FCC – Please Don’t Fund 25/3 Broadband

The current FCC recognizes the disaster that was created when the original CAF II grant program subsidized the construction of broadband that supports speeds of only 10/1 Mbps. Several FCC commissioners have said that they don’t want to repeat that disaster. Had the CAF II grant monies been allowed for companies other than the big telcos, much of the money would have gone to fiber ISPs and we’d see a lot more areas covered with good broadband today (meaning fewer headaches for the FCC).

Today I ask the question: what speeds should the new $20.4 billion RDOF grant fund support? In the NPRM for the RDOF grant program, the FCC suggests that the minimum speed they will fund is 25/3 Mbps. It looks like the funding for these grants will start in 2021, and like the CAF II program, anybody taking the money will have six years to complete the broadband construction. I think the right way to think about the speeds for these grants is to look at likely broadband speeds at the end of the construction period in 2027, not at where the world is at two years before the RDOF is even started. If the FCC bases the program on broadband speeds today, they will be making the same error as on the original CAF II – they will use federal money to build broadband that is obsolete before it’s even constructed.

I start by referring to a recent blog where I challenge the idea that 25/3 should be the definition of broadband today. To quickly summarize that blog, we know that broadband demand has been growing constantly since the days of dial-up – and the growth in broadband demand applies to speeds as well as volume of monthly downloading. Both Cisco and Ookla have shown that broadband demand has been growing at a rate if about 21% annually for many years.

At a bare minimum, the definition of broadband today ought to be 50 Mbps download – and that definition is a minimum speed, not a goal that should be used for building tomorrow’s broadband. As I said earlier, in a world where demand continues to grow, today’s definition of broadband shouldn’t matter – what matters is the likely demand for broadband in 2027 when the RDOF networks are operational.

Trending the demand curve chart for download speeds forward presents a story that the FCC doesn’t want to hear. The need for speed is going to continue to increase. If the growth trend holds (and these trends have been steady since the days of dial-up), then the definition of broadband by 2027 ought to be 250 Mbps – meaning by then nobody should build a network that can’t meet that speed.

2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024 2025 2026 2027
54 65 78 95 115 139 168 204 246

The big cable companies already recognize what the FCC won’t acknowledge. The minimum speed offered to new customers on urban cable networks today is at least 100 Mbps, and most users can order a gigabit. The cable companies know that if they provide fast speeds they get a lot fewer complaints from customers. In my city of Asheville, NC, Charter unilaterally increased the speed of broadband in 2018 from 60/6 Mbps to 135/20 Mbps. Anybody who has watched the history of cable company broadband knows that they will increase speeds at least once before 2027 to stay ahead of the demand curve. It wouldn’t be surprising by 2027 if cable company minimum speeds are 300 – 500 Mbps. Do we really want to be funding 25/3 rural broadband when speeds in cities will be fifteen times faster?

Will the world behave exactly like this chart – not likely. But will homes in 2027 be happy with 25/3 Mbps broadband – most definitely not. Given a choice, homes don’t even want 25/3 Mbps broadband today. We are already seeing hordes of urban customers abandoning urban DSL that delivers speeds between 25 Mbps and 50 Mbps.

If the FCC funds 25/3 Mbps broadband in the RDOF grant they will be duplicating one of the dumbest FCC decisions ever made – when CAF II funded 10/1 Mbps broadband. The FCC will be funding networks that are massively obsolete before they are even built, and they will be spending scarce federal dollars to again not solve the rural digital divide. There will continue to be cries from rural America to bring real broadband that works and by 2027 we’ll probably be talking about CAF IV grants to try this all over again.

Summary Conclusions for Designing an FCC Broadband Grant

The earlier series of blogs looked at a number of ideas on how the FCC could create the most effective federal grant program for the upcoming $20.4 billion of announced grants. Following is a summary of the most important conclusions of those blogs:

Have a Clearly Defined Goal. If a federal grant’s program goal is something soft, like ‘improve rural broadband’ then the program is doomed to failure and will fund solutions that only incrementally improve broadband. The grant program should have a bold goal, such as bringing a permanent broadband solution to a significant number of households. For example, done well, this grant could bring fiber to 4 – 5 million homes rather than make incremental broadband improvements everywhere.

Match the Grant Process with the Grant Goals. Past federal grants have often had grant application rules that didn’t match the goals. Since the results of grants are governed by the application rules, those are all that matter. Stated goals for a grant are just rhetoric if those goals are not realized in the grant application requirements. As an example, if a grant goal is to favor the fastest broadband possible, then all grant application rules should be weighted towards that goal.

Match Speed Requirement with the Grant Construction Period. The discussion for the proposed $20.4 billion grant contemplates a minimum speed goal of 25/3 Mbps. That’s a DSL speed and is already becoming obsolete today. A goal of 25/3 Mbps will be badly outdated by the time any grant-funded networks are built. The FCC should not repeat their worst decision ever that gave out $11 billion for CAF II funding to build 10/1 Mbps networks – a speed that was obsolete even before the grants were awarded. The FCC should be requiring future-looking speeds.

Make the Grants Available to Everybody. FCC grant and loan programs often include a statement that they are available to every kind of entity. Yet the actual award process often discriminates against some kinds of applicants. For example, grants that include a loan component make it generally impossible for most municipal entities to accept the awards. Loan rules can also eliminate non-RUS borrowers. Grant rules that require recipients to become Eligible Telecommunications Carriers – a regulatory designation – discriminate against open access networks where the network owner and the ISP are separate entities. If not written carefully, grant rules can discriminate against broadband partnerships where the network owner is a different entity than the operating ISP.

Reverse Auction is not a Good Fit. Reverse auctions are a good technique to use when taking bids for some specific asset. Reverse auctions won’t work well when the awarded area is the whole US. Since reverse auctions favor those who will take the lowest amount of funding a reverse auction will, by definition, favor lower-cost technologies. A reverse auction will also favor parts of the country with lower costs and will discriminate against the high-cost places that need broadband help the most, like Appalachia. A reverse auction also favors upgrades over new construction and would favor upgrading DSL over building faster new technologies. From a political perspective, a reverse auction won’t spread the awards geographically and could favor one region, one technology or even only a few grant applicants. Once the auction is started the FCC would have zero input over who wins the funds – something that would not sit well with Congress.

Technology Matters. The grants should not be awarded to technologies that are temporary broadband band-aids. For example, if the grants are used to upgrade rural DSL or to provide fixed cellular broadband, then the areas receiving the grants will be back at the FCC in the future asking for something better. It’s hard to justify any reason for giving grants to satellite providers.

States Need to Step Up. The magnitude of the proposed federal grant program provides a huge opportunity for states. Those states that increase state grant funding should attract more federal grants to their state. State grants can also influence the federal awards by favoring faster speeds or faster technologies.

This blog is part of a series on Designing the Ideal Federal Broadband Grant Program.

Who Should be Eligible for Broadband Grants?

This is the next blog in a series looking at the upcoming $20.4 billion broadband grant recently announced by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. Today I look at the question of grant eligibility. This will be, by far, the largest broadband grant program to date. What can the FCC do to make sure this money is available to the widest set of constituencies possible?

FCC programs in the past have usually stated that they are available to a wide range of potential grant recipients. However, after digging into the detailed rules of how grants are awarded, it’s generally turned-out that it’s harder for some classes of grant recipients to win a grant. I hope the FCC can take some of the following into consideration this time around.

Municipalities. Cities and counties have often had a hard time meeting the eligibility rules for broadband grants. That’s interesting because local governments receive a lot of federal funding for other purposes, but there are aspects of broadband grants that have been a challenge for local government.

Consider the current Re-Connect grant program that is awarding $600 million for rural broadband. The program is a combination of grants and RUS loans. I worked with several county governments that concluded that they could never accept the RUS loans. The rules governing RUS loans are set by legislation and cast in concrete and so their loan terms are largely not negotiable. There are aspects of RUS loans that don’t work for government entities, like the surety requirement for giving the RUS first lien on a property funded by the loans. Most municipalities are legally not allowed to pledge assets in this manner.

Another past telecom grant practice has stopped municipalities from applying for grants. Some FCC grant programs require that grant applicants show proof of already having the matching funds available to fulfill a project before they can apply for a grant. That requirement makes some sense for commercial applicants because the FCC wants to avoid giving grants to entities that won’t be able to accept the money once awarded. This is a chicken and egg dilemma for local governments. Normally, municipalities win a grant first and then raise the matching bond funds. Bonds that have not yet been sold can’t be used to guarantee a grant – until a bond is sold it doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as a line of credit based upon a future bond issue. Governments can’t raise the bond money first until they know the size of the grant funding – a real example of a Catch-22.

Open Access. Past FCC grants that utilize the Universal Service Fund have required that grant recipients become Eligible Telecommunications Carriers (ETC) – and this might apply to the new $20.4 billion grant program. This is a regulatory designation that basically shows a blessing by a state commission that the entity is a recognized carrier. Only entities that provide retail services are eligible to become an ETC. This requirement makes it impossible for government entities that own open access networks to get grant funding. In an open access structure the network owner – the entity that would use the grant funding to build rural broadband networks – is unable to become an ETC because they don’t provide any retail services to customers, that function is provided by the ISPs that provide service on the open access network.

This requirement discriminates against states that require or favor open access networks like Washington, Utah, Colorado, and Virginia. A good example are the PUDs, the municipal electric companies that operate rural open access fiber networks in rural Washington. The PUDs are building rural fiber, which is a goal the FCC clearly favors, yet they are ineligible for federal grants that require ETC status. This is a case of a regulatory requirement created for a different purpose that will deny federal grant money to large rural areas of the country. The PUDs would love funding to build more rural fiber and the commercial ISPs operating on their networks are ready to sell services.

Partnerships. One of the biggest industry trends is partnerships that are created to build rural broadband networks. Some of the most common partnerships are between county governments and commercial ISPs or between electric cooperatives and rural telcos. Poorly conceived grant rules can cause problems for partnerships even though the FCC and the federal government supposedly love such partnerships.

Any partnership where the network owner doesn’t provide retail broadband can have the same problem as just described for open access networks if the network owner is unable to become an ETC. If the network owner in the partnership is a government entity they will also have problems accepting government loans as part of an award.

Partnerships face other hurdles as well. The current Re-Connect grant program requires providing several years of strong financials to show that a company has a history and a strong balance sheet. New partnerships have no historical financials, yet both entities that own the partnership likely have a long financial history. Poorly written grant rules could block newly formed partnerships from receiving funding, even if the partnership will eventually have a huge cash infusion from the partners.

Other grant rules can also be a problem. For example, a typical partnership might be one where an electric cooperative builds a fiber network and a telco provides services. In this case the grant funding will go to the electric cooperative that is building the network, but the cooperative will be unable to make any pledges or guarantees about customer performance such as promising fast speeds, offering low prices, or serving anchor institutions.

When I read grant rules one of the first things that is always obvious to me is that the people writing the grant rules don’t understand the wide range of business structures that currently operate broadband networks. There are numerous partnership and other arrangements that differ significantly from the traditional model of a single ISP that owns the network and sells retail products to customers. If grant eligibility rules aren’t updated to recognize the way networks are being built and operated, then large numbers of potential grant recipients are going to be ineligible for the new grants. While that hurts the new entities, it really hurts the rural residents that are served by these new kinds of ISPs.

This blog is part of a series on Designing the Ideal Federal Broadband Grant Program.