Frontier’s Lack of Fiber

The primary reason that Frontier cites for going into bankruptcy is the lack of fiber. They are finally acknowledging that customers are bailing on them due to the poor broadband speeds on their copper networks. This is being presented as if this is a sudden revelation – as if the company woke up one day and realized that it’s selling services that nobody wants to buy. I must admit this gave me a chuckle and there are some giant flaws with this argument.

Rural customers don’t hate DSL – they hate DSL that doesn’t work. If Frontier had implemented the CAF II upgrades as had been promised, then rural customers would all be using the 10/1 Mbps or faster rural DSL that would have been created as a result of those upgrades. Instead, customers have gotten disgusted by overpriced DSL that is so slow that they can’t stream video or connect to a school or work server. We’ve been doing speed tests all over the country and it’s rare to find rural DSL in many markets that delivers even 5 Mbps download – much of it is far slower than that, some barely faster than dial-up. If Frontier had provided 10/1 Mbps DSL to millions of homes, those households would gratefully be buying that broadband during the COVID-19 crisis.

Frontier blames its woes on lack of fiber with no mention of their reputation for unconscionably bad customer service. I’ve talked to customers who talk about routine network outages that lasts for many days. Customers complain about losing broadband and having to wait weeks to get it repaired – or worse, are told that the electronics needed to replace a bad DSL modem are out of stock. This is a company that has trimmed, then trimmed again its maintenance staff to the bone. Talk to any rural Frontier technician and they’ll tell you that they don’t have the time or resources available to address routine customer problems.

Frontier complains about lack of fiber, but as recently as 2015 they purchased another huge pile or dilapidated Verizon copper networks as part of a $10.5 billion acquisition. While that acquisition came with some FiOS fiber networks, the company also doubled down on buying non-functional copper networks. The speculation in the industry was that Frontier continued to buy lousy properties because it created opportunities for huge management bonuses – the company never had any plans to make the purchased copper networks any better.

And that’s the real issue with Frontier’s claim – they have no fiber because they’ve made almost no effort to migrate to fiber. The company burned all of its cash on trying to service the debt for overpriced acquisitions rather than rolling cash back into its networks.

It’s interesting to compare Frontier to the many smaller independent telephone companies. The FCC brags about places like the Dakotas that have a huge amount of rural fiber to homes. But that rural fiber didn’t happen all at once. It happened over decades. Most rural telcos went through two rounds of investment where they invested to improve rural DSL. In doing so they built fiber to go deeper into the rural areas, the first build brought fiber within maybe ten miles of homes, the second got fiber to within 3 miles of most homes. When the rural telcos decided to take fiber the rest of the way, it was reasonably achievable because they already had fiber deep into rural neighborhoods.

Frontier has done very little of that kind of incremental improvements over the years. They found it more enticing to keep borrowing to buy new rural properties rather than roll cash back into the existing networks. It doesn’t even look like they did all of that much new fiber as part of the CAF II upgrades. I’m sure Frontier would refute that statement and say they are fully compliant with CAF II, but if they had built fiber deep into the network then rural DSL would have gotten better – and for the most part, it hasn’t.

I can’t how the bankruptcy will benefit frontier’s customers. The company will likely get to walk away from a lot of the debt that was provided for the last few acquisitions – and it’s hard to feel bad for lenders who thought it was a good idea in 2015 to lend to buy copper networks. But bankruptcy won’t fix any of the fundamental problems with the Frontier networks. Customers are going to continue to bail on inferior and nonfunctional broadband products. The upcoming RDOF auction is going to give a lot of money to ISPs that are going to overbuild Frontier copper with something better (even though Frontier made a last-minute filing at the FCC to block grant funding by claiming they had magically upgraded 16,000 rural census blocks).

Is Frontier going to somehow start investing in rural fiber? My best guess is that they won’t even after bankruptcy. If they can raise any money for new capital spending they’ll likely try to salvage some of the county seats and other markets where there is a mass of customers. However, in many of those markets they’ve already lost the battle to the cable companies.

Frontier is right in that they are failing from lack of fiber. But that statement doesn’t tell the full story. They are failing because the company decided decades ago to not invest capital into their own networks – and now they are paying the price.

Can LTE Fixed Wireless Solve the Rural Digital Divide?

I’ve been working in rural counties all over the US and have found that a lot of rural homes are using a fixed 4G LTE wireless product for home broadband. All three big cellular companies have a fixed LTE product for the home. The product typically involves installing a small dish outside of a home that receives broadband using 4G LTE broadband from a nearby cell tower.

The big cellular companies have bombarded the press for the last several years touting how 5G cellular might solve rural broadband gaps. The way the wireless companies price and market these products is a precursor for what they will likely do with 5G (assuming 5G even comes to rural places). I haven’t looked into the LTE products in a while and so I researched the LTE broadband products intended as home broadband. I knew these products were expensive, but I had forgotten how stingy these plans are with broadband.

Verizon. Verizon’s hotspot product has four available pricing tiers based upon the monthly data allowance. The 10 GB plan is $60, the 20 GB plan is $90, the 30 GB plan is $120, and the 40 GB plan is $150. The real cost killer is that Verizon bills additional gigabits for $10 each.

Verizon says that broadband speeds average from 5 – 12 Mbps download and 2 – 5 Mbps upload. I recently talked to a customer using this plan who told me that when a customer doesn’t agree to pay the overage charges that Verizon throttles speeds to a crawl once the monthly data limit has been reached.

T-Mobile. T-Mobile has six hotspot pricing plans based upon the monthly data usage. The 2 GB plan is $10. The 6 GB plan is $25, the 10 GB plan is $40, the 14 GB plan is $55, the 18 GB plan is $70, and the 22 GB plan is $85. Each plan offers a $5 discount for customers who authorize autopay. The killer with this plan is that speeds revert to 3G speeds when the cap has been met. The plans also include unlimited texting.

It’s worth noting that T-Mobile will offer a plan that provides 100 GB of monthly data to qualified students for the next 5 years as one of the promises made to merge with Sprint. I haven’t seen the definition of eligible households, but the company estimated 10 million homes would be eligible.

AT&T. AT&T has two plans. In areas where AT&T is the incumbent telephone provider and accepted CAF II funding, the company decided to provide 4G LTE fixed cellular broadband to satisfy their CAF II requirements. The company had accepted $2.56 billion from the FCC’s Universal Service fund with payments spread over six years. That funding covered 1,117,806 rural homes, providing AT&T with a subsidy of $2,296 per home.

That CAF II product is priced at $50 per month and comes with a 250 GB data cap. AT&T says that speeds are at least 10/1 Mbps (since that was the FCC requirement). The killer with this plan is that customers pay $10 for each additional 50 GB block of data, and payments aren’t capped until a customer spends $200 extra.

Outside of the CAF II areas, AT&T has three hotspot plans. That includes 3 GB of data for $25, 10 GB of data for $50, and 18 GB of data for $75. Extra data ranges from $10 for 1 GB with the $25-dollar plan to $10 for 2 extra GBs with the $72 plan.

Do These Products Solve the Rural Digital Divide? I think not – the core hotspot products define the digital divide. Rural customers who have no other options are paying for some of the most expensive broadband in the world. You have to look at distressed third world countries to see similarly high prices per gigabyte. Recall in looking at these prices that these products are for home broadband – not for cellphones.

  • Verizon’s plans range from $3.75 to $6.00 per gigabyte. Additional gigabytes are $10 each.
  • T-Mobile data prices range from $3.86 to $5 per gigabyte. After hitting the data cap, the company throttles customers rather than provide more expensive data.
  • AT&T hotspots are the most expensive and range from $4.16 to $8.22 per gigabyte. Extra gigabytes on AT&T range between $5 and $10 per gigabyte.
  • AT&T’s CAF II product is much more affordable. However, customers can still spend up to $250 per month. Additionally, AT&T charges $100 for installation, which is outrageous considering the company collected $2,296 from the FCC for each of the 1.1 million potential customers. The CAF II money had to have gone almost entirely to AT&T’s bottom line.

What is somewhat ironic is that the cellular companies don’t aggressively advertise the product in rural America, even at these incredibly high prices. I guess that the cellular carriers don’t want to sink any money into rural cell sites or pay for more backhaul, so they are reluctant to sell very much of these products in any one location.

Enough is Enough

CenturyLink recently petitioned the FCC to allow them to be late in implementing the CAF II upgrades where the FCC doled out $11 billion to upgrade rural broadband speeds to 10/1 Mbps. The ostensible reason for the delay is the COVID-19 pandemic, but CenturyLink was already behind and notified the FCC earlier this year that they hadn’t completed their 2019 CAF II installation in 23 out of 33 states.

I say enough is enough. It’s time for the FCC to demand a reckoning of CAF II and begin handing out draconian penalties to the telcos that didn’t meet their obligations. I’m positive that if this was assessed fairly that the FCC will find that the vast majority of big telco customers have never gotten an upgrade to 10/1 Mbps.

Let’s start by looking at CenturyLink’s request. There is no reasonable explanation they can offer for not meeting their obligations in 2019. That was the fourth of a five-year buildout obligation, and the company has known for years what’s needed to be done – and they had the federal money in their pocket to make the upgrades. The claim for this year is also largely bogus. I have a lot of clients that are being cautious now about entering customer premises, but I don’t know any carrier that has stopped doing work outside of customer homes. I can’t think of any practical reason that COVID-19 would cause a delay for CenturyLink. Even if they upgrade somebody’s DSL, they could mail them a new modem – telcos have been having customers self-install DSL modems for twenty years.

It’s time to stop the pretense that CenturyLink or the other big telcos have been busy upgrading rural DSL. I don’t know anybody who thinks that’s happened. I have anecdotal evidence that it hasn’t, My company has been helping rural counties with broadband feasibility studies for many years. In the last four years, we’ve been asking rural customers to take speed tests – and I’ve never seen even one rural DSL connection that transmits at a speed of 10/1 Mbps. I’ve haven’t seen many that have tested above 5 Mbps. I’ve seen a whole lot that tested at less than 3, 2 or even 1 Mbps. Many of these tests have been in areas that are supposed to have CAF II upgrades.

I’ve also never talked to any County officials who have heard from the telcos that their county got rural broadband upgrades. One would think the telcos would brag locally when they were finished with upgrades as a pitch to get new customers. After all, customers that have only had slow DSL or satellite service should be flocking to 10/1 DSL. I’ve also not seen a marketing campaign talking about faster speeds due to CAF II. I’ve been searching the web for years to find testimonials from customers talking about their free upgrade to 10/1 Mbps, but I’ve never found anybody who has ever said that. This is not to say there have been zero upgrades in the CAF II areas, but I see no evidence of widespread upgrades.

The reality is that CenturyLink got new leadership a few years ago who immediately announced that the company was going to stop making ‘infrastructure return’ investments. We have Frontier that miraculously recently found 16,000 Census blocks that now have speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps when I’m still looking for proof that they upgraded places to 10/1 Mbps. Go interview folks in West Virginia if you think they’ve made any CAF II upgrades.

The FCC has a choice now. They can wimp out and grant the delay that CenturyLink is requesting, or the agency can come down on the side of rural broadband. There is no middle ground when it comes to CAF II. This FCC didn’t make the original CAF II decision – but they are the ones that are supposed to make sure the upgrades are done, and they are supposed to be penalizing telcos that failed to make the upgrades.

The response to CenturyLink’s request should be a giant penalty for missing the 2019 deadlines and a reminder that the company is still on the hook for 2020 unless they want more fines.

The FCC also needs to aggressively start testing in the areas that have supposedly gotten CAF II upgrades. This doesn’t have to be a big expensive testing program. We know exactly where CAF II should have been implemented – the FCC has made it easy by overlaying the CAF II footprint over Google maps. The FCC could ask County administrators across the US to solicit a speed test at CAF II locations – the Counties would be glad to oblige. If the FCC wanted to know the truth about CAF II they could get massive feedback within a few weeks about the abject failure of the CAF II program.

The ultimate penalty ought to be the return of CAF II money to the Universal Service Fund for areas that aren’t upgraded to 10/1 Mbps. Then the money could finally be given to somebody that will upgrade to real broadband. The CAF II program was ill-conceived, but the big telcos should have used that money to bring rural speeds up to 10/1 Mbps. Had they done so, we’d have millions of more homes that wouldn’t be struggling so hard during COVID-19. This FCC has a chance to do their job and set things right.

Congress, Don’t Be Too Hasty

As Congress is handing out relief money for the COVID-19 crisis, rumors are flying around that rural broadband relief is one of the issues being discussed. The plight of employees and students unable to work from home has certainly bubbled up to a majority of those in Congress.

My advice to Congress is to not be to hasty. Don’t have the knee-jerk reaction of just tossing big bucks towards the rural broadband problem, because if you do much of the money will be wasted. There have been back-of-the-envelope estimates made that it would take anywhere from $60 billion to well over $100 billion to bring fiber to everywhere in rural America. Nobody knows the number and my guess is that it’s towards the upper end of that scale.

The typical Washington DC approach to the problem would be to earmark a pile of money to solve the problem, with no forethought of how to use the funds. This tendency is bolstered by the fiscal year spending nature of government funding, and Congress would likely expect broadband money to be spent quickly.

And that’s where the rub comes in. The broadband industry is not prepared to handle a sudden huge influx of funding. Consider all of the following issues that would quickly become apparent if this were to happen:

  • The first big question that would be asked with funding is where to spend the money – which parts of the country need the funding help? Unfortunately, the FCC will be of nearly zero help in this area, so you can’t run a giant grant program through them. The upcoming RDOF grants are supposedly aimed at bringing broadband to all of the places that don’t already have 25/3 broadband. But due to the dismal FCC mapping process, the current maps miss huge swaths of rural America that also need better broadband but that are misclassified by the FCC maps. If Congress gives the money to the FCC to disperse, the agency has no idea where to spend it according to its flawed data.
  • The next big question is how to award funds. The FCC’s RDOF grant program is using a reverse auction to award funds – but this only works when the funding is awarded to a specific footprint of grant areas. More traditional grant awards require the writing of extensive grant requests to prove the worthiness of a grant applicant and the worthiness of grant project. Anybody that remembers the Stimulus grants for broadband recalls that even at that time there were almost no qualified and experienced people available to review grant applications – and a lot of the Stimulus funding went to unworthy projects. A poorly run grant program also invites fraud and waste – the bigger the dollars the bigger the problems.
  • In perhaps the hardest issue for many to believe, there are not enough qualified ISPs ready and able to handle a big influx of funding and of operating the ensuing broadband businesses. We hear about small ISPs offering service all over the country, but all of them together don’t serve more than perhaps 5% of the broadband customers in the country today. Most small ISPs are already fully leveraged today as they’ve borrowed money to expand their footprint. Any grants that require matching funds might find a dearth of takers. If we throw money at the industry too quickly, it’s going to all end up going to the big telcos – and that likely just means pouring money down a black hole. It’s not hard to look back at the total bust of the CAF II program where the big telcos spent $11 billion in FCC funding and didn’t make any dent in the rural broadband problem. If Congress spreads awards out over time, then big new ISPs like electric cooperatives can prepare to go after the awards – most of them are not close to ‘shovel-ready’ today.
  • You can’t ask for broadband funding without some sort of engineering estimate of the cost of building a network and some sort of business plan showing that the network can operate profitably at the end of the funding. There are not a lot of ‘shovel-ready’ broadband projects laying around waiting for funding, and so the first step after a big Congress funding program would be to develop hundreds of new business plans. All of the consultants and engineers I know are already full-time busy helping companies to prepare for the $16.4 billion RDOF grants and the various state grant awards around the country.
  • The same is true of fiber construction companies. During this last construction season, we started seeing construction companies bidding up rates to go to the builder willing to pay the most for their services. There are not a lot (if any) idle fiber construction crews sitting around waiting for work. Fiber construction is not something that can be taught quickly to new workers – it takes years to develop a good fiber splicer or to train somebody to be able to determine pole make-ready.
  • We’re also starting to see backlogs for fiber materials. The waiting times for ADSS fiber that goes into the power space recently crept up to six months. The far bigger concern is electronics. Right now, the world supply chains are a mess due to COVID-19 and the industry is expecting delays in electronics delivery in the coming construction season. Supply houses and vendors aren’t talking about this, hoping it will magically go away, but there will likely be electronics shortages in the 2020 construction season even without pressure from new grants. Such shortages can cripple construction projects.
  • Finally, I am positive that any federal broadband grant money will come with stupid rules, many slapped on the funding by the big ISP lobbyists. There will be needless hoops to jump through and rules that make it hard to spend the money well. There is zero chance that federal grant funding wouldn’t come with ridiculous rules and ridiculous restrictions. If Congress is going to award big money they need to take a little time that the rules are fair and efficient.

There will be people reading this in amazement and wondering how a rural broadband advocate could be recommending caution. One only has to look back to the stimulus grants to recall that probably half of that money was wasted due to the haste of the grant programs. My fear is a knee-jerk federal reaction that will throw giant bucks at the problem when the proper solution would be a series of grants awarded over five or more years to allow ISPs time to get ready. Funding in one giant lump would result in a mess of epic proportions. I fear that DC would then wash their hands of rural broadband by saying that they already funded it, and any communities left behind after a flawed grant program would likely be left behind for decades to come. Congress, if you want to help your constituents, please ask for advice and get it right.

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.