A Peek at AT&T’s Fixed LTE Broadband

Newspaper articles and customer reviews provide a glimpse into the AT&T wireless LTE product being used to satisfy the original CAF II obligations. This article from the Monroe County Reporter reports on AT&T wireless broadband in Monroe County, Georgia. This is a county where AT&T accepted over $2.6 million from the original CAF II program to bring broadband to 1,562 rural households in the County.

Monroe is a rural county southeast of Atlanta with Forsyth as the county seat. As you can see by the county map accompanying this blog, AT&T was required to cover a significant portion of the county (the areas shown in green) with broadband of at least 10/1 Mbps. In much of the US, AT&T elected to use the CAF II money to provide faster broadband from cellular towers using LTE technology.

The customer cited in the article is happy with the AT&T broadband product and is getting 30/20 Mbps service. AT&T is cited in the article saying that the technology works best when serving customers within 2 miles of a cell tower, but that the coverage can sometimes extend to 3 miles. Unfortunately, 2 miles or even 3 miles isn’t very far in rural America and there are going to be a lot of homes in the CAF II service area that will be too far from an AT&T cell tower to get broadband.

From the AT&T website, the pricing for the LTE broadband is as follows. The standalone data product is $70 per month. Customers can get the product for $50 per month with a 1-year contract if they subscribe to DirecTV or an AT&T cellular plan that includes at least 1 GB of cellular broadband allowance. The LTE data product has a tiny data cap of 215 GB of download per month. Customers that exceed the data cap pay $10 for each additional 50 GB of data, up to a maximum fee of $200 per month.

The average household broadband usage was recently reported by OpenVault as 275 GB per month. A household using that average broadband would pay an additional $30 monthly. OpenVault also reported recently that the average cord cutter uses over 520 GB per month. A customer using a cord cutter level of data would pay an additional $70 per month. The product is only affordably priced if a household doesn’t use much broadband.

The article raises a few questions. First, this customer had to call AT&T to get the service, which apparently was not being advertised in the area. He said it took a while to find somebody at AT&T who knew about the LTE broadband product. The customer also said that the installer for the service came from Bainbridge, Georgia – which is a 3-hour drive south from the AT&T cell site mentioned in the article.

This highlights one of the major problems of rural broadband that doesn’t get talked about enough. The big telcos all have had massive layoffs over the last decade, particularly in the workforces supporting copper and rural networks. Even should one of these big telcos offer a rural broadband product, how good is that product without technician support? As I travel the county, I hear routine stories of rural folks who wait weeks to get broadband problems fixed.

When I heard that AT&T was going to use LTE to satisfy it’s CAF II requirements, my first thought was that their primary benefit was to use the federal funding to beef up their rural cellular networks rather than to start caring about rural broadband customers. In Monroe County, AT&T received almost $1,700 per CAF household, and I wonder if they will all see the benefits of this upgrade.

I’ve always suspected that AT&T wouldn’t aggressively market the LTE broadband product. If they were heavily marketing this by now, at the end of the fifth year of the CAF II buildout, there would be rural customers all over the country buying upgraded broadband. However, news about upgraded broadband is sparse for AT&T, and also for CenturyLink, and Frontier. I work with numerous rural counties where the local government never heard of CAF II since the telcos have done little marketing of improved rural broadband.

The article highlights a major aspect of the plight of rural broadband. We not only need to build new rural broadband infrastructure, but we need to replenish the rural workforce of technicians needed to take care of the broadband networks. The FCC needs to stop giving broadband money to the big telcos and instead distribute it to companies willing to staff up to support rural customers.

Auditing the Universal Service Fund

I recently heard FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks speak to the Broadband Communities meeting in Alexandria, Virginia. He expressed support for finding broadband solutions and cited several examples of communities that don’t have good broadband access today – both due to lack of connectivity and due to the lack of affordable broadband.

One of his more interesting comments is that he wants the FCC to undertake a ‘data-driven’ analysis of the effectiveness of the Universal Service Fund over the last ten years. He wants to understand where the fund has succeeded and where it has failed. Trying to somehow measure the effectiveness of the USF sounds challenging. I can think of numerous successes and failures of USF funding, but I also know of a lot of situations that I would have a hard time classifying as a success or failure.

Consider some of the challenges of looking backward. Over the last decade, the definition of broadband has changed from 4/1 Mbps to 25/3 Mbps. Any USF funds that supported the older speeds will look obsolete and inadequate today. Was using USF funding nine years ago to support slow broadband by today’s standards a success or a failure?

One of the biggest challenges of undertaking data-driven analysis is that the FCC didn’t gather the needed data over time. For example, there has only been a limited amount of speed testing done by the FCC looking at the performance of networks built with USF funding. A more rigorous set of testing starts over the next few years, but I think even the new testing won’t tell the FCC what they need to know. For example, the FCC just changed the rules to let the big telcos off the hook when they decided that USF recipients can help to decide which customers to test. The big telcos aren’t going to test where they didn’t build upgrades or where they know they can’t meet the FCC speed requirements.

The FCC will find many successes from USF funding. I’m aware of many rural communities that have gotten fiber that was partially funded by the ACAM program. These communities will have world-class broadband for the rest of this century. But ACAM money was also used in other places to build 25/3 DSL. I’m sure the rural homes that got this DSL are thankful because it’s far better than what they had before. But will they be happy in a decade or two as their copper networks approach being a century old? Are the areas that got the DSL a success or a failure?

Unfortunately, there are obvious failures with USF funding. Many of the failures come from the inadequate mapping that influenced USF funding decisions. There are millions of households for which carriers have been denied USF funding because the homes have been improperly classified as having broadband when they do not. Commissioner Stark said he was worried about using these same maps for the upcoming RDOF grants – and he should be.

Possibly the biggest failures come from what I call lack of vision by the FCC. The biggest example of this is when they awarded $11 billion to fund the CAF II program for the big telcos, requiring 10/1 Mbps speeds at a time when the FCC had already declared broadband to be 25/3 Mbps. That program was such a failure that the CAF II areas will be eligible for overbuilding using the RDOF grants, barely after the upgrades are slated to be completed. The Universal Service Fund should only support building broadband to meet future speed needs and not today’s needs. This FCC is likely to repeat this mistake if they award the coming RDOF grants to provide 25/3 Mbps speeds – a speed that’s arguably inadequate today and that clearly will be inadequate by the time the RDOF networks are completed seven years from now.

I hope the data-driven analysis asks the right questions. Again, consider CAF II. I think there are huge numbers of homes in the CAF II service areas where the big telcos made no upgrades, or upgraded to speeds far below 10/1 Mbps. I know that some of the big telcos didn’t even spend much of their CAF II funding and pocketed it as revenue. Is the audit going to look deep at such failures and take an honest look at what went wrong?

Commissioner Stark also mentioned the Lifeline program as a failure due to massive fraud. I’ve followed the Lifeline topic closely for years and the fraud has been nowhere near the magnitude that is being claimed by some politicians. Much of the blame for problems with the program came from the FCC because there was never any easy way for telcos to check if customers remained eligible for the program. The FCC is in the process of launching such a database – something that should have been done twenty years ago. The real travesty of the Lifeline program is that the big telcos have walked away. For example, AT&T has stopped offering Lifeline in much of its footprint. The FCC has also decided to make it exceedingly difficult for ISPs to join the program, and I know of numerous ISPs that would love to participate.

I try not to be cynical, and I hope an ‘audit’ isn’t just another way to try to kill the Lifeline program but is instead an honest effort to understand what has worked and not worked in the past. An honest evaluation of the fund’s problems will assign the blame for many of the fund’s problems to the FCC, and ideally, that would stop the current FCC from repeating the mistakes of the past.

FCC Further Defines Speed Tests

The FCC recently voted to tweak the rules for speed testing for ISPs who accept federal funding from the Universal Service Fund or from other federal funding sources. This would include all rate-of-return carriers including those taking ACAM funding, carriers that won the CAF II reverse auctions, recipients of the Rural Broadband Experiment (RBE) grants, Alaska Plan carriers, and likely carriers that took funding in the New York version of the CAF II award process. These new testing rules will also apply to carriers accepting the upcoming RDOF grants.

The FCC had originally released testing rules in July 2018 in Docket DA 18-710. Those rules applied to the carriers listed above as well as to all price cap carriers and recipients of the CAF II program. The big telcos will start testing in January of 2020 and the FCC should soon release a testing schedule for everybody else – the dates for testing were delayed until this revised order was issued.

The FCC made the following changes to the testing program:

  • Modifies the schedule for commencing testing by basing it on the deployment obligations specific to each Connect America Fund support mechanism;
  • Implements a new pre-testing period that will allow carriers to become familiar with testing procedures without facing a loss of support for failure to meet the requirements;
  • Allows greater flexibility to carriers for identifying which customer locations should be tested and selecting the endpoints for testing broadband connections. This last requirement sounds to me like the FCC is letting the CAF II recipients off the hook by allowing them to only test customers they know meet the 10/1 Mbps speeds.

The final order should be released soon and will hopefully answer carrier questions. One of the areas of concern is that the FCC seems to want to test the maximum speeds that a carrier is obligated to deliver. That might mean having to give customers the fastest connection during the time of the tests even if they have subscribed to slower speeds.

Here are some of the key provisions of the testing program that were not changed by the recent order:

  • ISPs can choose between three methods for testing. First, they may elect what the FCC calls the MBA program, which uses an external vendor, approved by the FCC, to perform the testing. This firm has been testing speeds for the network built by large telcos for many years. ISPs can also use existing network tools if they are built into the customer CPE that allows test pinging and other testing methodologies. Finally, an ISP can install ‘white boxes’ that provide the ability to perform the tests.
  • Testing, at least for now is perpetual, and carriers need to recognize that this is a new cost they have to bear due to taking federal funding.
  • The number of tests to be conducted will vary by the number of customers for which a recipient is getting support; With 50 or fewer households the test is for 5 customers; for 51-500 households the test is 10% of households. For 500 or more households the test is 50 households. ISPs declaring a high latency must test more locations with the maximum being 370.
  • Tests for a given customer are for one solid week, including weekends in each quarter. Tests must be conducted in the evenings between 6:00 PM and 12:00 PM. Latency tests must be done every minute during the six-hour testing window. Speed tests – run separately for upload speeds and download speeds – must be done once per hour during the 6-hour testing window.
  • ISPs are expected to meet latency standards 95% of the time. Speed tests must achieve 80% of the expected upland and download speed 80% of the time. An example of this requirement is that a carrier guaranteeing a gigabit of speed must achieve 800 Mbps 80% of the time. ISPs that meet the speeds and latencies for 100% of customers are excused from quarterly testing and only have to test once per year.
  • There are financial penalties for ISPs that don’t meet these tests.
  • ISPs that have between 85% and 100% of households that meet the test standards lose 5% of their FCC support.
  • ISPs that have between 70% and 85% of households that meet the test standards lose 10% of their FCC support.
  • ISPs that have between 55% and 75% of households that meet the test standards lose 15% of their FCC support.
  • ISPs with less than 55% of compliant households lose 25% of their support.
  • The penalties only apply to funds that haven’t yet been collected by an ISP.

A New National Broadband Plan?

Christopher Terry recently published an article for the Benton Institute that details how the National Broadband Plan has failed. This plan was initiated by Congress in 2009, which instructed the FCC to develop a plan to make sure that every American had access to broadband within a decade. The article details the many spectacular ways that the plan has failed.

In my opinion, the National Broadband Plan never had the slightest chance of success because it didn’t have any teeth. Congress authorized the creation of the plan as a way for politicians to show that they were pro-broadband. The plan wasn’t much more than a big showy public relations stunt. Congress makes symbolic votes all of the time and this was just another gesture that demonstrated that Congress cared about broadband and that also served to quiet broadband proponents for a few years. If Congress cared about broadband they would have followed up the plan with a vote to force the FCC to implement at least some aspects of the plan.

I have no doubt that those who worked to develop the plan are likely offended by my post-mortem of the effort. I know that several people who worked on the plan still prominently display that fact in their resume a decade later. I’m sure that working on the plan was an exhilarating process, but at the end of the day, the effort must be measured in terms of success. The folks that created the plan and the rest of the country were duped by the FCC.

The FCC never had the slightest interest in adopting the big recommendations of the plan. There is probably no better evidence of this when the Tom Wheeler FCC awarded $11 billion to the big telcos in the CAF II process – an award that couldn’t have been more antithetical to the National Broadband Plan. To those that follow FCC dockets, there are dozens of examples over the last decade where the FCC sided with big carriers instead of siding with better rural broadband.

The fact is that the US government doesn’t do well with grandiose plans and lofty long-term goals. Government agencies like the FCC mostly implement things that are mandated by Congress – and even then they often do the bare minimum. Even without the National Broadband Plan, the FCC already has a Congressional mandate to make certain that rural broadband is equivalent to urban broadband – and we annually see them do a song and dance to show how they are complying with this mandate while they instead largely ignore it.

This is not to say that broadband plans are generically bad. For example, the state of Minnesota developed its own set of broadband goals, with the most prominent goal of defining broadband in the state as connections of at least 100 Mbps. The state has implemented that goal when awarding broadband grants, and unlike the FCC, the state has awarded grant funding to build real rural broadband solutions. They’ve refused to spend money on technologies that deliver speeds that the state doesn’t consider as broadband.

I fully expect to hear a plea to develop a new plan and I hope that most of the folks who are working for better broadband ignore any such effort. Compared to ten years ago there are now a lot of organizations working for better broadband. Hundreds of rural communities have created citizen broadband committees looking for a local solution. There are county governments all over the country making grants to help lure ISPs to serve their county. Statewide groups are working to solve the digital divide and the homework gap. There are a lot of people actively advocating for real broadband solutions.

These advocates don’t need a national goal document to tell them what they want. By now, communities understand good broadband in the simplest form – it’s something their community either has or doesn’t have. Communities now understand the digital divide and the homework gap. Wasting federal dollars to create a new National Broadband Plan wouldn’t move any community one inch closer to better broadband, and I hope we resist the temptation to go down that path.

Funding the USF

The Universal Service Fund (USF) has a bleak future outlook if the FCC continues to ignore the funding crisis that supports the program. The fund continues to be funded with a fee levied against the combined Interstate and international portion of landlines, cellphones and certain kinds of traditional data connections sold by the big telcos. The ‘tax’ on Interstate services has grown to an indefensible 25% of the retail cost of the Interstate and international portion of these products.

The FCC maintains arcane rules to determine the interstate portion of things like a local phone bill or a cellular bill. There are only a tiny handful of consultants that specialize in ‘separations’ – meaning the separation of costs into jurisdictions – who understand the math behind the FCC’s determination of the base for assessing USF fees.

The USF has done a lot of good in the past and is poised to do even more. The segment of the program that brings affordable broadband to poor schools and libraries is a success in communities across the country. The USF is also used to subsidize broadband to non-profit rural health clinics and hospitals. I would argue that the Lifeline program that provides subsidized phone service has done a huge amount of good. The $9.25 per month savings on a phone or broadband bill isn’t as effective today as it once was because the subsidy isn’t pegged to inflation. But I’ve seen firsthand the benefits from this plan that provided low-cost cellphones to the homeless and connected them to the rest of society. There are numerous stories of how the subsidized cellphones helped homeless people find work and integrate back into society.

The biggest potential benefit of the fund is bringing broadband solutions to rural homes that still aren’t connected to workable broadband. We’ve gotten a hint of this potential in some recent grant programs, like the recent CAF II reverse auction. We’re ready to see the USF create huge benefits as the FCC starts awarding $20.4 billion in grants from the USF, to be dispersed starting in 2021. If that program is administered properly then huge numbers of homes are going to get real broadband.

This is not to say that the USF hasn’t had some problems. There are widespread stories about fraud in the Lifeline program, although many of those stories have been exaggerated in the press. A decent amount of what was called fraud was due to the ineptitude of the big phone companies that continued to collect USF funding for people who die or who are no longer eligible for the subsidy. The FCC has taken major steps to fix this problem by creating a national database of those who are eligible for the Lifeline program.

The biggest recent problem with the USF came when the FCC used the fund to award $11 billion to the big telcos in the CAF II program to upgrade rural broadband to speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps. I’ve heard credible rumors that some of the telcos pocketed much of that money and only made token efforts to tweak rural DSL speeds up to a level that households still don’t want to buy. It’s hard to find anybody in the country who will defend this colossal boondoggle.

However, we’ve learned that if used in a smart way that the USF can be used to bring permanent broadband to rural America. Every little pocket of customers that gets fiber due to this funding can be taken off the list of places with no broadband alternatives. Areas that get fixed wireless are probably good for a decade or more, and hopefully, those companies operating these networks will pour profits back into bringing fiber (which I know some USF fund recipients are doing).

But the USF is in real trouble if the FCC doesn’t fix the funding solution. As traditional telephone products with an interstate component continue to disappear the funds going into the USF will shrink. If the funding shrinks, the FCC is likely to respond by cutting awards. Somebody might win $1 million from the upcoming grant program but then collect something less as the fund decreases over time.

The fix for the USF is obvious and easy. If the FCC expands the funding base to include broadband products, the percentage contribution would drop significantly from the current 25% and the fund could begin growing again. The current FCC has resisted this idea vigorously and it’s hard to ascribe any motivation other than that they want to see the USF Fund shrink over time. This FCC hates the Lifeline program and would love to kill it. This FCC would prefer to not be in the business of handing out grants. At this point, I don’t think there is any alternative other than waiting for the day when there is a new FCC in place that embraces the good done by the USF rather than fight against it.

Comparing FCC Broadband Programs

I think it’s finally dawning on the big telcos that the days of being able to milk revenues from rural America while ignoring rural copper networks is finally ending. This becomes apparent when looking at the two most recent subsidy programs.

The original CAF II program was a huge boon to the big telcos. Companies like AT&T, CenturyLink, and Frontier collected $11 billion of subsidy to boost their rural copper networks up to speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps. This was a ridiculous program from the start since the FCC had established the definition of broadband to be at least 25/3 Mbps even before awarding this money. Perhaps the craziest thing about CAF II is that the telcos are still making the upgrades – they were required to be 60% complete with the required CAF II upgrades by the end 2018 and to be 100% complete by the end of 2020.

The big telcos report broadband customers to both the FCC and to stockholders, but the reporting is not in enough detail to know if the CAF II money has made any difference in rural America. All of the big telcos are losing broadband customers, but it’s hard to look under the hood to know if they are making any significant customer gains in the CAF II areas. We see little hints from time to time. For example, in the second quarter of this year, CenturyLink lost 56,000 net broadband customers but reports that it lost 78,000 customers with speeds below 20 Mbps and added 22,000 customers with speeds faster than that. That’s the first time they provided any color about their gains and losses. But even that extra detail doesn’t tell us how CenturyLink is doing in the CAF II areas. It’s obvious by looking at the customer losses that telcos aren’t adding the hundreds of thousands of new customers one would expect to see as the result of an $11 billion capital expenditure program. If CAF II is delivering broadband to areas that didn’t have it before, there should be a flood of new rural customers buying better broadband by now. I could be wrong, but when looking at the aggregate customers for each big telco I don’t think that flood of new customers is happening. If it was I think the telcos would be bragging about it.

The CAF II reverse auction took a different approach and awarded funding in those areas where the big telcos didn’t take the original CAF II funds. These subsidies were auctioned off in a reverse auction where the company willing to take the lowest amount of subsidy per customer got the funding. In the auction, most bidders offered to deploy broadband of 100 Mbps speeds or faster – a big contrast to the 10/1 Mbps speeds for CAF II. Some of the grant winners in the reverse auction like electric cooperatives are using the money to build fiber and offer gigabit speeds.

The original CAF II subsidy awards are probably the dumbest decision I’ve ever seen an FCC make (rivaling the recent decision to stop regulating broadband). If the original CAF II awards had been open to all applicants instead of being handed to the big telcos, then many of the homes that have been upgraded to 10/1 Mbps would have instead gotten fiber. Maybe even worse, CAF II basically put huge swaths of rural America on hold for seven years while the big telcos invested in minor tweaks to DSL.

The FCC will soon be handing out $20.4 billion for the new RDOF program to build better rural broadband. It should be press headlines that this money is going to many of the same areas that got the original $11 billion CAF II subsidies – the FCC is paying twice to upgrade the same areas.

Dan McCarthy, the CEO of Frontier Communications recently complained about the new RDOF grant program. He realizes that Frontier has little chance of winning the grants in a reverse auction.  Frontier doesn’t want to invest any of its cash for rural broadband and in an auction would be competing against ISPs willing to invest significant equity to match the RDOF grants. Frontier also recognizes that anything they might propose as upgrades can’t compete with technologies that will deliver speeds of 100 Mbps or faster.

At least the FCC is not handing the RDOF money directly to the big telcos again. It’s been five years since the start of CAF II and I’m still perplexed by the last FCC’s decision to hand $11 billion to the big telcos. Unfortunately, this FCC is still repeating the mistake of awarding grant money to support obsolete speeds. The FCC is proposing that RDOF money can be used to build broadband capable of delivering 25/3 Mbps broadband. In a recent blog, I predict that this is going to go into the books as another short-sighted decision by the FCC and that they’ll again be funding broadband that will be obsolete before it’s completed eight years from now. Hopefully most of the RDOF money will go towards building real broadband. Otherwise, in eight years we might see another giant FCC grant program to improve broadband for a third time in the same rural areas.

FCC – Please Don’t Fund 25/3 Broadband

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Definition of Broadband

When the FCC set the definition of broadband at 25/3 Mbps in January of 2015, I thought it was a reasonable definition. At the time the FCC said that 25/3 Mbps was the minimum speed that defined broadband, and anything faster than 25/3 Mbps was considered to be broadband, and anything slower wasn’t broadband.

2015 was forever ago in terms of broadband usage and there have been speed increases across the industry since then. All of the big cable companies have unilaterally increased their base broadband speeds to between 100 Mbps and 200 Mbps. Numerous small telcos have upgraded their copper networks to fiber. Even the big telcos have increased speeds in rural America through CAF II upgrades that increased speeds to 10/1 Mbps – and the telcos all say they did much better in some places.

The easiest way to look at the right definition of broadband today is to begin with the 25/3 Mbps level set at the beginning of 2015. If that was a reasonable definition at the beginning of 2015, what’s a reasonable definition today? Both Cisco and Ookla track actual speeds achieved by households and both say that actual broadband speeds have been increasing nationally about 21% annually. Apply a 21% annual growth rate to the 25 Mbps download speeds set in 2015 would predict that the definition of broadband today should be 54 Mbps:

2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
25 30 37 44 54

We also have a lot of anecdotal evidence that households want faster speeds. Households have been regularly bailing on urban DSL and moving to faster cable company broadband. A lot of urban DSL can be delivered at speeds between 25 and 50 Mbps, and many homes are finding that to be inadequate. Unfortunately, the big telcos aren’t going to provide the detail needed to understand this phenomenon, but it’s clearly been happening on a big scale.

It’s a little sketchier to apply this same logic to upload speeds. There was a lot of disagreement about using the 3 Mbps download speed standard established in 2015. It seems to have been set to mollify the cable companies that wanted to assign most of their bandwidth to download. However, since 2015 most of the big cable companies have upgraded to DOCSIS 3.1 and they can now provide significantly faster uploads. My home broadband was upgraded by Charter in 2018 from 60/6 Mbps to 135/20 Mbps. It seems ridiculous to keep upload speed goals low, and if I was magically put onto the FCC, I wouldn’t support an upload speed goal of less than 20 Mbps.

You may recall that the FCC justified the 25/3 Mbps definition of broadband by looking at the various download functions that could be done by a family of four. The FCC examined numerous scenarios that considered uses like video streaming, surfing the web, and gaming. The FCC scenario was naive because they didn’t account for the fact that the vast majority of homes use WiFi. Most people don’t realize that WiFi networks generate a lot of overhead due to collisions of data streams – particularly when a household is trying to do multiple big bandwidth applications at the same time. When I made my judgment about the 25/3 Mbps definition back in 2015, I accounted for WiFi overheads and I still thought that 25/3 Mbps was a reasonable definition for the minimum speed of broadband.

Unfortunately, this FCC is never going to unilaterally increase the definition of broadband, because by doing so they would reclassify millions of homes as not having broadband. The FCC’s broadband maps are dreadful, but even with the bad data, it’s obvious that if the definition of broadband was 50/20 Mbps today that a huge number of homes would fall below that target.

The big problem with the failure to recognize the realities of household broadband demand is that the FCC is using the already-obsolete definition of 25/3 Mbps to make policy decisions. I have a follow-up blog to this one that will argue that using that speed as the definition of the upcoming $20.4 billion RDOF grants will be as big of a disaster as the prior FCC decision to hand out billions to upgrade to 10/1 Mbps DSL in the CAF II program.

The fact that household broadband demand grows over time is not news. We have been on roughly the same demand curve growth since the advent of dial-up. It’s massively frustrating to see politics interfere with what is a straight engineering issue. As homes use more broadband, particularly when they want to do multiple broadband tasks at the same time, their demand for faster broadband grows. I can understand that no administration wants to recognize that things are worse than they want them to be – so they don’t want to set the definition of broadband at the right speed. But it’s disappointing to see when the function of the FCC is supposed to be to make sure that America gets the broadband infrastructure it needs. If the agency was operated by technologists instead of political appointees we wouldn’t even be having this debate.

How’s CAF II Doing in Your County?

The CAF II program was tasked with bringing broadband of at least 10/1 Mbps to large parts of the country. I’ve been talking to folks in rural counties all over the country who don’t think that their area has seen much improvement from the CAF II plan.

The good news is that there is a way to monitor what the big telcos are reporting to the FCC in terms of areas that have seen the CAF II upgrades. This web site provides a map that reports progress on several different FCC broadband plans. The map covers reported progress for the following programs:

  • CAF II – This was the $11 billion subsidy to big telcos to improve rural broadband to at least 10/1 Mbps.
  • CAF II BLS – This was Broadband Loop support that was made available to small telcos. Not entirely sure why the FCC is tracking this using a map.
  • ACAM – This is a subsidy given to smaller telcos to improve broadband to at least 25/3 Mbps, but which many are using to build gigabit fiber.
  • The Alaska Plan. This is the Alaska version of ACAM. Alaska is extremely high cost and has a separate broadband subsidy plan.
  • RBE – These are the Experimental Broadband Grants from 2015.

Participants in each of these programs must report GIS data for locations that have been upgraded, and those upgraded sites are then shown on the map at this site. There is, of course, some delay between the time of completing upgrades and getting information onto this map. It’s now been 4.5 years into the six-year CAF II plan, and the carriers have told the FCC that many of the required upgrades are completed. All CAF II upgrades must be finished by the end of 2020 – and likely most will be completed sometime earlier next year during the summer construction season that dictates construction in much of the country.

The map is easy to use. For example, if you change the ‘Fund’ box at the upper right of the map to CAF II, then all of the areas that were supposed to get CAF II upgrades are shown in light purple. In these areas, the big telcos were supposed to upgrade every residence and business to be able to receive 10/1 Mbps or better broadband.

The map allows you to drill down into more specific detail. For example, if you want to see how CenturyLink performed on CAF II, then choose CenturyLink in the ‘Company Name’ box. This will place a pin on the map for all of the locations that CenturyLink has reported as complete. As you zoom in on the map the upgraded locations will show as dark purple dots. You can zoom in on the map to the point of seeing many local road names.

The map has an additional feature that many will want to see. Down on the left bottom of the map under ‘Boundaries’ you can set political boundaries like County borders.

Most counties are really interested in the information shown on the map. The map shows the areas that were supposed to see upgrades along with areas that have been upgraded to date. This information is vital to counties for a number of reasons. For example, new federal grants and most state grant programs rely on this data to determine if an area is eligible for additional funding. For example, the current $600 million Re-Connect grants can’t be used for areas where more than 10% of homes already have 10/1 Mbps broadband. Any areas on this map that have the purple dots will probably have a hard time qualifying for these grants. The big telcos will likely try to disqualify any grant requests that build where they say they have upgraded.

Probably the most important use of the map is as a starting point for counties to gather accurate data about broadband. For example, you might want to talk to folks that live in the upgraded areas to see if they can really now buy 10/1 Mbps DSL. My guess is that many of the areas shown on these maps as having CAF II upgrades are still going to have download speeds less than 10/1 Mbps. If you find that to be the case I recommend documenting your findings because areas that didn’t get a full upgrade should be eligible for future grant funding.

It’s common knowledge that rural copper has been ignored for decades, often with no routine maintenance. It’s not surprising to anybody who has worked in a DSL environment that many rural lines are incapable of carrying faster DSL. It’s not easy for a big telco to bring 10/1 Mbps broadband over bad copper lines, but unfortunately, it’s easy for them to tell the FCC that the upgrades have been done, even if the speed is not really there.

This map is just one more piece of the puzzle and one more tool for rural counties to use to understand their current broadband situation. For example, it’s definitely a plus if the big telcos really upgraded DSL in these areas to at least 10/1 Mbps – many of these areas had no DSL or incredibly slow DSL before. On the flip side, if the big telcos are exaggerating about these upgrades and the speeds aren’t there, they are going to likely block your region from getting future grant money to upgrade to real broadband. The big telcos have every incentive to lie to protect their DSL and telephone revenues in these remote areas. What’s not tolerable is for the big telcos to use incorrect mapping data to deny homes from getting better broadband.

Technology and FCC Grants

This is the next in the series of blogs looking at the upcoming $20.4 billion FCC grant program. I ask the question of how the FCC should consider technology in the upcoming grant program.

Should Satellite Companies be Eligible? I think a more fundamental question is if the current generation of high-orbit satellites really deliver broadband. Over the last few years I’ve talked to hundreds of rural people about their broadband situation and I have never met anybody who liked satellite broadband – not one person. Most people I’ve talked to have tried it once and abandoned it as unworkable.

This goes back to the basic definition of broadband. The FCC defines broadband by download speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps. In their original order in 2015 the FCC discussed latency, but unfortunately never made latency part of the broadband definition. As a reminder, the standard definition of latency is that it’s a measure of the time it takes for a data packet to travel from its point of origin to the point of destination.

A few years ago, the FCC did a study of the various last mile technologies and measured the following ranges of performance of last-mile latency, measured in milliseconds: fiber (10-20 ms), coaxial cable (15-40 ms), and DSL (30-65 ms). Cellular latencies vary widely depending upon the exact generation of equipment at any given cell site, but 4G latency can be as high as 100 ms. In the same FCC test, satellite broadband was almost off the chart with latencies measured as high as 650 ms.

Latency makes a big difference in the perceived customer experience. Customers will rate a 25 Mbps connection on fiber as being much faster than a 25 Mbps connection on DSL due to the difference in latency. The question that should be asked for federal grants is if satellite broadband should be disqualified due to poor latency.

I was unhappy to see so much money given to the satellite providers in the recent CAF II reverse auction. Even ignoring the latency issue, I ask if the satellite companies deserve broadband subsidies. There is no place in rural America where folks don’t already know that satellite broadband is an option – most people have rejected the technology as an acceptable broadband connection. It was particularly troubling seeing satellite providers getting money in a reverse auction. Once a satellite is in orbit it’s costs are fixed and that means that the satellite providers will be happy to take any amount of federal subsidy – they can bid lower than any other grant applicant in a reverse auction. I have to question the wisdom of providing federal subsidies to companies that are already failing at marketing.

I don’t have enough information to know how to feel about the upcoming low-orbit satellites that are just now being tested and launched. Because of lower orbits they will have lower latency. However, the satellite companies still have a huge advantage in a reverse auction since they can bid lower than anybody else – a satellite company would be happy with only a few dollars per potential customer and has no bottom limit on the amount of grant they are willing to accept. If the new satellite companies can bid in the same manner as everybody else we could end up with the situation where these companies claim 100% of the new grant funds.

What About DSL? My nightmare scenario is that the FCC hands most or all of the $20.4 billion to the big telcos to upgrade rural DSL from 10/1 Mbps to 25/3 Mbps. This is certainly within the realm of possibility. Remember that the first CAF II program was originally going to be open to everybody but at the last minute was all given to the big telcos.

I find it troublesome that the big telcos have been quiet about the announced plans for this grant. The money will be spent in the big telco service areas and you’d think they be screaming about plans for federal money to overbuild them. Recall that the big telcos recently were able to derail the Re-Connect grants by inserting the rule that only 10% of the grant money could be used for customers who receive at least 10/1 Mbps broadband. This FCC clearly favors the big telcos over other ISPs and could easily hand all of this money to the big telcos and call it CAF III.

Even if they don’t do that, the question is if any federal grant money should be used to upgrade rural DSL. Rural copper is in dreadful condition due to the willful neglect of the big telcos who stopped doing maintenance on their networks decades ago. It’s frankly a wonder that the rural copper networks even function. It would be a travesty to reward the telcos by giving them billions of dollars to make upgrades that they should have routinely made by reinvesting customer revenues.

I think when the dust clears on CAF II we’re going to find out that the big telcos largely cheated with that money. We’re going to find that they only upgraded the low-hanging fruit and that many households in the coverage areas got no upgrades or minor upgrades that won’t achieve the 10/1 Mbps goals. I think we’ll also find that in many cases the telcos didn’t spend very much of the CAF II funds but just pocketed it as free revenue. I beg the FCC to not repeat the CAF II travesty – when the truth comes out about how the telcos used the funding, the CAF II program is going to grab headlines as a scandal. Please don’t provide any money to upgrade DSL.

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