Will the Big Telcos Pursue RDOF Grants?

One of the most intriguing questions concerning the upcoming $16.4 billion RDOF grant program is if the big telcos are going to participate. I’ve asked the question around the industry and I’ve talked to folks who think the big telcos will fully wade into the reverse auctions, while others think they’ll barely play. We’re not likely to know until the auctions begin.

The big telcos were the full beneficiaries of the original CAF II program when the FCC surprisingly decided to unilaterally award the big telcos the full $9 billion in funding. In that grant program, CenturyLink received over $3 billion, AT&T almost $2.6 billion, Frontier nearly $2 billion, and Windstream over $1 billion. The telcos were supposed to upgrade much of their most rural properties to receive broadband speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps.

CenturyLink and Frontier both recently told the FCC that they are behind in the CAF II build out and didn’t meet their obligation at the end of 2019 to be 80% finished with the upgrades. From what I hear from rural communities, I think the problem is a lot more severe than just the telcos being late. Communities across the country have been telling me that their residents aren’t seeing faster speeds and I think we’re going to eventually find out that a lot of the upgrades aren’t being made.

Regardless of the problems with the original CAF II, the FCC is now offering the $16.4 billion RDOF grant program to cover much of the same areas covered by CAF II. The big telcos are faced with several dilemmas. If they don’t participate, then others are going to get federal assistance to overbuild the traditional big telco service territories. If the big telcos do participate, they have to promise to upgrade to meet the minimum speed obligations of the RDOF of 25/3 Mbps.

Interestingly, the upgrades needed to raise DSL speeds on copper to 25/3 Mbps are not drastically different than the upgrades needed to reach 10/1 Mbps. The upgrades require building fiber deeper into last-mile networks and installing DSL transmitters (DSLAMs) in the field to be within a few miles of subscribers. Fiber must be a little closer to the customer to achieve a speed of 25/3 Mbps rather than 10/1 Mbps – but not drastically closer.

I think the big telcos encountered two problems with the CAF II DSL upgrades. First, they needed to build a lot more fiber than was being funded by CAF II to get fiber within a few miles of every customer. Second, the condition of their rural copper is dreadful and much of it probably won’t support DSL speeds. The big telcos have ignored their rural copper for decades and found themselves unable to coax faster DSL speeds from the old and mistreated copper.

This begs the question of what it even means if the big telcos decide to chase RDOF funding. Throwing more money at their lousy copper is not going to make it perform any better. If they were unable to get 10/1 speeds out of their network, then they are surely going to be unable to get speeds upgraded to 25/3 Mbps.

We can’t ignore that the big telcos have a natural advantage in the RDOF auction. They can file for the money everywhere, and any place where a faster competitor isn’t vying for the money, the big telcos will have a good chance of winning the reverse auction. There are bound to be plenty of places where nobody else bids on RDOF funding, particularly in places like Appalachia where the cost is so high to build, even with grant funding.

It would be a travesty to see any more federal grant money spent to upgrade rural DSL particularly since the FCC already spent $9 billion trying to upgrade the same copper networks. The copper networks everywhere are past their expected useful lives, and the networks operated by the big telcos are in the worst shape. I’ve known many smaller telcos that tried in the past to upgrade to 25/3 on rural DSL and failed – and those companies had networks that were well-maintained and in good condition. It would be impossible to believe the big telcos if they say they can upgrade the most remote homes in the country to 25/3 Mbps speeds. Unfortunately, with the way I read the RDOF rules, there is nothing to stop the big telcos from joining the auction and from taking big chunks of the grant money and then failing again like they did with the original CAF II.

The RDOF Grants – The Good and Bad News

The FCC recently approved a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that proposes how they will administer the $16 billion in RDOF grants that are going to awarded later this year. As you might imagine, there is both good news and bad news coming from the grant program.

It’s good news that this grant program ought to go a long way towards finally killing off large chunks of big telco rural copper. Almost every area covered by these grants is poorly served today by inadequate rural DSL.

The related bad news is that this grant award points out the huge failure of the FCC’s original CAF II program where the big telcos were given $11 billion to upgrade DSL to at least 10/1 speeds. The FCC is still funding this final year of construction of CAF II upgrades. The new grant money will cover much of the same geographic areas as the original CAF II deployment, meaning the FCC will spend over $27 billion to bring broadband to these rural areas. Even after the RDOF grants are built, many of these areas won’t have adequate broadband. Had the FCC administered both grant programs smartly, most of these areas could be getting fiber.

Perhaps the best good news is that a lot of rural households will get faster broadband. Ironically, since the grants cover rural areas, there will be cases where the RDOF grant brings faster broadband to farms than will be available in the county seat, where no grant money is available.

There is bad news on broadband speeds since the new grant program is only requiring download speeds of 25/3 Mbps. This means the FCC is repeating the same huge mistake they made with CAF II by allowing federal money to spend on broadband that will be obsolete before it’s even built. This grant program will be paid out of ten years and require deployment over six years – anybody paying attention to broadband understands that by six years from now a 25/3 Mbps broadband connection will feel glacial. There is grant weighting to promote faster data speeds, but due to the vagaries of a reverse auction, there will be plenty of funding given to networks that will have speeds close to 25/3 Mbps in performance.

There is further bad news since the FCC is basing the grants upon faulty broadband maps. Funding will only be made available to areas that don’t show 25/3 Mbps capability on the FCC maps. Everybody in the industry, including individual FCC Commissioners, agrees that the current maps based upon 477 data provided by ISPs are dreadful. In the last few months, I’ve worked with half a dozen counties where the FCC maps falsely show large swaths of 25/3 broadband coverage that isn’t there. It’s definitely bad news that the grant money won’t be made available in those areas where the maps overstate broadband coverage – folks in such areas will pay the penalty for inadequate broadband maps.

There is a glimmer of good news with mapping since the FCC will require the big ISPs to report broadband mapping data using polygons later this year. Theoretically, polygons will solve some of the mapping errors around the edges of towns served by cable TV companies. But there will only be time for one trial run of the new maps before the grants, and the big telcos have every incentive to exaggerate speeds in this first round of polygon mapping if it will keep this big pot of money from overbuilding their copper. I don’t expect the big telco mapping to be any better with the polygons.

Another area of good news is that there will be a lot of good done with these grants. There will be rural electric cooperatives, rural telcos, and fiber overbuilders that will use these grants as a down-payment to build rural fiber. These grants are not nearly large enough to pay for the full cost of rural fiber deployment, but these companies will borrow the rest with the faith that they can create a sustainable broadband business using fiber.

The bad news is that there will be plenty of grant money that will be used unwisely. Any money given to the traditional satellite providers might as well just be burned. Anybody living in an area where a satellite provider wins the grant funding won’t be getting better broadband or a new option. There is nothing to stop the big telcos from joining the auction and promising to upgrade to 25/3 Mbps on DSL – something they’ll promise but won’t deliver. There are likely to be a few grant recipients who will use the money to slap together a barely adequate network that won’t be fast and won’t be sustainable – there is a lot of lure in $16 billion of free federal money.

It’s dismaying that there should be so many potential downsides. A grant of this magnitude could be a huge boost to rural broadband. Many areas will be helped and there will be big success stories – but there is likely to be a lot of bad news about grant money spend unwisely.

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.