The Status of the CAF II Deployments

The Benton Foundation noted last month that both CenturyLink and Frontier have not met all of their milestones for deployment of CAF II. This funding from the FCC is supposed to be used to improve rural broadband to speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps. As of the end of 2018, the CAF II recipients were to have completed upgrades to at least 60% of the customers in each state covered by the funding.

CenturyLink took funding to improve broadband in 33 states covering over 1 million homes and businesses. CenturyLink claims to have met the 60% milestone in twenty-three states but didn’t make the goal in eleven states: Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Frontier received CAF II funding to improve broadband to over 774,000 locations in 29 states. Frontier says they’ve met the milestone in 27 states but haven’t reached the 60% deployment milestone in Nebraska and New Mexico.  There were a number of other large telcos that took CAF Ii funding like AT&T, Windstream, and Consolidated, and I have to assume that they’ve reported meeting the 60% milestone.

Back in 2014 when it looked like the CAF II program might be awarded by reverse auction, we helped a number of clients take a look at the CAF II service areas. In many cases, these are large rural areas that cover 50% or more of most of the rural counties in the country. Most of my clients were interested in the CAF II money as a funding mechanism to help pay for rural fiber, but all of the big telcos other than AT&T announced originally that they planned to upgrade existing DSL. AT&T announced a strategy early on to used fixed cellular wireless to satisfy their CAF II requirements. Since then a few big telcos like Frontier and Windstream have said that they are also using fixed wireless to meet their obligations.

To us, the announcement that the telcos were going to upgrade DSL set off red flag alarms. In a lot of rural counties there are only a small number of towns, and those towns are the only places where the big telcos have DSLAMs (the DSL hub). Rural telephone exchanges tend to be large and the vast majority of rural customers have always been far out of range of DSL that originates in the small towns. One only has to go a few miles – barely outside the towns – to see DSL speeds fall off to nothing.

The only way to make DSL work in the CAF II areas would be to build fiber to rural locations and establish new DSL hub sites. As any independent telco can tell you who deployed DSL the right way, this is expensive because it takes a lot of the rural DSLAMs to get within range of every customer. By electing DSL upgrades, the big telcos like CenturyLink and Frontier had essentially agreed to build a dozen or more fiber DSLAMs in each of the rural counties covered by CAF II. My back-of-the-envelope math showed that was going to cost a lot more than what the companies were receiving from the CAF fund. Since I knew these telcos didn’t want to spend their own money in rural America, I predicted execution failures for many of the planned DSL deployments.

I believe the big telcos are now facing a huge dilemma. They’ve reached 60% of customers in many places (but not all). However, it is going to cost two to three times more per home to reach the remaining 40% of homes. The remaining customers are the ones on extremely long copper loops and DSL is an expensive technology use for reaching these last customers. A DSLAM built to serve the customers at the ends of these loops might only serve a few customers – and it’s hard to justify the cost of the fiber and electronics needed to reach them.

I’ve believed from the beginning that the big telcos building DSL for the CAF II program would take the approach of covering the low hanging fruit – those customers that can be reached by the deployment of a few DSLAMs in a given rural area. If that’s true, then the big telcos aren’t going to spend the money to reach the most remote customers, meaning a huge number of CAF II customers are going to see zero improvements in broadband. The telcos mostly met their 60% targets by serving the low-hanging fruit. They are going to have a huge challenge meeting the next milestones of 80% and 100%.

Probably because I write this blog, I hear from folks at all levels of the industry about rural broadband. I’ve heard a lot of stories from technicians telling me that some of the big telcos have only tackled the low-hanging fruit in the CAF builds. I’ve heard from others that some telcos aren’t spending more than a fraction of the CAF II money they got from the FCC and are pocketing much of it. I’ve heard from rural customers who supposedly already got a CAF II upgrade and aren’t seeing speeds improved to the 10/1 threshold.

The CAF II program will be finished soon and I’m already wondering how the telcos are going to report the results to the FCC if they took shortcuts and didn’t make all of the CAF II upgrades. Will they say they’ve covered everybody when some homes saw no improvement? Will they claim 10/1 Mbps speeds when many households were upgraded to something slower? If they come clean, how will the FCC react? Will the FCC try to find the truth or sweep it under the rug?

We Need a Challenge Process for Broadband Maps

We all know that the broadband maps maintained by the FCC are terrible. Some of the inaccuracy is due to the fact that the data in the maps come from ISPs. For example, there are still obvious examples where carriers are reporting their marketing speeds rather than actual speeds, which they might not know. Some of the inaccuracy is due to the mapping rules, such as showing broadband by census block – when a few customers in a block have decent broadband it’s assumed that the whole census block has it. Some of the inaccuracy is due to the vagaries of technology – DSL can vary significantly from one house to the next due to the condition of local copper; wireless broadband can vary according to interference and impediments in the line-of-sight. The maps can be wrong due to bad behavior of an ISP who has a reason to either overstate or understate their actual speeds (I’ve seen both cases).

None of this would matter if the maps were just our best guess at seeing the state of broadband in the country. Unfortunately, the maps are used for real-life purposes. First, the maps are used at the FCC and state legislators to develop and support various policies related to broadband. It’s been my contention for a long time that the FCC has been hiding behind the bad maps because those maps grossly overstate the availability of rural broadband. The FCC has a good reason to do so because they are tasked by Congress to fix inadequate broadband.

Recently the maps have been used in a more concrete way and are used to define where grants can or cannot be awarded. Used in this manner the maps are being used to identify groups of homes that don’t already have adequate broadband. The maps were the basis of determining eligible areas for the CAF II reverse auction and now for the e-Connectivity grants.

This is where bad mapping really hurts. Every rural county in the country knows where broadband is terrible or non-existent. When I show the FCC maps to local politicians they are aghast at how inaccurate the maps are for their areas. The maps often show large swaths of phantom broadband that doesn’t exist. The maps will show towns that supposedly have universal 25/3 Mbps broadband or better when the real speeds in the town are 10 Mbps or less. The bad maps hurt every one of these places because if these maps were accurate these places would be eligible for grants to help fix the poor broadband. A lot of rural America is being royally screwed by the bad maps.

Of even more dismay, the maps seem to be getting worse instead of better. For example, in the CAF II program, the big telcos were supposed to bring broadband of at least 10/1 Mbps to huge swaths or rural America. A lot of the areas covered by the CAF II program are not going to see any improvement of broadband speeds. In some cases, the technology used, such as AT&T’s use of fixed cellular can’t deliver the desired speeds to customers who live too far from a tower. I also believe we’re going to find that in many cases the big carriers are electing to only upgrade the low-hanging fruit and are ignoring homes where the CAF upgrade costs too much. These carriers are likely to claim they’ve made the upgrades on the maps rather than admit to the FCC that they pocketed the subsidy money instead of spending it to improve broadband.

There have been a few suggested fixes for the problem. A few states have tried to tackle their own broadband maps that are more accurate, but they can’t get access to any better data from the ISPs. There are a few states now that are asking citizens to run speed tests to try to map the real broadband situation, but unless the speeds tests are run under specific and rigorous conditions they won’t, by themselves, serve as proof of poor broadband.

The easiest fix for the problem is staring us right in the face. Last year the FCC got a lot of complaints about the soon-to-be-awarded Mobility Fund Phase II grants. This money was to go to cellular carriers to bring cell coverage to areas that don’t have it. The FCC maps used for those efforts were even worse than the broadband maps and the biggest cellular companies were accused of fudging their coverage data to try to stop smaller rival cell providers from getting the federal money. The outcry was so loud that the FCC created a challenge process where state and local governments could challenge the cellular coverage maps. I know a lot of governments that took part in these challenges. The remapping isn’t yet complete, but it’s clear that local input improved the maps.

We need the same thing for the FCC broadband maps. There needs to be a permanent challenge process where a state or local government can challenge the maps and can supply what they believe to be a more accurate map of coverage. Once counties understand that they are getting bypassed for federal grant money due to crappy maps they will jump all over a challenge process. I know places that will go door-to-door if the effort can help bring funds to get better broadband.

Unfortunately, only the FCC can order a challenge process, and I don’t think they will even consider it unless they got the same kind of outcry that came with the Mobility II Funding. It’s sad to say, but the FCC has a vested interest in burying their head in the sand and pretending that rural broadband is okay – otherwise they have to try to fix it.

I think states ought to consider this. If a state undertakes a program to allow challenges to the map, then governors and federal legislators can use the evidence gathered to pressure the USDA to accept alternate maps for areas with poor broadband. These challenges have to come from the local level where people know the broadband story. This can’t come from a state broadband mapping process that starts with carrier data. If local people are allowed to challenge the maps then the maps will get better and will better define areas that deserve federal grants. I believe a lot of county governments and small towns would leap at the opportunity to tell their broadband story.

Looking Back at the Net Neutrality Order

Chairman Ajit Pai used three arguments to justify ending net neutrality. First, he claimed that the net neutrality rules in effect were a disincentive for big ISPs to make investments and that ending net neutrality would lead to a boom in broadband investment. He also argued that ending net neutrality would free the big ISPs to make broadband investments in rural parts of the US that were underserved. Finally, he argued that the end of net neutrality would spark the growth of telecom jobs. It’s been two years since he used those arguments to justify the repeal net neutrality and it’s easy to see that none of those things have come to pass.

The investment claim is easy to check. The big ISPs are starting to release their 2018 financial results and it looks like capital spending in 2018 – the first year after the end of net neutrality – are lower than in 2017. We’ve already heard from Comcast and Charter and that capital spending was down in 2018 over 2017. The industry analyst MoffettNathanson has already predicted that capital spending for the four biggest cable companies – Comcast, Charter, Altice, and CableONE is expected to drop by 5.8% more in 2019. Anybody who watches the cable companies understands that they all just made big investments in upgrading to DOCSIS 3.1 and that capital spending ought to drop significantly for the next several years.

MoffettNathanson also predicts that wireline capital spending for Verizon and AT&T will drop from $20.3 billion in 2018 to $19.6 billion in 2019. The press is also full of articles lamenting that investments in 5G by these companies is far smaller than hoped for by industry vendors. It seems that net neutrality had no impact on telecom spending (as anybody who has spent time at an ISP could have told you). It’s virtually unheard of for regulation to drive capital spending.

The jobs claim was a ludicrous one because the big companies have been downsizing for years and have continued to do so after net neutrality was repealed. The biggest layoff came from Verizon in October 2018 when the company announced that it was eliminating 44,000 jobs and transferring another 2,500 to India. This layoff is an astronomical 30% of its workforce. AT&T just announced on January 25 that it would eliminate 4,600 jobs, the first part of a 3-year plan to eliminate 10,000 positions. While the numbers are smaller for Comcast, they laid off 500 employees on January 4 and also announced the close of a facility with 405 employees in Atlanta.

Pai’s claim that net neutrality was stopping the big ISPs from investing in underserved areas might be the most blatantly false claim the Chairman has made since he took the Chairman position. The big ISPs haven’t made investments in rural America in the last decade. They have been spending money in rural America in the last few years – but only funds handed to them by the FCC through the CAF II program to expand rural broadband and the FCC’s Mobility Fund to expand rural cellular coverage. I’ve been hearing rumors all over the industry that most of the big ISPs aren’t even spending a lot of the money from those two programs – something I think will soon surface as a scandal. There is no regulatory policy that is going to get the big ISPs to invest in rural America and it was incredibly unfair to rural America for the Chairman to imply they ever would.

Chairman Pai’s arguments for repealing net neutrality were all false and industry insiders knew it at the time. I probably wrote a dozen blog posts about the obvious falsehoods being peddled. The Chairman took over the FCC with the goal of eliminating net neutrality at the top of his wish list and he adopted these three talking points because they were the same ones being suggested by big ISP lobbyists.

What bothers me is this is not how regulation is supposed to work. Federal and state regulatory agencies are supposed to gather the facts on both sides of a regulatory issue, and once they choose a direction they are expected to explain why. The orders published by the FCC and other regulatory bodies act similar to court orders in that the language in these orders are then part of the ongoing record that is used later to understand the ‘why’ behind an order. In later years courts rely on the discussion in regulatory orders to evaluate disputes based upon the new rules. The order that repeals net neutrality sadly repeats these same falsehoods that were used to justify the repeal.

There are always two sides for every regulatory issue and there are arguments that could be made against net neutrality. However, the Chairman and the big ISPs didn’t want to publicly make the logical arguments against net neutrality because they knew these arguments would be unpopular. For example, there is a legitimate argument to made for allowing ISPs to discriminate against certain kinds of web traffic – any network engineer will tell you that it’s nearly mandatory to give priority to some bits over others. But the ISPs know that making that argument makes it sound like they want the right to shuttle customers into the ’slow lane’, and that’s a PR battle they didn’t want to fight. Instead, telecom lobbyists cooked up the false narrative peddled by Chairman Pai. The hoped the public would swallow these false arguments rather than argue for the end of net neutrality on its merits.

Broadband Usage Continues to Grow

The firm OpenVault, a provider of software that measures data consumption for ISPs reported that the average monthly data use by households grew from 201.6 gigabytes in 2017 to 268.7 gigabytes in 2018 – a growth rate of 33%. The company also reported that the medium use per household grew from 103.6 gigabytes in 2017 to 145.2 gigabytes in 2018 – a growth rate of 40%. The medium represents the midpoint of users, with half of all households above and half below the medium.

To some degree, these statistics are not news because we’ve known for a long time that broadband usage at homes, both in total download and in desired speeds has been doubling every three years since the early 1980s. The growth in 2018 is actually a little faster than that historical average and if the 2018 growth rate was sustained, in three years usage would grow by 235%. What I find most impressive about these new statistics is the magnitude of the annual change – the average home used 67 more gigabytes of data per month in 2018 than the year before – a number that would have seemed unbelievable only a decade ago when the average household used a total of only 25 gigabytes per month.

There are still many in the industry who are surprised by these numbers. I’ve heard people claim that now that homes are watching all the video they want that the rate of growth is bound to slow down – but if anything, the rate of growth seems to be accelerating. We also know that cellular data consumption is also now doubling every two years.

This kind of growth has huge implications for the industry. From a network perspective, this kind of bandwidth usage puts a big strain on networks. Typically the most strained part of a network is the backbones that connect to neighborhood nodes. That’s the primary stress point in many networks, including FTTH networks, and when there isn’t enough bandwidth to a neighborhood then everybody’s bandwidth suffers. Somebody that designed a network ten years ago would never have believed the numbers that OpenVault is reporting and would likely not have designed a network that would still be sufficient today.

One consequence of the bandwidth growth is that it’s got to be driving homes to change to faster service providers when they have the option. A household that might have been happy with a 5 Mbps or 10 Mbps connection a few years ago is likely no longer happy with it. This has to be one of the reasons we are seeing millions of homes each year upgrade from DSL to cable modem each year in metropolitan areas. The kind of usage growth we are seeing today has to be accelerating the death of DSL.

This growth also should be affecting policy. The FCC set the definition of broadband at 25/3 Mbps in January of 2015. If that was a good definition in 2015 then the definition of broadband should have been increased to 63 Mbps in 2019. At the time the FCC set that threshold I thought they were a little generous. In 2014, as the FCC was having this debate, the average home downloaded around 100 gigabytes per month. In 2014 the right definition of broadband was probably more realistically 15 – 20 Mbps and the FCC was obviously a little forward-looking in setting the definition. Even so, the definition of broadband should be increased – if the right definition of broadband in 2014 was 20 Mbps, then today the definition of broadband ought to have been increased to 50 Mbps today.

The current FCC is ignoring these statistics for policy purposes – if they raise the definition of broadband then huge numbers of homes will be classified as not having broadband. The FCC does not want to do that since they are required by Congressional edict to make sure that all homes have broadband. When the FCC set a realistic definition of broadband in 2015 they created a dilemma for themselves. That 2015 definition is already obsolete and if they don’t change it, in a few years it is going to be absurdly ridiculous. One only has to look forward three years from now, when the definition of broadband ought to be 100 Mbps.

These statistics also remind us of the stupidity of handing out federal subsidies to build technologies that deliver less than 100 Mbps. We still have two more years of CAF II construction to upgrade speeds to an anemic 10 Mbps. We are still handing out new subsidies to build networks that can deliver 25/3 Mbps – networks that are obsolete before they are completed.

Network designers will tell you that they try to design networks to satisfy demands at least seven years into the future (which is the average life of many kinds of fiber electronics). If broadband usage keeps doubling every three years, then looking forward seven years to 2026, the average home is going to download 1.7 terabytes per month and will expect download speeds of 318 Mbps. I wonder how many network planners are using that target?

The final implications of this growth are for data caps. Two years ago when Comcast set a terabyte monthly data cap they said that it affected only a few homes – and I’m sure they were right at the time. However, the OpenVault statistics show that 4.12% of homes used a terabyte per month in 2018, almost double from 2.11% in 2017. We’ve now reached that point when the terabyte data cap is going to have teeth, and over the next few years a lot of homes are going to pass that threshold and have to pay a lot more for their broadband. While much of the industry has a hard time believing the growth statistics, I think Comcast knew exactly what they were doing when they established the terabyte cap that seemed so high just a few years ago.

Windstream Turns Focus to Wireless

Windstream CEO Tony Thomas recently told investors that the company plans to stress wireless technology over copper going into the future. The company has been using point-to-point wireless to serve large businesses for several years. The company has more recently been using fixed point-to-multipoint wireless technology to satisfy some of it’s CAF II build-out requirements.

Thomas says that the fixed wireless technology blows away what could be provided over the old copper plant with DSL. In places with flat and open terrain like Iowa and Nebraska the company is seeing rural residential broadband speeds as fast as 100 Mbps with wireless – far faster than can be obtained with DSL.

Thomas also said that the company is also interested in fixed 5G deployments, similar to what Verizon is now starting to deploy – putting 5G transmitters on poles to serve nearby homes. He says the company is interested in the technology in places where they are ‘fiber rich’. While Windstream serves a lot of extremely rural locations, there also serve a significant number of towns and small cities in their incumbent service areas that might be good candidates for 5G.

The emphasis on wireless deployments puts Windstream on the same trajectory as AT&T. AT&T has made it clear numerous times to the FCC that they company would like to tear down rural copper wherever it can to serve customers with wireless. AT&T’s approach differs in that AT&T will be using its licensed cellular spectrum and 4G LTE in rural markets while Windstream would use unlicensed spectrum like various WISPs.

This leads me to wonder if Windstream will join the list of big telcos that will largely ignore its existing copper plant moving into the future. Verizon has done it’s best to sell rural copper to Frontier and seems to be largely ignoring its remaining copper plant – it’s the only big telcos that didn’t even bother to chase the CAF II money that could have been used to upgrade rural copper.

The new CenturyLink CEO made it clear that the company has no desire to make any additional investments that will earn ‘infrastructure returns’, meaning investing in last mile networks, both copper and fiber. You can’t say that Frontier doesn’t want to continue to support copper, but the company is clearly cash-stressed and is widely reported to be ignoring needed upgrades and repairs to rural copper networks.

The transition from copper to wireless is always scary for a rural area. It’s great that Windstream can now deliver speeds up to 100 Mbps to some customers. However, the reality of wireless networks are that there are always some customers who are out of reach of the transmitters. These customers may have physical impediments such as being in a valley or behind a hill and out of line-of-sight from towers. Or customers might just live to far away from a tower since all of the wireless technologies only work for some fixed distance from a tower, depending upon the specific spectrum being used.

It makes no sense for a rural telco to operate two networks, and one has to wonder what happens to the customers that can’t get the wireless service when the day comes when the copper network gets torn down. This has certainly been one of the concerns at the FCC when considering AT&T’s requests to tear down copper. The current FCC has relaxed the hurdles needed to tear down copper and so this situation is bound to arise. In the past the telcos had carrier of last-resort obligations for anybody living in the service area. Will they be required to somehow get wireless signal to those customers that fall between the cracks? I doubt that anybody will force them to do so. It’s not far-fetched to imagine customers living within a regulated telcos service area who can’t get telephone or broadband service from the telco.

Customers in these areas also have to be concerned with the future. We have wide experience that the current wireless technologies don’t last very long. We’ve seen electronics wear out and become functionally obsolete within seven years. Will Windstream and the other telcos chasing the wireless technology path dedicate enough capital to constantly replace electronics? We’ll have to wait for that answer – but experience says that they will cut corners to save money.

I also have to wonder what happens to the many parts of the Windstream service areas that are too hilly or too wooded for the wireless technology. As the company becomes wireless-oriented will they ignore the parts of the company stuck with copper? I just recently visited some rural counties that are heavily wooded, and which were told by local Windstream staff that the upgrades they’ve already seen on copper (which did not seem to make much difference) were the last upgrades they might ever see. If Windstream joins the other list of big telcos that will ignore rural copper, then these networks will die a natural death from neglect. The copper networks of all of the big telcos are already old and it won’t take much neglect to push these networks into the final death spiral.

Trusting Big ISP Data

The FCC has finally come to grips with the fact that big ISPs are supplying bad data to the various FCC mapping efforts that are then used to distribute FCC funding and to set national policies. The latest mapping snafu come from one-time data collection from the cellular carriers last year showing rural cellular coverage. These maps were to be used to establish a new federal fund called the Mobility Fund II which will distribute $4.53 billion for the expansion of 4G cellular coverage to rural parts of the country that have little or no cellular coverage.

The big cellular companies have been lying about their cellular coverage for years. If you look at the nationwide 4G LTE coverage maps from AT&T and Verizon you’d think that they have cellular coverage virtually everywhere except in areas like deserts and mountains. But anybody living or traveling in rural America knows better. It’s not hard to drive very far off main highways and hit areas that never see a bar of cellular coverage. And even where there is coverage, it’s still often 3G or even older technology.

When the FCC collected data for the Mobility II funding the big carriers stuck to this same flawed mapping data. It turns out that overclaiming rural cellular coverage will keep funding from going to the smaller cellular companies that still serve in many parts of rural America. Luckily the FCC effort included a challenge process and the FCC was flooded with challenges showing that cellular coverage is far worse than is claimed by the big carrier maps. There were so many challenges that the FCC put the Mobility II award process on hold until they can sort it out.

This is just one of the mapping efforts from the FCC that have been used to award billions of dollars of funding over the last decade. The FCC relied on mapping data from the big telcos to establish the areas that were eligible for the billions of dollars of CAF II funding.

Since rural areas served by the biggest telcos have been neglected for years, and since the big telcos deployed very little rural DSL outside of towns it’s not hard to identify huge swaths of rural areas that have little or no broadband. But the big telco broadband coverage data contains a ton of inaccuracies. For example, there are numerous smaller rural towns that are listed in the telco databases as having decent broadband, when the reality on the ground is broadband speeds of a few Mbps at best. It looks like the big telcos often reported marketing speeds rather than actual speeds. This inaccuracy has stopped others from seeking federal grants and loans to upgrade such towns.

I fear that rural broadband mapping is on the verge of the next crisis. As a blogger I am contacted a lot by folks in rural America describing their broadband situation. I’ve heard enough stories to convince me that the big telcos have made only a half-hearted effort at implementing CAF II. I think many homes that should have seen CAF II broadband upgrades will see zero upgrades while many others will get upgraded to speeds that don’t meet even the measly CAF II goal of 10/1 Mbps.

The big telcos are not likely to come clean about having pocketed CAF II funding rather than spending every penny to make upgrades, and so they are going to claim that the CAF II areas have been upgraded, regardless of the actual situation on the ground. Rural households that didn’t see the promised upgrades will then be counted by the FCC as having better broadband. That will make these areas off limits to future federal funding to fix what the telcos botched. We already see the newest federal grant programs having a new requirement that no more than 10% of the homes covered by federal funding can have broadband today. Because of the falsified mapping, many homes without broadband are going to be deemed to be covered and it will be a massive challenge for somebody else to get funding to help such areas. These communities will be harmed twice – once by the telcos that aren’t upgrading speeds and second by the inaccurate mapping that will stop others from funding assistance to fix the problem.

The big telcos and carriers have huge incentives to lie about rural broadband coverage. None of the big telcos or cellular carriers want to spend any of their own money in rural areas, but they love the revenues they are receiving by a captive rural customer base who pays high prices for poor broadband. The big companies are fighting hard to preserve these revenues, which means they don’t want anybody else to get funding to improve broadband. To make matters worse, the big telcos continue to eliminate technicians and maintenance budgets in rural America, making it nearly impossible for customers to get repairs and service.

I unfortunately don’t have any easy solution for the problem of crappy mapping. Perhaps the FCC could entertain challenges to the broadband maps in the same way they are accepting challenges in the Mobility II process. I know a number of rural communities that would make the effort to create accurate broadband maps if this might bring them better broadband.

Telecom Predictions for 2019

It’s that time of year when I look forward at what the next year might bring to the industry. I see the following as the biggest telecom trends for 2019:

5G Will Not Save the World (or the Industry). This will be the year when we will finally stop seeing headlines about how 5G will transform society. There will be almost no actual introduction of 5G in networks, but we’ll still see numerous press releases by the big ISPs crowing about fictional 5G achievements.

CAF II Buildout Nearly Complete, but Few Notice. The CAF II upgrades will not have the impact hoped for by the FCC. Many areas that should have gotten speed increases to at least 10/1 Mbps will get something less, but nobody will officially monitor or note it. Households that buy the upgrades to 10/1 will still feel massively underserved since those speeds are already seriously obsolete.

People Will Wonder Why They Bought 5G Cellphones and 802.11ax Routers. The wireless carriers will begin charging premium prices for 5G-capable cellular phone yet there will be no 5G cell sites deployed. Households will upgrade to 802.11ax WiFi routers without realizing that there are no compatible devices in the home. Both sets of customers will feel cheated since there will be zero improvement in performance. Yet we’ll still see a few articles raving about the performance of each technology.

FCC Will Continue to Work Themselves out of the Regulatory Business. The current FCC will continue on the path to deregulate the large carriers to the fullest extent possible. They will continue to slant every decision in the direction of the big ISPs while claiming that every decision helps rural broadband.

Rural America Will Realize that Nobody is Coming to Help. I predict that hundreds of rural communities will finally realize that nobody is bringing them broadband. I expect many more communities to begin offering money for public/private partnerships as they try desperately to not fall on the wrong side of the broadband divide.

Broadband Prices Start to Climb. 2019 will be the first year that the world will notice the big ISP strategy to significantly increase broadband prices. We saw the first indication in November when Charter increased bundled broadband prices by $5 per month – the biggest broadband price increase in my memory. All the big ISPs are hoping to have broadband prices to $90 within 5 – 7 years.

Corporate Lobbyists Will Drive Policy. In 2018 there were numerous FCC decisions that came straight from the pens of telecom lobbyists. In 2019 those lobbyists will drive state and federal telecom legislation and FCC decisions.

Comcast and Charter Continue to Eat into Cellular Market. These two cable companies will quietly, yet significantly begin eating into the cellular markets in urban areas. I still don’t expect a major reaction by the cellar companies, but by 2020 we should start seeing cellular prices take another tumble.

Household Bandwidth Usage Will Continue to Grow. There will be no slowdown in the growth of household broadband as homes add many more bandwidth-capable devices to their homes. Another few million customers will cut the cable TV cord and ratchet up bandwidth usage. Online programming will routinely first offer 4K video and we’ll see the first commercial 8K video online.

We’ll See First Significant Launches of LEO Satellites. There will be little public notice since the early market entries will not be selling rural broadband but will be supporting corporate WANs, cellular transport and the development of outer space networks between satellites.

25 New Online Programmers Emerge. There will be a flood of new online programming options as numerous companies jump into the market. We won’t see many, and possibly no failures this year, but within a few years the market reality will drive out companies that can’t gain enough market share.

Transport Price Pressure Tightens. Anybody selling transport to cellular companies will see big pressure to lower prices. Those who ignore the pressure will find out that the carriers are willing to build fiber to bypass high costs.

Big Companies Will Get Most New Spectrum. The biggest ISPs and cellular carriers will still gobble up the majority of new spectrum, meaning improved spectrum utilization for urban markets while rural America will see nearly zero benefits.

A Roadmap to Better Broadband Grants

I’ve been thinking about the effectiveness of federal broadband grant programs. We’ve had three recent major sets of federal grant awards – the stimulus grants of 2007, the first CAF II grants in 2015 and the recently awarded CAF II reverse auctions. We also have an upcoming e-Connectivity grant program for $600 million. I think there are lessons to be learned from studying the difference in the results between these grants. These lessons apply to State grant programs as well as any new federal programs.

Don’t Reward Slow Broadband Speeds. Probably the most bone-headed decision made by the FCC in my memory was handing out billions in CAF II to upgrade rural copper to 10/1 Mbps. This wasn’t considered decent broadband at the time of this decision and yet these upgrades continue to be funded today. The FCC could still take back the remaining CAF II money and redirect these funds to a reverse auction, which we just saw produced much faster speeds in areas with far less density than the CAF II footprint.

Keep Politics Out of It. The CAF II decision to give all of the funding to the big telcos was purely political and resulted in a huge waste of money that could have created many real broadband solutions. The FCC is supposed to be an independent agency, and it’s shameful that lobbyists were able to kill the reverse auction originally planned for CAF II. We are seeing politics back on the table with the e-Connectivity grants where Congress created a feel-good grant program, but then saddled it with a restriction that no more than 10% of homes in a study area can have existing 10/1 Mbps speeds. The reason for this provision was not even hidden, with the big telcos saying they didn’t want federal grant money to be used to compete against them.

Don’t Fund Inadequate Technologies. AT&T is using LTE cellular broadband to satisfy CAF II. This technology will never provide adequate broadband. In the recent reverse auction we saw money going to high-altitude satellite companies. Regardless of speeds that can be delivered with these satellites, the latency is so poor that it limits the ability to use the broadband for important activities like working at home or taking on-line classes.

Don’t Stress Anchor Institutions over People. The stimulus grants required middle mile providers to pop off of highways to build expensive last mile fiber to a handful of anchor institutions – schools, libraries, etc. While these anchor institutions need good broadband, so do the neighborhoods around them. This requirement added a lot of cost to the middle-mile projects as well as made it harder for anybody else to build a last mile network since the biggest bandwidth users in a community already have fiber.

Build to Industry Practices. The stimulus grants required that fiber builders conduct expensive environmental studies and historic preservation studies. That was the first time I ever saw those requirements in my forty years in the industry. Since telecom infrastructure is built almost entirely in existing public right-of-way these restrictions added a lot of cost but zero value to the projects.

Penalize Companies that Cheat. There needs to be repercussions for companies that cheat on grant applications to win the funding. The biggest area of cheating is claiming speeds that the technology can’t deliver. The FCC follows up grants with a decent speed-test program, but the worst repercussion in failing these tests is to not get funding going forward. A carrier that badly fails the speed tests should have to return the original grant funding. I’m also hearing rumors that the many rural households covered by CAF II will not get the promised upgrades – and if so, the big telcos should be forced to return a proportionate amount of that funding for homes that don’t get the promised upgrades.

Broadband Statistics – 3Q 2018

As a nation we are approaching an 85% overall penetration of residential broadband. The following statistics come from the latest report from the Leichtman Group and compares broadband customers at the end of the recent 3Q of 2018 to the end of 2017.

 3Q 2018 4Q 2017 Change
Comcast 26,872,000 25,869,000 1,003,000 3.9%
Charter 24,930,000 23,903,000 1,027,000 4.3%
AT&T 15,746,000 15,719,000 27,000 0.2%
Verizon 6,958,000 6,959,000 (1,000) 0.0%
CenturyLink 5,435,000 5,662,000 (227,000) -4.0%
Cox 5,040,000 4,880,000 160,000 3.3%
Altice 4,096,300 4,046,200 50,100 1.2%
Frontier 3,802,000 3,938,000 (136,000) -3.5%
Mediacom 1,260,000 1,209,000 51,000 4.2%
Windstream 1,015,000 1,006,600 8,400 0.8%
Consolidated 781,912 783,682 (1,770) -0.2%
WOW! 755,100 730,000 25,100 3.4%
Cable ONE 660,799 524,935 135,864 25.9%
Cincinnati Bell 310,700 308,700 2,000 0.6%
97,662,811 95,056,435 2,123,694 2.2%

The large ISPs in the table control over 95% of the broadband market in the country. Not included in these numbers are the broadband customers served by the smaller ISPs – the telcos, WISPs, fiber overbuilders and municipalities. Cable companies continue to dominate the broadband market and now have 63.6 million customers compared to 34.0 million customers for the big telcos.

The 2.2% overall growth during the year is impressive since many have assumed that we are nearing the top of the market for broadband penetration. It’s worth noting that the US has had a housing construction boom and has added 1.6 million new housing units so far in 2018. If you assume those new homes share the same overall 85% market penetration as the rest of the country, the new homes would account for 1.36 million of the broadband gain. That means the rest of the market saw nearly a 1% overall increase in broadband penetration – a definite slowdown over prior years.

Much of the growth at the big cable companies continues to come at the expense of telco DSL. Overall, the big telcos lost a net of 328,370 customers for the year. This is mostly due to CenturyLink and Frontier, who are clearly bleeding DSL customers. The customer losses for these two companies is a bit surprising since by now each company should have activated big numbers of faster rural DSL customers, funded by the CAF II program. Companies are not required to report their performance for CAF II separately, and I have to wonder if many rural households are actually buying the improved rural broadband.

One thing that is clear about these numbers if that every company on the list ought to be considered now as an ISP, rather than as a telco or cable company. For this same 9-month period these same companies lost nearly 2.7 million cable customers while adding 2.1 million broadband customers. It’s clear that broadband is now the biggest and most important product for each of these companies.

The Reality of Rural Broadband

I recently saw the results of several rural surveys that probably tell the best story about the state of rural broadband. The two areas being studied are far apart geographically, but they are similar in many ways. The areas are both rural and are not near to a metropolitan area. The areas have some modest manufacturing and some modest amount of tourism, but neither in a big way. Both areas included some small towns, and a few of these towns have cable TV. And in both places, the customers in the rural area have poor broadband choices. These are not small isolated pockets of people, and the two surveys cover nearly 20,000 homes.

If you listen to FCC rhetoric it’s easy to think that rural broadband is improving – but in areas like these you can’t see it. These areas have both were supposed to get some upgrades from CAF II – but from what the locals tell me there have been zero improvements so far. The CAF program still has a few years to go, so perhaps there will be some modest improvement in rural DSL.

For now, the broadband situation in these areas is miserable. There are homes with DSL with speeds of a few Mbps at best, with some of the worst speeds hovering at dial-up speeds. One respondent to a survey reported that it took 8 hours to download a copy of Microsoft Office online.

The other broadband choices are also meager. Some people use satellite broadband but complain about the latency and about the small data caps. These areas both have a smattering of fixed wireless broadband – but this is not the modern fixed wireless you see today in the open plains states that delivers 25 Mbps or faster broadband. Both of the areas in the surveys are heavily wooded with hilly terrain, and fixed wireless customers report seeing speeds of 1-2 Mbps. There are a number of homes using their cell phones in lieu of home broadband – an expensive alternative if there are school kids or if any video is watched. There were customers who reported using public hotspots in nearby small towns. And there were a number of households, included many with school kids who have given up and who have no broadband – because nothing they’ve tried has worked.

As would be expected in rural areas, slow speeds are not the only problem. Even homes that report data speeds that should support streaming video complain that streaming doesn’t work. This indicates networks with problems and it’s likely the networks have high latency, are full of jitter, or are over-subscribed and have a lot of packet loss. People don’t really judge the quality of their broadband connection by the speed they get on a speed test, but instead by the ability to do normally expected activities on the Internet.

Many of these homes can’t do things that the rest of us take for granted. Many report the inability to stream video – even a single stream. This is perhaps the biggest fallacy in the way the FCC measures broadband, because they expect that a house getting a speed like 5 Mbps ought to be able to do most needed tasks. In real life the quality of many rural connections are so poor that they won’t stream video. Many people in these areas also complained that their Internet often froze and they had to constantly reboot – something that can kill large downloads or kill online sessions for school or work.

One of the biggest complaints in these areas was that their network only supported one device at a time, meaning that members of the family have to take turns using the Internet. I picture a family with a few school kids and can see how miserable that must be.

The surveys produced a long list of other ways that poor broadband was hurting households. Number one was the inability of people to work at home. Many people said they could work at home more often if they had broadband. A few respondents want to start home businesses but are unable to because of the poor broadband. Another common complaint was the inability for kids to do schoolwork, or for adults to pursue college degrees on line.

The problems many people reported were even more fundamental than these issues. For instance, there were households saying that they could not maintain a good enough connection to bank online or pay their bills online. There were respondents who say they can’t shop online. Many households complained that they couldn’t offload cellular data at home to WiFi, driving up their cellular bills. A number of homes would like to cut the cord to save money but can’t stream Netflix as an alternative to cable.

When you look the raw data behind these kinds of surveys you quickly see the real issues with lack of broadband. In today’s society, not having home broadband literally takes a home out of the mainstream of society. It’s one thing to look at the national statistics and be told that the number of homes without broadband is shrinking. But it’s an entirely different story when you see what that means for the millions of homes that still don’t have adequate broadband. My guess is that some of the areas covered by these surveys show as underserved on the FCC maps – when in fact, their broadband is so poor that they are clearly unserved, ignored and forgotten.