Please, Not Another Mapping Debacle

There are numerous parties making proposals to the FCC on how to fix the broken broadband mapping program. Today I want to look at the proposal made by USTelecom. On the surface the USTelecom proposal sounds reasonable. They want to geocode every home and business in the US to create a giant database and map of potential broadband customers. ISPs will then overlay speeds on the detailed maps, by address. USTelecom suggests that defining broadband by address will eliminate the problems of reporting broadband by Census block.

Their idea should work well for customers of fiber ISPs and cable companies. Customer addresses are either covered by those technologies or they’re not. But the proposed new maps won’t do much better than current maps for the other technologies used in rural America for a number of reasons:

  • Telcos that provide rural DSL aren’t going to tell the truth about the speeds being delivered. Does anybody honestly believe that after taking billions of dollars to improve rural DSL that Frontier and CenturyLink are going to admit on these maps that customers in areas covered by CAF II are getting less than 10 Mbps?
  • In the telcos favor, it’s not easy for them to define DSL speeds. We know that DSL speeds drop with distance from a DSLAM transmitting point, so the speed is different with each customer, even with ideal copper.
  • Rural copper is far from ideal, and DSL speeds vary widely by customer due to local conditions. The quality can vary between wires in the same sheathe due to damage or corrosion over time. The quality of the drop wires from the street to the house can drastically impact DSL speeds. Even the inside copper wiring at a home can have a big influence. We also know that in many networks that DSL bogs down in the evenings due to inadquate backhaul, so time of day impacts the speed.
  • What is never mentioned when talking about rural DSL is how many customers are simply told by a telco that DSL won’t work at their home because of one of these reasons. Telcos aren’t reporting these customers as unservable today and it’s unlikely that they’ll be properly reported in the future.
  • Rural fixed wireless has similar issues. The ideal wireless connection has an unimpeded line-of-sight, but many customers have less than an ideal situation. Even a little foliage can slow a connection. Further, every wireless coverage area has dead spots and many customers are blocked from receiving service. Like DSL, wireless speeds also weaken with distance – something a WISP is unlikely or unwilling to disclose by customer. Further, while WISPs can report on what they are delivering to current customers they have no way of knowing about other homes until they climb on the roof and test the line-of-sight.
  • It’s also going to be interesting to see if urban ISPs admit on maps to the redlining and other practices that have supposedly left millions of urban homes without broadband. Current maps ignore this issue.

USTelecom also wants to test-drive the idea of allowing individuals to provide feedback to the maps. Again, this sounds like a good idea. But in real life this is full of problems:

  • Homeowners often don’t know what speeds they are supposed to get, and ISPs often don’t list the speed on bills. The broadband map is supposed to measure the fastest speed available, and the feedback process will be a mess if customers purchasing slower products interject into the process.
  • There are also a lot of problems with home broadband caused by the customer. ISPs operating fiber networks say that customers claiming low speeds usually have a WiFi problem. Customers might be operating ancient WiFi routers or else are measuring speed after the signal has passed through inside multiple walls.

I still like the idea of feedback. My preference would be to allow local governments to be the conduit for feedback to the maps. We saw that work well recently when communities intervened to fix the maps as part of the Mobility Fund Phase II grants that were intended to expand rural 4G coverage.

My real fear is that the effort to rework the maps is nothing more than a delaying tactic. If we start on a new mapping effort now the FCC can throw their hands up for the next three years and take no action on rural broadband. They’ll have the excuse that they shouldn’t make decision based on faulty maps. Sadly, after the three years my bet is that new maps will be just as bad as the current ones – at least in rural America.

I’m not busting on USTelecom’s proposal as much as I’m busting on all proposals. We should not be using maps to decide the allocation of subsidies and grants. It would be so much easier to apply a technology test – we don’t need maps to know that fiber is always better than DSL. The FCC can’t go wrong with a goal of supplanting big telco copper.

Capping the Universal Service Fund

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai recently suggested capping the size of the total Universal Service Fund at $11.4 annually, adjusted going forward for inflation. The chairman has taken a lot of flack on this proposal from advocates of rural broadband. Readers of this blog know that I have been a big critic of this FCC on a whole host of issues. However, this idea doesn’t ive me much heartburn.

Critics of the idea are claiming that this proves that the FCC isn’t serious about fixing the rural broadband problem. I totally agree with that sentiment and this current FCC hasn’t done very little to fix rural broadband. In fact, they’ve gone out of their way to try to hide the magnitude of the rural problem by fiddling with broadband statistics and by hiding behind the faulty data from carriers that come out of the FCC’s broadband mapping effort. My personal guess is that there are millions of more homes that don’t have broadband than are being counted by the FCC.

With that said, the Universal Service Fund shouldn’t be the sole funding source for fixing rural broadband. The fund was never intended for that. The fund was created originally to promote the expansion of rural telephone service. Over time it became the mechanism to help rural telcos survive as other sources of subsidies like access charges were reduced over time. Only in recent years was it repositioned to fund rural broadband.

Although I’m a big proponent for better rural broadband, I am not bothered by capping the Universal Service Fund. First, the biggest components of that fund have been capped for years. The monies available for the rural high cost program, the schools and library fund and for rural healthcare have already been capped. Second, the proposed cap is a little larger than what’s being spent today, and what has been spent historically. This doesn’t look to be a move by the FCC to take away funding from any existing program.

Consumers today fund the Universal Service Fund through fees levied against landline telephone and cellphones. Opponents of capping the fund apparently would like to see the FCC hike those fees to help close the rural broadband gap. As a taxpayer I’m personally not nuts about the idea of letting federal agencies like the FCC print money by raising taxes that we all pay. For the FCC to make any meaningful dent in the rural broadband issue they’d probably have to triple or quadruple the USF fees.

I don’t think there is a chance in hell that Congress would ever let the FCC do that – and not just this Congress, but any Congress. Opponents of Pai’s plan might not recall that past FCCs have had this same deliberation and decided that they didn’t have the authority to unilaterally increase the size of the USF fund.

If we want to federal government to help fix the rural broadband problem, unfortunately the only realistic solution is for Congress to appropriate real money to the effort. This particular Congress is clearly in the pocket of the big telcos, evidenced by the $600 million awarded for rural broadband in last year’s budget reconciliation process. The use of those funds was crippled by language inserted by the big telcos to make it hard to use the money to compete against the telcos.

And that’s the real issue with federal funding. We all decry that we have a huge rural broadband crisis, but what we really have is a big telco crisis. Every rural area that has crappy broadband is served by one of the big telcos. The big telcos stopped making investments to modernize rural networks decades ago. And yet they still have to political clout to block federal money from being used to compete against their outdated and dying networks.

The FCC does have an upcoming opportunity for funding a new broadband program from the Universal Service Fund. After 2020 nearly $2 billion annually will be freed up in the fund at the end of the original CAF II program. If this FCC is at serious about rural broadband the FCC should start talking this year about what to do with those funds. This is a chance for Chairman Pai to put his (USF) money where his mouth is.

FCC Looking at Rural Spectrum Rules

The FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on March 15, in WT Docket No. 19-38. This NPRM asks if there are changes to spectrum rules that might make spectrum more easily available for small carriers and in rural markets.

This NPRM was required by the MOBILE NOW Act that was included in the Ray Baum’s Act that reauthorized the FCC. That Act required the FCC to ask the following questions:

  • Should the FCC establish a new program, or modify existing programs to make it easier to partition, disaggregate, or lease spectrum in rural areas and spectrum access by small carriers?
  • Should the FCC allow ‘reaggregation’ of spectrum that has been partitioned or disaggregated on the secondary market, up to the size of the original market area?
  • Would relaxing performance requirements for partitioned or disaggregated licenses make it easier for small carriers to use rural spectrum?
  • Are there any procedural changes that would make it easier to transfer spectrum to small carriers?
  • Are there incentives the FCC can provide to encourage spectrum license holders to lease or sell spectrum to small carriers that will serve rural areas?

If the FCC is serious about helping to solve the rural broadband divide they need to take a hard look at the suggestions various parties will make in this docket. The docket notes that there have been over 1,000 assignments of spectrum over the last decade, but most of these have been from speculators (who buy spectrum with the goal to sell and not use) assigning spectrum to the larger carriers. There are not many examples where the big spectrum holders have peeled off portions of their spectrum for rural use.

Today most spectrum is being used in urban areas but not deployed in the surrounding rural areas. It’s hard to fault the cellular companies for this practice. The low customer density in rural areas doesn’t require cellular carriers to deploy the same mix of spectrum needed to satisfy urban cellular bandwidth needs.

This unused spectrum could be used to provide spectacular fixed wireless broadband – something that is not really a significant part of the business plan of cellular companies. With newer techniques for combining multiple frequencies to serve a single customer, the availability of more swaths of spectrum could be used to significantly increase rural broadband speeds.

There are also regulatory reasons for the pool of unused rural spectrum. The cellular carriers have always lobbied hard to have spectrum auctioned to cover huge geographic footprints. It’s a lot easier for the carriers and the FCC to not bother with auctioning off rural coverage areas separately. The FCC’s coverage rules are also lax that a spectrum license holder can satisfy deployment requirements by deploying spectrum in the urban areas while ignoring the rural parts of the license areas. The FCC has also been extremely lax in enforcing deployment requirements, and license holders in some cases have gone for a decade without deploying spectrum without fear of losing the license.

The big cellular companies have opposed making it easier to deploy frequency in rural areas. They have some legitimate concerns about interference, but there are techical solutions to guard against interference. The big companies mostly don’t want to deal with smaller users of the spectrum. I would expect them to file comments in this docket that say that the existing system is adequate. Today’s rules already allow for leasing or partitioning of spectrum and the big companies don’t want new rules that might force them to work with rural providers.

Probably the most interesting question in the docket is the one asking if there are incentives that would drive the big license holders to work with smaller providers. I can think of several solutions, but the easiest one is what I call ‘use it or lose it’. The FCC ought to change the rules to be able to reclaim licensed spectrum that isn’t being used. The rules should not allow the deployment of spectrum in a city to tie up the use of that same spectrum for a huge surrounding rural area.

While the MOBILE NOW Act required the issuance of this NPRM within a year, it doesn’t require the FCC to act on any of the suggestions made by respondents to the NPRM. I would strongly encourage anybody interested in using rural spectrum to contact their members of Congress and ask them to encourage the FCC to take this NPRM seriously. Over the last two years it’s hard to point to any actions of this FCC that support rural broadband over the interests of the large carriers. The big wireless companies don’t want the hassle of dealing with smaller providers – but that’s the right thing to do. Spectrum ought to benefit all parts of the country, not just the urban areas.

Ideas for Better Broadband Mapping

The FCC is soliciting ideas on better ways to map broadband coverage. Everybody agrees that the current broadband maps are dreadful and misrepresent broadband availability. The current maps are created from data that the FCC collects from ISPs on the 477 form where each ISP lists broadband coverage by census block. One of the many problems with the current mapping process (I won’t list them all) is that census blocks can cover a large geographic area in rural America, and reporting at the census block level tends to blur together different circumstances where some folks have broadband and others have none.

There have been two interesting proposals so far. Several parties have suggested that the FCC gather broadband speed availability by address. That sounds like the ultimate database, but there are numerous reasons why this is not practical.

The other recommendation is a 3-stage process recommended by NCTA. First, data would be collected by polygon shapefiles. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but I assume it means using smaller geographic footprints than census blocks. Collecting the same data as today using a smaller footprint ought to be more accurate. Second, and the best idea I’ve heard suggested, is to allow people to challenge the data in the mapping database. I’ve been suggesting that for several years. Third, NCTA wants to focus on pinpointing unserved areas. I’m not sure what that means, but perhaps it means creating shapefiles to match the different availability of speeds.

These ideas might provide better broadband maps than we have today, but I’m guessing they will still have big problems. The biggest issue with trying to map broadband speeds is that many of the broadband technologies in use vary widely in actual performance in the field.

  • Consider DSL. We’ve always known that DSL performance decreases with distance from a DSL base station. However, DSL performance is not as simple as that. DSL also varies for other reasons like the size of the gauge of copper at a customer or the quality of the copper. Next door neighbors can have a significantly different DSL experience if they have different size wires in their copper drops, or if the wires at one of the homes have degraded over time. DSL also differs by technology. A telco might operate different DSL technologies out of the same central office and see different performance from ADSL versus VDSL. There really is no way for a telco to predict the DSL speed available at a home without installing it and testing the actual speed achieved.
  • Fixed wireless and fixed cellular broadband have similar issues. Just like DSL, the strength of a signal from a wireless transmitter decreases over distance. However, distance isn’t the only issue and things like foliage affect a wireless signal. Neighbors might have a very different fixed wireless experience if one has a maple tree and the other has a pine tree in the front yard. To really make it difficult to define the speed, the speeds on wireless systems are affected to some degree by precipitation, humidity and temperature. Anybody who’s ever lived with fixed wireless broadband understands this variability. WISPs these days also use multiple spectrum blocks, and so the speed delivered at any given time is a function of the particular mix of spectrum being used.

Regardless of the technology being used, one of the biggest issues affecting broadband speeds is the customer home. Customers (or ISPs) might be using outdated and obsolete WiFi routers or modems (like Charter did for many years in upstate New York). DSL speeds are just as affected by the condition of the inside copper wiring as the outdoor wiring. The edge broadband devices can also be an issue – when Google Fiber first offered gigabit fiber in Kansas City almost nobody owned a computer capable of handling that much speed.

Any way we try to define broadband speeds – even by individual home – is going to still be inaccurate. Trying to map broadband speeds is a perfect example of trying to fit a round peg in a square hole. It’s obvious that we can do a better job of this than we are doing today. I pity a fixed wireless ISP if they are somehow required to report broadband speeds by address, or even by a small polygon. They only know the speed at a given address after going to the roof of a home and measuring it.

The more fundamental issue here is that we want to use the maps for two different policy purposes. One goal is to be able to count the number of households that have broadband available. The improved mapping ideas will improve this counting function – within all of the limitations of the technologies I described above.

But mapping is a dreadful tool when we use it to start drawing lines on a map defining which households can get grant money to improve their broadband. At that point the mapping is no longer a theoretical exercise and a poorly drawn line will block homes from getting better broadband. None of the mapping ideas will really fix this problem and we need to stop using maps when awarding grants. It’s so much easier to decide that faster technology is better than slower technology. For example, grant money ought to be available for anybody that wants to replace DSL on copper with fiber. I don’t need a map to know that is a good idea. The grant process can use other ways to prioritize areas with low customer density without relying on crappy broadband maps.

We need to use maps only for what they are good for – to get an idea of what is available in a given area. Mapping is never going to be accurate enough to use to decide which customers can or cannot get better broadband.

Regulatory Sleight of Hand

I was looking through a list of ideas for blogs and noticed that I had never written about the FCC’s odd decision to reclassify commercial mobile broadband as private mobile broadband service in WC Docket No. 17-108 – The Restoring Internet Freedom order that was used to kill net neutrality and to eliminate Title II regulation of broadband. There was so much industry stir about those larger topics that the reclassification of the regulatory nature of mobile broadband went largely unnoticed at the time by the press.

The reclassification was extraordinary in the history of FCC regulation because it drastically changed the definition of one of the major industries regulated by the agency. In 1993 the Congress had enacted regulatory amendments to Section 332 of the FCC’s rules to clarify the regulation for the rapidly burgeoning cellular industry.

At that time there were about 16 million cellular subscribers that used the public switched telephone network (PSTN) and another two million private cell phones that used private networks primarily for corporate dispatch. Congress made a distinction between the public and private use of cellular technology and coined the term CMRS (Commercial Mobile Radio Service) to define the public service we still use today for making telephone calls on cell phones. That congressional act defined CMRS service as having three characteristics: a) the service is for profit, b) it’s available to the entire public, and c) it is interconnected to the PSTN. Private mobile service was defined as any cellular service that didn’t meet any one of the three tests.

The current FCC took the extraordinary step of declaring that cellular broadband is private cellular service. The FCC reached this conclusion using what I would call a regulatory sleight-of-hand. Mobile broadband is obviously still for profit and also available to the public, and so the FCC tackled the third test and said that mobile broadband is part of the Internet and not part of the public telephone network. It’s an odd distinction because the path of a telephone call and a data connection from a cellphone is usually identical. A cellphone first delivers the traffic for both services to a nearby cellular tower (or more recently to pole-mounted small cell sites). The traffic for both services is transported from the cell tower using ethernet transport that the industry calls trunking. At some point in the network, likely a switching hub, the voice and data traffic are split and the voice calls continue inside the PSTN while data traffic is peeled off to the Internet. There is no doubt that the user end of every cellular call or cellular data connection uses the network components that are part of the PSTN.

Why did the FCC go through these mental gymnastics? This FCC had two primary goals of this particular order. First, they wanted to kill the net neutrality rules established by the prior FCC in 2015. Second, they wanted to do this in such a way as to make it extremely difficult for a future FCC to reverse the decision. They ended up with a strategy of declaring that broadband is not a Title II service. Title II refers to the set of rules established by the Telecommunications Act of 1934 that was intended as the framework for regulating common carriers. Until the 2017 FCC order, most of the services we think of as telecommunications – landline telephone, cellular telephones, and broadband – were all considered as common carrier services. The current FCC strategy was to reclassify landline and mobile broadband as a Title I information service and essentially wash their hands from regulating broadband at all.

Since net neutrality rules applied to both landline and mobile data services, the FCC needed to first decree that mobile data was not a public and commercial service before they could remove it from Title II regulation.

The FCC’s actions defy logic and it’s clear that mobile data still meets the definition of a CMRS service. It was an interesting tactic by the FCC and probably the only way they could have removed mobile broadband from Title II regulation. However, they also set themselves up for some interesting possibilities from the court review of the FCC order. For example, a court might rule that mobile broadband is a CMRS service and drag it back under Title II regulation while at the same time upholding the FCC’s reclassification of landline broadband.

Why does this matter? Regulatory definitions matter because the regulatory process relies on an accumulated body of FCC orders and court cases that define the actual nature of regulating a given service. Congress generally defines regulation at a high level and later FCC decisions and court cases better define issues that are disputed. When something gets reclassified in this extreme manner, most of the relevant case law and precedents go out the window. That means we start over with a clean slate and much that was adjudicated in the past will likely have to be adjudicated again, but now based upon the new classification. I can’t think of any time in our industry where regulators decided to arbitrarily redefine the basic nature of a major industry product. We are on new regulatory ground, and that means uncertainty, which is never good for the industry.

New European Copyright Laws

I’ve always kept an eye on European Union regulations because anything that affects big web companies or ISPs in Europe always ends up bleeding over into the US. Recently the EU has been contemplating new rules about online copyrights, and in September the European Parliament took the first step by approving two new sets of copyright rules.

Article 11 is being referred to as a link tax. This legislation would require that anybody that carries headlines or snippets of longer articles online must pay a fee to the creator of the original content. Proponents of Article 11 argue that big companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter are taking financial advantage of content publishers by listing headlines of news articles with no compensation for the content creators. They argue that these snippets are one of the primary reasons that people use social media and they browse articles suggested by their friends. Opponents of the new law argue that it will be extremely complicated for a web service to track the millions of headlines listed by users and that they will react to this rule by only allowing headline snippets from large publishers. This would effectively shut small or new content creators from gaining access to the big platforms – articles would be from only a handful of content sources rather than from tens of thousands of them.

Such a law would certainly squash small content originators like this blog. Many readers find my daily blog articles via short headlines that are posted on Twitter and Linked-In every time I release a blog or when one of my readers reposts a blog. It’s extremely unlikely that the big web platforms would create a relationship with somebody as small as me and I’d lose my primary way to distribute content on the web. I guess, perhaps, that the WordPress platform where I publish could make arrangements with the big web services – otherwise their value as a publishing platform would be greatly diminished.

This would also affect me as a user. I mostly follow other people in the telecom and the rural broadband space by browsing through my feed on Twitter and LinkedIn to see what those folks are finding to be of interest. I skip over the majority of headlines and snippets, but I stop and read news articles I find of interest. The beauty of these platforms is that I automatically select the type of content I get to browse by deciding who I want to follow on the platforms. If the people I follow on Twitter can’t post small and obscure articles, then I would have no further interest in being on Twitter.

The second law, Article 13 is being referred to as the upload filter law. Article 13 would make a web platform liable for any copyright infringements for content posted by users. This restriction would theoretically not apply to content posted by users as long as they are acting non-commercially.

No one is entirely sure how the big web platforms would react to this law. At one extreme a platform like Facebook or Reddit might block all postings of content, such as video or pictures, for which the user can’t show ownership. This would mean the end of memes and kitten videos and much of the content posted by most Facebook users.

At the other extreme, this might mean that the average person could post such links since they have no commercial benefit from posting a cute cat video. But the law could stop commercial users from posting content that is not their own – a movie reviewer might not be able to include pictures or snippets from a film in a review. I might not be able to post a link to a Washington Post article as CCG Consulting but perhaps I could post it as an individual. While I don’t make a penny from this blog, I might be stopped by web platforms from including links to news articles in my blog.

In January the approval process was halted when 11 countries including Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands said they wouldn’t support the final language in these articles. EU law has an interesting difference from US law in that for many EU ordinances each country gets to decide, within reason, how they will implement the law.

The genesis of these laws comes from the observation that the big web companies are making huge money from the content created by others and not fairly compensating content creators. We are seeing a huge crisis for content creators – they used to be compensated through web advertising ‘hits’, but these revenues are disappearing quickly. The EU is trying to rebalance the financial equation and make sure that content creators are fairly compensated – which is the entire purpose of copyright laws.

The legislators are finding out how hard it will be to make this work in the online world. Web platforms will always try to work around laws to minimize payments. The lawyers of the web platforms are going to be cautious and advise the platforms to minimize massive class action suits.

But there has to be a balance. Content creators deserve to be paid for creating content. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, Tumblr, etc. are popular to a large degree because users of the platforms upload content that they didn’t create – the value of the platform is that users get to share things of interest with their friends.

We haven’t heard the end of these efforts and the parties are still looking for language that the various EU members can accept. If these laws eventually pass they will raise the same questions here because the policies adopted by the big web platforms will probably change to match the European laws.

Streamlining Regulations

Jonathan Spalter of USTelecom wrote a recent blog calling on Congress to update regulations for the telecom industry. USTelecom is a lobbying arm representing the largest telcos, but which also still surprisingly has a few small telco members. I found the tone of the blog interesting, in that somebody who didn’t know our industry would read the blog and think that the big telcos are suffering under crushing regulation.

Nothing could be further from the truth. We currently have an FCC that seems to be completely in the pocket of the big ISPs. The current FCC walked in the door with the immediate goal to kill net neutrality, and in the process decided to completely deregulate the broadband industry. The American public hasn’t really grasped yet that ISPs are now unfettered to endlessly raise broadband prices and to engage in network practices that benefit the carriers instead of customers. Deregulation of broadband has to be the biggest regulatory giveaway in the history of the country.

Spalter goes on to praise the FCC for its recent order on poles that set extremely low rates for wireless pole connections and which lets wireless carriers place devices anywhere in the public rights-of-way. He says that order brought “fairness’ to the pole attachment process when in fact the order was massively unbalanced in favor of cellular companies and squashes any local input or authority over rights-of-ways – something that has always been a local prerogative. It’s ironic to see USTelecom praising fairness for pole attachments when their members have been vehemently trying to stop Google Fiber and others from gaining access to utility poles.

To be fair, Spalter isn’t completely wrong and there are regulations that are out of date. Our last major telecom legislation was in 1996, at a time when dial-up Internet access was spreading across the country. The FCC regulatory process relies on rules set by Congress, and since the FCC hasn’t acted since 1996, Spalter accuses Congress of having “a reckless abdication of government responsibility”.

I find it amusing that the number one regulation that USTelecom most dislikes is the requirement for the big telcos make their copper wires available to other carriers. That requirement of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was probably the most important factor in encouraging other companies to compete against the monopoly telephone companies. In the years immediately after the 1996 Act, competitors ordered millions of wholesale unbundled network elements on the telco copper networks.

There are still competitors that using the telco copper to provide far better broadband than the telcos are willing to do, so we need to keep these regulations as long as copper remains hanging on poles. I would also venture a guess that the telcos are making more money selling this copper to the competitors than they would make if the competitors went away – the public is walking away from telco DSL in droves.

I find it curious that the telcos keep harping on this issue. In terms of the total telco market the sale of unbundled elements is a mere blip on the telco books. This is the equivalent to a whale complaining about a single barnacle on his belly. But the big telcos never miss an opportunty to harp about the issue and have been working hard to eliminate sale of copper to competitors since the passage of the 1996 Act. This is not a real issue for the telcos – they just have never gotten over the fact that they lost a regulatory battle in 1996 and they are still throwing a hissy fit over that loss.

The reality is that big telcos are less regulated than ever before. Most states have largely deregulated telephone service. The FCC completely obliterated broadband regulation. While there are still cable TV regulations, the big telcos like AT&T are bypassing those regulations by moving video online. The big telcos have already won the regulatory war.

There are always threats of new regulation – but the big telcos always lobby against new rules far in advance to weaken any new regulations. For example, they are currently supporting a watered-down set of privacy rules that won’t afford much protection of customer data. They have voiced support for a watered-down set of net neutrality rules that doesn’t obligate them to change their network practices.

It’s unseemly to see USTelecom railing against regulation after the telcos have already been so successful in shedding most regulations. I guess they want to strike while the iron is hot and are hoping to goad Congress and the FCC into finishing the job by killing all remaining regulation. The USTelcom blog is a repeat of the same song and dance they’ve been repeating since I’ve been in the industry – which boils down to, “regulation is bad”. I didn’t buy this story forty years ago and I still don’t buy it today.

The American Broadband Initiative

On February 13 the Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross led a group of more than 20 federal agencies in announcing what the administration is calling the American Broadband Initiative (ABI). The stated purpose of this initiative is to promote broadband deployment. This was accompanied by this Milestones Report that lists numerous specific federal initiatives and associated timelines. The stated purpose of the ABI is to streamline the federal permitting process and to leverage federal assets to lower the cost of deploying broadband.

Big announcements of this sort are usually mostly for public relations purposes rather than anything useful, and this is no exception. The main purpose of ABI seems to be to show rural America that the federal government cares about the lack of rural broadband. Unfortunately, this kind of PR effort works, as evidenced by a conversation I had with rural politician soon after the ABI announcement who hoped this would mean real movement towards broadband deployment in his region. I felt bad when I told him that I see nothing new or of consequence in the ABI announcement, and nothing that I thought would improve broadband in his area.

This is not to say that there was nothing of importance in the ABI. However, the most important initiatives included in the ABI are repeats of previous announcements. For example, the leading bullet point in the ABI is the announcement of the $600 million e-connectivity grant/loan program – something that everybody in the industry has known about since last fall. There were a few other repeats of past announcement such as the intention to ease the permitting process on federal land.

A lot of the announcements have to do with the permitting for broadband facilities and access to public land, including:

  • The U.S. Department of Interior will make it’s 7,000+ towers available to carriers and will publish a map. Any tall towers in this list are already included in the FCC tower database.
  • The NTIA is creating a web site that will centralize the information needed to get permits to place telecom assets on public land.
  • The GSA is undertaking an effort to document flow charts of the process required to get a permit for the use of federal land or federal towers.
  • The GSA will also tackle simplifying the permitting application forms.
  • The GSA is soliciting comments from the public to identify areas with poor cellular coverage, with the hope that the GSA can then identify public assets that might help alleviate lack of cellular coverage.

There are a few other announcements that could be beneficial such as streamlining the environmental and historic preservations reviews on public properties. Those requirements are a definite roadblock to using public land, but streamlining is not the same thing as eliminating, so I’d have to see what this means in practice to know if this is an actual improvement.

I have no doubt that these efforts will help a few broadband projects. However, federal lands tend to be lightly populated and I have to wonder how many broadband projects want to use federal lands? In the hundreds of broadband projects I’ve been involved in I can count on one hand the times when federal rights-of-way were an issue.

There is one situation this could be a benefit – the siting of antennas on top of federal buildings. In many small towns the court house is the tallest structure and has largely been unavailable to wireless providers. But until I see this work easily in real life I’m going to remain skeptical.

The ABI report is mostly fluff. It seems obvious that all cabinet agencies were asked to provide a list of ways they can help broadband, and they all scrambled to come up with something to report. While a few of the announced initiatives might help a handful of projects, for the most part the initiatives listed in the ABI aren’t going to help anybody. If the administration really wanted to help brpadband, they can create grant programs that don’t have forced ties to RUS loans than many ISPs can’t accept, or they would eliminate the inane requirement that federal grants can only be used where homes don’t have 10/1 Mbps speeds.

The Cost of Siting Small Cells

One of the more unusual things ordered by the current FCC was setting a low cap on local fees that a City can charge to review an application for placing a small cell site. The FCC capped the application fee at up to $500 for a request to up to five small cell sites and $100 per site after that. The FCC also set a cap of $270 for an annual fee to use the rights-of-way for each small cell site.

Cities have an option to charge a more and can bill a ‘reasonable approximation’ of actual costs, but a City can expect a legal fight from wireless carriers for fees that are much higher than the FCC caps.

It’s worth looking back at the history of the issue. Wireless carriers complained to the FCC that they were being charged exorbitant fees to put equipment on utility poles in the public rights-of-way. The wireless carriers cited examples of having to pay north of $10,000 per small cell site. In most cases, fees have been far smaller than that, but citing the worst examples gave cover to the FCC for capping fees.

However, some of the examples of high fees cited by the carriers were for installations that would not be considered as a small cell. I’ve seen applications requests for hanging devices the size of a refrigerator on poles and also placing large cabinet on the sidewalk under a pole. The FCC acknowledged this in their order and set a size limit on what constitutes a small cell as a device occupying something less than 28 cubic feet.

It’s worth noting that much of the FCC’s order for small cell sites are under appeal. The most controversial issues being challenged are aspects of the order that stripped cities of the ability to set local rules on what can and cannot be hung on poles. The FCC basically said that cellular carriers are free to do what they want anywhere in the public rights-of-way and cities are arguing that the order violates the long-standing precedent that rights-of-ways issues should be decided locally.

Communities all over the country are upset with the idea that they have to allow a small cell site any place that the carriers want to put one. There are also active citizen’s groups protesting the implementation of millimeter wave cell sites due to public health concerns. A lot of the prominent radio scientists from around the world have warned of the potential public health consequences for prolonged exposure to the millimeter wave spectrum – similar to the spectrum used in airport scanners, but which would be broadcast continuously from poles in front of homes. There is also a lot of concern that carriers that hang millimeter wave transmitters are going to want aggressive tree trimming to maintain lines-of-sight to homes. Finally, there are concerns about the wild proliferation of devices if multiple wireless providers install devices on the same street.

The cap on local fees has already been implemented and cities are now obligated to charge the low rates unless they undertake the effort (and the likely legal fight) for setting higher fees. It is the setting of low fees that is the most puzzling aspect of the FCC order. It seems that the FCC has accepted the wireless carrier’s claim that high fees would kill the deployment of 5G small cell sites everywhere.

I live in a city that is probably pretty typical and that has an application process and inspectors for a huge range of processes, from building inspection, restaurant inspections, electrical and gas installation inspections and inspections of anything that disturbs a city street surface or is hung in the public rights-of-way. The city takes a strong position in assuring that the public rights-of-way are maintained in a way that provides the best long-term opportunity for the many uses of the rights-of-way. They don’t let any utility or entity take steps that make it harder for the next user to gain the needed access.

The $100 fee is to compensate the city for processing the application for access, to survey the site of the requested access and to then inspect that the wireless carrier really did what they promised and didn’t create unsafe conditions or physical hindrances in the right-of-way. It’s hard to think that $100 will compensate any city for the effort required. It will be interesting to see how many cities acquiesce to the low FCC rates instead of fighting to implement fair rates. Cities know that fights with carriers can be costly and they may not be willing to tackle the issue. But they also need to realize that the wireless carriers could pepper their rights-of-ways with devices that are likely to hang in place for decades. If they don’t tackle the issue up front they will have no latitude later to rectify small cell sites that were hung incorrectly or unsafely. I’ve attended hundreds of city council meetings and have always been amazed at the huge number of different issues that local politicians have to deal with. This is just one more issue added to that long list, and it will be understandable if many cities acquiesce to the low fees.

Excess Dark Fiber

A few weeks ago I wrote about a recommendation from one of the BDAC subcommittees to expand the base for the fees collected to fund the Universal Service Fund. BDAC is the acronym for the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committees created by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to advise on ideas to promote better broadband.

That BDAC subcommittee is the one that is tasked with developing Model State Codes – ideas for states to consider in legislation. The subcommittee came up with another real doozy of an idea. In their latest draft report to the FCC in Article 4 – Rights to Access to Existing Network Support Infrastructure,  the group suggests that broadband could be more affordably expanded if excess fiber built by municipalities was made available to commercial providers for cheap prices.

The BDAC subcommittee suggests that any excess municipal fiber that is not in a 50-year fiber plan must be made available for lease to other carriers. The group also oddly proposes that this would also apply to municipal buildings, I guess to save carriers from having to build huts. I can think of a hundred reasons why forcing government buildings to house carriers is an extremely dumb idea, but let’s look closer at the fiber idea.

The BDAC suggestion clearly comes from the big ISPs who would love to get their hands onto municipal fiber for a bargain price. The way I know that the idea comes from the big ISPs is that they are suggesting that this would only be applied to municipal fiber. If the group had been looking for ways to improve broadband deployment they would have expanded this idea to include all excess dark fiber, regardless of the owner.

I always hear that one of the reasons we don’t have more fiber-to-the-home is that there is not enough fiber already in our communities. I don’t think that’s true. If I look at my city of Asheville, NC I would bet there is already fiber within a quarter mile of everybody in the City. The City might own fiber to connect schools or other government buildings. There is probably some fiber that supports public-safety networks and traffic lights. The incumbent cable company and telco deploys fiber to get to neighborhood nodes. There is fiber built to reach to large businesses. There’s fiber built to get to cellular towers. There is certainly fiber built to places like our large regional hospital complex, the universities, and various federal government office buildings. There is fiber owned by the electric company, and perhaps also by the gas and water companies. And as a regional hub at the nexus of a few major highways, there is likely long-haul fiber passing through here on the way to somewhere else, plus NCDOT fiber used for more local uses.

I’m positive that if all of this fiber was mapped that Asheville would look like a fiber-rich City – as would many places. Even rural counties often have a surprising amount of existing fiber that satisfies these same kinds of purposes. Yet most existing fiber was built to satisfy a single purpose and isn’t available for all of the other ways that fiber could benefit a community. Asheville might be fiber rich, but that fiber is off-limits to somebody interested in building fiber-to-the-home.

That’s the implied justification for the BDAC suggestion – that excess fiber shouldn’t sit idle if it could benefit better broadband. That’s also the basis for my suggestion of expanding this concept to all fiber, not just to government fiber. If AT&T builds a 24-fiber cable to a cell tower and will never use more than a few strands, then why shouldn’t they be required to sell the excess fiber capacity for cheap if it benefits the community?

The idea of forcing big ISPs to make fiber available is not a new one. In the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress required the big telcos to unbundle their excess dark fiber and make it available to anybody. However, the telcos actively resisted that order and began immediately to petition the FCC to soften the requirement, and as a consequence, very little dark fiber has ever been provided to others. I helped a few dozen companies try to get access to telco dark fiber and only a few succeeded. However, Congress was on the right track by recognizing that idle dark fiber is a valuable asset that could benefit the larger community.

I wrote a blog a few weeks back that talked about how Romania has the best broadband in Europe based upon hundreds of small ISPs that have built fiber just in their immediate neighborhood. I think that if all of the excess fiber capacity in a city was made available that it would unleash all sorts of creative entrepreneurs to do similar things. I know I would consider building a fiber network in my own neighborhood if there was a way for me to backhaul to a larger partner ISP.

However, the BDAC suggestion is not quite as altruistic as it might sound – the BDAC subcommittee is not worried that the public is missing out on the benefits from excess dark fiber. Remember that the big ISPs largely control the BDAC committees and I think this suggestion comes from AT&T and Comcast that want to punish any city with the audacity to build fiber to compete with them. This requirement would allow the big ISPs to take advantage of those competitive networks to effectively squash municipal competition.

But we shouldn’t let the vindictive nature of the suggestion erase the larger concept. I’ve rarely gotten a chance in our industry to say that, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander” – but this is that opportunity. The BDAC has correctly identified the fact that broadband deployment would be easier everywhere if we could unleash the capacity of unused dark fiber. The BDAC subcommittee just didn’t take this idea to the natural conclusion by applying it to all existing fiber. I’m certain that if a state embraced applying this concept to all fiber that we’d see the big ISP screaming about confiscation of capital – which is exactly what it is.