Too Little Too Late

On July 25, Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel shared with the other FCC Commissioners a draft Notice of Inquiry that would begin the process of raising the federal definition of broadband from 25/3 Mbps to 100/20 Mbps. In order for that to become the new definition, the FCC must work through the NOI process and eventually vote to adopt the higher speed definition.

This raises a question of the purpose of having a definition of broadband. That requirement comes from Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that requires that the FCC make sure that broadband is deployed on a reasonable and timely basis to everybody in the country. The FCC interpreted that requirement to mean that it couldn’t measure broadband deployment unless it created a definition of broadband. The FCC uses its definition of broadband to count the number of homes that have or don’t have broadband.

The FCC is required by the Act to report the status of broadband deployment to Congress every year. During the last week of Ajit Pai’s time as FCC Chairman, he issued both the 2020 and 2021 broadband reports to Congress. Those reports painted a rosy picture of U.S. broadband, partially because progress was measured using 25/3 Mbps definition of broadband and partially because the FCC broadband maps were rife with overstated speeds. The FCC has not issued a report since then, and I can only suppose there aren’t the votes in an evenly split FCC to approve a new report.

To give credit, Chairwoman Rosenworcel tried to get the FCC to increase the definition of broadband to 100/20 Mbps four years ago, but the idea went nowhere in the Ajit Pai FCC. At that time, 100/20 Mbps seemed like a reasonable increase in the definition of broadband. Most cable companies were delivering 100 Mbps download as the basic product, and a definition set at 100/20 Mbps would have made the federal statement that the speeds that most folks buy in cities is a reasonable definition of broadband for everybody else.

Chairwoman Rosenworcel is now ready to try again to raise the definition. Perhaps the possible addition of a fifth Commissioner means this has a chance of passing.

But this is now too little too late. 100/20 Mbps is no longer a reasonable definition of broadband. In the four years since Chairwoman Rosenworcel introduced that idea, the big cable companies have almost universally increased the starting speed for broadband to 300 Mbps download. According to OpenVault, almost 90% of all broadband customers now subscribe to broadband packages of 100 Mbps or faster. 75% of all broadband customers subscribe to speeds of at least 200 Mbps. 38% of households now subscribe to speeds of 500 Mbps or faster.

I have to think that the definition of broadband needs to reflect the broadband that most people in the country are really using. One of the secondary uses of the FCC broadband definition is that it establishes a goal for bringing rural areas into parity with urban broadband. If 75% of all broadband subscribers in the country have already moved to something faster than 200 Mbps, then 100 Mbps feels like a speed that is already in the rearview mirror and is rapidly receding.

When the 25/3 definition of broadband was adopted in 2015, I thought it was a reasonable definition at the time. Interestingly, when I first read that FCC order, I happened to be sitting in a restaurant that was lucky enough to be able to buy gigabit speeds and was sharing it with customers. I knew from that experience that the 25/3 Mbps definition was going to become quickly obsolete because it was obvious that we were on the verge of seeing technology increases that were going to bring much faster speed.

I think the FCC should issue two broadband definitions – one for measuring broadband adoption today and a second definition as a target speed for a decade from now. That future broadband target speed should be the minimum speed required for projects funded by federal grants. It seems incredibly shortsighted to be funding any technology that only meets today’s speed definition instead of the speeds that will be needed when the new network will be fully subscribed. Otherwise, we are building networks that are too slow before they are even finished construction.

Another idea for the FCC to consider could take politics out of the speed definition. Let’s index the definition of broadband using something like the OpenVault speed statistics, or perhaps the composite statistics of several firms that gather such data. Indexing speeds would mean automatic periodic increases to the definition of broadband. If we stick to the current way of defining broadband, we might see the increase in the federal definition of broadband to 100/20 at the end of this year and won’t see another increase for another eight years.

Our Fixation on 25/3 Mbps

Mike Conlow wrote a recent blog on Substack that discusses how cellular companies are reporting large numbers of passings on the FCC maps as having the capability to receive exactly 25/3 Mbps or 100/20 Mbps.

Mike uses the example of North Carolina to highlight the issue. In the previous FCC map, UScellular claimed 1.13 million locations in the state that could receive speeds of 25/3 Mbps for fixed cellular broadband. In the latest map, UScellular dropped this number to 224,000 locations. T-Mobile made a similar claim, but only dropped claims of 25/3 Mbps capability from 1.06 million to 1.04 million.

That isn’t a very fast broadband speed, so why does this make any difference? It turns out that the NTIA is using the number of locations with speeds under 25/3 Mbps to allocate the $42.5 BEAD grant dollars between states. I happen to know that North Carolina has an aggressive mapping team that no doubt leaned on UScellular to fix its maps. But other states are probably not as aggressive and are losing a lot of BEAD grant dollars if they didn’t fix similar claims.

The problem is that, in many cases, the claimed speeds are not true. The technologies that I see claiming exactly 25/3 Mbps speeds include DSL, fixed cellular broadband, and fixed WISP broadband. It’s not hard to find examples where cellular companies and WISPs are claiming identical speeds across large geographic areas. That’s not how wireless technologies works. Speeds steadily decrease with the distance between a customer and a tower. Even if these ISPs are being truthful about the speeds that can be delivered close to towers, these speeds are exaggerated for customers farther from towers. It sounds like UScellular in North Carolina might have acknowledged the physics in lowering its claims.

It’s important to point out that any ISP claiming 25/3 Mbps is probably doing nothing wrong under the FCC mapping rules. The FCC allows ISP to report marketing speeds instead of trying to report accurate actual speeds. As long as an ISP is advertising speeds of ‘up to 25/3 Mbps’, it is not breaking the FCC mapping rules.

The title of this blog calls this a fixation on 25/3 Mbps. This particular problem was created when the politicians that wrote the BEAD grant (and other federal grants) rules tied eligibility for funding to the FCC maps and to specific speeds. This is an incredibly shortsighted idea because, by definition, the FCC’s allows ISPs to overstate speeds.

I have no doubt that tying grant eligibility to the FCC maps was done at the prompting of the biggest ISPs who undoubtedly helped to write the BEAD grant rules. The other speed used to define grant-eligible areas is 100/20  Mbps. That speed was chosen for the BEAD rules after a lot of political wrangling. The 100/20 Mbps speed was chosen to provide cover to cable companies to avoid the risk of being overbuilt by BEAD grants. Even if a cable company isn’t quite delivering an upload speeds of 20 Mbps, it can avoid entanglements with grants by declaring in the FCC maps it is meeting that speed.

It’s hard to understand the motivation of an ISP that claims 25/3 Mbps broadband when it knows it is delivering something slower. In this case, the overstatement of speed means that a state will get less BEAD grant funding – something the ISP might be interested in receiving. A claimed speed of 25/3 doesn’t make an area ineligible for grant funding – it just reduces the funding the state will receive. I suspect most ISPs claiming 25/3 Mbps are just declaring the marketing speed and don’t have any other hidden agenda.

While false claims of ISPs delivering 25/3 hurt the amount of BEAD funding coming to a state, the real problem comes from ISPs that falsely claim to be able to deliver 100/20 Mbps broadband. Under the BEAD and other federal and state grant rules, such areas are considered as served and grant money can’t be used to compete in these areas. All an ISP has to do to keep away grant competition is to claim a marketing speed of 100/20 Mbps. I think many of the ISPs making claiming 100/20 Mbps know exactly what they are doing – they are trying to fend off faster competition.

To me, this is akin to when CenturyLink and Frontier changed the claimed speeds in tens of thousands of Census blocks right before the FCC determined the areas eligible for RDOF. The FCC rejected those last-minute changes, which were blatant attempts to protect monopoly rural areas from the RDOF funding.

Just as an aside, the FCC supposedly was going to make RDOF available to all unserved locations in the country. Even with the above reporting issues that are badly suppressing the count of unserved locations, there are still 8.3 million unserved areas in the country, according to the latest FCC maps. The fact that RDOF missed 8.3 million eligible locations is probably the best example of why grants and subsidies should never be tied to the FCC broadband maps.

I have a simple fix for the current situation. If I was the NTIA, I would make one simple change before allocating BEAD dollars. I’d reduce every claimed speed of exactly 25 Mbps broadband to 24 Mbps. I’d then invite ISPs to prove they can meet the 25/3 speed.  I would do the same and reduce every claim of exactly 100 Mbps download to 99 Mbps when defining grant eligible areas. My guess is that this change would produce more accurate maps than the ones we have now. I’d give ISPs plenty of time to claim that the adjustment is wrong – which would be a better conversation than the flurry of map challenges we’re now seeing.

However, while this idea has appeal, it would be another rule based on our fixation of defining broadband with a specific speed number.

The Latest FCC Maps

As promised, the FCC released a new set of maps on May 30. These are supposed to be the maps that will be used to allocate the $42.5 billion in BEAD grant funding to states. Broadband analyst Mike Conlow quickly published a blog on Substack about the new mapping data that includes a summary of the new map in easy-to-understand tables. Mike’s summary shows that there are more than 114.5 million broadband passings in the country – locations that could be broadband subscribers). That’s an increase of over 1 million locations since the last version of the FCC maps.

More importantly, the new maps can be used to count the number of households that can buy broadband at various speeds. The $42.5 billion in BEAD grant funding will be allocated to states according to the number of unserved locations – places that can’t buy broadband at a speed of at least 25/3 Mbps. Locations are underserved if there is an ISP that offers broadband between 25/3 Mbps and 100/20 Mbps. According to Mike’s quick math, there are 8.67 million unserved locations and 3.55 million underserved locations. Mike subsequently corrected the number of unserved locations to 8.3 million.

Anybody who is intimately familiar with the FCC maps knows that there is a lot of fiction buried in the reporting. There is one huge flaw in the FCC mapping system that has carried over from the previous FCC mapping regime – ISPs self-report the speeds they can deliver. Per the FCC mapping rules, ISPs can claim broadband marketing speeds rather than some approximation of actual speeds. In every county where I’ve delved deep into the local situation, I’ve found multiple ISPs that are overclaiming broadband speeds.

ISPs vary widely in how they report broadband speeds to the FCC. I see some ISPs who meticulously categorize customers into a dozen or more speed tiers. It’s fairly obvious that these ISPs are trying to accurately show the speeds that are available. But there are also ISPs that claim the same speed over a large geographic area. In today’s world, I’m always instantly suspicious of any ISP that claims exactly 100/20 Mbps broadband since that conveniently classifies those locations as served. An ISP making that claim is telling the FCC that everybody in their service footprint already has adequate broadband and that there is no need to give grant money to anybody to compete with them.

But such a claim is ludicrous if the ISP is deploying a technology like DSL, cellular wireless, or fixed wireless where it is impossible that every customer over a wide geographic area to get the ISP’s top claimed speed. Such claims are easy to debunk when you look closely. For example, customers only a few miles from a DSLAM or a tower can’t get the fastest speeds. There are multiple reasons why a given customer’s speed might be slower. Such claims are even more quickly debunked when looking at detailed Ookla speed tests.

A second flaw in the FCC maps is the coverage areas claimed by ISPs. The FCC is counting on public broadband challenges or challenges by State Broadband Offices to somehow fix this problem – but that’s an unrealistic hope. Most people don’t know about the FCC maps and the challenge process – and even people who know about it are not motivated to file a challenge about an ISP that claims service at their home that’s not really available. This issue can apply to any technology, but it’s particularly a problem for WISPs and cellular broadband. It’s not easy for a knowledgeable engineer to accurately judge the coverage area of a wireless network from a given tower – I have to think it’s beyond the capability of the folks at a State Broadband Office to understand it enough to challenge coverage. But it doesn’t take any expertise to know that a WISP or a cellular company claiming ubiquitous 100/20 Mbps coverage across large areas is exaggerating both speed and coverage capabilities.

It’s going to be interesting to see how States react to these final counts. There have been rumors about states ready to sue the FCC and the NTIA if they feel these maps will cheat them out of funding. There has been legislation introduced in the Senate that would force the NTIA to wait longer for better maps before allocating most of the funding. It’s going to be surprising if nobody pops up to challenge the allocation of the $42.5 million dollars. A challenge could pluge the BEAD grants into huge uncertainty.

An even bigger issue is if the FCC maps will be used to determine the locations that are grant eligible – because that would be a travesty. That would mean that every ISP that claims a bogus 100/20 Mbps broadband coverage will be rewarded by keeping out competition from grant funding. Regardless of how the funding is allocated to States, Broadband Offices need to be the ones to determine which locations in their State don’t have good broadband.

Future-proofing Grants

There has been a lot of discussion in the last few months about how wonderful it was for Congress to have increased the speed requirements for broadband grant eligibility to 100/20 Mbps in the $42.5 billion BEAD grants. But is it really all that wonderful?

It’s obvious that the FCC’s definition of broadband of 25/3 Mbps is badly out of date. That definition was set in 2015, and it seemed like an adequate definition at the time. If we accept that 25 Mbps was a good definition for download speed in 2015 and that 100 Mbps is a good definition in 2022, then that is an acknowledgment that the demand for download broadband speed has grown at about 21% per year, which is shown in the table below.

Historic Download Speed Demand in Megabits / Second

2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022
25 30 37 44 54 65 79 95

We have outside evidence that the 21% growth rate makes sense. Several times over the last decade, both Cisco and Opensignal opined that the residential demand for download speed has been growing at that same 21% rate. Cisco said that it thought business demand was growing at about a 23% clip.

This raises an interesting question of how good it is for a grant program today to use a 100 Mbps definition for broadband? The main reason that this is a relevant question is that the BEAD grants aren’t going to be constructed for many years. My best guess is that the majority of BEAD grants will be awarded in 2024, and ISPs will have four more years to finish network construction – until 2028. The above table shows how much broadband demand for download speed grew from 2015 until 2022. What might this look like by the time the BEAD networks are fully implemented?

Future Projected Download Speed Demand in Megabits / Second

2022 2023 2024 2025 2026 2027 2028
100 121 146 177 214 259 314

If we accept that 100 Mbps download is adequate today as a definition of download broadband speed, then if broadband demand continues to grow at 21% annually, the definition of download broadband ought to be over 300 Mbps in 2028. I know many cynics will say that broadband demand cannot continue to grow at the historic rate, but those same people would have said the same thing in 2015 – and been proven wrong. In fact, there has been a steady growth curve for broadband speed demand back into the 1980s. There is no evidence I’ve heard that would indicate that the demand growth has slowed down.

We don’t really need to have this theoretical discussion of adequate broadband speeds because the market is ahead of the above speed growth curves. Since the early 2000s, cable companies have unilaterally raised the speed of basic broadband to keep ahead of the demand curve. The cable companies have raised minimum speeds every few years as an inexpensive way to keep customers happy with cable broadband.

The cable industry is in the process right now of increasing the speed of basic download speed to 200 Mbps – a number higher than predicted by the table above for 2022. There is a strong argument to be made that the cable companies have been resetting the definition of broadband while regulators were too timid to do so. I can remember when the cable companies collectively and unilaterally increased speeds to 6 Mbps. 12 Mbps, 30 Mbps, 60 Mbps, 100 Mbps, and now 200 Mbps.

This argument is further strengthened when considering that the big cable companies serve almost 70% of all broadband customers in the country today. When Congress gave the FCC responsibility for broadband in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the requirement that the FCC has largely shoved under the rug was that rural broadband should be in parity with urban broadband. If 70% of new broadband subscribers in the U.S. are offered 200 Mbps broadband as the slowest basic product, it’s hard to argue that having a definition of anything under 200 Mbps today is not parity.

Congress wasn’t all that brave in setting the definition of grant-eligible at 100/20 Mbps. That is the lowest possible current definition of download speeds, and a number that is already starting to drift to be obsolete. Recall the gnashing of teeth in the industry last year while the legislation was being created – cable companies and WISPs both thought that 100/20 Mbps was too aggressive.

If we really wanted to future-proof the BEAD grants, then technology that won’t be built until 2028 should be required to deliver at least 300 Mbps download. Anything less than that means networks that the public will feel are inadequate as they are being deployed.

The 25/3 Mbps Myth

There is no such thing as a 25/3 Mbps broadband connection, or a 100/20 Mbps broadband connection, or even a symmetrical gigabit broadband connection on fiber. For a long list of reasons, the broadband speeds that make it to customers vary widely by the day, the hour, and the minute. And yet, we’ve developed an entire regulatory system built around the concept that broadband connections can be neatly categorized by speed.

I don’t need to offer any esoteric proof of this because every person reading this blog can easily prove this for themselves. Connect a computer directly into your incoming broadband connection and take a speed test multiple times throughout the day. Speed tests taken even minutes apart can vary by more than 10% and, depending upon the technology, can vary far more than that over a 24-hour period. What’s the speed being delivered to and from your home if the speeds you measure vary by 20%, 30%, or 40% over the course of a day? Assigning a single speed to describe your home’s broadband connection is a total fiction.

What do regulators mean when they set a speed definition of 25/3 Mbps? Does that represent the slowest speed that can be achieved, the fastest speed that can be achieved, or the average speed? There is no consensus on that. When a telco says it can deliver a speed of 25/3 Mbps the company is implying that it is capable of that speed, but doesn’t guarantee it. When a homeowner buys a 25/3 Mbps connection they view it as a speed they should be receiving and feel cheated if they get something slower. I’ll be honest – I have no idea what regulators think 25/3 Mbps means in the real world.

I would hope that every regulator understands that speeds are a convenient fiction that the FCC invented as a way to classify homes as having or not having broadband. A home connection that achieves 25/3 Mbps or something faster is considered to be broadband – anything slower is not considered to be broadband.

The big ISPs have always understood that choosing a speed to describe a broadband product is mostly symbolic in nature. Big ISPs regularly take advantage of the official definition of broadband to suit their goals. If a telco wants to create a regulatory block to keep away competitors it will overstate performance and declare its DSL to be 25/3 Mbps. But if having a slower speed means getting a subsidy, the same telco is likely to declare that speeds are less than 25/3 Mbps. Neither of those choices of naming the speed has anything to do with the actual broadband product being delivered – it’s just different manifestations of the speed fiction. Unfortunately, the pretense that ISPs can or cannot deliver certain target speeds has had real-life consequences. There are numerous communities that have been badly harmed by being denied broadband grant funding in the past because a big telco claimed the fictional broadband speeds of 25/3 Mbps.

It seems likely that the FCC will increase the definition of broadband to something like 100/20 Mbps in the upcoming year – and that is not going to stop speed from being an issue. Cable companies spent a lot of lobbying effort during the last year to make sure that the Congressional broadband grants can only be used in neighborhoods that don’t meet the speed requirement of 100/20 Mbps. The cable companies all swear they already meet that speed definition, and that means that the federal grants can’t be used to overbuild an existing cable company. It also means the cable companies can propose to use grant money to extend their coaxial technology outside current markets.

Our firm recently worked with two county seats that are served by big cable companies, and as part of those studies, we had residents take speed tests. With over 1,000 speed tests from cable customers, there were less than a dozen speed tests showing upload speeds faster than 20 Mbps upload, and over half had upload speeds of 10 Mbps or less. While many download speed tests were faster than 100 Mbps, about a fourth of download speed tests were under 50 Mbps. Do the cable companies in these towns provide 100/20 Mbps broadband? The speed tests would suggest that the cable companies aren’t meeting that speed definition for more than a tiny percentage of customers. These two towns (and most places that are served by a cable company) will fail a new FCC definition of broadband that requires 20 Mbps upload.

This all goes to show that a federal definition of broadband is a symbol only, a fiction. We already know that every cable company is going to swear that it meets the 100/20 Mbps definition of broadband – even when actual speed tests show this to not be true. They are going to say that their technology is capable of delivering upload speeds of 20 Mbps and that it doesn’t matter that they are underperforming. The cable companies worked hard to make sure that grants defined upload speeds as 20 Mbps rather than the 100 Mbps that was in the first draft of the Senate infrastructure bill. Just as the telcos manipulated the 25/3 Mbps definition of broadband to meet their purposes, the cable companies are going to do the same with 100/20 Mbps. It’s going to be shocking if any of the $42.5 billion in grants is used to overbuild a cable company – even if a cable company is badly underperforming.

The big ISPs have become masterful at using the federal speed definition to meet their purposes. The big federal grants include the worst of both worlds. They still have a test of defining unserved locations at 25/3 Mbps, allowing telcos to challenge any grant application. And the grants can be used to fund places with speeds up to 100/20 Mbps, allowing the cable companies to argue that the funds can’t be used to compete against them. It’s obvious that the big ISPs had a huge hand in drafting the federal grant language.

For years I have cringed every time I see a federal document that references 25/3 Mbps – because I know that the way that number is being used is a far cry from the broadband actually being delivered to homes. The definition of speed ought to be based on technology and not on the fiction of meeting achieving an imaginary speed goal. If the FCC wants to allow federal grants to overbuild DSL, they should say so. If they want to protect cable companies from competition, they should say so. But a policy that favors or disfavors certain technologies will never fly in a country where lobbyists influence policy. Instead, we’re going to keep seeing definitions of speeds that give the big ISPs the ammunition they need to fight against competition.

FCC’s 2020 Look at Broadband Speeds

The FCC recently released a Notice of Inquiry asking about the state of broadband in preparation for the upcoming 2021 report to Congress. The FCC is required to annually examine the state of broadband and this is the sixteenth NOI that is the first step towards creating the annual report.

In the NOI, the FCC provides a preview of what they are planning to tell Congress in the upcoming report. The FCC continues to pat itself on the back for closing the digital divide. Consider the following facts cited by the FCC in their opening paragraphs of the NOI:

The number of Americans lacking access to fixed terrestrial broadband service of at least 25/3 Mbps continues to decline, falling more than 14% in 2018 and more than 30% between 2016 and 2018. In addition, the number of Americans without access to 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) mobile broadband service with a median speed of at least 10/3 Mbps fell approximately 54% between 2017 and 2018. The vast majority of Americans, surpassing 85% of the population in 2018, now have access to fixed terrestrial broadband service at 250/25 Mbps, representing a 47% increase in the number of Americans with access to this speed since 2017. Over the same period, the number of Americans living in rural areas with access to such service increased by 85%. 

These statistics all sound great, but unfortunately, we can’t believe any of these claims. The FCC continues to draw conclusions based upon the badly flawed Form 477 data reported to the agency by ISPs. In every rural county I have examined, there are overstatements by ISPs of broadband speeds and availability – and those overstated coverages are included by the FCC as places that have good broadband. I’ve written blogs about entire counties that the FCC thinks haves good broadband, but where the ISP-reported broadband doesn’t exist. If the FCC’s NOI was being truthful, the above list of statistics would open with this sentence: “This report summarizes the broadband speeds and coverage that ISPs report to us. We have no way to know if any of these claims are true”.

Anybody who digs into the FCC data knows it’s terrible, but it’s impossible to know how bad it is. We get clues every time somebody takes a stab at developing a more accurate broadband map. The State of Georgia undertook a mapping effort and in July identified 507,000 homes in the state that don’t have access to 25/3 broadband. That number was 255,000 homes higher than what was shown by the FCC. If that same ratio holds everywhere in the country, then there are twice as many homes without broadband than what the FCC cites in the NOI. I think in many western states that the FCC data is even worse than what Georgia found.

What I find most troublesome about the NOI is that the FCC is planning to stick to the definition of broadband as 25/3 Mbps. It’s easy to understand why the agency wants to keep this speed as the definition of broadband. If the agency increases the definition of broadband, then overnight a whole lot more homes would be declared to not have good broadband. That would completely kill the FCC’s narrative that they are doing great work and closing the digital divide.

The FCC’s cited statistics argue against 25/3 Mbps as the right definition of broadband. Consider the statement above which says that 85% of homes have access to 250/25 Mbps broadband. If that is true, then almost by definition, the FCC’s should define broadband at least at 250/25 Mbps. After all, the FCC’s mandate from Congress is to measure and close the gap between urban and rural broadband. If urban broadband can deliver 250/25 Mbps to everybody, then by the Congressional mandate the speeds available urban America should be the target for rural America. To keep the definition at 25/3 Mbps is ignoring market reality – that most of the people in the country now have speeds far faster than the FCC’s obsolete definition of broadband. And perhaps worse of all, the FCC is drawing this conclusion based upon 2018 data. We know that homes are using roughly 50% more broadband today today than what they used in 2018.

Western Governors Take a Stance on Broadband

The Western Governor’s Association (WGA) represents all of the states west of the line starting with Texas north to North Dakota, includes Alaska, Hawaii, and the western American territories. The association has been jointly exploring issues of joint interest for the region in many years. In July, the WGA issued a policy position paper that lays forth goals for broadband for 2020 through 2028. This is one of the more concise descriptions I’ve seen of the problems due to poor broadband as well as a concise of a list of needed broadband solutions.

The policy paper begins with the simple statement that broadband is critical infrastructure. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the term ‘critical’ used at the FCC, which doesn’t share the same sense of urgency as the western governors.

The WGA states that the 25/3 Mbps definition of broadband is obsolete and that western economies and communities need faster broadband to prosper. The FCC recently proposed to stick with the 25/3 Mbps definition of broadband for yet another year and will still fund grants that would build new broadband networks that provide that speed. The governors support a faster definition of broadband that is scalable and that will increase as needed in the future.

The West has a lot of characteristics that make it difficult to find broadband solutions. Communities are often far apart and there are often few opportunities to monetize middle-mile fiber needed to connect communities. The West also has significantly large tracts of federal land that presents a challenge for building broadband infrastructure. Federal agencies like the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Indian Affairs play a crucial role in allowing (or hindering) the siting of broadband infrastructure. The governors ask for a more coordinated effort from these agencies to remove roadblocks for broadband deployment.

The WGA position paper tackles the inadequacy of the FCC’s 477 data gathering. They note that errors in this mapping are particularly egregious in sparsely populated rural areas where the FCC gathers the maximum advertised speeds instead of actual broadband speeds, which greatly overstates the availability of broadband throughout the West. The WGA supports Congressional funding to produce better data collection.

The WGA complains that there is a maze of broadband grants and financial assistance available from numerous federal agencies but that local communities are rarely able to sort through the opportunities and grants often go unclaimed. The governors support better coordination between federal agencies and states to identify grant opportunities.

The governors strongly support the use of more spectrum for rural broadband.

The governors support an expansion of the eligibility of telephone and electric cooperatives to build new broadband since these are entities that are tackling a lot of western broadband gaps.

The governors ask for better coordination of efforts to help find broadband efforts for tribal lands, which still are far behind the rest of the West in broadband availability and adoption.

The governors ask the federal government to provide more aid in the form of block grants. They say that states know better on how to solve local broadband problems than do federal agencies.

It’s an interesting document in that it is factual and completely non-partisan. As I’ve been contending for many years, broadband is not and should never be a partisan issue. The document reflects the ability of western governors from both parties able to reach an agreement on what’s needed for the region.

Time to Stop Talking about Unserved and Underserved

I work with communities all of the time that want to know if they are unserved or underserved by broadband. I’ve started to tell them to toss away those two terms, which are not a good way to think about broadband today.

The first time I remember the use of these two terms was as part of the 2009 grant program created by the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009. The language that created those grants included language from Congress that defined the two terms. In that grant program, unserved meant any home or business that has a broadband speed of less than 10/1 Mbps. Underserved was defined as homes having speeds above 10/1 Mbps but slower than 25/3 Mbps.

As far as I can tell, these terms have never been defined outside of broadband grant programs. However, the terms began to be widely used when talking about broadband availability. A decade ago, communities all wanted to know if they were unserved or underserved.

The terms began to show up in other grant programs after 2009. For example, the FCC’s CAF II grant program in 2015 gave money to the largest telephone companies in the country and funded ‘unserved’ locations that had speeds less than 10/1 Mbps.

The same definition was used in the ReConnect grants created by Congress in 2018 and 2019. Those grants made money available to bring better broadband to areas that had to be at least 90% unserved, using the 10/1 Mbps definition.

The biggest FCC grant program of 2020 has scrapped the old definition of these terms. This $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) grant program is being made eligible to Census blocks that are “entirely unserved by voice and with broadband speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps”. That seemingly has redefined unserved to now mean 25/3 Mbps or slower broadband – at least for purposes of this federal grant program.

There are also states that have defined the two terms differently. For example, following is the official definition of broadband in Minnesota that is used when awarding broadband grants in the state:

An unserved area is an area of Minnesota in which households or businesses lack access to wire-line broadband service at speeds that meet the FCC threshold of 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload. An underserved area is an area of Minnesota in which households or businesses do receive service at or above the FCC threshold but lack access to wire-line broadband service at speeds 100 megabits per second download and 20 megabits per second upload.

It must also be noted that there are states that define slower speeds as unserved. I’m aware of a few state broadband programs that still use 4/1 Mbps or 6/1 Mbps as the definition of unserved.

The main reason to scrap these terms is that they convey the idea that 25/3 Mbps broadband ought to be an acceptable target speeds for building new broadband. Urban America has moved far beyond the kinds of broadband speeds that are being discussed as acceptable for rural broadband. Cable companies now have minimum speeds that vary between 100 Mbps and 200 Mbps. Almost 18% of homes in the US now buy broadband provided over fiber. Cisco says the average achieved broadband speed in 2020 is in the range of 93 Mbps.

The time has come when we all need to refuse to talk about subsidizing broadband infrastructure that is obsolete before it’s constructed. We saw during the recent pandemic that homes need faster upload speeds in order to work or do schoolwork from home. We must refuse to accept new broadband construction that provides a 3 Mbps upload connection when something ten times faster than that would barely be acceptable.

Words have power, and the FCC still frames the national broadband discussions in terms of the ability to provide speeds of 25/3 Mbps. The FCC concentrated on 25/3 Mbps as the primary point of focus in its two recent FCC broadband reports to Congress. By sticking with discussions of 25/3 Mbps, the FCC is able to declare that a lot of the US has acceptable broadband. If the FCC used a more realistic definition of broadband, like the one used in Minnesota, then the many millions of homes that can’t buy 100/20 Mbps broadband would be properly defined as being underserved.

In the last few months, the FCC decided to allow slow technologies into the $16.4 billion RDOF grant program. For example, they’ve opened the door to telcos to bid to provide rural DSL that will supposedly offer 25/3 Mbps speeds. This is after the complete failure in the CAF II program where the big telcos largely failed to bring rural DSL speeds up to a paltry 10/1 Mbps.

It’s time to kill the terms unserved and underserved, and it’s time to stop defining connections of 10/1 Mbps or 25/3 Mbps as broadband. When urban residents can buy broadband with speeds of 100 Mbps or faster, a connection of 25/3 should not be referred to as broadband.

There They Go Again

The FCC issued the 2020 Broadband Deployment Report on April 20. It’s a self-congratulatory document that says that the state of broadband in the country is improving rapidly and that the FCC is doing a great job. I had a hard time making it past the second paragraph of the report which summarized the state of broadband in the country. Consider the following:

The number of Americans lacking access to fixed terrestrial broadband service at 25/3 Mbps continues to decline, going down by more than 14% in 2018 and more than 30% between 2016 and 2018. 

The FCC has no factual basis for this statement because they don’t know the number of households in the US that don’t have access to 25/3 Mbps broadband. The numbers cited are based upon the Form 477 data collected from ISP that everybody in the country, including the FCC, has acknowledged is full of errors. The FCC has proposed moving to a new method of data collection that will produce maps based upon drawing polygons that they hope will fix the rural broadband reporting problem. 

I’ve been working all over the country with rural counties and I have yet to encounter a rural county where the Form 477 coverage of 25/3 broadband is not overstated. In county after county, we find places where the big telcos and/or WISPs exaggerate the broadband speeds that are available and the coverage area available for faster speeds of broadband. The reporting problem is getting worse rather than improving as witnessed by a recent filing by Frontier to the FCC that claims they have improved speeds in 16,000 rural Census blocks to 25/3 Mbps broadband since June 30, 2019. This claim is made by a company that just went into bankruptcy and which the whole rural industry knows is not spending a dime on rural infrastructure. There were similar claims made by the other big telcos in a proceeding that was to determine the areas available for FCC grant funding.

The number of Americans without access to 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) mobile broadband with a median speed of 10/3 Mbps fell approximately 54% between 2017 and 2018. 

There has been a lot of rural cell sites upgraded from 3G to 4G as the big cellular carriers want to mothball 3G technology. However, any quantification of the improvement of cellular broadband coverage is suspect due to blatantly erroneous reporting by the big cellular carriers. In 2019 when the FCC went to award grant funding to upgrade rural cellular coverage the discovered that Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular had significantly overstated rural cellular coverage in an attempt to shuttle grant funds away from smaller cellular carriers. The FCC reacted by yanking that grant program and delaying it, in what is now called the 5G Fund. It’s hard to believe that the FCC would try to quantify the improvement in 4G coverage between 2017 and 2018 without acknowledging that this was the coverage that was badly overstated by the cellular carriers.  

AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon are also rapidly expanding their 5G capability, with 5G networks in aggregate now covering the majority of the country’s population, especially in urban areas, and more live launches planned for 2020.

The FCC clearly buys the 5G hype from the cellular companies which are claiming widespread 5G coverage. The cellular companies have introduced new spectrum into their 4G LTE environment, and the cellular marketers have labeled this as 5G. Much of the first wave of new spectrum being used is in lower frequency bands such as 600 MHz for T-Mobile and 850 MHz for AT&T. These lower frequency bands don’t carry as much data as higher frequencies and won’t be delivering faster broadband. However, new spectrum bands improve the chances of grabbing a channel to get the data speeds that 4G was already supposed to be delivering.

5G will not arrive until the carriers begin implemented the new features described in the 5G specifications. For now, none of the important new 5G features have yet made it to the market. So, contrary to the FCC telling the public that 5G is nearly everywhere, the truth is that it is not yet anywhere in the country. I’ll be curious in a few years to see how the annual FCC reports on broadband describe the actual introduction of 5G features. It’s likely they’ll parrot whatever language the cellular marketers spin by then.

This opening pat on the back is followed by page after page of broadband statistics that are based upon the lousy Form 477 reporting from ISPs. There is almost no statistic in this report that is entirely trustworthy.

This report is unfortunate in many ways. The FCC feels compelled to exaggerate broadband coverage so that they can’t be forced to try to fix broadband gaps. The sad aspect of this report is that this is the statistics cited in this report are used to determines which parts of rural America are eligible for broadband grants – and this report is largely a fairy tale. It would have been nice if the summary of the report had acknowledged that the FCC knows that their data is faulty – something they have openly recognized in other dockets. Instead, the FCC chose to spin this fanciful tale of rapidly improving broadband that does little more than provide cover for the FCC to not have to fix rural broadband. 

Are You Covered by the RDOF Grant?

The FCC has published a detailed map of the upcoming RDOF grant program that is overlaid on Google Maps. This let’s everybody in rural America see if they might be getting covered by the $16 billion grants that will be awarded in October of this year. This is the largest broadband grant to ever be awarded and will serve only rural areas. You can zoom in on this map to see if your home or business will be covered by this giant grant program.

If it turns out your neighborhood is covered by this grant, here are a few things you should know:

  • The money is being awarded by reverse auction with different ISPs competing for the money. The ISP willing to take the least amount of federal grants will win the award for your area. There is one twist on the auction in that any ISP offering gigabit speeds wins the grant after a few rounds of bidding.
  • ISPs can use any technology that delivers at least 25/3 Mbps broadband to participate in the grant auction. The auction is weighted to try to give the money to faster technologies. However, the winner in your area could be proposing to use DSL, fixed wireless, satellite broadband, or fiber. The technology you will be served with is going to depend on the ISP that wins your area. You should be able to find out the technology that is coming to your neighborhood when the auction is finished sometime near the end of this year.
  • You might not see a solution quickly. Winners will have 6 years to complete construction, meaning that some homes in the winning areas won’t get broadband until 2026. Since people are being asked to work and school from home, that’s a really long time to wait.
  • If nobody wins the grant money in your area it would go back into the pot for a smaller $4 billion grant to be awarded in 2021.

What if you aren’t covered by these grants and don’t have good broadband? What are your chances of seeing a broadband solution?

It’s possible that your area would have been covered by the $1.5 billion reverse auction grants awarded last year. However, if your area was awarded one of these grants then hopefully you’ve already heard about it.

If you live really close to one of these RDOF areas, there is a chance that the winner of these grants might build to your home. However, that’s something that you aren’t likely to know for a long time, and the chances are not good that you’ll be covered.

There will be a second FCC auction in 2021 for $4 billion that will cover additional areas that are not on this map. $4 billion will cover a much smaller area than this map – but some folks will get a second chance. That auction is likely to have the same rules, meaning that you might not see a broadband solution until 2027. It’s likely that the FCC will issue a second map similar to this one for the areas covered by those grants.

There are other federal grant programs such as the ReConnect grants that are awarding smaller dollars. The ReConnect grant for this year is $300 million for the whole country and was boosted by $100 million in the COVID-19 stimulus package. There is no guarantee that this grant program will carry into the future – it’s been funded now for the last few years as part of the annual agriculture bill.

There are also state grant programs that might cover you. Most of the state grant programs are relatively small, but they are helping to spread broadband. However, there is a significant chance that a lot of state grant money will be used as matching funds for the RDOF grants.

If you have poor broadband options and you aren’t covered by this grant there is a good chance that you just got screwed. There are many millions of homes and business that don’t have good broadband that are not covered by this grant. That blame can be laid squarely on the FCC. The FCC is using information supplied by ISPs to define areas that are eligible for this grant. There are huge parts of rural America where the ISPs are falsely claiming to offer 25/3 speeds, and such areas are not included in this grant.

The FCC knows they are using faulty data and they decided to move forward with these grants anyway. The areas covered by the RDOF grants don’t have good broadband, but there is an even larger geographic area of the country that should be eligible for federal grants that have been shut out due to the FCC never insisting on good mapping data from ISPs.

If your neighborhood has poor broadband and isn’t covered by these grants, then you need to yell bloody murder to anybody and everybody. Complain to local, state and federal politicians. The fact is that if your neighborhood isn’t on these maps, or isn’t covered by a few other existing grant programs, then you are not likely to be getting broadband with federal grant assistance any time soon. You aren’t going to be alone and there are millions of other rural residents in this same situation – so join forces and shout until there is a solution.