What’s Next for Rural Broadband?

Now that most of the CAF II money and A-CAM money has been awarded, what’s next for rural broadband? If you ask the FCC that question they are likely to answer that there might yet be one more CAF II auction to fund the 261,000 homes that went unclaimed in the last auction. However, I think this is a much bigger question.

There are still tens of millions of homes that don’t have a broadband option that meets the FCC’s current definition of 25/3 Mbps. That includes all of the places that were funded by the CAF II funds provided to the big telcos and that were only required to provide broadband with speeds of 10/1 Mbps. It also includes numerous other homes that don’t have fast broadband and that are mis-categorized by the inadequate FCC broadband maps that are populated falsely by the big ISPs.

One of CCG’s products is performing surveys and related market research in rural areas. We’ve done a lot of surveys and also asked people to take speed tests in rural communities where the actual speeds at homes are significantly lower than the advertised speeds and the speeds shown on the FCC maps. I’m not just talking about rural farms, but also in sizable towns like county seats where the broadband is still pretty crappy.

It’s obvious that this FCC is working hard to be able to claim that they have taken care of the rural broadband problem. They want to say that they’ve funded broadband everywhere and that their job is done. What they are never going to admit is that the job will never be done until rural areas have the same kind of broadband infrastructure as cities.

This particular FCC is pretending that the need for broadband is sitting still, when in fact the demand for household broadband, both for speeds and for total download volumes keep doubling every three or four years. By the time the current FCC chairman has been in his seat for four years, the comparative quality of rural broadband will have halved due to this increase in demand.

Don’t interpret what I just said to mean that I have disdain for the current FCC. The last FCC under Chairman Tom Wheeler was a huge contributor to the problem when they awarded billions of dollars to the big telcos to make broadband upgrades over seven years to 10/1 Mbps – at a time when 10/1 Mbps already didn’t meet the definition of broadband. That was obviously a political decision since the original plan was to award all of the CAF II funds by reverse auction – which would have helped to fund a lot of rural fiber.

Even if the FCC was highly motivated to solve the rural broadband gap they don’t have the tools to do so. The FCC’s only tool for funding more broadband is the Universal Service. I wrote a blog last week noting how this fund is already overcommitted. Since I wrote that blog I looked at my own cellphone bills and my family alone is contributing several hundred dollars per year towards the USF fund. We are not going to get the many billions we need to expand broadband by taxing landline and cellphone users.

The fix needs to come from Congress. That doesn’t seem likely from the current Congress that already approved a $600 million fund for rural broadband grants and then added on a provision that made the grants nearly impossible to implement. Clearly influenced by lobbyists, Congress added a provision that the grants couldn’t be used in areas where more than 10% of homes already have 10/1 Mbps broadband – and there are very few such areas.

I honestly have a hard time understanding Congress’s reluctance to address rural broadband. When I go to rural counties these days I’m told that getting better broadband has become the number one local issue. I know that rural folks and rural politicians are pleading with their state and national representatives to find broadband funding.

I also know that most politicians say they are in favor of rural broadband. I’ve only seen a handful of politicians in the last decade who told their constituents that they don’t support rural broadband funding. I’ve also found that rural broadband is a nonpartisan issue and at the local level politicians of both parties understand that communities need better broadband.

I wish I could end this blog by suggesting a solution for the problem, but there isn’t any unless the states and the federal government decide at some point to help. State broadband programs providing matching grants have seen some success. I’m sure that federal matching grants would also help as long as they weren’t structured to be giveaways to the big ISPs.

Is Broadband ‘Wildly Competitive’?

The FCC is in the process of creating its first report to Congress required by the Ray Baum Act, which is the bill that reauthorized the FCC spending for 2019 and 2020. That bill requires the FCC to create a report every two years that, among other things assesses the “state of competition in the communications marketplace, including competition to deliver voice, video, audio, and data services among providers of telecommunications, providers of commercial mobile service, multichannel video programming distributors, broadcast stations, providers of satellite communications, Internet service providers, and other providers of communications services”.

The FCC accepted comments about what should be included in its first report, and as you might imagine received a wide variety of comments from the industry and other interested parties.

In typical big carrier fashion, the NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, the lobbying group representing the largest ISPs filed with the FCC arguing that the broadband marketplace is already ‘wildly competitive’. The big ISPs have a vested interest in the FCC reaching such a conclusion, because that would mean that the FCC wouldn’t have to take actions to create more competition.

The reasoning the big carriers are using to make this claim is ironic. They argue that the FCC shouldn’t use its own 25/3 Mbps definition of broadband since the FCC is currently spending billions of dollars in the CAF II program to deploy broadband that meets a lower standard of 10/1 Mbps. They say that if US broadband is examined for the amount of competition at the lower 10/1 threshold that most markets in the US are competitive. That’s ironic because the FCC was pressured into giving all of the CAF II money to the big telcos after intense lobbying and the funds were originally intended to be awarded through a reverse auction where ISPs would have been rewarded for building broadband capable of delivering speeds up to 1 Gbps.

Further, if the FCC was to accept the idea that 10/1 Mbps is acceptable broadband then the FCC would probably be obligated to count cellular broadband as an economic substitute for landline broadband since it delivers speeds in the same range as the CAF II deployments.

However, making that same determination is impossible at faster speeds. Even the FCC’s own highly-skewed mapping data shows there are not many households in the country with two options for buying 100 Mbps service. Where households have two choices for buying 25/3 Mbps broadband the second option is almost always DSL, which the big telcos are letting die a natural technological death, and which often delivers speeds much slower than advertised. As I’ve written about in this blog, my firm has done surveys in numerous communities where the delivered speeds for both cable modems and DSL were significantly slower than the advertised speeds and certainly slower than the data in the FCC database that is collected from the big ISPs and used to create the FCC’s broadband coverage maps and other statistics.

The only way to claim that broadband is ‘wildly competitive’ is to count broadband speeds slower than the FCC’s 25/3 Mbps definition. If the FCC was to accept cellular broadband and satellite broadband as the equivalent of landline broadband, then a large majority of homes would be deemed to have access to multiple sources of broadband. I would restate the NCTA’s ‘wildly competitive’ claim to say that a majority of homes in the country today have access to multiple crappy sources of broadband.

We’ll have to see what the FCC tells Congress in their first report. I suspect their story is going to be closer to what the big ISPs are suggesting than to the reality of the broadband marketplace. This FCC already seriously considered accepting cellular and satellite broadband as an equivalent substitute for landline broadband because doing so would mean that there are not many places left where they need to ‘solve’ the lack of broadband.

The FCC finds itself in an unusual position. It gave up regulation of broadband when it killed Title II regulation. Yet the agency is still tasked with tracking broadband, and they are still required by law to make sure that everybody in the country has access to broadband. Let’s just hope that the agency doesn’t go so far as to tell Congress that their job is done since broadband is already ‘wildly competitive’.

Funding the USF Broadband Programs

A number of telecom advocacy groups came together recently to ask the FCC to increase the budget for the high-cost portion of the Universal Service Fund to at least $2.4 billion for the next fiscal year just begun on October 1. The joint filing was by ITTA – The Voice of America’s Broadband Providers, USTelecom – The Broadband Association, NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association and WTA – Advocates for Rural Broadband.

Small telcos are specifically asking that the FCC fully fund the commitments made to them in 2016 for the A-CAM program. This is the fund that is providing money to rural telcos to upgrade their networks to at last 25/3 Mbps – although it seems like most companies are using the money to upgrade to fiber. That program is bringing a permanent broadband solution to numerous rural communities.

The A-CAM and other high-cost support programs are not currently fully funded. This is due to several factors. First, more small telcos accepted A-CAM funding than the FCC anticipated, creating a bigger financial commitment than was expected. But more importantly, the FCC has been tapping the Universal Service Fund for other broadband commitments such as the CAF II program that gave billions to the large telcos to upgrade to only 10 Mbps. This same fund is also used to provide e-rate funding for schools to get affordable broadband, to support libraries, to support rural healthcare and to provide the lifeline program to make telephone and broadband more affordable for low-income households.

It would be a challenge for the FCC to meet the request and I’m not sure there is an easy way for them to do so. The Universal Service Fund is funded by fees assessed against landline telephone service, cellphone service and against broadband connections that are deemed to be interstate in nature – these are generally broadband connections sold by regulated telcos using the soon-to-be-obsolete TDM technology.

This fee is an additive to these services and the rate being charged has climbed over the years as the number of both landline telephones and special access transport circuits has dropped. In the last quarter the assessment topped 20% for the first time and has climbed over the years. I can recall when the assessment was under 5%.

This all creates a dilemma for the FCC. The revenues against which USF can be assessed are shrinking. Landline use continues to plummet; cellphone prices are trending downward and special access is being displaced by other kinds of transport. As much as the FCC might want to fully fund rural broadband, it has numerous other obligations to meet from the same pile of money like the e-rate program and rural healthcare broadband.

There has been talk for years of expanding the USF base. If the USF fee was assessed against home and business broadband the overall percentage would plummet from today’s 20% rate. However, Congress nixed the idea of assessing USF against broadband by sticking to the philosophy that we should not tax the Internet. This was a concept that was introduced when broadband was a fledgling industry, which somehow became a mantra that is outdated. Broadband revenues dwarf the fees for products like landline telephone service.

The FCC’s hands are tied from assessing USF against broadband by Congress. But even if Congress changed their mind, the FCC has now given up regulation of broadband and they might not have the authority to assess a fee on a product they declare they don’t regulate.

It’s to everybody’s benefit that the FCC finds a way to fund commitments they made for rural broadband just a few years ago. The FCC has some latitude and they could probably apply all fund shortfalls against another program like CAF II – but with the lobbying power of the big telcos that’s unlikely.

The FCC also has another huge source of revenue they could tap. The agency has been collecting gigantic fees for the auction of spectrum in recent years and there is no reason that all or part of this money couldn’t be diverted to rural broadband. However, this also would require action by Congress, which directly diverted auction fees to the US treasury earlier this year when they enacted the Ray Baum bill.

The funding shortfalls are mostly the result of the FCC committing more funds than are available in the fund. Since the USF is funded by fees on services, the fund can’t have cost overruns and spend more money than it has – unlike many other government programs. Every time I hear the FCC announce a new initiative out of the Universal Service Fund I always wonder which other parts of the fund will be raided. I think we now know that it’s funding for rural broadband.

Upgrading FCC Broadband Statistics

The NCTA – The Internet & Television Association that represents the large cable companies and telcos has filed a complaint with the FCC asserting that the agency is not updating broadband maps in a timely manner, and this is understating the amount of broadband deployed in the country.

They have a good point, in that the FCC recently released broadband data from 2016 while they already have received June 2017 data. The recently released data is now more than two years behind the actual broadband deployments in the country.

There may have been years in the past where this kind of time delay didn’t make that much difference, but we are now at a time when there are massive amounts of broadband upgrades happening across the country. The big telcos are well into the CAF II upgrades that are upgrading huge swaths of rural America to speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps. There is a lot of upgrades at smaller telcos that are implementing upgrades from the A-CAM program that requires upgrades to at least 25/3 Mbps – although many of them are upgrading to fiber with gigabit speeds. We now see cable companies starting to implement DOCSIS 3.01 upgrades that can increase their download speeds to a gigabit. And there are numerous overbuilders upgrading broadband all over the place by building fiber or fixed wireless technology. We will soon see the CAF II reverse auctions building yet more rural broadband, with a significant percentage of those upgrades being at 100 Mbps or faster.

This means that the FCC’s broadband maps and the underlying databases are far out of synch and provide the wrong narrative about broadband coverage. The members of NCTA want to get credit for the upgrades they are making, which means that numerous households are no longer considered as unserved, with many of them getting a broadband option for the first time.

There are practical and policy ramifications due to the delay in upgrading the maps. For example, some of the federal loan and grant programs score applicant projects according to whether they are upgrading rural areas that are unserved or underserved – and the FCC data overstates the households that are classified as unserved.

There are also real-life implications for communities. Consider Otter Tail County, Minnesota. Looking at the current FCC maps shows the County with a paltry 2% of households able to get download speeds of 100 Mbps. That is a truthful depiction just looking back a year or two. The cable companies serving the towns in the County have had maximum speeds of no more than 60 Mbps and the rural areas all have broadband using DSL, fixed wireless or satellite.

However, that map doesn’t reflect what’s happening in the County today and what will be happening there in the next few years. Charter has promised to upgrade to faster speeds nationwide and their customers in the County ought to be at speeds far above the 100 Mbps threshold. A lot of the rural areas are served by small telcos that are using A-CAM funding to build fiber. In this past summer alone there were dozens of construction crews building fiber around the County. There are also a few pockets of the County that have gotten upgrades to fiber that were assisted with broadband grants from the State of Minnesota. My quick assessment show that the County will soon have 100 Mbps broadband for 70% to 80% of households when the known upgrades are finished over the next few years. And even most of the areas not getting 100 Mbps broadband will still be seeing speed improvements. That facts on the ground in Otter Tail County paint a drastically different picture than what is shown by the current FCC maps. I have no doubt that this same thing is true in numerous other rural counties.

I understand that the FCC wants to use actual data to create their maps. But I’m mystified why they don’t want to brag about the programs they have sponsored that will improve broadband. It should be easy for them to overlay a map of the expected upgrades that will come from the CAF II and A-Cam programs. These future-looking maps are a better picture of the rural broadband situation.

There are obviously numerous upgrades happening that the FCC can’t know about – they have no way of knowing about upgrades being done with non-FCC funding. But there isn’t much excuse for the FCC to be issuing data and maps that are more than two years out of synch at the date of publication. It’s not a difficult  technical challenge to quickly map ISP broadband data as it’s submitted – numerous states already readily create their own versions of these maps. And it shouldn’t be hard for the FCC to create overlays showing the upcoming successes due to the upgrades they have fostered.

FCC Speed Tests for ISPs

ISPs awarded CAF II funding in the recent auction need to be aware that they will be subject to compliance testing for both latency and speeds on their new broadband networks. There are financial penalties for those failing to successfully meet these tests. The FCC revised the testing standards in July in Docket DA 18-710. These new testing standards become effective with testing starting in the third quarter of 2019. There new standards will replace the standards already in place for ISPs that receive funding from earlier rounds of the CAF program as well as ISPs getting A-CAM or other rate-of-return USF funding.

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 allow test pinging and other testing methodologies. Finally, an ISP can install ‘white boxes’ that provide the ability to perform the tests.

The households to be tested are chosen at random by the ISP every two years. The FCC doesn’t describe a specific method for ensuring that the selections are truly random, but the ISP must describe to the FCC how this is done. It wouldn’t be hard for an ISP to fudge the results of the testing if they make sure that customers from slow parts of their network are not in the testing sample.

The number of tests to be conducted varies by the number of customers for which a recipient is getting CAF support; if the number is CAF households is 50 or fewer they must test 5 customers; if there are 51-500 CAF households they must test 10% of households. For 500 or greater CAF households they must test 50. ISPs that declare a high latency must test more locations with the maximum being 370.

ISPs must conduct the tests for a solid week, including weekends in every quarter to eliminate seasonality. 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.

The FCC has set expected standards for the speed tests. These standards are based upon the required speeds of a specific program – such as the first CAF II program that required speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps. In the latest CAF program the testing will be based upon the speeds that the ISP declared they could meet when entering the action – speeds that can be as fast as 1 Gbps.

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. This might surprise people living in the original CAF II areas, because the big telcos only need to achieve download speeds of 8 Mbps for 80% of customers to meet the CAF standard. The 10/1 Mbps standard was low enough, but this lets the ISPs off the hook for underperforming even for that incredibly slow speed. This requirement means that an ISP guaranteeing gigabit download speeds needs to 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.

For CAF II auction winners these reductions in funding would only be applied to the remaining time periods after they fail the tests. This particular auction covers a 10-year period of time and the testing would start once the new networks are operational, which is required to be completed between years 3 and 6 after funding.

This will have the biggest impact on ISPs that overstated their network capability. For instance, there were numerous ISPs that claimed the ability in the CAF auction to deliver 100 Mbps and they are going to lose 25% of the funding if they deliver speeds slower than 80 Mbps.

Winners of the CAF II Auction

The FCC CAF II reverse auction recently closed with an award of $1.488 billion to build broadband in rural America. This funding was awarded to 103 recipients that will collect the money over ten years. The funded projects must be 40% complete by the end of three years and 100% complete by the end of six years. The original money slated for the auction was almost $2 billion, but the reverse auction reduced the amount of awards and some census blocks got no bidders.

The FCC claims that 713,176 rural homes will be getting better broadband, but the real number of homes with a benefit from the auction is 513,000 since the auction funded Viasat to provide already-existing satellite broadband to 190,000 homes in the auction.

The FCC claims that 19% of the homes covered by the grants will be offered gigabit speeds, 53% will be offered speeds of at least 100 Mbps and 99.75% will be offered speeds of at least 25 Mbps. These statistics have me scratching my head. The 19% of the homes that will be offered gigabit speeds are obviously going to be getting fiber. I know a number of the winners who will be using the funds to help pay for fiber expansion. I can’t figure what technology accounts for the rest of the 53% of homes that supposedly will be able to get 100 Mbps speeds.

As I look through the filings I note that many of the fixed wireless providers claim that they can serve speeds over 100 Mbps. It’s true that fixed wireless can be used to deliver 100 Mbps speeds. To achieve that speed customers either need to be close to the tower or else a wireless carrier has to dedicate extra resources to that customer to achieve that speed – meaning less of that tower can be used to serve other customers. I’m not aware of any WISPs that offer ubiquitous 100 Mbps speeds, because to do so means serving a relatively small number of customers from a given tower. To be fair to the WISPs, their CAF II filings also say they will be offering slower speeds like 25 Mbps and 50 Mbps. The FCC exaggerated the results of the auction by claiming that any recipient capable of delivering 100 Mbps to a few customers will be delivering it to all customers – something that isn’t true. The fact is that not many of the households over the 19% getting fiber will ever buy 100 Mbps broadband. I know the FCC wants to get credit for improving rural broadband, but there is no reason to hype the results to be better than they are.

I also scratch my head wondering why Viasat was awarded $122 million in the auction. The company is the winner of funding for 190,595 households, or 26.7% of the households covered by the entire auction. Satellite broadband is every rural customer’s last choice for broadband. The latency is so poor on satellite broadband that it can’t be used for any real time applications like watching live video, making a Skype call, connecting to school networks to do homework or for connecting to a corporate WAN to work from home. Why does satellite broadband even qualify for the CAF II funding? Viasat had to fight to get into the auction and their entry was opposed by groups like the American Cable Association. The Viasat satellites are already available to all of the households in the awarded footprint, so this seems like a huge government giveaway that won’t bring any new broadband option to the 190,000 homes.

Overall the outcome of the auction was positive. Over 135,000 rural households will be getting fiber. Another 387,000 homes will be getting broadband of at least 25 Mbps, mostly using fixed wireless, with the remaining 190,000 homes getting the same satellite option they already have today.

It’s easy to compare this to the original CAF II program that gave billions to the big telcos and only required speeds of 10/1 Mbps. That original CAF II program was originally intended to be a reverse auction open to anybody, but at the last minute the FCC gave all of the money to the big telcos. One has to imagine there was a huge amount of lobbying done to achieve that giant giveaway.

Most of the areas covered by the first CAF II program had higher household density than this auction pool, and a reverse auction would have attracted a lot of ISPs willing to invest in faster technologies than the telcos. The results of this auction show that most of those millions of homes would have gotten broadband of at least 25 Mbps instead of the beefed-up DSL or cellular broadband they are getting through the big telcos.

Subsidizing Rural Broadband

In a rare joint undertaking involving the big and small telcos, the trade groups USTelecom and NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association sponsored a whitepaper titled, Rural Broadband Economics: A Review of Rural Subsidies.

The paper describes why it’s expensive to build broadband networks in rural areas, with high costs mostly driven by low customer density. This is something that is largely universally understood, but this describes the situation for politicians and others who might not be familiar with our industry.

The paper goes on to describe how other kinds of public infrastructure – such roads, electric grids, water and natural gas systems – deal with the higher costs in rural areas. Both natural gas and water systems share the same characteristics as cable TV networks in this country and they are rarely constructed in rural areas. Rural customers must use alternatives like wells for water or propane instead of natural gas.

The electric grid is the most analogous to the historic telephone network in the country. The government decided that everybody should be connected to the electric grid, and various kinds of government subsidies have been used to help pay for rural electric systems. Where the bigger commercial companies wouldn’t build a number of rural electric cooperatives and municipal electric companies filled the gap. The federal government developed subsidy programs, such as low-cost loans to help construct and maintain the rural electric grids. There was no attempt to create universal electric rates across the country and areas lucky enough to have hydroelectric power have electric rates that are significantly lower than regions with more expensive methods of power generation.

Roads are the ultimate example of government subsidies for infrastructure. There are both federal and state fuel taxes used to fund roads. Since most drivers live in urban areas, their fuel taxes heavily subsidize rural roads.

The paper explains that there are only a few alternatives to fund rural infrastructure:

  • Charge higher rates to account for the higher costs of operating in rural areas. This is why small town water rates are often higher than rates in larger towns in the same region.
  • Don’t build the infrastructure since it’s too expensive. This is seen everywhere when cable TV networks, natural gas distribution and water and sewer systems are rarely built outside of towns.
  • Finally, rural infrastructure can be built using subsidies of some kind.

Subsidies can come from several different sources:

  • Cross-subsidies within the same firm. For example, telephone regulators long ago accepted the idea that businesses rates should be set higher to subsidize residential rates.
  • Cross subsidies between firms. An example would be access rates charged to long distance carriers that were used for many years to subsidize local telephone companies. There are also a number of electric companies that have subsidized the creation of broadband networks using profits from the electric business.
  • Philanthropic donations. This happens to a small extent. For example, I recently heard where Microsoft had contributed money to help build fiber to a small town.
  • Government subsidies. There have been a wide range of these in the telecom industry, with the latest big ones being the CAF II grants that contribute towards building rural broadband.

Interestingly the paper doesn’t draw many strong conclusions other than to say that rural broadband will require government subsidies of some kind. It concludes that other kinds of subsidies are not reasonably available.

I suspect there are no policy recommendations in the paper because the small and large companies probably have a different vision of rural broadband subsidies. This paper is more generic and serves to define how subsidies function and to compare broadband subsidies to other kinds of infrastructure.

Using USDA’s New $600 Million

Earlier this year Congress passed an Omnibus Budget bill that okayed the US budget until this September. Buried in that bill was $600 million for rural broadband expansion, to be administered by the USDA. The USDA has dressed this up as an ‘E-Connectivity pilot program’ and is asking current borrowers and others for feedback on how to use the money. Comments are due to them by September 10.

This new program will be allowed to supply grants for up to 85% of the cost of building in an area. That might create a viable business case in rural areas if the loan recipient only has to come up with 15% matching funds.

However, Congress made it challenging for the USDA to use the money. Normal USDA programs broadband loans can be used to cover areas where as few as 15% of the homes in the coverage area don’t have access today to 10/1 Mbps broadband. It looks like big ISP lobbyists got to the author of the bill and this new $600 million flips that around and can only be used in areas where 90% of homes don’t have access to 10/1 Mbps.

That’s a difficult hurdle to overcome for a number of reasons. First, the big cellular companies report widespread coverage of cellular broadband that meets that threshold. Many such areas don’t really have that speed, and in many cases can’t even get a cell signal, but the presumption will be that such areas can get broadband. Second, the big telcos are supposedly busy implementing the CAF II program which will bring 10/1 Mbps speeds to millions of rural homes. Those homes will be counted as having sufficient broadband.

The CAF II reverse auction is underway and it’s going to fund building in the most remote places that were not covered by the CAF II program. Most of the reverse auction census blocks will not pass the 90% no-broadband test.

In most places in the country it’s going to be challenging to draw a contiguous study area that meets the 90% test. It doesn’t take too many homes with good cellular broadband or with a CAF II upgrade to fail the eligibility test. I’m sure such areas exist, but almost by definition somebody is going to have to ask for funding for small pockets of homes, or else jerry-rig a service footprint to try to meet the 90% test.

I have a hard time even seeing the big incumbent telcos meeting the 90% test in many places. There might be small telcos that didn’t accept ACAM money that might still have such pockets – but most small telcos upgraded to speeds greater than 10.1 Mbps many years ago.

The USDA is asking for the following feedback:

  • How to evaluate if rural homes have sufficient access to 10/1 Mbps speeds today. I think this gets at the heart of the FCC databases where homes are incorrectly shown to have broadband availability.
  • How to consider affordability and pricing.
  • How to demonstrate the benefits of projects using publicly available data.

The USDA didn’t ask about the speeds that must be provided to customers and I’d be surprised if they exceed the 10/1 Mbps speeds required by CAF II.

It’s possible I’m being pessimistic. It’s possible that this funding will make sense for building to small pockets of rural homes that meet the 90% no-broadband test. Perhaps the right strategy for an applicant is to apply for the funds for small clusters of ten or twenty homes – although that makes it hard to justify the overwhelming paperwork that must accompany a federal funding request.

Anybody that knows of areas that will meet this test ought to consider asking for the funds. I imagine the USDA will issue the rules near the end of this year. Getting what is effectively an 85% grant sounds attractive – but anybody who has asked for federal funding knows there will be nothing easy about the application process.

Looking Closer at CAF II Broadband

AT&T is making the rounds in rural Kentucky, not too far from where I live, and is announcing the introduction of their residential wireless broadband product that is the result of the FCC’s CAF II program. Today I’m looking at more detail at that product.

AT&T was required under the CAF II rules to deliver broadband speeds of at least 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. AT&T says Kentucky announcement that they will be delivering products with at least that much speed, so it’s possible that customers might see something a little faster. Or the company could cap speeds at 10 Mbps and we’ll have to wait for reports from customers about actual speeds.

AT&T accepted nearly $186 million in FCC funds to bring CAF II broadband capabilities to 84,333 households in the state, or $2,203 per household. They say all of those homes will have the broadband available by the end of 2020 (although there is no penalty if some of the homes don’t get covered – which one would expect since many homes are likely to be too far from a cell tower).

AT&T will be delivering the broadband in Kentucky using LTE broadband from cellphone towers. This is delivered to homes by placing a small antenna box (not a dish) on the exterior of a home. They say that they will be using a different set of frequencies for CAF II broadband than what is used for cellular service, meaning there should be no degradation of normal cellular service.

I saw a news article in Kentucky that says the price will be $50 per month, but that’s a special one-year price offer for customers also willing to sign up for DirecTV. Following are more specific details of the normal product and pricing:

  • Customers can get a price of $60 per month for 1-year by signing a 12-month contract. After the year the price increases to $70 per month and is set at $70 per month for those not willing to agree to a contract.
  • Customers signing a contract see no installation charge, but otherwise there is a $99 one-time fee to connect.
  • There is an early termination charge for customers that break the one-year contract of $10 for each remaining month of the contract.
  • There is a $150 fee for customers who don’t return the antenna box.
  • There is a monthly data cap of 170 Gigabytes of downloaded data. Customers pay $10 for each additional 50 GB of download up to a maximum of $200 per month. AT&T is offering a 340 GB monthly data cap right now for customers who bundle with DirecTV – but that’s a temporary offer until October 1.
  • AT&T also will layer on a monthly $1.99 administrative fee that they pocket.

I think the pricing is far too high considering that the $186 million given to AT&T probably paid for all, or nearly all of the cost of the upgrades needed to deliver the service. Some of that money probably was used to bolster fiber to rural cell sites and the funding would have been used to add the new electronics to cell sites. AT&T used free federal money to create a $72 monthly broadband product, and before even considering the data cap is a product with a huge margin return since AT&T doesn’t have to recover the cost of the underlying network.

The small data cap is going to generate a lot of additional revenue for AT&T. The monthly data cap of 170 GB is already too small. Comcast just reported in June that the average download for all of their 23 million broadband customers was 151 GB per month. That means there are already a significant number of homes that want to use more than AT&T’s monthly 170 GB cap. We know that monthly home demand for broadband keeps growing and the Comcast average just a year ago was 128 GB per month. With that growth, within a year the average customer will want more than AT&T’s cap.

A few years ago when I was on Comcast they measured my 3-person home as using nearly 700 GB per month. On the AT&T plan my monthly bill would be $180 per month. Within a few years most homes will want to use more data than AT&T’s cap. The FCC really screwed the public when they didn’t insist that carriers taking the funding should provide unlimited downloads, or at least some high data cap like 1 terabyte. That stingy data cap gives AT&T permission to print money in rural America.

The 10 Mbps speed is also a big problem. That speed today is already inadequate for most households who now want to engage in multiple simultaneous streams. I’ve written many times about the huge inefficiencies in home WiFi and a 10 Mbps connection is just barely adequate for two video streams as long as there are no other broadband uses in the home at the same time. A typical home with kids these days is going to want to simultaneously watch video, do homework, play games, browse the web, download files or work from home. A home with a 10 Mbps speed is not close to equivalent to much faster urban broadband connections. You don’t have to look forward more than a few years to know that a 10 Mbps data caps is soon going to feel glacially slow.

Finally, cellular data has a higher latency than landline broadband, with latency as high as 100 msec. Customers might have problems at times on this product maintaining video streams, making VoIP calls or staying connected to a school or work server.

I’m sure that a home that has never had broadband is going to welcome this product. But it’s not going to take them long to realize that this is not the same broadband available to most homes. They are also going to realize that it’s possibly the last speed upgrade they are going to see for a long time since AT&T and the FCC want to check off these homes as now having broadband.

Getting Militant for Broadband

My job takes me to many rural counties where huge geographic areas don’t have broadband. I’ve seen a big change over the last two years in the expectations of rural residents who are now demanding that somebody find them a broadband solution. There have been a number of rural residents calling for better broadband for a decade, but recently I’ve seen the cries for broadband grow into strident demands. As the title of this blog suggests, people are getting militant for broadband (but not carrying guns in doing so!)

The perceived need for broadband has changed a lot since the turn of this new century. In 2000 only 43% of homes had a broadband connection – and in those days that meant they had a connection that was faster than dial-up. In 2000 DSL was king and a lot of homes had upgraded to speeds of 1 Mbps. There have always been homes that require broadband, and I’m a good example since I work from home, and when I moved fifteen years ago my offer on a new house was contingent on the home having broadband installed before closing. My real estate agent at the time said that was the first time she’d ever heard about broadband related to home ownership.

As I’ve cited many times, the need for broadband has continued to grow steadily and has been doubling every three years. By 2010 the number of homes with broadband grew to 71%, and by then the cable companies were beginning to dominate the market. By then DSL speeds had gotten better, with the average speeds at about 6 Mbps, but with some lucky customers seeing speeds of around 15 Mbps. But as DOCSIS 3.0 was implemented in cable networks we started seeing speeds up to 100 Mbps available on cable systems. It was a good time to be a cable company, because their rapid revenue growth was fueled almost entirely by adding broadband customers.

Broadband in urban areas has continued to improve. We’re now seeing Comcast, Charter, Cox and other cable company upgrade to DOCSIS 3.1 and offer speeds of up to 1 Gbps. DSL that can deliver 50 Mbps over two bonded copper lines is becoming old technology. Even urban cellular speeds are becoming decent with average speeds of 12 – 15 Mbps.

But during all of these upgrades to urban broadband, huge swaths of rural America is still stuck at 2000 or earlier. Some rural homes have had access to slow DSL of 1 – 2 Mbps at most. Rural cellular speeds are typically half of urban speeds and are incredibly expensive as a home broadband solution. Satellite broadband has been available the whole time, but the high prices, gigantic latency and stingy data caps have made most homes swear off satellite broadband.

Rural homes look with envy at their urban counterparts. They know urban homes who have seen half a dozen major speed upgrades over twenty years while they still have the same lousy choices of twenty years ago. Some rural homes are seeing an upgrade to DSL due to the CAF II program of speeds of perhaps 10 Mbps. While that will be a relief to a home that has had no broadband – it doesn’t let a home use broadband in the same way as the rest of the country.

To make matters feel worse, rural customers without broadband see some parts of rural America get fiber broadband being built by independent telephone companies, electric cooperatives or municipalities. It’s hard for them to understand why there is funding that can make fiber work in some places, but not where they live. The most strident rural residents these days are those who live in a county where other rural customers have fiber and they are being told they are likely to never see it.

This disparity between rural haves and have nots is all due to FCC policy. The FCC decided to make funds available to rural telcos to upgrade to better broadband, but at the same time copped out and handed billions to the giant telcos to instead upgrade to 10 Mbps DSL or wireless. To make matters worse, it’s becoming clear that AT&T and Verizon are intent in eventually tearing down rural copper, which will leave homes with poor cellular coverage without any connection to the outside world.

The FCC laments that they cannot possibly afford to fund fiber everywhere. But they missed a huge opportunity to bring fiber to millions when they caved to lobbyists and gave the CAF II funding to the big telcos. Recall that these funds were originally going to be awarded by a reverse auction and that numerous companies had plans to ask for the funding to build rural fiber.

It’s no wonder that rural areas are furious and desperate for better broadband. Their kids are at a big disadvantage to those living in towns with broadband. Farmers without broadband are competing with those using agricultural IoT. Realtors report that they are having a hard time selling homes with no broadband access. People without broadband can’t work from home. And rural America is being left behind from taking part in American culture without access to the huge amount of content now available on the web.