be the return of CAF II money to the Universal Service Fund for areas that aren’t upgraded to 10/1 Mbps. Then the money could finally be given to somebody that will upgrade to real broadband. The CAF II program was ill-conceived, but the big telcos should have used that money to bring rural speeds up to 10/1 Mbps. Had they done so, we’d have millions of more homes that wouldn’t be struggling so hard during COVID-19. This FCC has a chance to do their job and set things right.

Is it Time to Tax the Internet?

There is a law advancing in the Maryland legislature that would tax Internet advertising. The law, if enacted would collect taxes from online advertising done by Google, Facebook, and others. The tax would immediately be challenged in court due to our history of not taxing things related to the Internet.

The idea of not taxing the Internet began with the Internet Tax Freedom Act in 1998. That law grandfathered taxes imposed in 13 states on Internet access but prohibited it elsewhere. The law also prohibited local governments from imposing taxes on electronic commerce. The law imposed a 3-year moratorium on such taxes and was extended eight times until the tax prohibition was made permanent in the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act in 2015.

There are other precedents for not taxing electronics commerce. For example, the Supreme Court ruled in 1967 that requiring remote vendors to collect sales taxes would impose an undue constraint on interstate commerce. The prohibition against sales taxes for out-of-state sellers was strengthened in 1992 in the Supreme Court’s ruling in Quill Corporation v. North Dakota that prohibited a state from collecting sales taxes unless a business has a physical presence in a state. These prohibitions were assumed to also apply to sales made over the Internet if the seller lived in a different state than the buyer.

However, such rulings change over time and the Supreme Court reversed the older decisions in 2018 in the case of South Dakota v Wayfair, Inc. The Court effectively ruled that states can require remote sellers of any kind, including online sellers to collect state sales taxes. Since that ruling, many states have imposed sales taxes on Internet sales.

Opponents of the tax on advertising say that the proposed law would violate the intent of the Internet Freedom Act to not tax electronic commerce. The application of a tax to advertising is different enough from a sales tax that the Supreme Court ruling won’t automatically apply. If the law is passed it will likely have to go to the Supreme Court. To a non-lawyer like me, it seems the issue is similar enough to sales taxes that there is a good chance that at tax on advertising would be allowed. Even if it allowed, such a tax has the significant challenge of identifying the advertising revenue that applies to a given state. For example, what portion of nationwide advertising for Ford trucks would apply to Maryland?

The Maryland law does freshly raise the question of whether it’s time to tax the Internet. The original Internet Tax Freedom Act was an attempt by Congress to protect the fledgling broadband business. It’s debatable if the growth of the Internet would have been slowed had there been a few dollars of taxes applied to broadband bills like were applied to landline telephone bills. But the new Internet companies were the darlings of Wall Street, and Congress decided to keep broadband products free from taxation.

The broadband tax that’s most needed is a surcharge on broadband to help fund the FCC’s Universal Service Fund. Many states also have similar funds. The USF is currently being funded by fees charged to landlines and cellphones. The purpose of the fund is currently to promote broadband for places that don’t have it. The fund will be paying for the $20.4 billion RDOF grants for rural broadband and the $9 billion 5G Fund grants to improve rural cellular coverage. It’s silly that we aren’t charging a small fee onbroadband users to help pay for rural broadband – everybody in the country benefits when there is broadband everywhere. I can’t fathom a justification for having landlines users pay for rural broadband but not broadband customers.

Congress is often mystifying. I can understand the initial ban against Internet taxes, although I don’t believe such taxes would have hampered the explosive growth of broadband. But I can’t think of any justification in 2015 for making the ban on Internet taxes permanent. Considering the huge problems that lack of rural broadband just caused during the COVID-19 crisis, there is no justification for not increasing the funding for the Universal Service Fund, and the easiest way to do so is to tax broadband customers.

The Proposed 5G Fund

The FCC is seeking public comments in a Notice for Proposed Rulemaking on how to determine the coverage areas and the timing for the new $9 billion 5G Fund. The money for the 5G Fund will come out of the Universal Service Fund. The 5G Fund is aimed at bringing cellular coverage to rural places that don’t have coverage today and will award the money using a reverse auction. The FCC is proposing to award $8 billion in the first round of auctions with $1 billion awarded later.

The FCC’s attempt to spend this money already has a checkered past. The FCC tried to award $4.5 billion of this same funding in 2019 under the name of Mobility Fund II. When preparing for that reverse auction the FCC asked existing cellular carriers to provide maps showing existing cellular coverage. It turns out that the maps provided by Verizon, T-Mobile, and US Cellular were badly overstated and smaller cellular carriers cried foul. The smaller carriers claimed that the overstatement of coverage was meant to shuttle funding opportunities away from smaller cellular companies. It felt eerily familiar to just watch Frontier and a few other big telcos make similar last-minute claims about their broadband coverage for the RDOF grants.

The FCC eventually agreed with the small carriers and canceled the auction last year. The $4.5 billion in funding from 2019 was augmented by an additional $4.5 billion and reconstituted as the 5G Fund.

The FCC is asking for comments on two different options for awarding the money. The first option would award the funds in 2021 based upon the best current cellular coverage maps available. This option would only award money to areas that have never had 3G or 4G coverage. The second option would delay the auction until 2023, by which time the FCC is hoping for better maps through a process they have labeled as the Digital Opportunity Data Collection initiative.

The need for this fund is further complicated by the T-Mobile / Sprint merger. One of the merger agreements made by T-Mobile is to cover 99% of the people in the country, including 90% of those living in rural areas with 5G of at least 50 Mbps data speeds within 6 years of the merger.

There doesn’t seem to be any logical way the FCC can award this money in 2021. By definition, they’d be awarding using grant coverage using maps that the FCC openly acknowledges are badly flawed. Maybe even more importantly, at this early date the FCC can’t know where T-Mobile plans to cover over the next 6 years. If the FCC proceeds now they will almost surely be spending money to cover areas that T-Mobile is already on the hook to serve. By using flawed maps, the FCC will almost certainly miss areas that need service that T-Mobile will not be serving.

The T-Mobile merger agreement also raises a serious issue about the size of the 5G Fund. The Fund was set at $9 billion before T-Mobile agreed to cover a lot of the areas that were proposed for funding in 2019. Isn’t the $9 billion now too high since T-Mobile will be covering many of these areas?

This raises a bigger policy question. Does the FCC really want to spend $9 billion to cover the last 1% of the US population with cellular when a much larger percentage of rural homes don’t have workable home broadband? Shouldn’t some of this money now be repurposed to fund rural broadband in light of the T-Mobile agreement to cover 99% of people with cellular coverage?

Finally, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai never misses a chance to overhype 5G. In the announcement for the NPRM the Chairman was quoted as saying, “5G promises to be the next leap in broadband technology, offering significantly increased speeds and reduced latency. The 5G Fund for Rural America focuses on building out 5G networks in areas that likely would otherwise go unserved. It’s critical that Americans living in rural communities have the same opportunities as everybody else.”

What the Chairman and the carriers are  never going to say out loud is that 5G is an urban technology. All of the coolest features of 5G only work when cell sites are close together. The areas covered by these grants are the most rural cell sites in the US and will be serving only a few people at any given location. Low density sites gain almost no extra advantage from 5G, so they will effectively act like 4G LTE sites forever. It’s even unlikely that a cellular carrier would bother using extra spectrum at a cell site with only a few customers. Such cell sites need only the basic 4G LTE coverage and spectrum bands, and it’s unlikely that these areas will get true 5G, regardless of the 5G name the FCC has attached to the funding mechanism.

FCC Ignoring Consumer Broadband Complaints

One of the best aspects of broadband regulation was that a consumer was always able to file a complaint against an ISP with the FCC, and the complaint process generally resolved disputes between customers and carriers. If customers had legitimate complaints about billing or service, a complaint sent to the FCC generally solved the issue; if the carrier was in the right, the FCC sided with the carrier and asked them to explain the applicable laws or rules to the customer involved. This complaint process was the ultimate backstop for people who had tried every other avenue for resolving a dispute.

But starting with the Restoring Internet Freedom order where the FCC voted to kill net neutrality and to kill Title II regulation of broadband this all changed. After that order, the FCC stopped intervening in broadband complaints from customers. They now forward complaints to carriers but don’t insist that problems are resolved.

Jon Brodkin wrote an article about this last November where he documented a case where Frontier was billing $10 per month to a customer who had purchased a FiOS router before Frontier purchased the property there. The company insisted that the customer pay the fee for a router that the customer clearly owns. Even after a complaint was filed at the FCC on the issue, Frontier wouldn’t change its position. The FCC did nothing about the complaint – the agency forwarded the complaint to Frontier and considered the issue settled.

In the past, the FCC would have looked at the facts, which in this case any person off the street would have resolved in favor of the customer. If the FCC got too many complaints on the same issue, they would pressure an ISP to change their practices.

It’s conceivable that the FCC no longer has the power to resolve complaints and just doesn’t want to publicly say so. When the agency voided their ability to regulate broadband, it’s likely they also voided their ability to intervene on any topic related to broadband – the agency effectively gelded themselves.

As Brodkin points out, the FCC isn’t being truthful about the complaint process. They told US Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) that they forward complaints to the Federal Trade Commission, but it turns out they only forward complaints that the FTC asks about – not most complaints.

The FCC has informed some consumers that they have an option to file a formal complaint. This is a process that costs $235 and that ensures that the agency will at least look at the issue. This is the process normally used to resolve pole attachment complaints and similar disputes between carriers. A formal complaint initiates a formal process that the average person probably would find difficult to comply with – a formal complaint initiates the equivalent of a legal proceeding, and there are specific procedural rules and a legal process of filing documents and pleadings on a pre-determined schedule. A formal complaint that doesn’t follow the processes and protocols would likely be tossed as being non-responsive.

Unfortunately, paying this fee for a formal complaint still might not do any good since the FCC no longer has jurisdiction over a broadband billing dispute or other broadband issues. The resolution of a formal complaint might result in nothing more than an FCC ruling that the customer should have gone to the FTC instead of the FCC.

There are other ramifications of the Restoring Internet Freedom order. When the FCC killed its ability to regulate broadband it also theoretically voided the State’s ability to regulate broadband as well. State regulatory commissions have always had a complaint process similar to the FCC’s, but since the law of the land is that broadband is no longer regulated, consumers can’t take these complaints to a state commission. The only current recourse for a consumer is to go to the FTC. Unfortunately, the FTC regulates bad behavior by all corporations, and so the agency only opens an investigation when there are numerous complaints against a specific ISP on a specific topic. The FTC does not intervene in or try to resolve individual consumer complaints.

I don’t think it has registered with the general public that broadband is unregulated. This means that consumers are on their own when ISPs harm them and no government agency can intervene on their behalf. There is no better example than the one that Brodkin had highlighted – Frontier feels safe in mistreating a customer even when under the eye of regulators, and even when they are blatantly wrong. To Frontier, keeping the erroneous $10 in monthly billing is obviously more important than doing the right thing by a customer – and there seems to be nothing a customer can do than perhaps finding somebody in the press to highlight their story.

There They Go Again

The FCC issued the 2020 Broadband Deployment Report on April 20. It’s a self-congratulatory document that says that the state of broadband in the country is improving rapidly and that the FCC is doing a great job. I had a hard time making it past the second paragraph of the report which summarized the state of broadband in the country. Consider the following:

The number of Americans lacking access to fixed terrestrial broadband service at 25/3 Mbps continues to decline, going down by more than 14% in 2018 and more than 30% between 2016 and 2018. 

The FCC has no factual basis for this statement because they don’t know the number of households in the US that don’t have access to 25/3 Mbps broadband. The numbers cited are based upon the Form 477 data collected from ISP that everybody in the country, including the FCC, has acknowledged is full of errors. The FCC has proposed moving to a new method of data collection that will produce maps based upon drawing polygons that they hope will fix the rural broadband reporting problem. 

I’ve been working all over the country with rural counties and I have yet to encounter a rural county where the Form 477 coverage of 25/3 broadband is not overstated. In county after county, we find places where the big telcos and/or WISPs exaggerate the broadband speeds that are available and the coverage area available for faster speeds of broadband. The reporting problem is getting worse rather than improving as witnessed by a recent filing by Frontier to the FCC that claims they have improved speeds in 16,000 rural Census blocks to 25/3 Mbps broadband since June 30, 2019. This claim is made by a company that just went into bankruptcy and which the whole rural industry knows is not spending a dime on rural infrastructure. There were similar claims made by the other big telcos in a proceeding that was to determine the areas available for FCC grant funding.

The number of Americans without access to 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) mobile broadband with a median speed of 10/3 Mbps fell approximately 54% between 2017 and 2018. 

There has been a lot of rural cell sites upgraded from 3G to 4G as the big cellular carriers want to mothball 3G technology. However, any quantification of the improvement of cellular broadband coverage is suspect due to blatantly erroneous reporting by the big cellular carriers. In 2019 when the FCC went to award grant funding to upgrade rural cellular coverage the discovered that Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular had significantly overstated rural cellular coverage in an attempt to shuttle grant funds away from smaller cellular carriers. The FCC reacted by yanking that grant program and delaying it, in what is now called the 5G Fund. It’s hard to believe that the FCC would try to quantify the improvement in 4G coverage between 2017 and 2018 without acknowledging that this was the coverage that was badly overstated by the cellular carriers.  

AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon are also rapidly expanding their 5G capability, with 5G networks in aggregate now covering the majority of the country’s population, especially in urban areas, and more live launches planned for 2020.

The FCC clearly buys the 5G hype from the cellular companies which are claiming widespread 5G coverage. The cellular companies have introduced new spectrum into their 4G LTE environment, and the cellular marketers have labeled this as 5G. Much of the first wave of new spectrum being used is in lower frequency bands such as 600 MHz for T-Mobile and 850 MHz for AT&T. These lower frequency bands don’t carry as much data as higher frequencies and won’t be delivering faster broadband. However, new spectrum bands improve the chances of grabbing a channel to get the data speeds that 4G was already supposed to be delivering.

5G will not arrive until the carriers begin implemented the new features described in the 5G specifications. For now, none of the important new 5G features have yet made it to the market. So, contrary to the FCC telling the public that 5G is nearly everywhere, the truth is that it is not yet anywhere in the country. I’ll be curious in a few years to see how the annual FCC reports on broadband describe the actual introduction of 5G features. It’s likely they’ll parrot whatever language the cellular marketers spin by then.

This opening pat on the back is followed by page after page of broadband statistics that are based upon the lousy Form 477 reporting from ISPs. There is almost no statistic in this report that is entirely trustworthy.

This report is unfortunate in many ways. The FCC feels compelled to exaggerate broadband coverage so that they can’t be forced to try to fix broadband gaps. The sad aspect of this report is that this is the statistics cited in this report are used to determines which parts of rural America are eligible for broadband grants – and this report is largely a fairy tale. It would have been nice if the summary of the report had acknowledged that the FCC knows that their data is faulty – something they have openly recognized in other dockets. Instead, the FCC chose to spin this fanciful tale of rapidly improving broadband that does little more than provide cover for the FCC to not have to fix rural broadband. 

FCC to Eliminate the Subscriber Line Charge?

In WC Docket 20-71 the FCC is considering eliminating the Subscriber Line Charge (SLC). The SLC has been around since 1984. The FCC at that time wanted to lower the cost of long-distance. It was not unusual at that time to have long-distance rates as high as $0.30 per minute with the average long-distance rate in the country somewhere between $0.12 and $0.15 per minute. The FCC understood that high long-distance rates were hurting the country and they wanted to lower the fees that local telcos charged to long-distance companies like the newly formed AT&T long-distance company, MCI, and other competitive long-distance providers.

The FCC only had jurisdiction over Interstate rates. In those days every regulated telephone company calculated jurisdictional costs using Part 67 of the FCC rules. Companies performed ‘separation’ cost studies to determine the portion of the costs that were associated with local service, state long-distance service, and interstate long-distance service. In 1983 the FCC approved Part 69 which created access charges – specific interstate rates that local telephone companies were allowed to charge to long-distance carriers to use the local telephone network for originating or terminating an interstate long-distance call.

As part of the creation of access charges, the FCC decided to arbitrarily shift some Interstate costs from long-distance carriers to telephone subscribers – this was the start of the Subscriber Line Charge (SLC). In that first year, the FCC shifted $1 from Interstate costs to the fee charged to every telephone subscriber. The SLC was raised annually until it reached $4.50. Over time the FCC eventually increased the fee to as much as $6.50. The SLC is still an FCC access charge, but it is billed to end-user customers and not to long-distance carriers. Theoretically, this means that every telephone subscriber is paying $6.50 for the right to make or receive long-distance calls – even if they don’t use that right.

The FCC’s actions had the desired effect, and long-distance rates dropped annually. This was a big deal for homes and businesses. I remember as a kid when making a long-distance call was a big deal, since a 7 to 10-minute call cost a dollar. Long-distance rates got cheaper until eventually, we have cellphones and local phones that come with unlimited long distance.

I remember working for a holding company of small telcos after divestiture and everybody was concerned that raising local rates a dollar per month was going to cause customers to drop phone service. I don’t think we lost any customers from the first local rate increase, or in subsequent years as the SLC continued to be increased. Customers applauded the cheaper long-distance rates.

The SLC has caused confusion over the years. A lot of customers have assumed the SLC is a tax – but the amount is billed and kept by the telephone company. The real confusion started after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that allowed competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs) to compete with local telephone companies. CLECs didn’t have a clear way to set competitive rates. For example, if a CLEC was competing against a telco with $20 local rates, that telco might also have had a SLC charge of $6. That means the true local rate was $26. If the CLEC wanted to give a modest discount and charge $23, they had a dilemma. While a $23 rate was a good deal for customers, it didn’t compare well against the $20 base telephone rate that was charged before adding the SLC. Most CLECs elected to break their local rate into two parts to match the separate local rate and the SLC charged by the telcos. In this example, a CLEC might have set a $17 local rate and kept the $6 separate rate.

CLECs were not authorized to bill the SLC charge because they were not subject to the same jurisdictional separations of costs. Instead, CLECs just split local rates into two pieces to try to match telco rates. Many CLECs tried to make their version of the SLC charge sound like a tax by calling it the ‘FCC Fee’ or some similar name. The FCC made a few CLECs change the name of the fee, but mostly the FCC ignored how CLECs billed, and many customers have long believed that the SLC fee was a tax and not part of local rates.

It was inevitable that the FCC would finally end the SLC – the need for it is long over. However, for local telephone companies, the SLC has part of the basic rate for telephone service. If the FCC eliminates the SLC, most telcos cannot automatically add the lost revenue back to local rates. As hard as it might be to believe today, many telcos are still under state regulation of rates and would need permission from a state regulator to add the lost SLC fee to local rates. I predict that many state commissions will deny a local rate increase, or at least make telcos jump through a lot of hoops to get it. Local telephone regulation is largely dead, but this would give state regulators perhaps their last chance to feel relevant for local telephone rates.

Meanwhile, CLECs that decided to charge the SLC can instead just add the lost amount to their base rate. The FCC has made it clear in this docket that once approved, no company is to bill a line item that could be construed to be the SLC. The chances are that anybody that still has a landline from a telco, including numerous businesses, will see a rate reduction by as much as $6.50 per telephone line per month. Telcos will likely just see revenues drop as they lose the SLC fee and aren’t able to replace it.

The FCC is Ignoring Its Section 706 Responsibilities

I was recently re-reading the FCC’s 2019 Broadband Deployment Report to Congress. That report was mandated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and gave the FCC specific obligations to make sure that everybody in the country has access to ‘advanced telecommunications’, which today is understood to mean broadband. It’s worthwhile for broadband advocates to occasionally be reminded of the FCC’s legal obligations concerning broadband. Following is a slightly abridged version of Section 706 of the Commission’s rules:

The Commission and each State commission with regulatory jurisdiction over telecommunications services shall encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans by utilizing, in a manner consistent with the public interest, convenience, and necessity, price cap regulation, regulatory forbearance, measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment. The Commission shall determine whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. If the Commission’s determination is negative, it shall take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market.

As I read the 2019 report, I can’t help but conclude that the Commission is failing its Section 706 obligations in several big ways. The first obligation is to determine if advanced telecommunications are being deployed to all Americans. The 2019 report has hundreds of pages of numerical data concerning the deployment of landline and cellular broadband. However, the tables are largely fiction since they are based upon massively faulty data reported by ISPs and cellular carriers.

We know that rural cellular coverage data is also terrible because the FCC just issued a report saying so in December. It didn’t take the FCC report to validate this, because anybody living or working in rural America knows there are still huge holes in cellular coverage.

The FCC data on landline broadband is abysmal. I know this from working with rural counties to find broadband solutions. In those counties, we’ve mapped out the FCC’s data that shows that large swaths of counties have broadband speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps, or even 25/3 Mbps when in fact there is practically no broadband outside of a county seat or another town or two. In county after county, the FCC data is seriously wrong and claims broadband coverage where it doesn’t exist. Where there is rural broadband coverage, the FCC data generally overstates the speeds and classifies areas where homes can get just a few Mbps as having decent broadband.

The FCC knows their data is bad and has been shown the extent of the errors in ex parte meetings with local officials. Yet the FCC continues to accumulate the lousy data and make policies based upon the bad numbers. In the 2019 report, they say: the data demonstrates that six percent of Americans, over 19 million households, lack access to fixed terrestrial advanced telecommunications capability and we recognize that the situation is especially problematic in rural areas, where over 24% lack access, and Tribal Lands, where 32% lack access. Those statistics are incredibly understated. Across the country local counties claim that the rural data for their counties is off by 20% to 60%, meaning that the numbers cited above by the FCC are likely off that much as well. While the FCC claims there are 19 million rural homes without good broadband we don’t know if this is really 24 million or 28 million or 32 million – because of the FCC complacency we have no way to guess at the extent of the lack of broadband.

The FCC is clearly shirking its duty to fix poor rural broadband. The Section 706 language couldn’t be clearer. The FCC is required to take immediate action to accelerate broadband deployment where it is not being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion.

In the 2019 report, the FCC defends not taking immediate steps to fix the lack of broadband as follows: the Commission has previously explained, the statute requires that we determine whether advanced telecommunications capability “is being deployed to all Americans”—not whether it has already been deployed to all Americans. Our policymaking efforts over the last two years are promoting broadband deployment, and the data show that ISPs are making strong progress in deploying advanced telecommunications capability to more and more Americans. These circumstances warrant a positive finding. The FCC not only shirks taking any action, but they also pat themselves on the back for having undertaken policies that promote broadband deployment.

I should make it clear that this is not just an indictment of the current FCC. The last several FCCs have used similar verbal gymnastics to avoid taking responsibility to fix rural broadband. But there is one new thing the current FCC has done that makes it harder for them to tackle rural broadband. The Section 706 language directs the FCC to use regulatory tools such as price cap regulation and regulatory forbearance to help tackle the lack of broadband. The current FCC actively wrote themselves out of the regulatory picture for broadband. They can no longer use price caps or forbearance (relaxing regulations in rural areas) as regulatory tools since they no longer regulate broadband.

To give the FCC some credit, they have undertaken huge RDOF grants that will bring better broadband to a few million rural homes. However, by keeping on the blinders about the bad data these grants will not be used to tackle broadband in areas where the FCC maps overstate broadband coverage. And the grants are likely, in some cases, to go to ISPs like the satellite providers that bring no new solutions to rural America. Unfortunately, it’s easy to predict that the FCC will rest on their laurels for years to come, claiming that the RDOF grants take them off the hook for further solving the lack of rural broadband.

The Consequences of No Broadband Regulation

A few weeks ago when the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent we saw the ridiculous spectacle of an FCC chairman begging ISPs to not disconnect customers during a pandemic that would likely throw tens of millions of people out of work. Chairman Pai was reduced to begging because a few years earlier he had voted to strip the FCC if its power to regulate broadband. Before that decision, Chairman Pai could simply have ordered ISPs to be on their best behavior during the pandemic.

This is the most recent demonstrations of the negative impact of deregulating an industry that is controlled by a tiny handful of carriers. In most urban markets the big cable companies have become de facto monopolies – and even most markets that haven’t quite reached monopoly status are, at best, duopolies. There is little broadband competition in most major metropolitan areas, and even in many rural county seats.

It’s not hard to see that the ISP industry thinks it’s bullet-proof against regulation. Consider what’s happened with prices in just the past few years:

  • When comparing data prices around the world, the US has the highest data rates among industrialized countries. Our cellular data prices are nearly the highest anywhere in the world other than a few remote places like Antarctica and war zones.
  • All the major ISPs have raised broadband rates in the last year – when everybody in the industry knows that broadband is already a product with huge margins. These rate increases serve no other purpose other than padding the bottom line. What’s worse is that Wall Street analysts are pushing the ISPs to raise rates much higher.
    • ISP bills are now full of hidden fees. Consumer Reports said last year that the average monthly company-imposed fees for the bills they analyzed averaged to $22.96 for AT&T U-verse, $31.28 for Charter, $39.59 for Comcast, $40.16 for Cox, and $43.79 for Verizon FiOS. They estimate that these fees could total to at least $28 billion per year nationwide.
  • Some ISPs like AT&T, Comcast, Cox, and Mediacom are making big money on data caps. It’s clear that the argument of having data caps to protect networks against overuse has zero basis in fact. Data caps are just a quiet way to raise rates and billings. We now know that over 8% of homes now use over a terabyte of data per month – and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • ISPs feel brave to openly gouge customers, like Frontier that is billing a monthly fee for WiFi modems that the customers purchased. Even when challenged publicly, the company won’t remove the charges because they don’t fear regulatory retribution.

One of the worst things about the deregulation of broadband is that the average consumer has no idea this happened. The FCC was slick enough to bury the deregulation of broadband in the net neutrality topic. Most people don’t realize that when the FCC killed net neutrality that they also gave away their authority to regulate broadband. People still look to the FCC to correct broadband injustices, without realizing that when they file an FCC complaint against a broadband provider that the agency is powerless to intercede on their behalf.

The FCC will argue that they didn’t kill broadband regulation, but they instead handed the responsibility to the Federal Trade Commission. That claim falls apart quickly once you realize that the FTC has zero authority to regulate industries – they can’t write a rule that applies to all ISPs. The FTC’s power is limited to fining ISPs that have blatantly injured the public – and this must be done by an agency that is also overlooking all other US corporations.

Other than to dole out spectrum for 5G, it’s hard to even justify the FCC any longer. If the US isn’t going to regulate one of the most important industries in the country – many would say during the current pandemic the most important – then perhaps we ought to stop pretending to do so.

Only Congress can fix the problem and they’ve shown no inclination to do so. Congress hasn’t done anything meaningful concerning broadband since the 1996 Telecommunications Act that was signed just as people were subscribing to AOL and Compuserve.

The FCC should be taking drastic action during this pandemic. The agency could have been leading the charge looking for ways to get broadband to kids stuck at home. They could have been taking actions to make it easier for telemedicine in the last few months. They could have reacted to the pandemic with plans to finally solve the broadband gap. Instead, all we got was a powerless FCC Chairman politely asking ISPs to not harm people during a national emergency.