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Regulation - What is it Good For? The Industry

Counting Broadband Locations

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.

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Regulation - What is it Good For? The Industry

Mass Confusion over FCC Mapping

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.

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Regulation - What is it Good For?

The End of ACP

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.

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Regulation - What is it Good For? The Industry

Hearings on Broadband Grants

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.

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Regulation - What is it Good For?

Will the FCC Maps Get Better?

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.

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Regulation - What is it Good For?

Challenging Cellular Data Speeds

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.

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Regulation - What is it Good For?

An FCC on Hold

It’s now 2023, and it’s been two years since Ajit Pai left the FCC and created an open Commissioner spot. It’s always been routine for the Senate to replace open Commissioner slots within a reasonable time. Washington DC has always been partisan, but the Senate has routinely approved the nominee of the sitting president, giving the administration the swing vote in the FCC and other regulatory bodies like FERC, the SEC, and the FTC. This approval is sometimes given begrudgingly, but both political parties want the courtesy of having its party get to choose regulators when it holds the White House.

For the first time in my memory, the Senate does not have the votes to approve the nominated FCC Commissioner, Gigi Sohn. This is extraordinary, and it has meant that the FCC has been on hold and we’ve had a two-year deadlock between the two Democratic and Republican Commissioners on any controversial issues.

I don’t know Gigi Sohn, but I’ve seen her speak many times, and she seems like a perfect nominee. She has more knowledge of the industry than most past new Commissioners. People from both parties who know her say she is fair-minded and that her main priorities are to look out for broadband consumers and to make sure that all voices are heard through open media. She’s even drawn strong support from conservative organizations like Newsmax, which support her nomination since she believes in open airwaves.

I don’t have any insight into why the Senate, with a Democratic majority, has been unable to muster the votes to approve the nomination. There is a long article in The Verge that postulates that the nomination has been blocked by heavy lobbying by Fox and Comcast. There are other articles saying that there is also heavy lobbying against the nomination from AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile. It makes perfect sense for ISPs to oppose a fifth Democratic Commissioner since one of the first items on the agenda after sitting a fifth Commissioner would be to reinstate net neutrality and broadband regulation. Large content providers want to delay adding a fifth Commissioner since the topic of media consolidation would also be high on the list of topics that a full FCC would investigate. I imagine that these big companies don’t have any personal objection to Gigi Sohn – they would just as strongly oppose any Democratic nominee.

The reality is that the big carriers and content providers are better off with a tied Commission regardless of which political party holds the White House. The best scenario for big corporations is a regulatory agency that don’t rock the boat and change regulatory rules. Big corporations hate regulatory uncertainty and regulatory change. This is true of all regulated industries, not just telecom. It says something about our body politic when lobbyists are strong enough to upset the long-standing mutual consensus in the Senate that a White House ought to be able to select qualified candidates for open slots at regulatory agencies.

There are a number of FCC initiatives that are on hold until there is a fifth Commissioner. Consider some of the following:

  • The big issue is net neutrality, which says that there should be no discrimination used in delivering Internet content. But everybody understands that the real issue at stake in this discussion is the overall regulation of ISPs. Reintroducing net neutrality means having to reinstate Title II authority or some other similar mechanism to regulate broadband. Re-regulation of broadband is the issue that the big ISPs most strongly oppose. Broadband regulation could result in many new rules that big ISPs would hate, like perhaps outlawing data caps.
  • The FCC has needed for years to increase the definition of landline broadband, which still sits at 25/3 Mbps. Equally out of touch is the definition of acceptable 4G cellular broadband set by the FCC at 5/1 Mbps.
  • The FCC recently ordered broadband labels that are supposed to inform customers about their home broadband. The FCC got this authority through the IIJA legislation. But oddly, since the FCC doesn’t currently have the authority to directly regulate ISPs, the Commission can be stymied by ISPs that blatantly fail to honestly disclose the facts to the public.
  • The FCC is considering spending up to $9 billion on subsidies to improve rural cellular coverage. It’s a great idea, but there needs to be a fifth Commissioner to make sure this isn’t just a handout to the giant cellular carriers and not another boondoggle like RDOF.
  • There are probably not the needed votes in the current Commission to impose penalties against ISPs that continue to falsely report to the FCC mapping database.

This article might have a short life if the newly seated Senate finally approves Gigi Sohn. But lobbying money carries a lot of weight in DC, and it’s possible that I’ll be publishing an update to this article next January.

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Regulation - What is it Good For?

Why the Complexity?

It’s been over a year since the BEAD grant program was announced. While there has been a lot of activity on BEAD, there is still a long way to go before this grant money is used to build new broadband infrastructure. Most of the delay is due to the incredible complexity of the BEAD grant rules.

I work with a lot of different state broadband grant programs, and I can’t help but notice the tremendous difference in the complexity of the process between state and BEAD grants. The priority for state grant programs is usually to quickly get the money out the door and spent on infrastructure. State legislators that approve grant funding want to see construction started no later than the year after the grant award, and hopefully sooner. State grant offices are generally given instructions to identify worthwhile projects and get the money approved and quickly into the hands of the ISPs to build networks.

The differences between state grants and BEAD are stunning. I have one client that won a $10 million state grant based on a simple grant application of less than 20 pages. The grant reviewers asked a few follow-up questions, but the whole process was relatively easy. The grant office was relying on the challenge process by ISPs to identify grants that were asking to overbuild areas that already have broadband. The challenge process seemed to work – a number of the grants filed in this particular program were successfully challenged. But the bottom line is that the funding was made available to start construction in less than a year from the date when the grant office originally solicited grant applications.

Why are the BEAD grants so complicated? It starts with Congress, and a lot of the complexity is directly specified in the IIJA legislation that created the grants. My pet theory is that the complexity was introduced by lobbyists of the large ISPs that wanted to make the grants unfriendly to everybody other than big ISPs with the resources to tackle the complex rules. It’s unfathomable to me that congressional staffers would have invented these complex rules on their own. I knew on my first reading of the IIJA legislation that the grants favor big companies over small ones.

In the legislation, Congress decided to give the administration of the grants to the NTIA. The NTIA had a major decision to make on day one. The agency could have taken the approach of smoothing out the congressional language to make it as easy as possible for ISPs seeking the funding. The NTIA had political cover to take a light-touch approach since the legislation stressed the importance of quick action to solve the rural broadband crisis. The White House has also been urging federal agencies to speed up the process of turning IIJA funding into infrastructure projects.

Unfortunately, the NTIA didn’t take this approach. It looks like the agency did just the opposite – the agency embellished and strengthened the congressional language and made it even more complex to file for the grants.

I don’t think the NTIA had any agenda to make the grant more complicated. It’s impossible to think the agency had early discussions about how to make it harder to use the grant funding. But the agency did have an overriding desire to do these grants the right way. The general industry consensus is that the grants were given to the NTIA instead of the FCC because of the terribly botched RDOF subsidy program. It would be hard to design a federal broadband program that would have been more poorly handled than RDOF (except perhaps for CAF II, which also was done by the FCC).

I think BEAD became more complex, one topic at a time. I think folks at NTIA looked at each congressionally mandated rule and asked how they could make sure that no money went to an unqualified ISP. Instead of softening grant requirements, I think the NTIA staff instead asked how they could be positive that no unworthy ISPs sneak through BEAD process – something that clearly happened in the FCC’s RDOF process. The final NTIA BEAD rules are not a manual on how to get grant money spent efficiently – but a manual on how to make sure that only qualified ISPs win the funding.

That doesn’t sound like a bad goal. Some of the ISPs that won the RDOF funding were spectacularly unqualified – either financially, managerially, or technically. But as each of the many BEAD rules was made as safe as possible, the collective combination of all of the BEAD rules being made super-safe creates major hurdles for ISPs. Almost every ISP I know is going to have a problem with at least a few of the rules – and I think many qualified ISPs are going pass on the BEAD grants. There is something wrong with a grant program that has hundred-year-old telephone companies wondering if they can qualify for the grants.

There is still a chance for State broadband offices to smooth out the worst of the BEAD rules. A State broadband office can push back against the NTIA BEAD rules that make it too hard for ISPs to get funded. The NTIA can’t excuse any specific mandate that was created by Congress – but the NTIA can relax and compromise on its interpretation of these rules.

The big challenge facing State grant offices is how hard they are willing to push back against the NTIA. Every State is under pressure to finally get the grant process underway, and any challenge will likely add time before funding is available. Every State broadband office already knows the ISPs it would like to see win the funding – those ISPs that will be conscientious in operating the network after its built. State broadband offices need to listen and react to the concerns that these ISPs have about the grant process – because if they don’t, many of the best ISPs are going to take a pass on the grants.

Categories
Regulation - What is it Good For? The Industry

FCC Cellular Broadband Mapping

I mostly write about broadband, but one of the most common complaints I hear from rural folks is the lack of good cellular coverage. Poor cellular coverage doesn’t seem to have gotten the same press as poor broadband, but not having access to cell phones might be more of a daily challenge than the lack of broadband.

For the first time, the new FCC maps now show us the claimed coverage everywhere for each cellular carrier. This coverage is shown on the same maps used for broadband.

People are going to find the claimed cellular coverage to be confusing since the FCC is showing coverage using massively out-of-date cellular speeds. The FCC maps only ask a cellular carrier to show if it meets the FCC definition of cellular broadband, which is embarrassingly low. A cellular carrier only needs to achieve a speed of 5 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload to be considered covered for 4G. The FCC has two claimed speed tiers for 5G at 7/1 Mbps and 35/3 Mbps.

The FCC speed thresholds for cellular are massively out of touch with modern technology. According to Ookla’s nationwide speeds test, the national average cellular speeds 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. The FCC is sticking with its obsolete definition of cellular broadband speeds for the same reasons it has stuck with using 25/3 as the official definition of broadband – the primary reason likely being the lack of a fifth FCC Commissioner.

That makes the FCC cellular maps largely useless for people in cities. What does it mean if a cellular carrier claims a 5G connection of 7/1 Mbps – that’s probably not even one bar of coverage. My house shows coverage from AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, TDS (US Cellular), and Project Genesis, the new Dish Network offering. AT&T claims only 4G coverage at my house and doesn’t claim a speed capability, even though I just tested at over 150 Mbps download as I was writing this blog. The other four carriers claim 5G coverage and speeds of at least 7/1 Mbps, while T-Mobile and Project Genesis claim speeds of at least 35/3 Mbps. The FCC reporting doesn’t give me any idea if I can trust any of these carriers at my house.

That’s because cellular coverage areas are incredibly hard to map. This is something that everybody in America is already an expert on. No matter where you live, you see the bars of available data vary at your house hour-by-hour and day-by-day. Cellular networks are broadcast networks that blast signals to anybody in range of a cell tower. Cellular radio signals can be disturbed by heat, humidity, air pollution, and temperature. And the strength of the signal varies depending on the number of users on the network at a given time.

It’s convenient to picture cellular coverage areas as a circle around a tower, with the signal being broadcast outward everywhere – but that is only true to the flattest and most open places in the county. Cellular signals are blocked or deflected by impediments in the environment, like hills and buildings. While cellular signals travel decently through foliage, leaves still add distortion and cut the distance and strength of a signal. A more apt way to picture a cellular coverage area is as an amoeba with different length arms reaching in many directions.

Because of the physics of cellular delivery, the claimed coverage by cellular companies has been badly overstated. For years, cellular companies have published maps that claim they have the best nationwide coverage – but those maps are badly distorted when looking at real places. Every cell phone user understands dead spots. My house is a good example. I live downtown in a city, and cellular coverage is generally good. But I live partway up a hill, and at my house, there is zero Verizon coverage, although folks at the other end of the block can get Verizon. I use AT&T and run into AT&T dead spots as I drive around.

Rural cellular coverage in the past is often the most exaggerated. Anybody who has driven through rural America knows that a lot of the claimed coverage is bosh. The FCC is hoping to rein in the exaggerated coverage claims of cellular carriers. You can challenge the cellular coverage at your home in the same way that you can challenge landline broadband coverage. The challenge is built directly into the FCC broadband map. When you type in an address, you’ll see a place on the top right to toggle between fixed and mobile broadband. Unfortunately, the method of challenging cellular coverage is cumbersome, and I’ll cover it in another blog.

There is also a process for bulk challenges of cellular broadband by local governments. This means gathering a lot of cellular speed tests around a community, done in a way that meets the FCC rules. I’ve already seen several counties that have started the bulk speed testing to challenge the maps.

Categories
Regulation - What is it Good For?

Access to the FCC Broadband Maps

I suspect that there are already a lot of communities and other folks who are in violation of the license agreement to view and use the new FCC mapping fabric and associated data. CostQuest, the firm that created the mapping fabric, has provided communities and others with a basic license to view and utilize the mapping data strictly for the purpose of the Broadband Data Collection (BDC) process – for reviewing and challenging the FCC maps.

Anybody that wants to use the mapping data for any other purpose must sign a different agreement and pay to utilize the data. The basic CostQuest agreement clarifies that the mapping data can’t be used for any other purposes and gives examples of uses that are prohibited under the basic use contract. Communities or others with the basic license can’t use the mapping data to:

  • Prepare for the BEAD program, grant proposals, or other funding initiatives.
  • Broadband Mapping.
  • Opportunity Analysis.
  • Network Planning or Design.
  • Marketing purposes, such as sending mailers to addresses or identifying new customers to target marketing efforts.

I have to think that communities have already violated some of these prohibitions. It’s natural when getting the new data to want to map it so that elected officials and other stakeholders can see what has been reported to the FCC. I have a hard time thinking that ISPs won’t use the data when determining areas that are eligible for grants.

I am completely flabbergasted by this whole process. The FCC paid CostQuest $44 million to create the maps. One would think that would mean the resulting maps and data belongs to the FCC, and that CostQuest is just a vendor hired to create the maps and mapping fabric. But it appears that having created the maps is creating a permanent revenue stream for CostQuest, and the company is acting as if it is the owner of the federal mapping data. The NTIA has been negotiating to pay an additional $49.9 million to CostQuest to be able to use the mapping data during the BEAD grant process.

You have to let that sink in. One federal agency is paying a license fee that is higher than the cost of creating the maps in order to use the data that is gathered by the FCC. I have to imagine that CostQuest plans to extract fees from ISPs and communities to use the data for any purpose other than the BDC mapping challenge.

This raises a lot of questions, starting with the big question of why the FCC would allow a vendor to extract big fees to utilize a software system and data mandated and paid for by the FCC. Perhaps the bigger question is why broadband mapping data isn’t publicly available to everybody.

The funny thing is that you don’t need a license to use the data – just a license to use it easily. I looked at my own neighborhood, and I can see the ISPs that claim to be able serve each home, and in doing so I can see the border of any ISP’s claimed service area. For example, I can see in my neighborhood the several block area where AT&T has built fiber.

A small town could easily gather and map everything about its community by gathering the data for each home from the national map provided by the FCC. The licensing makes things easier by allowing the use of the underlying databases needed to analyze the data in mass instead of one home at a time.

It’s easy to see why there was such a big battle to win the mapping RFP, because this created a huge new permanent revenue stream for CostQuest to provide access to use the FCC data. I wrote a blog earlier this year talking about creating policies to make sure that communities have access to government data. I don’t know if there is anything more vital to communities with poor broadband than understanding the broadband map of who has and doesn’t have access to broadband.

I hope that the FCC will come to its senses and reclaim its own data, or at least mandate that it should be easily available to everybody. If not, this is something Congress ought to address. We’re spending billions to bring better broadband while absurdly making it hard for communities to use the public data that documents broadband coverage.

Maybe some smart programmer will solve this for everybody by capturing the data one house at a time from the FCC map and make the data available to everybody for free.

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