Not Giving Up on CAF II

Brandon Presley, a Commissioner on the Public Service Commission of Mississippi, recently sent a letter to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel asking the FCC to investigate AT&T’s performance under the CAF II program. This FCC program gave AT&T $280 million to improve rural broadband speeds in the state to at least 10/1 Mbps.

Presley’s letter follows a request a year earlier from all three Mississippi Commissioners asking the FCC to conduct a full compliance audit on AT&T. The letter said that the PSC had documented specific examples of where AT&T had not done any upgrades, including listing homes as having improved service that have no broadband service.

This is an issue that I’ve written about many times. My consulting firm helps rural counties across the country undertake large volumes of speed tests – and in some counties, we can’t find any rural DSL customers who are receiving 10/1 Mbps DSL. These counties weren’t just served by AT&T, and we’ve seen the same thing happening in counties served by Frontier, CenturyLink, and Windstream.

To be fair to the telcos, the problem is not universal. We have done speed tests in counties where most rural DSL speeds exceed 10/1 Mbps. But it looks to us like there are a lot of places where the telcos didn’t do much, if anything, with the CAF II funding. In many of our studies, we also do field engineering inspections, and we’ve often found no new fiber construction and rural DSL cabinets still running old DSL technology. We’ve seen in many counties where the DSL speeds in the county seats has improved, and we speculate that the telcos upgraded the town DSL using the CAF II but didn’t spend the money as promised in the rural areas.

We no longer have to rely on our small sample of county speed tests because the recent NTIA maps and the DSL maps created by some states show the same thing. Those maps are often created by huge numbers of speed tests. We know that speed tests are not perfect, but when large-scale speed tests show that nobody is meeting the CAF II 10/1 Mbps target that it’s pretty certain that no upgrades were made.

As you might expect, AT&T denies the allegations in Mississippi. They claim to “have invested billions of dollars, building out our wired and wireless networks across Mississippi, and we are proud of the work we have done as a company to keep communities connected and help fuel Mississippi’s economy. . . We are also proud of the work we have done through federal and state programs that help expand critical connectivity in underserved and unserved areas, including the FCC’s Connect America Fund Phase II program. We have worked closely with the FCC and USAC on this program and any suggestion that we filed false data is patently incorrect.”

The AT&T situation is more complicated than the other big telcos because AT&T largely says it is meeting the CAF II requirements using fixed cellular service. It’s probably true that customers today who are in the range of AT&T towers that have received the new bands of frequency being labeled as 5G can receive faster broadband. But those new cellular networks don’t reach everybody in rural areas, and there are still a lot of cellular dead spots. More importantly, AT&T only started to upgrade the rural cellular networks after the end of the CAF II program.

Hopefully, this issue soon becomes history if the new round of federal grants brings faster broadband to these rural areas. But Commissioner Presley is worried that AT&T and the other big telcos will chase the new funding and will repeat history by underperforming on promises made to regulators.

This also raises the question about whether there should be large penalties against the telcos who didn’t make the upgrades. It would not be hard for the FCC to make a list of counties where upgrades weren’t made. They have access to large amounts of speed tests, and they could also activate local governments to investigate and provide feedback.

I personally think the right remedy is that the telcos must return the full amount of funding in areas where they didn’t make upgrades and that money ought to supplement the BEAD grants and be given to whoever is going to bring better broadband to the affected counties.

Ideally, the FCC or other federal agencies would prohibit any telco that is caught cheating in this manner from getting any further rural subsidies. The big telcos are lining up to pursue the $42.5 billion in BEAD grants that will probably be awarded a year or so from now. AT&T recently announced that these big grants have enticed it to add a goal of 5 million new fiber passings in rural areas. Since those grants are administered by the states, AT&T might have a challenge getting any of the BEAD grants if State officials like Commissioner Presley have any input on the grant winners.

Big Telcos and Federal Grants

Several large telcos have announced big plans to expand fiber coverage, and I assume that also means heavily participating in the upcoming $42.5 billion BEAD grants that are aimed primarily at bringing better broadband to rural areas.

When Frontier came out of bankruptcy, the company announced plans to pass 6 million homes with fiber by 2025. As part of its Build Gigabit America plan, the company raised that goal to 10 million homes. Frontier already has undertaken the first step in that plan. It set a goal of 495,000 new fiber passings for 2021 but recently announced that it expects to hit 600,000 passings for the year.

AT&T also has big plans. The company has been steadily building a fiber customer base and announced at the end of the third quarter that it now has 5.7 million fiber customers, representing a 37% market share of its 15.4 million fiber passings. A year ago, AT&T announced a goal to pass 25 million homes and businesses by 2025 – another 10 million passings. CEO John Stankey announced recently that the federal infrastructure bill will entice AT&T to increase that goal to 30 million passings, adding 5 million rural passings.

Windstream didn’t express expansion plans in terms of passings but announced this past summer that it is embarking on a $2 billion fiber expansion plan. It seems likely that the federal grants will entice the company to tackle even more growth.

Consolidated Communications is passing 300,000 new potential customers with fiber this year and has plans to continue fast growth into the future. I couldn’t find any specific plan related to federal grants, but I speculate that the company is likely going to chase grants close to existing properties.

The big mystery is CenturyLink. The company is passing 400,000 locations with fiber this year. But the company also announced the sale of its copper networks in twenty states.

It’s likely that all of these telcos want to benefit from the huge upcoming federal grants. The easiest ways for telcos to take advantage of the federal grant is to plan to overlash fiber onto existing telco copper where the companies are already the incumbent. But if the grants are lucrative enough, they might seek grants in other areas as well.

It would be interesting to be a fly on the walls of the corporate board rooms of these big telcos to see how they feel having the huge federal funding flowing through the states. The big companies have always done well with subsidies coming directly from the federal government, such as the $11 billion CAF II subsidies.

But will the telcos do as well with funding being decided at the state level? State regulators and state governments across the country have been unhappy with the way that the big telcos abandoned rural telephone networks. Most states have been able to make an easy comparison between smaller telcos and cooperatives that have invested in rural fiber and the big telcos that have done as little as possible to keep rural networks operating.

I’m curious about the degree to which the big telcos might have burned their bridges with past behavior. I know a lot of state regulators and state broadband offices who will not want to see money going to the companies that were largely responsible for creating the rural broadband gap. Are states going to be willing to give another chance to these big telcos?

I am sure that the state politics involving these grants is going to get intense. Most of the broadband offices that will be awarding these grants will be understaffed and under a lot of pressure to spend the grant money on schedule. Legislators are bound to get involved in some states to try to steer the grant process, although the federal money must meet federal grant rules set by the NTIA. Governors will also weigh in on the issue, and in some states, the grant offices are part of the executive branch. State regulators who have tussled with the big telcos will weigh in. And the public is likely to make itself heard as communities are coalescing around grant applications.

It’s going to be nearly impossible to follow grant policies and trends everywhere when all fifty states will be embarking on a giant grant program at the same time. One thing is for sure – the next few years are going to be interesting.

States Fight Back Against CAF II

Jon Brodkin of ArsTechnica wrote a recent article about the Mississippi Public Service Commission (PSC) notifying the FCC that AT&T had failed to meet its CAF II requirements in the state. AT&T had taken over $49 million per year for six years ending this December and was supposed to use that money to upgrade broadband to almost 144,000 residents in the state to at least 10/1 Mbps broadband.

The PSC notification informs that FCC that they don’t believe the upgrades have been done or that many of those homes were able to get faster broadband. AT&T has certified to the FCC that the CAF II work has been completed on schedule. AT&T has stonewalled the PSC on data requests to find out how many homes have successfully been able to access faster broadband.

The FCC is supposed to begin testing CAF II homes in 2021 and is supposed to fine the big telcos like AT&T if homes in the CAF II area aren’t getting the faster speeds. However, that testing program is badly flawed in that the telcos are going to have some say about which homes get tested, and they’ll certainly funnel the testing into places that meet the speed test.

AT&T elected to use the CAF II funding to upgrade speeds by offering fixed cellular service to customers that formerly had slow DSL service. From what I can see, AT&T has not widely advertised the new wireless product and it’s unlikely that they have added many people to the cellular technology in Mississippi or anywhere else. The company is refusing to tell the state how many homes are on the new product.

Unfortunately, what AT&T is doing in Mississippi is not unusual. AT&T took $2.57 billion nationwide for CAF II and it’s likely It hasn’t made many upgrades in other states as well. I’ve seen a lot of evidence that Frontier ($1.7 billion) and CenturyLink ($3.03 billion) have also failed to upgrade rural customers. Those two companies elected to mostly upgrade rural DSL to the faster speeds. We’ve recently had engineers in counties where Frontier and CenturyLink were supposed to make CAF II upgrades and we could find no evidence of upgraded DSL anywhere in the rural parts of these counties. We’ve also helped counties to solicit speed test from citizens and we’ve studied a number of counties where no rural DSL service tested even close to the 10/1 Mbps goal of CAF II.

To make matters even worse, the FCC recently decided to award these big telcos a seventh year of subsidy. That means AT&T will get $428 million in 2021, Frontier will get $283 million, and CenturyLink will get $506 million. The companies have no obligation for this addition funding and don’t have to use it to improve rural broadband.

While 10/1 Mbps broadband isn’t great, it’s a lot better than the DSL that was in these rural areas in 2015 when the CAF II payments began. The CAF II areas are remote and most customers who could even get DSL saw speeds under 1 or 2 Mbps download.

The impact of AT&T’s failure to make the upgrades became apparent this year when millions of students were sent home during the pandemic. A student might be able to squeak out a school connection on a 10/1 Mbps broadband connection, but students cannot function on the slower DSL that is still in place due to lack of upgrades. The actions of the FCC and the greed of the big telcos robbed millions of rural homes from getting better broadband.

The failure of CAF II rests entirely on the FCC. The last FCC under Chairman Wheeler awarded the funding to upgrade to 10/1 speeds, even though the definition of broadband at the time was 25/3 Mbps. The current FCC under Chairman Pai has turned a blind eye to the non-performance of the big telcos and absurdly is awarding them with an additional year of CAF II funding. The overall CAF II program handed out over $10 billion in funding for improving rural broadband that might as well have been flushed down the drain. The FCC could have awarded this money instead to broadband grants that could have brought better broadband in the CAF II rural areas.

I hope the Mississippi PSC does more than just write a letter. I’d like to see them ask for AT&T to refund the CAF II money to the state to use for broadband grants. And I’d love to see other states do the same and take back the billions of CAF II broadband funding that was wasted.

The Regulatory Struggle to Maintain Copper Networks

The California Public Utilities Commission has been investigating the quality of service performance on the telco networks operated by AT&T and Frontier. The agency hired the consulting firm Economics and Technology, Inc. to investigate numerous consumer complaints made against the two telcos. Thanks go to Steve Blum for following this issue in his blog.

Anybody who still has service on the two carriers will not be surprised by the findings. The full study findings have not yet been released by the CPUC, but the portions that have been made public are mostly what would be expected.

For example, the report shows a correlation between household incomes in neighborhoods and the quality of service. As an example, the average household incomes are higher in neighborhoods where AT&T has replaced copper with fiber. More striking is a correlation between service calls and household income. The annual frequency of repair calls is double for neighborhoods where the average household income is $42,000 per year or less compared to neighborhoods with household incomes of $88,000 or more.

Part of that difference is likely because more high-income neighborhoods have fiber, which has fewer problems and generally requires less maintenance. But there are also hints in the report that this might be due to economic redlining where higher-income neighborhoods get a higher priority from AT&T.

This is not the first time that AT&T has been accused of redlining. I wrote a blog a few years ago about a detailed study made in Dallas, Texas that showed a direct correlation between the technology being delivered and household incomes. That study followed up on a similar report from Cleveland, Ohio, and the same things could likely be said for the older telco networks in almost every big city.

The big telcos are in a rough spot. The older copper networks have largely outlived their economic lives and are full of problems. Over the years copper pairs of wire in the outdoor cables have gone bad and the remaining number of working copper pairs decreases each year. The electronics used to deliver older versions of DSL are long out of production by the telco vendors.

I’m not defending the big telcos, because the telcos caused a lot of their own problems. The telcos have deemphasized copper maintenance for decades. The copper networks would be in bad shape today even had they been maintained perfectly. But purposefully neglected maintenance has hastened the deterioration of copper networks. Additionally, the big telcos have also been laying off copper-based technicians over the last decade and the folks who knew how to best diagnose problems on copper networks are long gone from the companies. Consumers have painfully learned that the most important factor in getting a repair made for DSL or copper is the knowledge of the technician that shows up to investigate an issue.

The California Commission is likely at some point to threaten the big telcos with penalties or sanctions, as been done in the past and also by regulators in other states. But the regulators have little power to effect improvements in the situation. Regulators can’t force the telcos to upgrade to fiber. And no amount of documentation and complaining is going to make the obsolete copper networks function any better. AT&T just announced that on October 1 that it is not longer going to add new customers to the DSL network – that’s likely to really rile the California Commission.

I’m not sure exactly how it will happen, but the day is going to come, likely during the coming decade when telcos will just throw up their hands and declare they are walking away from copper, with zero pretenses that they are going to replace it with something else.  Regulators will rant and rave, but I can’t see any ways that they can stop the inevitable – copper networks at some point won’t work well enough to be worth pretending otherwise.

AT&T Stops DSL Sales

USA Today reported last week that AT&T stopped selling new DSL to customers on October 1. This is an event that will transform the broadband landscape in a negative way across the country. There are a number of immediate consequences of this action by the company.

Probably the most dramatic impact will be that many rural customers will no longer have an option for landline broadband. While rural DSL broadband is slow, a DSL connection at speeds between 1 Mbps and 6 Mbps beats the alternatives – which is satellite broadband or cellular hotspots. Since there are a lot of rural homes where those two technologies don’t work, this means some homes will suddenly have no broadband option. Expect to soon see stories of folks who buy rural homes and then find they have no option to buy broadband.

In cities where AT&T DSL is the only alternative to a cable company broadband service, this move bestows total monopoly power to the cable company. Our firm does broadband surveys and we still find markets where AT&T DSL represents as much as a 30% market share. Many homes buy DSL because it costs less, and that option just got taken off the table in AT&T markets. And just like in rural markets, every city has customers who’s only choice is DSL. For various reasons, there are streets in most cities where the cable companies never constructed network. Any customer moving into one of these broadband deserts will find themselves with no broadband alternative.

According to an article just published by Ars Technica, only 28% of AT&T broadband customers have access to AT&T fiber – anybody living in the neighborhoods without fiber will no longer be able to buy broadband from AT&T. That has to equate to tens of millions of households that just lost a broadband option. The FCC proudly measure the number of homes with multiple broadband options, and I’ll be curious to see if they recognize this sea change in the market.

This change will stop the practice of customers who hop back and forth between DSL and cable company broadband to save money. I just talked to a customer the other day that has bounced between DSL and cable company broadband for almost twenty years. Both the cable company and the telco offer introductory prices each time for swapping, and this customer has gone back and forth between the ISPs regularly every few years. In neighborhoods where AT&T is the telco DSL provider, this might mean the end of introductory special prices from the cable company – they now have zero incentive to compete for customers.

I would have to think that Verizon will eye this announcement closely. They have openly said that they want to do away from copper network technology. This might be all of the push needed for Verizon to follow suit. This announcement might be citied in telco history as the beggining of the end of copper wires. AT&T says they won’t be tossing folks off DSL service, but will no longer connect new customers to the DSL technology. Over time this is going to mean fewer and fewer customers on copper, and I suspect AT&T already has a date in mind when they walk away from the technology completely.

Ironically, AT&T just recently announced that they were going to claim a seventh year of CAF II support in 2021 and will collect over $427 million in subsidies next year to supposedly support rural DSL. Hopefully, the FCC will view this announcement as grounds for stopping such payments. It would be absolutely insane to give millions to AT&T to support a technology that the company will no longer sell or install.

This timing of the announcement is also curious at a time when the pandemic is still raging. This means a home that needs to buy broadband to support students or adults working from home will no longer have that option if the only wired connection is AT&T DSL.

This announcement also creates an interesting dilemma for the FCC. Will the FCC pretend that the huge AT&T DSL footprint still exists? It’s impossible to pretend that areas have a broadband option when the only provider of landline service refused to connect new customers. I’m sure the FCC will act as if this announcement never happened – because recognizing it means now counting millions of homes as having no broadband option.

This day has been inevitably coming for decades. Regulators have long pretended that they could demand that the big telcos keep supporting an obsolete technology. AT&T and Verizon have been telling regulators for years that they are going to walk away from copper, and now one of the big telcos is doing so. It’s just a matter of time until AT&T begins decommissioning DSLAMs and starts tearing down copper wires for the salvage value – and I can’t see any way that regulators can stop them.

The Breakup of AT&T

I finally got around to reading a book that’s been on my list for a long time. The book is The Deal of the Century: The Breakup of AT&T by Steve Coll. This book came out in the 1980s and chronicled the events and the big personalities involved in the divestiture of AT&T into the Baby Bells on January 1, 1984. I worked with Southwestern Bell until just before divestiture and watched how the topic consumed everybody inside the old Ma Bell business. The monopoly that has been steady for a century was suddenly a perilous place to work, and career employees found their futures to be uncertain.

This is blog is not a book review, although I recommend this book for anybody that wants to understand how we ended up with the telecom industry we have today. The book has two focuses. It looks at the court cases involved in the processes. People may not remember that the antitrust case against AT&T had been going on for a long time before Judge Harold H. Greene took over the case. He brought discipline to the prosecution and singlehandedly got the case on track.

The book also looks at the big personalities involved in the case. In addition to Judge Greene was John D. deButts and Charles Brown, the presidents of AT&T that fought, but eventually agreed to the divestiture.  On the prosecution side was Assistant Attorney General Charles Brown and outside counsel George Saunders. Also playing a big role from Congress was Peter Rodino from New Jersey and Tim Wirth from Colorado. The book describes the chain of events and interplay of personalities that eventually led to breaking up AT&T.

Looking back 36 years after the breakup it’s easy to see how divestiture changed the telecom industry in both good and bad ways. On the plus side, it introduced competition. The premise of the divestiture was about allowing competition for long-distance service. It’s probably hard for kids today to believe that making a long-distance call required an affordability assessment when talking to somebody outside the local calling area cost ten cents or more per minute – at wage levels a fraction of today. Long-distance has gotten so cheap today that it is thrown in on telecom products. Nobody thinks twice about calling somebody and talking for an hour on a cellphone or across a computer link.

However, the idea of competition didn’t end with divesture and there is a straight line between the AT&T divestiture and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that allowed competition for local service in addition to long-distance. That spelled the end of the telecom monopoly.

Probably the best outcome of the breakup of AT&T was the way that competition opened up the development of the Internet. If Judge Greene had not been successful, we may not have seen the success of the dial-up ISPs that relied on telephone lines to function. An AT&T monopoly would have been able to fend off and maybe block cable company broadband networks. Without robust long-distance competition, we probably wouldn’t have seen the same successful development of the cellular industry – it likely would have remained as a tool for corporations and the wealthy.

But there is a flip side to the successes due to competition. Increased competition led to decreased regulation. As long-distance companies and the cable companies pummeled the regulated telcos we saw federal and state regulators allow the telcos to deregulate. That deregulation is probably the biggest factor that has culminated in today’s badly deteriorated and non-functional rural telecom networks. The idea of carrier-of-last-resort has seeped away over the years and regulators stopped insisting that regulated telcos take care of the needs of rural customers. In most parts of rural America, the telecom landscape is probably the worst it’s been for a century. Nobody is tasked with making sure rural America has broadband.

Unfortunately, the idea that everything in the telecom world ought to be open to competition ignores the fact that landline networks work best as monopolies. We’ve seen the consequences of the competition movement in two big ways. In urban areas, the cable companies have largely become the new monopolies, but nobody seems to want to invoke that word or talk about invoking monopoly regulation. In rural areas, every big telco has largely walked away, and nobody wants to make infrastructure investments that don’t make high rates of return. The only long-term solution to having broadband everywhere is a regulated environment that ensures that most rural places share in the benefits of affordable communications. The challenge we face is figuring out a path from today’s fully deregulated world back to something that will work for rural America. I’ve heard dozens of simplistic suggestions on how to make this work again, but it’s a puzzle that I’m not sure can be solved.

Loving to Hate Our Big ISPs

The American Customer Satisfaction Survey (ACSI) was released earlier this summer that ranks hundreds of companies that provide services for consumers. Historically cable companies and ISPs have fared poorly in these rankings compared to other businesses in the country. The running joke reported in numerous articles about this survey is that people like the IRS more than they like their cable company (and that is still true this year).

But something interesting happened in this year’s survey and the ranking for cable companies collectively improved by 3% and consumer confidence in ISPs climbed 5%. There is no easy way to understand a national satisfaction survey, but those trends are interesting to contemplate.

Let’s start by looking at the numbers. Consumers still rank cable TV providers as the least liked group of companies in the country across all industries, joined at the bottom by ISPs. The ACSI ranks each company and each industry segment on a scale of 1 to 100. The top-rated industries are breweries (84%), personal care and cleaning products (82), soft drinks (82), and food manufacturing (81).

By contrast, cable providers are ranked the lowest at 64 followed closely by ISPs at 65. Joining these companies at the bottom are local governments (65.5), video-on-demand providers (68), and the federal government (68.1).

The overall ranking for cable providers grew from a 62 in 2019 to a 64 in 2020. I can only speculate why people like cable companies a little more this year. This could be due in part to huge growth in cord-cutters who no longer watch traditional cable TV and who might perhaps no longer rate a product they don’t use. Or perhaps folks have come to appreciate the cable product more during the pandemic when people are going out less, and likely watching TV more.

The cable providers at the bottom of the rankings continue to get low satisfaction ratings, with Suddenlink (56), Frontier (58), and Mediacom (60). Just above these companies are two of the largest cable providers – Charter (60) and Cox (61). But all of these companies had a slightly improved satisfaction ranking over 2019. The highest-ranked cable providers continue to be Verizon FiOS (70) and AT&T U-verse (70), now relabeled as AT&T TV.

ISPs didn’t fare much better. It’s worth noting that this list contains many of the same companies on the cable provider list, but consumers are asked to rank cable services separately from broadband services. The overall satisfaction for ISPs grew from a 62 in 2019 to a 65 in 2020. The same three providers are at the bottom – Frontier (55), Suddenlink (57), and Mediacom (59). At the top are the same two providers – Verizon FiOS (73) and AT&T Internet (68).

Part of the explanation of the change in approval ratings for the industries might be little more than statistical variance within the range of sampling. The rankings of individual ISPs vary from year to year. Consider Charter, ranked as an ISP. The company was ranked highest in 2013 and 2017 at a 65 ranking and lowest in 2015 (57) and 2019 (59). This year’s increase might just be variance within the expected range of sampling results.

What matters a lot more is that our cable companies and ISPs are generally consumer’s least favorite companies. This has always benefited smaller ISPs that compete against the big companies. One of the most common forms of advertising for smaller ISPs is, “We are not them”.

People don’t rate cable companies and ISPs so low due because they deliver technical products. Other technology sectors have much higher satisfaction ratings such as landline telephones (70), cellphones (74), computer software (78), internet search engines (76), and social media (70). Consumers are also like electric utilities a lot more than cable companies and ISPs – electric coops (73), and investor-owned and muni electric companies (72).

It’s always been somewhat disheartening to work in an industry that folks love to hate. But I’ve always been comforted by the fact that my smaller ISP and cable clients generally fare extremely well when competing against the big ISPs and cable companies. I have to assume this means people like small ISPs more than the big ones – or perhaps hate them a little less. That’s something every small ISP should periodically consider.

Walking Away from Copper

It’s been clear for many years that the big telcos are looking for ways to walk away from legacy copper networks. Big telco copper is getting old and most was built in the 1950s and 1960s. All of this copper is far past the 40-year expected lives that the telcos claimed when they built the networks. Even old copper can be made to work if it was well-maintained, but the big telcos stopped doing routine maintenance on copper decades ago. For years, the big telco maintenance policy has been to patch problems without improving or fixing network issues.

In some cases, the big telcos have gone through the formal FCC process of formally retiring copper. This requires giving customers a 90-day notice that copper will be deactivated and providing customers an alternative to copper.  For example, Verizon posts notices of copper retirement on this web site. There have been no announced retirements this year, likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Verizon was active last year, like in this September notification for Massachusetts. CenturyLink has made similar notices in parts of Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.

In all of these cases, Verizon and CenturyLink made the announcements in communities where the carriers can provide fiber-to-the-home. It’s a natural technological progression to replace old copper technology with new fiber, and customers who lose copper to move to fiber have little room to complain.

But what about all of the places where the telcos never plan to offer fiber? There are still huge areas, including big parts of major cities where the telcos have no plans of migrating to fiber. What will happen to folks in regions where the copper is rotting past the point of usefulness, like is described in this article from last year in Fauquier County, Virginia? In that county the copper barely works for voice, which is sadly becoming the norm and not the exception.

There is nothing the big telcos can do with copper that has gone past the point of no return. No telco is going to replace bad copper and none of the big telcos are going to extend fiber into rural America or into urban neighborhoods where construction is too expensive. Verizon might be replacing copper with fiber around Boston, as indicated by the above filing, but the telco has no plans for building fiber in western Massachusetts, Cape Cod, or the many other places in the state where it never built FiOS fiber.

We might have gotten a glimpse into Verizon’s strategy when the company recently unveiled a 4G fixed wireless product. This 4G Home product promises to deliver 25 Mbps broadband using the 4G cellular network and Verizon could point to this product as a justification to abandon DSL over copper.

On paper, the 4G Home product will outproduce rural DSL, which typically has speeds well under 10 Mbps. But the Fauquier County article pointed out another ugly truth – much of rural America has poor cellular coverage to go along with outdated copper. The 4G Home product is not going to work for homes that are more than a mile or two from a cell tower. 4G Home is not going to be a reasonable substitute for DSL in communities like the towns on Cape Cod where the density is too high to support a lot of subscribers using 4G data as a landline data substitute – even a small customer penetration would swamp the 4G LTE network in populated areas.

AT&T has a similar fixed wireless product it introduced during the past year as the solution for meeting the company’s rural CAF II requirements. I’ve been tracking this product on the web and still don’t see local articles or chatter from many folks who have changed to the wireless product. AT&T has implemented this product to satisfy the FCC (and to keep the CAF II grant funding), but for some reason the company doesn’t seem to be pushing the product very hard.

The bottom line is these telcos will have to walk away from copper at some point within the next decade for the simple reason that the networks will stop functioning. From what I can see, both the FCC and many state regulatory commissions refuse to acknowledge that copper is dying and keep pretending that the telcos can somehow make this work. These networks are dying. The telcos might toss a bone to regulators by halfheartedly offering a wireless substitute for DSL. But the telcos are under no obligation to offer a replacement if the copper dies. Sadly, we’re going to look up five years from now and find a lot of rural homes without a telephone line and a cellular connection. There was a time when that was unthinkable, but it’s the coming reality.

AT&T Argues for Broadband Reform

Ed Gillespie, the Senior Executive Vice President of External & Legislative Affairs at AT&T posted a policy position on the AT&T website that argues for major policy reform to better bring broadband to low-income homes and rural areas.

It’s hard for any broadband advocate to not agree with the suggestions Mr. Gillespie is making:

  • He wants Congress to finish funding the new FCC mapping program to identify homes without access to broadband.
  • He supports additional broadband grant funding for programs like the $20 billion RDOF grants.
  • He supports Lifeline reform and says that it should be as easy for low-income homes to apply a Lifeline discount as it is to use a card to buy food from the SNAP program.
  • He thinks funding should be increased for the Lifeline program and should be funded by Congress rather than funded through a 26% tax on interstate telephony.

I hope AT&T is serious about these proposals because having them lobby for these ideas would help to move the needle on digital inclusion. It’s just odd to see these positions from AT&T since they have spent a lot of effort and dollars arguing against some of these policies.

Mr. Gillespie complains that a lot of the current $9.25 Lifeline discount program is used by MVNOs and other carriers that have not built networks. That’s an ironic argument for AT&T to make since the company has done it’s best to walk away from the Lifeline program. AT&T no longer offers Lifeline in 14 states – AL, AR, FL, IN, KS, KY, LA, MS, NC, NV, SC, TN, and WI. AT&T still participates in Lifeline in 6 states, but only because those states refuse to allow the company to exit the Lifeline program.

Of course, this would not be an AT&T policy paper if the company didn’t pat itself on the back a bit. Mr. Gillespie brags that the ISP networks in the country weathered the big increase in web traffic due to the pandemic even though predictions were made that networks would collapse. He claims that AT&T made it through the pandemic due to light touch regulation. The fact is, once it was understood that the new traffic on the web was coming during the daytime when the network wasn’t busy, I don’t know any network engineer who thought that the web would collapse. I also wonder why AT&T would claim to have weathered the pandemic well – I would challenge AT&T to bring forth happy customers using AT&T DSL and ask for their testimonials on how the AT&T network enabled multiple people to work from home at the same time.

Mr. Gillespie is also calling for an expansion of the concepts used in the RDOF grants. Those grants provide funding for new broadband networks in rural areas that have the worse broadband. Before supporting an expansion of that grant program, I think many of us are holding judgment on the RDOF reverse auction process. While I think it’s likely that there will be beneficial grants given to those willing to build rural fiber networks, I also fear that a huge amount of these grants are going to be wasted on satellite broadband or other technologies that don’t bring rural broadband in line with urban broadband. I’m not ready to bless that grant program until we see how the reverse auction allocates money. I also can’t help being suspicious that AT&T’s position in favor of more grants reflects a hope to win billions of new grant dollars.

Interestingly, even though he never says it, the reforms that Mr. Gillespie is asking for require new broadband regulation. I’m sure that Mr. Gillespie must realize that bills needed from Congress for these reforms are not likely to stop with just AT&T’s wish list. We are long overdue for a new telecommunications act that brings broadband regulation in line with today’s reality. The last such law was passed at a time when people were flocking to AOL for dial-up access. It’s highly likely that new telecom legislation is going to go beyond what AT&T is calling for. It’s likely that new legislation will give some broadband regulating authority back to the FCC and will likely include some version of net neutrality. It’s ironic to see arguments for a stronger FCC when the FCC walked away from regulating broadband at the urging of AT&T and the other giant ISPs. Perhaps even AT&T knows it went too far with deregulation.

Where is Net Neutrality When we Need it?

Just in the last two weeks two stories hit the press that highlight behavior from ISPs that would have likely have violated the Net Neutrality rules that were killed by Ajit Pai’s FCC. The big ISPs have been surprisingly quiet and have not loudly violated those rules, even though they are no longer in effect. The industry speculation is that the big ISPs are treading lightly because they don’t want to trigger a regulatory overreaction should there be a chance of party in the administration or Congress.

The first headline says that AT&T is excluding HBO max from the calculation of any data caps. This is a big deal for AT&T cellular customers and not insignificant for AT&T landline broadband customers that face data caps.

AT&T defends this by referring to other ‘sponsored data plans’ in the industry, like the one offered by T-Mobile that lets premium customers exclude usage from YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Sling YV, ESPN, Showtime, Starz and other sources of video.

I don’t know enough to know if T-Mobile is violating the old net neutrality rules. Net neutrality rules would allow an ISP to exempt all video from data caps and would not violate any rules because the ISP wouldn’t be discriminating against any particular source of video. However, if T-Mobile is being paid by those companies to exclude their data from data caps, then T-Mobile would also be violating the spirit of net neutrality. AT&T’s exclusion of HBO Max from data caps is more blatant since AT&T owns HBO – the policy is clearly being made to benefit HBO over Disney, Netflix or other competitors of HBO.

It was easy to predict that sponsored data is something that carriers would be pushing the envelope on, even if net neutrality was still in effect. It’s something that customers like, and so it’s hard to fire the public up that sponsored data is bad for the industry. But it is. AT&T is clearly disadvantaging other video services in favor of their own. If T-Mobile doesn’t exclude all video from data caps they are doing the same thing – just not to advantage their own video product. The original FCC net neutrality order pointed out that sponsored data can make it hard for a new market entrant, and they could be right – we don’t see a lot of new names of companies that stream video.

The second headline is one that broadband customers everywhere will hate. Jon Brodkin in arstechnica describes a situation where Cox is slowing down the upload path to a customer for using too much broadband – and even worse is openly admitting to capping the upload speeds for an entire neighborhood.

I won’t recount all of the details of the story. In a nutshell, there is a customer that is backing up huge amounts of data each night from midnight until 8:00 am. It takes that long to complete the backup because the upload speed available to the customer is only 35 Mbps. If this customer was on symmetrical fiber this backup could be done quickly. Apparently, this customer has been doing the same thing for years, but they have recently been notified by Cox that they need to stop the practice or be kicked from the network. Cox also threatened by cut the upload bandwidth available to the whole neighborhood.

This particular customer uses over 8 terabytes of data per month, which is an extraordinary amount of usage on a home broadband line. But if the usage is all really late at night, it’s unlikely that this is very disruptive to the neighborhood.

What’s extraordinary about this is that the customer doesn’t seem to be violating the Cox terms or service. The customers is already paying extra to avoid the data cap to get unlimited data. Cox is basically saying to the customer that there is some secret usage threshold that they associate with ‘unlimited’ data – yet they won’t give the customer a targeted usage threshold.

Where Cox really crosses the line is when they threaten to penalize an entire neighborhood for using too much data. According to Brodkin this one customer is not the only example of this same behavior by Cox.

If we had an FCC that regulated broadband they would likely slap Cox for this behavior. What’s odd is that Cox doesn’t have to be so arbitrary. They could easily have established rules in the terms of service and their products that could have legally handled this situation. Instead, the sold unlimited data and decided afterwards that there really is a limit on the amount of data they are willing to provide. The fault for this situation seems to lie mostly in the legal department at Cox rather then with the customer who has had the same usage for years.

ISPs ought to realize that the regulatory pendulum always swings the other way. Ajit Pai has completely deregulated one of the largest industries in the country that touches almost everybody. That pushes the regulatory pendulum as far as it can go towards the ‘unregulated’ side, and it’s inevitable that a future Congress or FCC is going to bring back regulation again at some point. When they do, all of the bad behavior by ISPs during this time of deregulation will be used as examples of why regulation is necessary. If the ISPs push the envelope too far they regulatory pendulum will swing a lot further in the regulated direction than they are going to like.