FCC Proposes Rules for $20.4 Billion Broadband Grants

On August 2 the FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that proposes rules for the upcoming grant program that will award $20.4 billion for rural broadband. Since every FCC program needs a name, this grant program is now designated as the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). An NPRM is theoretically only a list of suggestions by the FCC, and there is a comment period that will commence 30 days after the NPRM is posted in the Federal Register. However, realistically, the rules that are proposed in the NPRM are likely to be the rules of the grant program. Here are a few of the highlights:

Timing of Award. The FCC proposes awarding the money in two phases. The Phase I award will be awarded late next year and will award over $16 billion. The Phase II will award will follow and award the remaining $4.4 billion. I know a lot of folks were hoping for a $2 billion annual grant award – but most of the money will be awarded next year. Anybody interested in this program should already be creating a network design and a financial business plan because the industry resources to create business plans are going to soon be too busy to help.

The money will be paid out to grant recipients over 10 years, similar to the ACAM program for small telcos. Grant recipients need to understand the time value of money. If an ISP wins a $1 million grant and borrows money at a rate of 5.5% interest, then the actual value of the grant in today’s dollars is a little more than $750,000.

Areas Eligible for Award. The Phase I auction will only be awarded in areas that are wholly unserved using the definition of broadband as 25/3 Mbps or faster. The areas covered can’t have anybody capable of getting broadband faster than that. The FCC is likely to publish a list of areas eligible for the Phase I grants. Unfortunately, the FCC will use its flawed mapping program to make this determination. This is likely to mean that many parts of the country that ought to be eligible for these grants might not be part of the program.

Phase II is likely to be targeted at areas that did not see awards in Phase I. One of the open questions in the NPRM that is not yet firm is the size of award areas. The NPRM asks if the minimum coverage area should be a census block or a county. It also asks if applicants can bundle multiple areas into one grant request.

The FCC is considering prioritizing areas it thinks are particularly needy. For example, it may give extra grant weighting to areas that don’t yet have 10/1 Mbps broadband. The FCC is also planning on giving extra weighting to some tribal areas.

Weighting for Technology. Like with the CAF II reverse auction, the grant program is going to try to give priority to faster broadband technologies. The FCC is proposing extra weighting for technologies that can deliver at least 100 Mbps and even more weighting for technologies that can deliver gigabit speeds. They are also proposing a grant disincentive for technologies with a latency greater than 100 milliseconds.

Use of Funds. Recipients will be expected to complete construction to 40% of the grant eligible households by the end of the third year, with 20% more expected annually and the whole buildout to be finished by the end of the sixth year.

Reverse Auction. The FCC is proposing a multi-round, descending clock reverse auction so that bidders who are willing to accept the lowest amount of subsidy per passing will win the awards. This is the same process used in the CAF II reverse auctions.

Overall Eligibility. It looks like the same rules for eligibility will apply as with previous grants. Applicants must be able to obtain Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) status to apply, meaning they must be a facilities-based retail ISP. This will exclude entities such as open access networks where the network owner is a different entity than the ISP. Applicants will also need to have a financial track record, meaning start-up companies need not apply. Applicants must also provide proof of financing.

Measurement Requirements. Grant winners will be subject to controlled speed tests to see if they are delivering what was promised. The FCC is asking if they should keep the current test – where only 70% of customers must meet the speed requirements for an applicant to keep full funding.

I see problems with a few of these requirements that I’ll cover in upcoming blogs.

An Effective Federal Broadband Program, Part 4

outdoor-indoor-cable-161This is the final in a series of ideas on establishing a federal broadband construction program. It is assumed in these comments that such a program would include some form of federal financial assistance to build fiber networks such as grants, loans or loan guarantees.

Fix the Pole Problem. One of the biggest impediments I see for building fiber is getting reasonable access to poles. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 established the right to get on commercially-owned utility poles. But that new set of rules excluded poles owned by municipalities and rural electric cooperatives. Those exclusions need to be ended.

But the biggest problem with pole access is that there is no remedy for dealing with pole owners that are uncooperative or that fight the connections. Recalcitrant pole owners can easily destroy a business plan through delays. There are states that have solved this issue by allowing a new connector to build without permission if a pole owner takes too long to respond to a request for connection – and the FCC should adopt something similar. In areas where it’s too expensive to bury fiber, access to poles is the only way to bring real broadband.

The Financing Dilemma. The stimulus grants and other grant and loan programs have generally required that an applicant has already lined up the rest of the financing required to complete the project. This is a great example of the chicken and the egg dilemma in that most financial institutions are not going to expend their resources to thoroughly review a loan applications until the applicant cam prove the remainder of the funding (the grant). This one requirement stopped a lot of good projects from asking for stimulus funding because they were stuck in financial limbo between bankers and the federal government that each wanted the other side to commit first. Obviously a grant can be paid until all of the funding is in place, but there must be a reasonable time allowed to secure financing after a grant award.

Don’t be Afraid to Impose Policy Objectives. The stimulus grants imposed a handful of rules that were meant to benefit the public good. For instance, they made middle-mile fiber builders serve ‘anchor institutions’ such as schools, city halls and other government institutions.

But if large amounts of federal monies are given for building last mile fiber then there should be some requirements imposed on funding recipients to meet important broadband social goals. This might include a few things like:

  • A Robust Low-Income Broadband Product. Anybody taking federal funding for fiber should be mandated to participate in the federal broadband Lifeline program to provide affordable broadband to low-income homes. Today carriers participating in the Lifeline program are allowed to offer horrendously slow speeds to customers – 10/1 Mbps for wireline connections. If somebody is taking federal money to build fiber, then Lifeline speeds ought to always at least be at whatever is determined by the FCC to be broadband, which is currently 25/3 Mbps.  Further, the current Lifeline products have FCC sanctioned small data caps that punish customers for using the Lifeline broadband. The monthly cap is 150 gigabits for landline, and an unbelievably small ½ gigabit for cellular. These stingy data caps invalidate the stated purpose of the Lifeline program which is to enable low-income households to benefit from a broadband connection. These caps ignore the basic cost drivers of the industry and there is virtually no cost difference between a household using 150 GB per month and one using 500 GB per month. These caps are social policy decisions, not ones based upon the economics of the industry.
  • No Data Caps. Again, if the federal government pays a significant portion of the cost to build a fiber network, then that network should impose no data caps on any customers at any speeds. Data caps are a way to say to customers – here is broadband, just don’t use it. Data caps are clearly a way to extract more money out of customers over and above the base broadband rates.

An Effective Federal Broadband Program, Part 3

outdoor-indoor-cable-161This is the third in my series of blogs looking at the best way to administer a federal broadband construction program. Since there is talk of having an infrastructure program that might include money for broadband, I hope that the folks at places like the NTIA are giving these issues some thought. The last time around the stimulus grants caught them and the whole industry by surprise. But this time, with some advanced thought and planning we can do better and get more bang from any federal dollars. After all, if there is a broadband program, it ought to have the number one goal of bringing broadband to as many people as possible. Following are some additional thoughts on structuring a federal program:

Consider Local Conditions More. The stimulus grants included a simplistic formula that offered different levels of grant funding to served and underserved communities. We need to get more sophisticated this time around and realize that the cost of broadband networks has a lot more to do with terrain and density than it does with whether customers are served or unserved. There is a huge difference in the cost to reach an unserved customer in the open plains of the Midwest compared to Appalachia. And other local conditions like the state of poles can make a big difference in cost. The CAF II funding took a stab at the differences by using proxy cost models to try to reflect the relative cost to construct in different parts of the country. But even those models are too simplistic and we can do better.

This also means that there should be no predetermined formula that determines of the amount of matching funds that are available for any project. Sparsely populated areas might require more than 50% federal matching to make the numbers work. I know it’s difficult to not be formulaic, but ideally each proposal for funding should be analyzed on its own and the appropriate funding award made according to the circumstance.

Be Open to Funding All Qualified Providers. The stimulus grants (particularly the ones awarded by the RUS) had a built in bias to give the money to existing RUS borrowers. For broadband that means basically small telcos and some electric coops. If we want to get broadband to the most rural places, then anybody willing to step to the plate with a good business plan and some experience needs to have an equal chance. This might mean ISPs, municipalities, cooperatives, cable companies or fiber overbuilders. There is angst among smaller carriers that any federal funding will go to the largest telcos and that smaller providers won’t get an opportunity to try for the money, as was done with CAF II.

Takes Time to have Shovel Ready Projects. At any given point in time there are not many shovel ready projects that are positioned to take funding immediately. My fear is that any federal program is going to come with a built-in clock ticking and will try to give out the money in a relatively short amount of time like was done with the stimulus grants. It can easily take a year to create a shovel ready project even for a community that is highly motivated. There are a lot of steps that must be undertaken before completing a grant application. And if there is a requirement that the matching funding must be in place in order to participate then that time frame can easily be a lot longer. So my hope is that any program gives the industry enough time to get ready. If the funds are going to be awarded within a year then it’s going to be a disaster and a lot of bad projects will get funded just because they were able to scratch together the funding request quickly. This can be successful if broadband money can be awarded over a two to four-year period rather than all at once. The longer the time frame, the better the proposed projects will be.

Don’t Break the System. There are a limited number of firms available to help put together business plans and to make engineering estimates. If a federal program tries to give out a lot of money too quickly there are not enough qualified engineers and financial consultants available to get the work done – and it’s not easy for these firms to staff up with people that have the necessary existing knowledge. We also saw shortages with fiber cable and electronics right after the stimulus plan. All segments of the industry are staffed and geared to an anticipated level of demand and it’s hard for the whole industry to pivot and react quickly to a massive new demand for services and components.

Make the Grant Forms Understandable. I have been doing telecom accounting since the 1970s and there were things on the stimulus grants forms that I didn’t understand. Bring in a panel of industry experts early to make sure that the forms used to ask for money are done in a way that the industry understands. A format that asks for financial input in the manner that the industry keeps their books will provide a lot more consistency between grants requests.

Tennessee Broadband Study

TennesseeThe State of Tennessee recently undertook the biggest investigation into broadband that I’ve seen from any state. More than 23,000 homes and businesses participated in the study process. What the study found was very familiar to those of us who work every day with broadband issues.

The genesis of the report was from a number of meetings held around the state by Randy Boyd, the new state Commissioner of Economic and Community Development. He reported that during his numerous ‘listening’ sessions around the state that the issue raised the most was about lack of access to broadband. This showed him that the state has a big broadband problem and led to this report.

The report asked what the definition of broadband ought to be in the state. The settled on the 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload used by the FCC. The study showed that 71% of homes with speeds at or above 25 Mbps said they had enough speed while only 48% of homes with 10 Mbps or less said they had enough speed. They discovered that upload speeds matter to businesses and that 3 Mbps seemed to be the minimum threshold for business-level service.  Possibly the most important finding in the study was a warning that the use of bandwidth continues to grow dramatically and that any definition of broadband will need to be continually increased in the future.

The study looked at actual broadband utilization in the state. They determined that 125,000 people in the state have no access to wireline broadband. The report also found that:

  • 69% of businesses and 76% of homes don’t have access to 25 Mbps broadband.
  • Competition means better speeds. For businesses, areas with only one facility-based ISP averaged 22.5 Mbps while areas with three ISPs averaged 43.8 Mbps.
  • 54% of households were connected with the slowest technologies – DSL, cellular wireless, satellite and dial-up.
  • They found that half of households that chose not to buy broadband cite the cost of broadband as their barrier to buying it.

The consultants hired by the state were asked to estimate how much it would cost to build broadband to all of those that didn’t have it. They estimated that it would cost $1.26 billion to build fiber to areas that today have broadband speeds less than 10/1 Mbps. They estimated it would cost $1.72 billion to build fiber to areas that don’t have 25/3 Mbps broadband.

They also looked at the cost of a fixed wireless network and those costs were $1 billion for places with less than 10/1 Mbps broadband and $1.36 billion for those without 25/3 broadband. Those estimates seem high to me. But they might include building a lot of backbone fiber to feed towers and also take into consideration the rugged terrain in much of the state.

The report is concluded by looking for solutions. The report recommended that the state has to get involved if it wants to help to bring broadband everywhere. And so it recommends the following as necessary for the state’s involvement:

  • Strong public leadership that champions broadband
  • Formation of a state broadband office or similar agency
  • Need to find ways to promote effective public-private partnerships
  • Public seed funding and grant programs to encourage investment in broadband
  • Transparency
  • Proper planning and due diligence

This study looked at broadband in Tennessee at a much more granular level than is done by various federal studies. Tennessee is a diverse state and is a mixture of big cities and rural back roads, much of it with rough terrain. But looking at 23,000 homes and businesses represents a big sample of the state and adds validity to the findings. Like a lot of Appalachia, Tennessee has more houses using older technologies for broadband than other parts of the country.

It will be interesting to see if the state acts on this report. Normally this kind of report is followed by a lot of lobbying by the big telcos and cable companies to discredit the results. The conclusions of the report are dead on. As much as governments might sit and hope that the commercial sector will somehow solve their broadband problems, we know in rural America that this will largely not happen. If a state wants to bring broadband to rural residents it must get involved – and the recommended solutions have proven to be effective in states like Minnesota.

State Contributions for Broadband

DEEDThe FCC has documented very well the lack of rural broadband. They gave out a tiny handful of ‘experimental’ broadband grants that were supposedly going to be the precursor to a large federal broadband grant program funded by the Universal Service Fund. But as usually happens with these things, politics took over and $9 billion was instead awarded through the CAF II program to the largest telcos to expand rural broadband to a paltry 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload.

And this is a shame because $9 billion could have been used as seed money in matching grants to build a whole lot of last mile broadband. This money could have seeded perhaps $40 billion to $50 billion of fiber in rural areas which would have meant that a lot of areas would get real broadband solutions. What’s probably the saddest is that the CAF II program lasts for six years, so that money is going to be tied up for a long time.

There doesn’t look to be any other move to provide federal funding for fiber, but there are some states that have been looking at the issue. But, as you might imagine, politics comes into play in these efforts as well. There aren’t a whole lot of state programs that are trying to fund fiber, but consider these two that are:

Minnesota crated the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program, created by the Legislature in 2014 and administered by the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). The grant provides dollar-for-dollar matching for constructing last mile fiber, although the money is likely to go to projects that contribute a higher percentage of the cost of a project. Minnesota is one of the lucky states that is running a budget surplus and this seemed like a good way to spend some of that money. There are numerous rural communities in the state that are actively seeking a broadband solution, so there is no lack of potential projects to be funded.

This was created in the 2014 legislature and the original bill asked to fund this with $100 million. The cable companies and carriers lobbied heavily against this funding, not wanting to have the state fund any competitors – although the funding was supposed to be used in areas where there is no broadband today. And the carriers were successful and chopped the grant pool down to $20 million.

When that money was awarded last year it went almost entirely to independent telephone companies and the only non-incumbent recipient of the grant was a new start-up cooperative. There were numerous applications from municipalities, but none were funded. The governor has recently recommended funding $200 million to this fund over the next two years, and we’ll have to wait and see how much of this makes it through the political gauntlet.

California has a program called the California Advanced Services Fund. Attempts to create funds within that program to build rural fiber have also been met with stiff opposition from the large incumbents.

Recently a bill was introduced to add $350 million to that fund, $150 million of which would go directly towards building last mile fiber in the form of matching grants. Past attempts to get infrastructure funding failed. The latest proposal has made it clear that any funding would only go to rural areas (in the last proposal it could have gone to urban areas). The new funding also has a significant pot of money allocated to broadband adoption efforts and for bringing broadband to public housing. Proponents of the bill are hoping that this will be more acceptable to the opponents, but if the past is any indicator the incumbents don’t want any competition of any kind.

It’s certainly laudable for the states to tackle broadband. There are obviously not going to be any federal programs aimed at the problem for now and anybody who understands broadband knows that help is needed in getting broadband to rural areas. But it seems that every attempt by states to tackle the problem gets killed or whittled down to the bare bones during the political process.