The Reality of Rural Broadband

I recently saw the results of several rural surveys that probably tell the best story about the state of rural broadband. The two areas being studied are far apart geographically, but they are similar in many ways. The areas are both rural and are not near to a metropolitan area. The areas have some modest manufacturing and some modest amount of tourism, but neither in a big way. Both areas included some small towns, and a few of these towns have cable TV. And in both places, the customers in the rural area have poor broadband choices. These are not small isolated pockets of people, and the two surveys cover nearly 20,000 homes.

If you listen to FCC rhetoric it’s easy to think that rural broadband is improving – but in areas like these you can’t see it. These areas have both were supposed to get some upgrades from CAF II – but from what the locals tell me there have been zero improvements so far. The CAF program still has a few years to go, so perhaps there will be some modest improvement in rural DSL.

For now, the broadband situation in these areas is miserable. There are homes with DSL with speeds of a few Mbps at best, with some of the worst speeds hovering at dial-up speeds. One respondent to a survey reported that it took 8 hours to download a copy of Microsoft Office online.

The other broadband choices are also meager. Some people use satellite broadband but complain about the latency and about the small data caps. These areas both have a smattering of fixed wireless broadband – but this is not the modern fixed wireless you see today in the open plains states that delivers 25 Mbps or faster broadband. Both of the areas in the surveys are heavily wooded with hilly terrain, and fixed wireless customers report seeing speeds of 1-2 Mbps. There are a number of homes using their cell phones in lieu of home broadband – an expensive alternative if there are school kids or if any video is watched. There were customers who reported using public hotspots in nearby small towns. And there were a number of households, included many with school kids who have given up and who have no broadband – because nothing they’ve tried has worked.

As would be expected in rural areas, slow speeds are not the only problem. Even homes that report data speeds that should support streaming video complain that streaming doesn’t work. This indicates networks with problems and it’s likely the networks have high latency, are full of jitter, or are over-subscribed and have a lot of packet loss. People don’t really judge the quality of their broadband connection by the speed they get on a speed test, but instead by the ability to do normally expected activities on the Internet.

Many of these homes can’t do things that the rest of us take for granted. Many report the inability to stream video – even a single stream. This is perhaps the biggest fallacy in the way the FCC measures broadband, because they expect that a house getting a speed like 5 Mbps ought to be able to do most needed tasks. In real life the quality of many rural connections are so poor that they won’t stream video. Many people in these areas also complained that their Internet often froze and they had to constantly reboot – something that can kill large downloads or kill online sessions for school or work.

One of the biggest complaints in these areas was that their network only supported one device at a time, meaning that members of the family have to take turns using the Internet. I picture a family with a few school kids and can see how miserable that must be.

The surveys produced a long list of other ways that poor broadband was hurting households. Number one was the inability of people to work at home. Many people said they could work at home more often if they had broadband. A few respondents want to start home businesses but are unable to because of the poor broadband. Another common complaint was the inability for kids to do schoolwork, or for adults to pursue college degrees on line.

The problems many people reported were even more fundamental than these issues. For instance, there were households saying that they could not maintain a good enough connection to bank online or pay their bills online. There were respondents who say they can’t shop online. Many households complained that they couldn’t offload cellular data at home to WiFi, driving up their cellular bills. A number of homes would like to cut the cord to save money but can’t stream Netflix as an alternative to cable.

When you look the raw data behind these kinds of surveys you quickly see the real issues with lack of broadband. In today’s society, not having home broadband literally takes a home out of the mainstream of society. It’s one thing to look at the national statistics and be told that the number of homes without broadband is shrinking. But it’s an entirely different story when you see what that means for the millions of homes that still don’t have adequate broadband. My guess is that some of the areas covered by these surveys show as underserved on the FCC maps – when in fact, their broadband is so poor that they are clearly unserved, ignored and forgotten.

Why I Am Thankful – 2018

It’s Thanksgiving again and I take a pause every year to look at the positive events and trends for the small ISP industry. This year was challenging in some ways because we have a current FCC that clearly favors the giant ISPs over the rest of the industry. But there are still a lot of things to be grateful for here at the end of 2018.

Local Governments Opening the Purse Strings. Local governments are listening to their constituents who are demanding broadband, and a surprising number of local communities are finding ways to help pay for broadband networks. In Minnesota alone there are a dozen counties that have agreed to make million dollar plus contributions to help fund local broadband efforts. These are de facto public-private partnerships with small telcos and rural cooperatives using that public funding to help bring broadband to rural areas.

Electric Cooperatives Have Awoken. All over the country we see electric cooperatives planning to bring broadband to their members. These cooperatives own electric grids in many of the same rural places that don’t have broadband. With existing pole lines and rights-of-way these cooperatives have a natural advantage for stringing fiber, particularly if they put the cabling into the electric space on poles and avoid costly make-ready. The coops also enjoy the natural advantage of being customer-owned and customer friendly, meaning that they are likely to see far higher penetration rates than an outside commercial operator building a broadband network.

We Finally Have the Next Big Product. I know numerous small ISPs who have seen instant success selling managed WiFi. I have clients that have achieved penetration rates north of 50% in just one year for the new product (and a few considerably higher than that). Bigger bandwidth requires an efficient and effective WiFi network and customers seem to be glad to have their ISP make this work for them.

Politicians Outside of Washington DC Get It. State legislatures all over the country are listening to constituents and are creating state broadband grant programs. Many of them are doing it the smart way and are mimicking successful grant programs like the one in Minnesota. The grant programs are coming from both red and blue states, demonstrating that broadband is not a partisan issue – almost all of rural America needs better broadband and state legislators are listening to their voters. Federal politics continue to be mired in partisan infighting and we probably won’t see anything out of them for the next few years.

FCC Holds out Possibility of New Spectrum. For the most part the FCC has been giving spectrum to the 5G industry and has not been creative in finding ways to also use spectrum to help solve the rural broadband gap. However, the FCC is looking at spectrum that would significantly benefit rural broadband. Of massive importance is the 6 GHz band being considered as the next swath of WiFi. This would double the amount of mid-range spectrum available for WiFi. The FCC is also considering other frequencies such as C-Band spectrum between 3.7GHz to 4.2 GHz. There are proposals in front of the agency to allow for 5G use in urban areas while allowing use for broadband in rural areas. The FCC may yet give this all to 5G carriers, but there are reasonable ways to share most bands of frequency to benefit both urban 5G and rural broadband.

Urban Broadband Speeds Improving. The big cable companies have unilaterally improved broadband speeds in urban areas, increasing the speed for their base products to between 100 Mbps and 200 Mbps. You might ask how this benefits rural ISPs. The increases in speed are in response to demands from customers, and the cable companies are redefining acceptable broadband – something the FCC is never going to be realistic about. These new urban speeds were easily predictable by anybody that understand that customer demand for broadband speed and total downloads has continued to double ever three years. Fast urban broadband resets the expectation for acceptable rural broadband.

The Big Telcos are Walking Away from Rural America. This has actually been quietly happening for decades as the big telcos have refused to invest in their rural networks. CenturyLink made it clear in 2018 that they are no longer interested in ‘infrastructure returns’ like what is earned on last-mile networks. They now join Verizon, which has been furiously selling rural properties and AT&T that keeps pestering the FCC to tear down rural copper. The door is open even wider for those ISPs that want to fill the broadband gaps.

Cable Subscribers – 3Q 2018

We are now in the second year of real cord cutting. The statistics show the traditional cable industry losing about 1 million customers per quarter. The numbers for the recently ended 3Q of 2018 come from the Leichtman Research Group and I compare to year-end 2017.

3Q 2018 4Q 2017 Change
Comcast 22,015,000 22,357,000 (342,000) -1.5%
DirecTV 19,625,000 20,458,000 (883,000) -4.1%
Charter 16,628,000 16,997,000 (369,000) -2.2%
Dish 10,286,000 11,030,000 (744,000) -6.7%
Verizon 4,497,000 4,619,000 (122,000) -2.6%
Cox 4,035,000 4,200,000 (165,000) -3.9%
AT&T 3,693,000 3,657,000 36,000  1.0%
Altice 3,322,800 3,405,500 (82,700) -2.4%
Frontier 873,000    961,000 (88,000) -9.2%
Mediacom 793,000    821,000 (28,000) -3.4%
Cable ONE 328,921    283,001 45,920 16.2%
  Total 86,096,721 88,788,501 (2,691,780) -3.0%

These companies represent roughly 95% of the entire cable market. Not included in these numbers is WOW with over 400,000 cable customers.

This group of large companies dropped almost 2.7 million customers so far this year, with losses in the third quarter over 1 million – making the third quarter the biggest losing quarter in history. Cord cutting is accelerating and 2018 is certainly going to exceed the 3.1 million cable customers that dropped in 2017.

The big losers are the satellite companies which lost 1,577,000 customers so far in 2018. These losses are offset by the fact that these two companies own the largest online video service, with Dish’s Sling TV now having 2,370,000 customers and DirecTV Now having 1,858,000 customers.

Not reflected in these numbers is the fact that 2018 so far has been a boom year for building new homes, with 1.6 million new housing units added nationally during the year so far. If you assume that new homes buy cable TV at the same rate as older homes, then the estimate of cord cutting would be 1.1 million higher for the first three quarters than is shown in these net numbers shown in the table.

In 2017 Comcast and Charter didn’t fare as poorly as the rest of the industry, but their rate of loss has roughly doubled over a year ago.

Cable ONE looks to a bit of an anomaly, but they had lost over 11% of customers in 2017 due to disputes with programmers, and they seem to have recaptured many of those customers.

The most obvious thing that jumps out from these numbers is that cord cutting is real and is here to stay. Within two short years after the start of the cord cutting phenomenon the big cable providers are on track to lose over 4% of total traditional cable subscribers in a year. That’s a lot of lost revenue for these companies and a lot of lost revenues for the programmers.

2.5 GHz – Spectrum for Homework

As part of the effort to free up mid-band spectrum, the FCC is taking a fresh look at the 2.5 GHz spectrum band. This band of spectrum is divided into 33 channels; the lower 16 channels are designated as EBS (Educational Broadband Service) with the remainder as BRS (Broadcast Radio Service).

The EBS band was first granted to educational institutions in 1963 under the designation ITFS (Instructional Television Fixed Service) and was used to transmit educational videos within school systems. It became clear that many schools were not using the spectrum and the FCC gave schools the authority to lease excess capacity on the spectrum for commercial use. In urban markets the spectrum was leased to networks like HBO, Showtime and the Movie Channel which used the spectrum to delivery content after the end of the school day. In the late 1990s the spectrum was combined with MMDS in an attempt to create a wireless cable TV product, but this use of the spectrum never gained commercial traction.

In 1998 the FCC allowed cellular companies to use the leased spectrum for the new 3G cellular. In 1998 the FCC also stopped issuing new licenses for the spectrum band. Companies like Craig McCaw’s Clearwire leased the spectrum to deliver competitive cellular service in many urban areas. In 2005 the FCC cemented this use to allow the spectrum to be used for two-way mobile and fixed data.

Today the technology has improved to the point where the spectrum could help to solve the homework gap in much of rural America. The spectrum can be used in small rural towns to create hot spots that are tied directly to school servers. The spectrum can also be beamed for about 6 miles from tall towers to reach remote students. The spectrum has nearly the same operating characteristics as the nearby 2.4 GHz WiFi band, meaning that long-distance connections require line-of-sight, so the spectrum is more useful is areas with wide-open vistas than in places like Appalachia.

A group of educational organizations including the Catholic Technology Network, the National EBS Association, the Wireless Communications Association International and the Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network petitioned the FCC to expand the EBS network and to grant new EBS licenses to fully cover the country. The FCC has been considering a plan that would strengthen the educational use of the spectrum and which would also auction the rest of the spectrum for use as wireless broadband.

The use of the spectrum for rural educational uses could be transformational. Rural students could get a small dish at their homes, like is done with the fixed wireless deployed by WISPs. Students would them have a direct connection to the school systems servers for doing homework. Interestingly, this would not provide a home with regular Internet access, other than what might be granted by schools for links needed for doing homework.

The disposition of the spectrum band is complicated by the fact that Sprint holds much of the spectrum under long-term lease. Sprint holds licenses to use more than 150 MHz of the spectrum in the top 100 markets in the country, which currently provides them with enough spectrum to simultaneously support both 4G LTE and 5G. The speculation is that the FCC is working on a plan to free up some of this spectrum as a condition to the merger of Sprint and T-Mobile.

This is the only current spectrum band where the FCC is envisioning different urban and rural uses, with rural parts of the country able to use the spectrum to connect to students while in urban areas the spectrum is used to support 5G. This divided use was only made possible by the historic educational component of the spectrum. If the FCC tries to give all of this spectrum to the cellular carriers they’d have to reclaim the 2,200 licenses already given to school systems – something they are politically unwilling to tackle.

However, this solution points to a wider solution for rural residential broadband. The FCC could order the same type of rural/urban bifurcation for many other bands of spectrum that are used primarily in urban settings. We need to find creative ways to use idle spectrum, and this spectrum bank provides a roadmap that ought to be applied to other swaths of spectrum.

Freeing the spectrum for full use by rural education offers big potential, but also creates challenges for rural school systems which will have to find the money to build and deploy wireless networks for homework. But solving the rural homework gap is compelling and I’m sure many school districts will tackle the issue with gusto.

Worldwide Broadband Prices

Cable.co.uk has updated their comparison of worldwide broadband prices. Their report consists of a spreadsheet that compares broadband prices in 195 countries. If you didn’t know there were that many countries, many of the ones on the list are small island countries. The study considered the products offered by the major ISPs in each country. I assume they are using published prices and not some estimate of speeds that customers actually receive.

It’s not easy to compare broadband products because broadband speeds vary significantly around the world. The spreadsheet ranks countries by monthly price, expressed in US dollars, but you can use the spreadsheet to compare other factors. For example, looking at the cost per megabit provides a different perspective.

The US didn’t fare well in a comparison of overall pricing and came in at 119, with a monthly price for broadband at $67.69. This is down three places from last year. The US price was calculated using 25 ISP packages that had an average speed of 54 Mbps and a price per megabit of $1.26.

The cheapest broadband in the world is in Ukraine where the month price is US $5.00 with average download speed of 112 Mbps. To show how hard these comparisons are to make, the second cheapest broadband is in Sri Lanka with a monthly price of $US $5.56, but an average speed of only 11 Mbps, followed by Iran with a monthly price of US $8.20 per month, but a download speed of only 3 Mbps. The largest country at the top of the rankings is Russia, at number 4, where the average cost of broadband is US $9.77 per month with average speeds of 31 Mbps.

At the bottom of the list were two sub-Saharan countries: Mauritania with an average price of US $768.16 for 6 Mbps and Namibia with an average price of US $383.83 for 22 Mbps. Also at the bottom was Papua New Guinea with an average price of US $571.67 for 7 Mbps.

The US fares a little better when ranking by cost per megabit. With a price of $1.26 per megabit we’re at number 56. Number 1 on this comparison is Singapore with a price of US $0.03 per megabit, due to delivering an average speed of 1.6 Gbps for a price of US $50.43 per month. At the bottom of the list were two other sub-Saharan countries, Somalia and Niger that have average broadband speeds of less than 1 Mbps.

Finally, I compared countries by average Internet download speeds. The US came in at number 39 with an average speed of 54 Mbps. At the top of the list is Singapore with the 1.6 Gbps speed. Second is Jersey, in the Channel Islands off Normandy with a speed of 468 Mbps and Panama with an average speed of 273 Mbps.

Like all statistics there is a story go with all of the various countries. For example, China has an average broadband speed of 98 Mbps with an average price of US $41.29 per month. However, China is similar to the US and their data speed blends cities with gigabit speeds with smaller markets with much slower speeds. Among the countries with fast download speeds are places like Hong Kong, Bulgaria and Ireland where the government has set a priority and dedicated public money to building broadband infrastructure.

Since these comparisons are made using advertised prices and speeds, they don’t represent the total actual cost to consumers. For example, in this country some ISPs jack up the price of broadband by requiring an expensive monthly modem rental. In some markets in the US the ISPs deliver significantly slower speeds than advertised, making the products a lot more expensive on a per megabit basis. Many ISPs here also offer bundled discounts, making the prices lower than advertised. I’ve studied broadband prices in specific US markets and I know how hard it is to understand the real cost of broadband – and I’m sure these sorts of things are true in other countries as well. However, the average price of $67.69 for the US doesn’t seem out of line.

US broadband trends will change our rankings over the next few years. For example, prices by the big ISPs are on the increase, as witnessed by the recent $5 monthly increase by Charter for bundled broadband. Wall Street analysts all expect broadband prices in the US to now increase every year after a decade of stable prices. However, the cost per megabit ought to be tumbling here since the big cable companies recently increased customer speeds unilaterally – meaning millions of US customers now have broadband that is significantly faster than just a year ago.

Even with all of the issues of comparing broadband in countries with widely disparate conditions, this kind of comparison is useful. The main takeaway for me from this table is that most of the economic rivals of the US in Asia and Europe have faster broadband speeds than here, and lower monthly prices. Our trend is to increase broadband speeds, at least in urban areas, but prices are going to climb at the same time. If you look at broadband as a basic utility that’s necessary to be competitive, we aren’t stacking up very well.

Another Spectrum Battle

Back in July the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking comments for opening up spectrum from 3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz, known as the C-Band. As is happening with every block of usable spectrum, there is a growing tug-of-war between using this spectrum for 5G or using it for rural broadband.

This C-Band spectrum has traditionally been used to transit signals from satellites back to earth stations. Today it’s in use by every cable company that receives cable TV signals at a ‘big-dish’ satellite farm. The spectrum had much wider use in the past when it was used to deliver signal directly to customers using the giant 7 – 10 foot dishes you used to see in rural backyards.

This spectrum is valuable for either cellular data or for point-to-multipoint rural radio broadband systems. The spectrum sits in the middle between the 2.4 GHz and the 5.8 GHz used today for delivering most rural broadband. The spectrum is particularly attractive because of the size of the block, at 500 megahertz.

When the FCC released the NPRM, the four big satellite companies – Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat and Telesat – created the C-Band Alliance. They’ve suggested that some of their current use of this spectrum could be moved elsewhere. But where it’s not easy to move the spectrum, the group volunteered to be the clearing house to coordinate the use of C-Band for other purposes so that it won’t interfere with satellite use. The Alliance suggests that this might require curtailing full use of the spectrum near some satellite farms, but largely they think the spectrum can be freed for full use in most places. Their offer is seen as a way to convince the FCC to not force satellite companies completely out of the spectrum block.

I note that we are nearing a day when the need for the big satellite earth stations to receive TV might become obsolete. For example, we see AT&T delivering TV signal nationwide on fiber using only two headends and satellite farms. If all TV stations and all satellite farm locations were connected by fiber these signals could be delivered terrestrially. I also note this is not the spectrum used by DirecTV and Dish networks to connect to subscribers – they use the K-band at 12-18 GHz.

A group calling itself the Broadband Access Coalition (BAC) is asking the FCC to set aside the upper 300 megahertz from the band for use for rural broadband. This group is comprised of advocates for rural wireless broadband, including Baicells Technologies, Cambium Networks, Rise Broadband, Public Knowledge, the Open Technology Institute at New America, and others. The BAC proposal asks for frequency sharing that would allow for the spectrum to be used for both 5G and also for rural broadband using smart radios and databases to coordinate use.

Both the satellite providers and the 5G companies oppose the BAC idea. The satellite providers argue that it’s too complicated to share bandwidth and they fear interference with satellite farms. The 5G companies want the whole band of spectrum and tout the advantages this will bring to 5G. They’d also like to see the spectrum go to auction and dangle the prospect for the FCC to collect $20 billion or more from an auction.

The FCC has it within their power to accommodate rural broadband as they deal with this block of spectrum. However, recent history with other spectrum bands shows the FCC to have a major bias towards the promise of 5G and towards raising money through auctions – which allocates frequency to a handful of the biggest names in the industry.

The BAC proposal is to set aside part of the spectrum for rural broadband while leaving the whole spectrum available to 5G on a shared and coordinated basis. We know that in real life the big majority of all ‘5G spectrum’ is not going to be deployed in rural America. The 5G providers legitimately need a huge amount of spectrum in urban areas if they are to accomplish everything they’ve touted for 5G. But in rural areas most bands of spectrum will sit idle because the spectrum owners won’t have an economic use for deploying in areas of low density.

The BAC proposal is an interesting mechanism that would free up C-Band in areas where there is no other use of the spectrum while still fully accommodating 5G where it’s deployed. That’s the kind of creating thinking we need to see implemented.

The FCC keeps publicly saying that one of its primary goals is to improve rural broadband – as I wrote in a blog last week, that’s part of their primary stated goals for the next five years. This spectrum could be of huge value for point-to-multipoint rural radio systems and would be another way to boost rural broadband speeds. The FCC has it within their power to use the C-Band spectrum for both 5G and for rural broadband – both uses can be accommodated. My bet, sadly, is that this will be another giveaway to the big cellular companies.

When Will Small ISPs Offer Wireless Loops?

I wrote last week about what it’s going to take for the big wireless companies to offer 5G fixed wireless in neighborhoods. Their biggest hurdle is going to be the availability of fiber deep inside neighborhoods. Today I look at what it would take for fiber overbuilders to integrate 5G wireless loops into their fiber networks. By definition, fiber overbuilders already build fiber deep into neighborhoods. What factors will enable fiber overbuilders to consider using wireless loops in those networks?

Affordable Technology. Number one on the list is cheaper technology. There is a long history in the wireless industry where new technologies only become affordable after at least one big company buys a lot of units. Fifteen years ago the FCC auctioned LMDS and MMDS spectrum with a lot of hoopla and promise. However, these spectrum bands were barely used because no big companies elected to use them. The reality of the manufacturing world is that prices only come down with big volumes of sales. Manufacturers need to have enough revenue to see them through several rounds of technical upgrades and tweaks, which are always needed when fine-tuning how wireless gear works in the wild.

Verizon is the only company talking about deploying a significant volume of 5G fixed wireless equipment. However, their current first-generation equipment is not 5G compliant and they won’t be deploying actual 5G gear for a few years. Time will tell if they buy enough gear to get equipment prices to an affordable level for the rest of the industry. We also must consider that Verizon might use proprietary technology that won’t be available to others. The use of proprietary hardware is creeping throughout the industry and can be seen with gear like data center switches and Comcast’s settop boxes. The rest of the industry won’t benefit if Verizon takes the proprietary approach – yet another new worry for the industry.

Life Cycle Costs. Anybody considering 5G also needs to consider the full life cycle costs of 5G versus fiber. An ISP will need to compare the life cycle cost of fiber drops and fiber electronics versus the cost of the 5G electronics. There are a couple of costs to consider:

  • We don’t know what Verizon is paying for gear, but at the early stage of the industry my guess is that 5G electronics are still expensive compared to fiber drops.
  • Fiber drops last for a long time. I would expect that most of the fiber drops built twenty years ago for Verizon FiOS are still going strong. It’s likely that 5G electronics on poles will have to replaced or upgraded every 7 – 10 years.
  • Anybody that builds fiber drops to homes knows that over time that some of those drops are abandoned as homes stop buying service. Over time there can be a sizable inventory of unused drops that aren’t driving any revenue – I’ve seen this grow to as many as 5% of total drops over time.
  • Another cost consideration is maintenance costs. We know from long experience that wireless networks require a lot more tinkering and maintenance effort than fiber networks. Fiber technology has gotten so stable that most companies know they can build fiber and not have to worry much about maintenance for the first five to ten years. Fiber technology is getting even more stable as many ISPs are moving the ONTs inside the premise. That’s going to be a hard to match with 5G wireless networks with differing temperatures and precipitation conditions.

We won’t be able to make this cost comparison until 5G electronics are widely available and after a few brave ISPs suffer through the first generation of the technology.

Spectrum. Spectrum is a huge issue. Verizon and other big ISPs are going to have access to licensed spectrum for 5G that’s not going to be available to anybody else. It’s likely that companies like Verizon will get fast speeds by bonding together multiple bands of millimeter wave spectrum while smaller providers will be limited to only unlicensed spectrum bands. The FCC is in the early stages of allocating the various bands of millimeter wave spectrum, so we don’t yet have a clear picture of the unlicensed options that will be available to smaller ISPs.

Faster speeds. There are some fiber overbuilders that already provide a gigabit product to all customers, and it’s likely over time that they will go even faster. Verizon is reporting speeds in the first 5G deployments between 300 Mbps and a gigabit, and many fiber overbuilders are not going to want a network where speeds vary by local conditions, and from customer to customer. Wireless speeds in the field using millimeter wave spectrum are never going to be as consistently reliable and predictable as a fiber-based technology.

Summary. It’s far too early to understand the potential for 5G wireless loops. If the various issues can be clarified, I’m sure that numerous small ISPs will consider 5G. The big unknowns for now are the cost of the electronics and the amount of spectrum that will be available to small ISPs. But even after those two things are known it’s going to be a complex decision for a network owner. I don’t foresee any mad rush by smaller fiber overbuilders to embrace 5G.

The New e-Connectivity Pilot Grants

In March Congress passed a new $600 million grant/loan program to build rural broadband. The project has been labeled as the e-Connectivity Pilot and it’s expected that the specific rules for seeking the funding will be released early on 2019. The USDA sought public comments on the program in September and is now working out the details of how the awards will be made.

Anybody interested in these grants should get serious about it now, since it’s likely that the grant application window might not be any longer than 60 to 90 days. Getting ready means having a detailed and solid business plan as well as already having a source of funding for any parts of a project not covered by these grants. The grants are also likely to include provisions like getting a professional engineer to approve the network design – so designs need to be specific and not generic. It’s likely that the USDA will stick with their existing grant application process – and those forms have always been a bear to complete.

There is one huge hurdle to overcome for this program since an application can’t cover an area that has more than 10% of households with access to broadband speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps. Considering that the CAF II awards and more recent CAF II reverse auctions awards already will supposedly provide this kind of speed to huge swaths of the country, there are not a lot of areas left that will meet this requirement.

Claiming that an area meets the 90% unserved threshold will be also be difficult because grant applications can be challenged by carriers that serves the grant area today. I have to assume that CAF II reverse auction winners will also be able to challenge. The big rub is that the original CAF II award winners still have until 2020 to complete their build-out and they will certainly challenge awards for any CAF II area that has not yet been updated. The CAF II reverse auction winners have ten more years to complete their buildout. The USDA will likely be obligated to reject an application that encroaches on any of the CAF II footprint – even if those areas don’t have broadband today.

This gets even more complicated since the CAF II reverse auction awarded funding to fixed wireless and satellite providers. They were funded to serve specific little pockets of unserved homes, but it won’t be hard for them to claim that the CAF II award dollars will allow them to serve much larger areas than the tiny boundaries they bid on.

The process of proving a study area isn’t served will be further complicated by the USDA’s reliance on the FCC’s broadband maps, which we all know to be highly inaccurate in rural America. This all adds up to mean that an applicant needs to prove the area doesn’t have broadband today and will not be getting it over the next decade from one of the CAF winners. They will also need to overcome any errors in the FCC maps. This is going to be hard to prove. I expect the challenge process to be brutal.

From the instant I saw the 90% unserved test, I’ve assumed that the most likely candidates for these grants will be somebody that is already planning on building broadband across a large footprint. If such an applicant is careful to only identify the scattered homes that meet these grant rules, then this funding can help to pay for a project they were going to build anyway. The other natural set of applicants might be those companies that already took CAF II funding – they could use these grants to fill in unserved homes around those build-out areas. The industry is going to be in an uproar if a lot of this funding goes to the big incumbent telcos (who won’t challenge their own applications).

Another issue to consider is that the USDA can award funding as a combination of grants and loans. These awards will surely require matching funding from an applicant. Anybody that is already planning on funding that matching with bank or other financing might find it impossible to accept USDA loans for a portion of a project. USDA loan covenants are draconian – for example, USDA loans usually require first priority for a default, which will conflict with commercial lenders. It’s always been nearly impossible to marry USDA debt with other debt.

rant applicants should also be aware that the USDA is going to be highly leery of awarding money to start-ups or somebody that is not already an ISP. The agency got burned on such grants awarded with the stimulus grants and has indicated that they are looking for grant award winners to have a strong balance sheet and a track record of being an ISP. This will make it nearly impossible for local governments to go after the money on their own. Chances of winning will be greatly enhanced by public/private partnerships with an existing ISP.

I know my take on the grants sound highly pessimistic. Congress saddled these grants with the 90% unserved test at the coaxing of the big telcos who wanted to make sure these funds weren’t used to compete against them. Past USDA grants had the opposite requirement and could consider awards to areas that didn’t have more than 10% of houses with broadband. However, if you are able to identify a service area that can survive the challenge process, and if you have the matching funded lined up, these grants can provide some nice funding. I’m not taking any bets, though, on the USDA’s ability to award all of the money – there might not be enough grant applications that can make it through the gauntlet.

Fighting Spoofing

One of the biggest problems with the telephone network today is spoofing – where robocalls are generated using stolen numbers to mask the identity of the caller. Spoofing and robocalls are the biggest source of complaints to the FCC and NANC (the North American Numbering Council) reports that in 2016 there were 2.4 billion robocalls per month – a number that has surely grown. As recently as a year ago I rarely got robocalls on my cellphone but now get half a dozen per day.

The FCC called upon NANC to find a solution to the problem. NANC used the Call Authentication Trust Anchor Working Group to find a solution to the problem. In May of this year the FCC accepted the recommendations of this group to implement a ‘taken’ system to authenticate that calling numbers are authentic.  Last week Chairman Ajit Pai asked the industry to speed up implementation of the solution, warning that the FCC would issue an order to do so if the industry didn’t solve the problem quickly.

The proposed solution involves a new process used to authenticate the originating telephone number for calls. The concept is to issue ‘tokens’ to carriers that allow them to authenticate, in real-time, that the originating number of a telephone call is really from the party that owns the number. This will mean a whole new overlay on the PSTN to make this validation quickly before a call is terminated.

In addition to developing the specifications for how the process will work, the NANC working group recommended the following industry process for making this work:

  • The industry needs to select a governance authority to take ownership of the process so that it’s implemented uniformly across the industry;
  • The working group also recommended that a policy administrator be chosen that will administer the day-to-day implementation of the new process;
  • The working group also recommended specific roles and responsibilities for the governance authority and policy administrator;
  • Set the goal to have those two entities in place within a year. I think the FCC Chairman’s frustration is due to the fact that this was recommended in May 2018 and I don’t think that the governance authority or policy administrator have been chosen.

Of course, this means a new industry protocol and process and comes with a slew of new acronyms. Primary among this is SHAKEN which represents new SIP protocols used specifically for purpose of creating the all authentication tokens. Also used is STIR (secure telephone identity revisited) which is the IETF group that created the specific protocols for telephony. This leads to the cute acronym SHAKEN/STIR which is being used to describe the whole process (and which would definitely not be approved by James Bond).

The working specifications recognize that what is being prepared is just the first step in the process. They understand that as soon as they implement any solution that spammers will instantly begin looking for workarounds. The initial concept is to first begin be implementing this with the largest carriers and that will still leave a lot of holes with numbers assigned to smaller carriers, numbers deep inside PBX trunk groups, numbers used for Internet calling like Skype. However, the goal is to eventually cover the whole industry.

The concept is that this is going to have to be a dynamic process. I envision it much like the software companies that build spam filters. The group making this work will have to constantly create patches to fix vulnerabilities used by spammers. I have my doubts that anything like this will ever fully stop spoofing and that spammers will always be one step ahead of the spoofing police.

This is a concern for small carriers because it sounds like something new that a voice provider is going to have to pay for. It’s likely that there will be vendors that can do this for small carriers, but that sounds like another check to write to be able to provide voice service.

AT&T and Connected Vehicles

AT&T just released a blog talking about their connected vehicle product. This blog paints a picture of where AT&T is at today and where they hope to be headed into the future in this market niche.

For a company like AT&T, the only reason to be excited about a new market niche is the creation of a new revenue stream. AT&T claims to have 24 million connected cars on its network as of the end of 3Q 2018. They also claim 3 million additional connected fleet vehicles. They also have over 1 million customers who are buying mobile WiFi hotspots from AT&T.

What does that look like as a revenue stream? AT&T has relationships with 29 global car manufacturers. Most new cars today come with some kind of connectivity plan that’s free to a car buyer for a short time, usually 3 to 6 months. When the free trial is over consumers must subscribe in order to retain the connectivity service.

As an example of how this works, all new Buicks and Fiats come with AT&T’s UConnect Access for a 6-month free trial period. This service provides unlimited broadband to the vehicle for streaming video or for feeding the on-board mapping system. After the trial customers must subscribe to the service at a monthly rate of $14.99 per month – or they can buy a la carte for connectivity at $9.99 per day or $34.99 per month.

In the blog AT&T touts a relationship with Subaru. The company provides a trial subscription to Starlink that provides on-board navigation on a screen plus safety features like the ability to call for roadside assistance or to locate a stolen vehicle. Subaru offers different plans for different vehicles that range from a Starlink trial of between 4-months and 3-years. Once the trial is over the cost of extending Starlink is $49 for the first year and then $99 per year to extend just the security package or $149 per year to extend the whole service. Starlink is not part of AT&T, so only some portion of this revenue goes to the carrier.

I wonder how many people extend these free trials and become paying customers? I have to think that the majority of the AT&T connected vehicles are under the Starlink relationship which has been around for many years. Families that drive a lot and watch a lot of video in a vehicle might find the UConnect Access to be a much better alternative than using cellular data plans. People who want the feature of locating their car if stolen might like the Starlink. However, most drivers probably don’t see a value in these plans. Most of the features offered in these packages are available as part of everybody’s cellular data plans using the Bluetooth connectivity in these vehicles.

The vehicle fleet business, however, is intriguing. Companies can use this connectivity to keep drivers connected to the home office and core software systems. This can also be done with cellphones, but I can think of several benefits to building this directly into the vehicle.

The second half of their blog discusses the possibility for 5G and automated cars. That’s the future revenue stream the company is banking on, and probably one of their biggest hopes for 5G. They have two hopes for 5G vehicle connectivity:

  • They hope to provide the connectivity between vehicles using 5G and the cloud. They believe that cars will be connected to the 5G network in order to ‘learn’ from other vehicle’s driving experience in the immediate vicinity.
  • They also hope to eventually provide broadband to driverless cars where passengers will be interested in being connected while traveling.

The first application of connecting nearby vehicles is no guarantee. It all depends on the technology path chosen to power driverless vehicles. There is one school of thought that says that the majority of the brains and decision making will be done by on-board computers, and if cars connect to nearby vehicles it will be through the use of on-board wireless communication. AT&T is hoping for the alternate approach where that connectivity is done in the cloud – but that’s going to require a massive investment in small cell sites everywhere. If the cloud solution is not the preferred technology then companies like AT&T will have no incentive to place 5G cell sites along the millions of miles of roads.

This is one of those chicken and egg situations. I liken it to smart city technology. A decade ago many predicted that cities would need mountains of fiber to support smart cities – but today most such applications are being done wirelessly. Any company banking on a fiber-based solution got left behind. At this point, nobody can predict the technology that will ultimately be used by smart cars. However, since the 5G technology needs the deployment of a massive ubiquitous cellular network, the simpler solution is to do it some other way.