New Privacy Law in California

The State of California often leads the country in addressing regulatory issues. This makes sense since the State has a population of nearly 40 million and an economy that would be the fifth largest in the world if California were a separate country.

There was a new law enacted on the last day of the California Legislature was signed by Governor Gavin Newson this month. The bill makes it easier for people who want to scrub information about themselves from the Internet. The State passed privacy legislation in 2018 that gives people the right to ask companies to remove personal information from the Internet or databases. However, it turns out that the process of extracting one’s identity from the Internet is a lot of work, and in many cases is nearly impossible.

One of the main problems is that there is now a huge industry of companies that make a living selling and reselling personal data. One of the provisions of the California privacy law in 2018 was that data brokers had to register with the State if they sell information on California citizens. Over 500 companies are now registered as data brokers on the California Attorney General’s website. Some are well-known companies like credit bureaus, but most are companies that the public has never heard of. Many data brokers are specialists who work for marketing companies, politicians, large corporations, or law enforcement.

The new law is Senate Bill 362 – Data Broker Registration: Accessible Deletion Mechanism, and was sponsored by Senator Josh Becker of Menlo Park. The purpose of the law is to make it easier for folks to decouple from the Internet. The new law would allow consumers to make a single request to be removed from the Internet and databases – a web version of the Do Not Call List for telephone calling. Data brokers would have to respond quickly to such a request and would have to recheck their databases every month to make sure that personal information isn’t reposted.

Privacy advocates are calling this a landmark law that gives rights to the public to take control of their own data and to stop other companies from monetizing data about them.

Of course, the data brokers had a long list of reasons why the law shouldn’t be enacted. They say that this would slow down the process of people being verified when they go to a new website. They claim this would starve non-profits by cutting them off from databases of likely donors. They claim that it would make it harder for law enforcement to investigate people. They warn that people who ask to be removed from the lists won’t like the consequences.

Obviously, the legislators thought differently. In the discussions leading to the passage of the bill, there were discussions about how companies can now buy tracking data from our cellphones to keep track of where we are, what we do, and where we shop. They say that the databases allow people to stalk others, including the possibility that folks with strong political views can track their opponents.

Some data about all of us is already public. Things like voting registration, home ownership, and other interfaces with governments are public. What a lot of folks find troubling is that data brokers also buy information from credit card companies, ISPs, telephone companies, and other sources of information that most people do not want to be openly shared.

Generally, laws that start in California eventually get discussed and considered elsewhere. I’m guessing that this is something that the public will really like. I’ll be honest – just knowing that there are over 500 data brokers sharing our data makes me uneasy.


A Tale of Two Markets

I wrote a blog the other day that got me thinking about the huge disparity in regulating two distinct but highly intertwined industries – broadband and voice. Before you stop reading because you might think voice is no longer relevant, voice regulation includes the cellular business, and in terms of revenue, the voice market is larger than broadband. JD Powers reported in April of this year that the average household is spending $144 for cellular per month.

I call these industries intertwined because the players at the top of both industries are the same. The big ISPs are Comcast, Charter, AT&T, and Verizon. The biggest voice players are AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile. Comcast and Charter are making aggressive moves to develop a wireless business, and T-Mobile is aggressively selling broadband.

The two markets are intertwined in a household. Most people connect their cell phones directly to landline broadband when they are home. The primary use for cell phones is to connect to the Internet. My twenty-something daughter is amazed that I predominantly use my cell phone to actually talk to people.

This handful of giant companies control the lion’s shares of both the voice and broadband industries. Yet we’ve decided to regulate the two business lines completely differently. You must admit that this it’s an odd national decision to regulate AT&T’s voice business but not its broadband business, particularly considering how intertwined the two businesses are. Comcast and Charter are proof of the link between the two industries since the companies will only sell cellular plans to customers who are buying broadband.

A regulatory expert from another country would look at the U.S. regulatory environment with incredulity. They would instantly wonder how we can treat the two industries so differently since they engage in such similar business lines, particularly since the same companies lead both markets.

The average American has no idea of how differently we treat the two industries and would be just as confused as a foreign regulator expert. It’s really hard to explain the difference in regulations since that quickly devolves into a discussion of things like Title II regulation, and the average person listening will quickly have no idea what you are talking about.

The easiest way to explain the difference in regulation is that we don’t regulate according to common sense but base regulation on the original legislation that established regulations for each industry. Voice is still regulated because, in the past, various pieces of federal legislation, like the Telecommunications Act of 1996, specifically mention voice. There were also laws that specifically defined how to regulate cable TV – but there has never been a definitive legislative declaration that broadband must be regulated.

This all started when interest in home broadband mushroomed. AOL, CompuServe, and others created a robust ISP industry that took off rapidly when DSL and cable modems increased speed to the point that people could do useful things with broadband. In those early days, there was a lot of discussion about regulating broadband, but the consensus among legislators was that regulators should leave the fledgling new broadband industry alone until it grew large enough. No doubt, this hands-off approach was whispered into the ears of legislators by lobbyists for the big ISPs.

With no direction from Congress, the FCC and various States tried to find ways to regulate broadband over the last few decades. But as hard as it is to believe, we weren’t even able to define what broadband is without legislative direction – is broadband a telecommunications service or an information service? All of the wrangling about regulating broadband ultimately comes down to this simple designation.

Regulation gets really bizarre the deeper you go into the details. Cell phones calls are regulated for voice, but the broadband on a cellphone is considered to be an information service. What is the regulatory regime of a cell phone call that is handed off to a broadband network through WiFi but then eventually reconnected with the cellular network? The average cell phone user regularly bounces between regulated and unregulated functions.

The title of the blog refers to A Tale of Two Cities, which opened with, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness”. That’s as good of a description of our odd regulatory environment as anything else I can think of.


New FCC Role – Device Security

Depending upon the survey you believe, U.S. homes have an average of thirteen to twenty-two connected devices in their home. That can range from computers, TVs, security cameras, game boxes, baby monitors – it’s a huge list these days.  A concern for anybody with connected devices is that somebody will hack them and cause problems in the home. I’ve seen many articles that describe how people have hacked home cameras to watch families or hijacked computers for various nefarious reasons.

The White House announced a new initiative in July that would create a certification for connected devices that meet cyber safety standards. The authority to handle this program was given to the FCC. Being labeled as the U.S. Cyber Trust Mark, device makers can send devices to the FCC to be certified as meeting basic security standards. This is similar to the Energy Star efficiency sticker that comes with home appliances.

This is a voluntary program for device makers, but the hope is that companies will seek the approval label to be able to more easily market their products.

The next step for the FCC will be to open a rulemaking to determine the devices that are eligible for the certification and the standards that must be met. During the announcement of the initiative, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel mentioned devices that might apply, like smart refrigerators, microwaves, thermostats, fitness trackers, and baby monitors. It’s likely that many other kinds of devices will be added to the list. The FCC says it will work closely with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to create the cyber standards.

NIST has developed a Profile of the IoT Core Baseline for Consumer IoT Products. That NIST document says that connected devices should have features like the following:

  • A clear way to identify the specific device, such as a device serial number.
  • The ability to change the configuration of a device and to be able to reset it to the default security settings.
  • Devices should protect stored data and encrypt or otherwise secure transmitted data.
  • A device should give access to settings only to authorized users.
  • A device should have the ability to receive, verify, and apply software updates.
  • A device should be cybersecurity aware and have the ability to detect and capture evidence of any changes to software or security settings.
  • Manufacturers of connected devices should have full documentation of the security measures present.
  • The product developer should be able to receive and respond to queries about cybersecurity from device users.

Security experts have been making similar recommendations for many years and have requested that the government create and enforce standards. Since Congress has never passed a law about device security, a voluntary process sounds like a good first step to get this started.

Chairman Rosenworcel said she hoped the agency could develop standards by the end of 2024. The proceeding to determine how this should work ought to be interesting reading.

Like with everything at the FCC, I have to wonder how this gets funded. I would expect that the fees charged to those seeking the certification would cover the cost.


The Need for Mid-Band Spectrum

5G Americas recently released its annual white paper discussing the lack of activity at the FCC in making more mid-band spectrum available for cellular broadband. The group is made up of large cellular carriers and various vendors or other companies associated with the cellular business.

Midband spectrum is an industry-defined term for the spectrum between 1 GHz and 7 GHz spectrum. This is the sweet spot for cellular broadband because these bands of spectrum can cover the distances needed for cell phone data along and carry a decent amount of bandwidth.

The paper laments that are no actions currently at the FCC to consider any new bands of spectrum in the range for cellular data. This is a concern for the cellular industry because it takes many years to open up a frequency for a new use. All parts of mid-band spectrum are currently in use. Any plan to free existing spectrum for cellular use means either relocating the current users to a different frequency or finding a way to accommodate them to coexist with cellular carriers.

The report does a great job of looking at the status of each mid-band spectrum block. Reading through the uses, it becomes quickly apparent that a lot of these spectrum bands are reserved for the U.S. government and includes uses like air traffic control, commercial and military radar, airplane altimeters, and numerous military applications.

I’m always instantly leery of any statistics, but the paper cites a report by Ericsson that the worldwide demand for cellular data is growing at 40% annually. Even if that number is true, I have to imagine that most of the increased demand comes in third-world countries where cellular is the predominant way to use the Internet and where the technology in many networks is still far behind what we have here. This statistic feels like a scare tactic, because 40% growth per year would mean a doubling of network demand every 2.5 years. If that growth was true in the U.S., we’d have heard a lot more about this growth outside of this whitepaper.

But I don’t know anybody who doesn’t think that we’ll eventually need more spectrum for mobile services. All uses of broadband keep growing, and it’s not hard to look out ten and twenty years and see a much larger demand for using wireless spectrum.

The report includes one statistic that I hadn’t seen anywhere else. It says that at the end of 2022 that North America had 108 million connections on the spectrum carriers have labeled as 5G and 506 connections that are still using 4G LTE. The initial goal for using the new mid-band 5G spectrum was to de-load 4G networks – the goal was never to move everybody to 5G. I would have expected more users of the 5G spectrum bands, but there still are a lot of cell sites that have not been upgraded to the 5G spectrum.

I think cellular carriers are going to have a challenge making their case to the public. The carriers have done a magnificent job, at least in cities, of increasing cellular speeds. According to the latest report from Ookla, the median nationwide download speed in March 2023 was over 81 Mbps, with speeds in cities over 100 Mbps.

It’s going to be more of a challenge since cellular carriers have lost some credibility with the public and politicians. They badly needed additional spectrum five years ago, but rather than openly plead that case, the carriers invented an imaginary 5G war with China and convinced the public that giving them more spectrum would transform the world. The dilemma for cellular companies now is that it’s clear that most of the public isn’t willing to spend more to get faster cellular speeds. There is no public outcry supporting more spectrum for cellular companies.

But the public has a short memory. Five years ago, a lot of markets were having huge cellular problems. It was so bad in some places that it was getting hard to make and hold mobile voice calls. The new spectrum bands that we’re labeling as 5G had a big role in solving that problem. As this whitepaper argues, we don’t want to wait until the networks degrade to have the conversation again.


Buy America and BEAD

In the State of the Union speech earlier this year, President Biden made it clear that he wants to see the monies spent on infrastructure projects follow the Buy America rules. The Buy America rules were enacted in 1933. The Act says that purchasing funded by the U.S. government should have a preference for using American-made products. The rules allow for waivers from this provision, but the presumption is that without a waiver that American goods must be used.

The NTIA reacted to the president’s speech by writing a blog talking about the use of the Buy America rules in the upcoming $42.5 billion BEAD grants. The blog states, “The president made clear that while Buy America has been the law of the land since 1933, too many administrations have found ways to skirt its requirements. We will not.”

The NTIA requested waivers from Buy America rules when administering past grant programs, including the recent $1 billion middle-mile grants. The USDA sought a 6-month waiver of these rules that applied to some earlier rounds of the ReConnect grants. But the NTIA has made it clear that it doesn’t see any need for a waiver to buy American fiber optic glass or cable. The NTIA says there should be sufficient time for manufacturers to re-shore or expand U.S. manufacturing to meet the demands from the BEAD grants.

In the requested waiver for the Middle Mile Grant Program, the NTIA identified components of a fiber network that are sourced almost exclusively in Asia. This includes electronics like broadband switching equipment, broadband routing equipment, dense wave division multiplexing transport equipment, and broadband access equipment. It doesn’t seem likely that U.S. vendors are going to step up to create an American source for these components in time to meet the needs of the BEAD grants. And while the BEAD grants are substantial, they are not alone enough inducement to manufacture these goods in this country.

The market reality is that most of the costs of any broadband grant project will be spent on American inputs. The cost of labor is usually the largest component of network costs, and the grants require this work be done by American firms. As the NTIA points out, there are plenty of sources for American fiber and conduit. There are American sources of cabinets, huts, and enclosures. There are American vendors making handholes and pedestals.

But the sticky item is going to be electronics. If the NTIA plays hardball on fiber electronics, it will be nearly impossible that any ISP can fulfill the Buy American provision. I’m not as familiar with where wireless electronics are manufactured, but I assume that WISPs have a lot of the same concerns. Electronics are a relatively tiny slice of the total cost of a fiber network but a larger percentage for a new wireless network. .

The arbiter of the Buy American rules is the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which recently solicited nationwide comments about how firmly the Buy American rules should be enforced for projects that will be funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. There is a possibility that the OMB will be stingy with waivers even if the NTIA asks for them, but that’s a bridge that can’t be crossed until it happens.

What’s most disturbing is that this joins a list of other issues that create a lot of uncertainty for ISPs considering the BEAD grants. If we don’t start clearing up the uncertainties, states might find that the ISPs they are hoping will request grants will sit out the BEAD grants. ISPs are naturally attracted to grants, but not if the hurdles are too hard to overcome.


Household Broadband Usage Up Again for 2022

OpenVault published its end of year 2022 Broadband Insights Report that shows that average broadband usage continues to grow.

The average household broadband usage has grown to an astounding 586.7 gigabytes per month. Comparing this to earlier years shows an ever-upward trend of broadband usage.

Usage Growth % Growth
2018 270.2 GB
2019 344.0 GB 74 GB 27%
2020 482.6 GB 139 GB 40%
2021 536.3 GB 54 GB 11%
2022 586.7 GB 50 GB 9%

The average usage numbers are probably the most interesting statistic published by OpenVault. It would have been hard at the end of 2018 to find anybody who would have confidently predicted that in only four years that households would routinely be using 217% more broadband every month. These statistics also show the extraordinary impact of how the pandemic impacted broadband usage. It’s easily understandable how usage skyrocketed in 2020 when everybody was at home. But perhaps more extraordinary is that usage didn’t drop off as life returned to normal – broadband usage has continued to climb.

What OpenVault calls power users continues to climb. 18.7% of homes used more than 1 terabyte per month at the end of 2022, including 3.4% of households that used more than 2 terabytes. That’s a lot of homes that are surpassing the gigabyte data caps imposed by some ISPs.

The trend of homes subscribing to faster speeds is also continuing. Much of this increase comes from ISPs that have upped the speed on existing broadband products – but it’s obvious in looking at the numbers that people are also electing to upgrade to faster broadband packages. An extraordinary 26% of homes are now subscribing to gigabit or faster broadband speeds.

Subscribers 4Q 2020 4Q 2021 4Q 2022
Under 50 Mbps 12.4% 9.4% 6.8%
50 – 99 Mbps 9.1% 7.6% 12.7%
100 – 199 Mbps 50.6% 36.9% 11.3%
200 – 499 Mbps 15.8% 28.5% 32.8%
500 – 999 Mbps 3.7% 5.5% 10.4%
1 Gbps+ 8.5% 12.2% 26.0%

OpenVault also compared upload and download usage. The average home now uploads 35.3 gigabytes per month and downloads 551.4 gigabytes.

OpenVault says the average download speed achieved across the U.S. is 415 Mbps, and the average upload speed is 25 Mbps. While the FCC doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to change the definition of broadband, the reality of the marketplace would suggest that setting the definition of broadband at 100/20 Mbps would be significantly lower than what households are already achieving. Any definition of broadband ought to be at least a little forward looking, so I’m not sure why we aren’t considering that the definition of broadband ought to be something like 500/50 Mbps.

Incredibly, the upcoming $42.5 billion in BEAD grants would allow for the construction of technologies as slow as 100/20 Mbps. Hopefully, State Broadband Offices are noticing these market statistics and will give little consideration to technologies that far below the national average.


My Fiber Bias

I will readily admit that I have a fiber bias when it comes using infrastructure grant funding. This is a policy issue for me and is not limited only to broadband. The federal government is handing out huge once-in-a-lifetime infrastructure grants. I think federal infrastructure grants should be used to build infrastructure that will last as long as possible to create the longest-term public good. I am perplexed when I see cities using ARPA funding to buy firetrucks and computers if that city has big infrastructure deficits for things like water systems or public housing. I obviously have no bias against firetrucks or computers – but they aren’t infrastructure.

My position raises the obvious question of what qualifies as infrastructure. In my mind, infrastructure is an asset with a long useful life. I think everybody would agree that roads, bridges, and water pipes are infrastructure. These are assets that will be useful to the public for a long time.

It’s a little less clear with broadband infrastructure. Conduit is clearly infrastructure, and there is no reason to think that conduit won’t still be functional in a century.

Fiber is a little less clear-cut. I remember when fiber was being constructed in the 1980s, we thought of it as a 40-year asset. There are some fiber routes built in the 80s that are showing wear, but a lot of fiber built in the 1980s is still going strong.

But fiber manufacturing technology has improved significantly since the 80s. Fiber is now much clearer and less likely to grow opaque with age. Fiber today has much tougher outer sheathing. We’ve also learned a lot about fiber installation techniques, and many of the problems that have arisen from older fiber are due to stress placed on the fiber during construction. While the manufacturers won’t go on the record on the useful life of fiber, I’ve been told privately by fiber manufacturing engineers that fiber ought to last 70 or 80 years if installed properly. That sounds like infrastructure.

The biggest weakness of all broadband technologies in terms of longevity is the electronics. This applies equally to fiber and wireless technologies. The conventional wisdom is that most broadband electronics are good for about 10 or 12 years. Part of this is due to true obsolescence, where circuit cards wear out after being used non-stop for a decade. But part of the obsolescence is due to vendors that stop supporting older technology. It becomes harder each year to support a network if vendors aren’t making replacement cards. Everybody that’s owned a broadband network for twenty years can still point to a few pieces of gear that are still chugging along – but for the most part, electronics have to be replaced over time.

If my philosophy is that infrastructure is an asset that lasts for a long time, how do I reconcile any broadband grant with relatively short-lived electronics (at least short-lived on an infrastructure time scale)? I define infrastructure in the same way as lenders. Federal bond rules say that a borrower can’t have a bond term (the years to pay back the loan) that is longer than the average economic life of the assets being funded. A lot of commercial banks have a similar test as part of evaluating infrastructure loans.

What’s the average useful life of a fiber network? Consider the following real-life example of a recent rural fiber project I worked on.

Average Life % of Project
Conduit 100 25%
Fiber 40 – 60 60%
Drops 30 8%
Buildings/Huts 40 3%
Electronics 12 4%

Folks can disagree about the average life of fiber. I’ve been conservative since I think fiber will last longer than shown in the table. If you assume that fiber is good for 40 years, the weighted average useful life of the above network is 53 years. If you assume the average life of fiber is 60 years, the useful life climbs to 65 years. Aerial fiber networks have a lower economic life without conduit, but the range of expected life is still between 37 years and 53 years.

Other broadband technologies have a much shorter economic life. My guess is that the economic life for Starlink is under ten years since the satellites are designed to fall out of orbit by then. There are probably components in satellite base stations that will last longer – but most of the investment is in the satellites.

It’s hard to do the same math and get a useful economic life for the typical fixed wireless network that is higher than 15 years. It is possible to construct a fixed wireless network with a higher average useful life. Well-built towers can easily last 75 years. Fiber backhaul to towers has the same useful life as last-mile fiber. However, my reading of the BEAD grant rules is that it will be difficult to win funding to build towers or middle-mile fiber. A fixed wireless grant that funded towers and fiber would probably pass my infrastructure sniff test.

I can’t begin to estimate the average useful life of an FWA cellular network, but it’s not very long. These are networks that are built to use the excess capacity of cell phone networks and are not constructed just for broadband. When I consider the rapid evolution of cellular technologies, it seems likely that any system built today will be technically obsolete when real 5G standards are finally implemented.

Hybrid-fiber coaxial systems have an average economic life that is about the same as the lower range of fiber network lives. The coaxial wire won’t last as long as fiber, but forty years is a reasonably assumed life for the coax.

The NTIA tried to express the same sentiment as me without defining why. The NTIA said early on, after it was given responsibility for the BEAD grants, that the agency favors fiber. It would have been a lot clearer if the NTIA said instead that it doesn’t support infrastructure grants for projects that don’t have infrastructure useful lives – I think that is what they meant. If the agency had set a definition of infrastructure as projects with a useful life of at least thirty or forty years, we wouldn’t be having the discussion of funding networks with short useful lives.


2022 Was a Year of Change for the Big ISPs

There was a sea change among the big ISPs in 2022. The big news is that most of the growth in the industry came from the T-Mobile and Verizon cellular FWA broadband product. Cable company growth crawled to a halt after a robust 2021, and the sector only grew by 55,000 net broadband customers in the fourth quarter. The big telcos still had small losses for the year, but the big news is that they added 2.4 million customers to fiber during the year.

The following list of ISPs represents about 95% of the U.S. broadband market. The large ISPs, in aggregate, added just over 3.5 million net customers in 2022. The two cellular FWA companies added 3,171,000 of those additions. Cable companies added 517,103 customers for the year, with most of the growth coming at the beginning of the year. The big telcos had a net loss of 181,276 customers but continued to furiously replace DSL with fiber.

The following statistics were compiled by the Leichtman Research Group, which tracks the broadband performance of the largest ISPs in the country. Following are the customers counts for the fourth quarter and the end of year 2022:

% 4Q Annual
4Q 2022 4Q Change Change Change
Comcast 32,151,000 (26,000) -0.1% 250,000
Charter 30,433,000 105,000 0.3% 344,000
AT&T 15,386,000 (66,000) -0.4% (118,000)
Verizon 7,484,000 37,000 0.5% 119,000
Cox 5,560,000 0 0.0% 30,000
Altice 4,282,900 (7,700) -0.2% (103,300)
Lumen 3,037,000 (63,250) -2.0% (253,000)
Frontier 2,839,000 8,000 0.3% 40,000
T-Mobile FWA 2,646,000 524,000 24.7% 2,000,000
Mediacom 1,468,000 0 0.0% 5,000
Verizon FWA 1,452,000 389,000 36.6% 1,171,000
Windstream 1,175,000 0 0.0% 10,300
Cable ONE 1,060,400 (1,600) -0.2% 14,400
Breezeline 693,781 (14,173) -2.0% (22,997)
TDS 510,000 3,500 0.7% 19,700
Consolidated 367,458 (14,454) -3.8% 724
Total 110,545,539 873,323 0.8% 3,506,827
Cable 75,649,081 55,527 0.1% 517,103
Telco 30,798,458 (95,204) -0.3% (181,276)
FWA 4,098,000 913,000 28.7% 3,171,000

There are a lot of interesting trends withing these numbers:

  • T-Mobile is now the 9th largest ISP, and the Verizon FWA product comes in at eleventh. T-Mobile is poised to pass Frontier and Lumen soon at the current growth rate.
  • While all of the landline ISPs on the list are feeling pressure from the cellular FWA product, the bigger and more permanent challenge for the cable companies is the 2.4 million telco customers added to fiber to the year. That statistic shows why cable companies are scrambling to improve upload speeds.
  • The biggest loser on the list continues to be Lumen, which lost 7.7% of its broadband customers for the year. It’s worth noting that the above numbers represent the smaller Lumen after the spinoff of Brightspeed in 2022. Breezeline (Formerly Atlantic Broadband) was the biggest percentage loser among cable companies, having lost 3.3% of broadband customers during the year.
  • TDS continues to be the fastest-growing landline ISP at 4.0% growth for the year. Next is Verizon FiOS, having grown by 1.6% for the year.

Why ISPs Don’t Expand

A lot of smaller ISPs are currently expanding their service footprints. They are often using grant funding to add more service areas and customers, while others are expanding using the more traditional route of borrowing to build new networks. But not all small ISPs are expanding, or are only expanding in small increments. Today I want to talk about the reasons I’ve been given by ISPs that have decided to not expand.

Fear of Being Able to Compete. I’ve talked to a lot of small ISPs who are afraid to compete against the big cable companies. They don’t feel like they can win enough customers to be successful. This is particularly true for ISPs that have only competed in rural areas and are afraid of entering the towns next door.

I generally refer folks with this fear to some of the small companies that have successfully entered larger markets. These companies have learned that fair prices and good service will eventually win over customers, and those customers rarely return to the original giant ISP.

Fear of New Debt. I know some small ISPs who take great pride in having no company debt. They view debt as a burden that weighs down their business. Realistically, debt is a tool. It can provide money to expand today, which can be easily justified if the new net earnings from the expansion are greater than the cost of carrying the debt. I’ve found that it’s generally impossible to talk somebody out of the concept that debt is bad, but since the majority of ISPs carry debt and consider the reasons for the debt to be justified, there is huge market evidence that this fear is irrational.

The real barrier to small companies taking on new debt is that they are likely going to be required to pledge the existing company to guarantee the new debt. That is something that all businesses face, not just ISPs. But this is a risk that some company owners will not accept.

Staff Can’t Handle Change. An interesting reason I hear for not growing is that a business owner/manager feels like the existing staff can’t handle the changes that come with growing. They tell me their staff is set in their ways and is not going to be able to cope with the idea of doing something new. My response to this has always been twofold. First, I’ve found that employees love the challenge of making their company better, and I have seen hundreds of examples where the staff from a small sleepy company stepped up and thrived to grow the company. Second, if your staff is really that inflexible, it might be time to talk about hiring new staff.

Reluctance to Change Habits. Small ISPs have likely used the same processes for many decades, and the idea of having to change the way things are done can be intimidating. In a small ISP, everybody knows their role and knows what they will be doing every day. The idea of disrupting that comfortable work life can be scary since it’s usually clear that the old way of doing things probably won’t work in a competitive environment. The real fear is that the work culture will change – that it won’t be the same company after growth. The chances are that it won’t be the same, but that doesn’t mean that the expanded company can’t still be a great place to work.

Lack of Creativity/Innovation. Some small ISPs have told me that they don’t think they are creative enough to cope with expanding the business. I really have no idea how to respond to this fear. But I am reminded of the old analogy that even the most important person in the world puts their pants on one leg at a time. The fact is, the majority of the tasks involved in entering a new market are almost identical to what an ISP already does today.

What’s interesting about his list is that every reason on it boils down to either fear of the unknown or not wanting to accept risk. What I’ve found is that if an ISP considers these issues from that kind of perspective, they might change their mind about growth. For example, if ISP management asks the question – what am I really afraid of – they might decide that growth isn’t as scary as they feared.  I’ve always recommended that ISPs talk to their peers who have already made the leap to enter new markets to see if their fears are rational. It also is worthwhile doing a financial analysis that shows the worst case – what happens if an ISP enters a market and the wheels come off. I’ve often found that the worse case is not nearly as bad as an ISP feared.

The Industry Uncategorized

Lumen’s Fiber Path Forward

Lumen is taking a different path forward than the other big telcos. AT&T continues to build fiber in selected clusters, mostly in cities, rather than concentrate on building entire markets. Frontier, Windstream, and Consolidated are all concentrating on upgrading existing telco DSL networks to fiber.

Lumen has a different path forward. In a recent press release, the company announced a major upgrade to its long-haul fiber routes that cross the country. The company’s main fiber strategy is to beef up the intercity network with plans to add six million miles of fiber to existing fiber routes by 2026. In case you are wondering how there can possibly be six million route miles of fiber in the country – that count is miles of individual fibers. This is a marketing trick that long-haul fiber providers have been using for years to make networks seem gigantic.

The existing Lumen long-haul fiber network came to the company in two acquisitions. The original network came when CenturyLink bought US West, which had earlier merged with Qwest, a major builder of long-haul networks. The network was strengthened when CenturyLink purchased Level 3 Communications.

The original Quest fiber is getting dated in terms of capacity and performance. Much of this fiber was built thirty and forty years ago. While most of the fiber is still functional, fiber glass technology has improved drastically since then. Lumen will be using two low-loss types of fiber from Corning. This newer fiber is far clearer than older fiber and will increase the distance between repeater points while also allowing for using the fastest 400-gigabit electronics today and faster electronics later.

Earlier this year, Lumen announced it is improving its Ethernet architecture in forty cities this year. This means upgrading local networks to major customers to be able to provide speeds up to 30 gigabits. While this upgrade will mostly benefit business customers, this also will improve the local fiber backbone in these cities to 100 gigabits, which should improve performance for all broadband customers.

Lumen is also pursuing a last-mile fiber expansion. In August, the company announced fiber expansion plans in Denver, Minneapolis, and Seattle. The company had a target for this year to pass one million locations with fiber but has fallen a little behind due to supply chain and logistics.

Unlike the other telcos, Lumen hasn’t been talking much about the upcoming rural grant funding. This doesn’t mean the company might not pursue those opportunities since rural fiber expansion creates monopolies. But major residential expansion does not seem to be a key part of the Lumen plan, at least compared to plans for companies like Frontier, which says it plans to pass 12 million homes with fiber.

Another big unknown is if the company is still trying to sell any of its remaining copper networks like it did with sale of the twenty easternmost states to Apollo Global Management. It would be a more drastic affair to liquidate last-mile customers in the states where US West was formally the Bell company incumbent provider.

Any more sales of last-mile networks would be an interesting step where Lumen would be retracting to be a large business ISP. The company already had a sizable share of the business market that got bolstered by the acquisition of Level 3.

Lumen shares one characteristic with all of the big telcos in that it knows it must reinvent itself. After many years of no activity, Verizon is expanding FiOS again while also pushing a nationwide FWA network. AT&T is fully committed to building last-mile fiber networks and continues to add millions of new passings per year. The smaller telcos like Frontier and Windstream have clearly decided they must build fiber or fade away. Lumen is still the big wild card that hasn’t fully committed to any single expansion strategy and is pursuing different paths. From folks who track what the big ISPs are doing, if nothing else, this makes them the most interesting company to watch.

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