Why I am Thankful – 2017

Every year at Thanksgiving I take a pause to look at the positive things happening with the small carrier industry. This is not the easiest year to make a list because we currently have an FCC that clearly is in the pocket of the big ISPs like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast. While some of the new FCC policies supporting those big companies will benefit all ISPs, in many cases the FCC decisions are given the big ISPs a leg up over competition. But there are still things to be thankful about in our industry:

Demand for Broadband Intensifies. In the work I have been doing in rural communities it’s becoming clear that broadband has moved from a nice-to-have feature to a must-have commodity. I see evidence of this in several different ways. First, rural communities and their citizens are making a lot of noise to politicians about not having broadband. The broadband issue has become the top priority in many communities. I also see evidence of rural broadband demand when looking at the high penetration rates that come from projects being built in areas that didn’t have good broadband. Over the last few years I’ve seen such projects getting customer penetration rates between 65% and 85%. I call this a good news topic for rural carriers since it means there are still lots of opportunities for expansion, and enough customer demand to help pay for broadband projects. It’s not a positive that there are still so many communities with no broadband, but the positive here is that communities are making demands, which is the first step towards finding a solution.

Public Private Partnerships are Thriving. Very few government entities want to be an ISP and they are instead hoping to find commercial partners to bring better broadband to their communities. In just this last year I’ve worked with half a dozen local governments that have contributed funding to public private partnerships, where the government acts like the bank and the ISP owns and operates the network. Since rural broadband projects are often a challenge to finance this is a promising new trend.

ACAM Money is Financing Fiber. The ACAM money from the Universal Service Fund is being used to expand fiber and advance broadband in rural areas all over the country. The fact that some rural communities are getting fiber is helping to drive the demand for other who want the same thing. We’ll have to wait until next year to see of the CAF II reverse auctions drive similar results.

Wireless Technology Getting a Lot Better. I have a lot of clients who are now deploying point-to-multipoint radios for broadband deployment. Over the last three years these radios have improved dramatically. They are more reliable, almost approaching plug-and-play. By combining multiple frequency bands they deliver bigger broadband pipes, faster speeds and a much-improved customer experience. Depending on customer density the networks can be designed to deliver 25 Mbps to a lot of customers with some speeds as fast as 100 Mbps. There are still big issues with the technology in heavily wooded or hilly areas, but there are a lot of places where the technology is now delivering a great broadband connection.

New Revenue Opportunities Materializing. While voice revenues continue to decline and many of clients are getting clobbered on cable TV, I see a number of them doing well with new products. I have clients getting decent penetration rates with managed WiFi. I have some clients doing well with security. And I have clients making some good margins on smart home technologies. Selling new products is out of the comfort zone for many small ISPs and it requires some new thinking to successfully sell a new product – but I’ve seen enough success stories to see that it can work.

Means Testing for FCC Funding – Part I

A recent blog by FCC Commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Mignon Clyburn asks if there should be a means test in federal high cost programs. This blog is something every telco, school, library or health care provider that gets any form of Universal Service funding needs to read.

There is already some means testing in the Universal Service Fund. For instance, the Lifeline program brings subsidized voice and broadband only to households that meet certain poverty tests. And the Schools and Libraries program uses a mean test to make certain that subsidies go to schools with the most low-income students. The FCC blog talks about now applying a means test to the Universal Service Funds that are used to promote rural broadband. There are several of these programs, with the biggest dollar ones being the CAF II funding for large telcos and the ACAM program for small telcos to expand rural broadband networks.

The blog brings up the latest buzzword at the FCC, which is reverse auction. The FCC embraces the concept that there should be a competition to get federal money to expand broadband networks, with the funding going to the carrier that is willing to accept the lowest amount of funding to expand broadband into an area. On the surface that sounds like a reasonable suggestion in that it would give money to the company that is the most efficient.

But in real-life practice reverse auctions don’t work, at least for building rural broadband networks. Today these FCC infrastructure programs are aimed at bringing broadband to places that don’t have it. And the reason they don’t have it is because the areas are largely rural and sparsely populated, meaning costly for building broadband infrastructure. In most of these places nobody is willing to build without significant government subsidy because there is no reasonable business plan using commercial financing.

If there was a reverse auction between two companies willing to bring fiber to a given rural area, then in my experience there wouldn’t be much difference between them in terms of the cost to build the network. They have to deploy the same technology over the same roads to reach the same customers. One might be slightly lower in cost, but not enough to justify going through the reverse auction process.

And that is the big gotcha with the preference for reverse auctions. A reverse auction will always favor somebody using a cheaper technology. And in rural broadband, a cheaper technology means an inferior technology. It means using federal funding to expand DSL or cellular wireless as is being done with big telco CAF II money instead of building fiber, as is being done by the small telcos accepting ACAM money.

Whether intentional or not, the FCC’s penchant for favoring reverse auctions would shift money from fiber projects – mostly being done by small telcos – to the wireless carriers. It’s clear that building cellular technology in rural areas is far cheaper than building fiber. But to use federal money to build inferior technology means relegating rural areas to dreadfully inadequate broadband for decades to come.

Forget all of the hype about how 5G cellular is going to bring amazing broadband speeds – and I hope the FCC Commissioners have not bought into cellular company’s press releases. Because in rural areas fast 5G requires bringing fiber very close to customers – and that means constructing nearly the same fiber networks needed to provide fiber into homes. The big cellular companies are not going to invest in rural 5G any more than the big telcos have ever invested in rural fiber. So a reverse auction would divert federal funds to Verizon and AT&T to extend traditional cellular networks, not for super-fast wireless networks.

We already know what it looks like to expand rural cellular broadband. It means building networks that deliver perhaps 20 Mbps to those living close to cell towers and something slower as you move away from the towers. That is exactly what AT&T is building with their CAF II funding today. AT&T is taking $426 million per year for six years, or $2.5 billion in total to expand cellular broadband in rural areas. As I’ve said many times in the past this is perhaps the worse use of federal telecom funding I have ever seen. Customers on these cellular networks are getting broadband on day one that is too slow and that doesn’t even meet the current FCC’s definition of broadband. And in the future these customers and rural communities are going to be light-years behind the rest of the country as household demand for broadband continues to grow at a torrid pace while these customers are stuck with an inadequate technology.

The FCC blog also mentions the concept of possibly re-directing future USF payments, and if I am a small telco that scares me to death. This sounds like the FCC may consider redirecting this already-committed ACAM funding. Numerous small telcos just accepted a 10-year commitment to receive ACAM funding from the USF Fund to expand broadband in rural areas, and many are already borrowing matching funds from banks based upon that commitment. Should that funding be redirected into a reverse auction these small companies will not be able to complete their planned expansion, and if they already borrowed money based upon the promise of that ACAM funding they could find themselves in deep financial trouble.