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.

The Big Telco Problem

A few weeks ago I made the observation in a blog that we don’t really have a rural broadband problem – we instead have a rural big telco problem. As I work around the country helping communities that are looking for broadband solutions it finally struck me that the telcos in almost all of these areas are the big companies – AT&T, CenturyLink, Verizon, Frontier, Windstream, etc.

I don’t see these same problems in areas served by smaller telephone companies. These smaller telcos have either upgraded networks to deliver faster broadband or have plans to do so over the next few years. I know of numerous rural telcos that are currently building fiber to rural areas, and those networks are going to serve those areas for many decades to come. There are undoubtably a few small telcos that are not making the needed upgrades, but for the most part the smaller telcos are doing the right thing – they are reinvesting into the rural areas and making the upgrades needed for the future.

The large telcos have done just the opposite. Most of them have been ignoring rural America for decades. They yanked customer service centers from smaller communities many years ago. They drastically cut back on rural technical staffs and it often takes weeks for customers to get repairs. They stopped investing in rural networks and have not upgraded electronics or networks for decades.

There is currently a burst of activity in these rural areas for those big telcos that accepted the billions of dollars of CAF II funding. This funding requires them to upgrade rural broadband to a measly and inadequate broadband speed of at least 10/1 Mbps. However, the rules in the CAF program are weak and there are no repercussions for not meeting the goals and I’ve always expected they will spend the FCC’s money until it’s gone, and then stop the upgrades. This means while some rural customers will get speeds even a little faster than 10 Mbps that there are likely to be many customers who will so no upgrades. I don’t expect the big telcos to spend a dime of their own in rural America once the CAF II upgrades are finished.

While I call this a big telco problem I might just as easily have called it a regulator problem. The FCC and the various state commissions largely deregulated telephone service, and the FCC recently washed their hands of broadband regulation. The big telcos have been milking big profits out of the rural copper networks for decades and have not reinvested any of those profits back into the networks. That’s how big companies act if regulators don’t require them to spend some of their profits on service and upgrades.

By contrast the smaller telcos were not required to upgrade networks, but they have done so anyway. The small companies got a big boost recently from the ACAM program – a different FCC plan that encourages building forward-looking broadband networks. Many of these companies had already upgraded to fiber before the FCC money was available. These smaller telcos are part of the rural community and feel an obligation to do the right thing – and the right thing is to find a way to bring broadband that rural customers need.

Regulators have let us down by not forcing the big telcos to act responsibly. The big telcos now want to walk away from rural copper that they claim is obsolete and in bad shape. But that copper would be in much better shape had these telcos done routine maintenance for the last thirty years. We built a great nationwide copper network due to the simple regulatory principle of universal service. Regulators at both the state and local level believed that the role of government was to ensure that everybody got access to the communications networks that ties us together as a nation. They know that universal service was good for people, but also good for the economy and good for the country as a whole. It’s something that very few other countries did and set America apart from the rest of the world.

I worked at Southwestern Bell pre-divestiture and it was a source of company pride that the company served every customer to the best of our ability. But along came competition and any sense of obligation to the public went out the door and the big telcos instead concentrated on satisfying Wall Street’s demand for ever-higher profits. There have been big benefits from this competition that are hard to deny, but what was missed in the transition to a competitive telecom world was that competition was never going to benefit rural America in the same way it benefits urban areas. We should have foreseen this and kept the universal service policy in place for rural America.

I get angry when I hear politicians and regulators say that municipalities shouldn’t be in the broadband business because the commercial sector will take care of our broadband needs. That is obviously not true and one only has to look at the big telco networks ten miles outside any urban area to see how the big telcos have abandoned customers in higher cost areas.

The big telcos are still milking big profits out of rural America and are still not reinvesting any of their own capital there. I don’t know if there is a way to put the genie back into the bottle and reintroduce regulation for rural America. If we don’t then we are only a few years away from having third-world telecom networks in rural America that will be a major drag on our society and economy.

Restricting RUS Funding

The major large ISP lobbyists have asked Congress to block the use of Rural Utility Service (RUS) funding to overbuild areas that have only rudimentary broadband today. The heads of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the American Cable Association, USTelecom and the ITTA – the major lobbyists for the big ISPs – wrote a joint letter to the chair of the Senate Agricultural Committee. The letter requests that the upcoming Farm Bill restrict funding from the RUS to be only used for overbuilding to rural areas where at least 90% of homes don’t have access to 10/1 broadband. There are almost no such places left in the country, at least on paper, so this would effectively gut RUS funding from being used to improve rural broadband.

In the original CAF II program the FCC gave the big telcos billions of dollars to upgrade a lot of rural areas to speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps. In the upcoming CAF II reverse auction the places that weren’t included in the original CAF II program are slated to get upgrades to the same 10/1 Mbps speed. On paper this means there will be few  places that don’t have access to 10/1 Mbps broadband. Even where the telcos have supposedly upgraded to 10/1 there are likely to be large number of homes that don’t even get that rudimentary speed. Unfortunately the big telcos control the rural agenda since they are the ones that report consumer speeds on the broadband maps – and those maps are going to show that the telcos did a good job with upgrades, even when they didn’t.

Meanwhile these same big telcos have made it clear that they aren’t going to be investing in rural America.

  • CenturyLink’s new CEO recently said the company was no longer going to invest in infrastructure with low returns, meaning that they won’t be making any more investments in their last mile networks.
  • AT&T and Verizon both have asked the FCC to make it easier for them to walk away from rural copper lines, and both companies are pursuing a fixed cellular solution for providing rural voice and broadband.

These giant telcos are not willing to invest in their own networks – but they also don’t want anybody else building there. These companies took billions in free federal money to nudge rural broadband speeds up to a crappy 10/1 Mbps, and they are now basically telling the people that live in these areas that 10/1 Mbps is all of the broadband they will ever need or are ever going to get.

The RUS money is largely being used by smaller independent telcos, rural electric cooperatives and Indian tribes that want to invest in better broadband in rural America. A lot of RUS funding is being used to build fiber, the ultimate broadband upgrade. I imagine a number of companies bidding in the CAF II auction are planning on using RUS funding to complete those builds – but if this makes it into the Farm bill  that won’t be possible.

The only other entities interested in building rural fiber are rural governments. In states where it’s allowed they are looking for broadband solutions for their rural towns and counties and are often willing to make significant investments to make sure that their communities don’t get left behind. Most rural communities don’t want to be ISPs and they are helping to fund public / private partnerships with these same small telcos and electric coops to get better broadband – and those partners often look to the RUS to complete the funding.

The big telcos have political smarts and are trying to get this buried into the Farm Bill – something that will inevitably pass. This will allow politicians to vote for this provision while not having gone on record as siding with the big telcos. But make no mistake about it – any politician that supports this idea is choosing the big telcos over their rural constituents. Politicians only need to visit any rural part of their state to understand that broadband is now at the top of the priority list for most rural communities. These communities understand that those places that don’t soon get broadband are going to become economically irrelevant and will eventually wither away.

This letter was prompted by the fact that Congress recently awarded $600 million for expansion of rural broadband through the Ray Baum’s Act of 2018 that reauthorized the FCC budget. Those funds will be administered by the RUS. I predicted when that bill was passed that the big telcos would look for a way to make sure that most of that new money goes to them. It looks like I’m right, because if the Farm Bill passes with the requested change, then little or none of the $600 million will be of use to anybody else for building better broadband.

I hope that the small telcos and electric cooperatives react promptly and loudly to this proposed bill amendment, because it effectively guts RUS funding. This funding has been used for decades for overbuilding better broadband networks in areas served by the big telcos – and this one change would kill that.

I spend a lot of time talking about the ‘rural broadband problem’. But as I look at this lobbying effort I need to start talking about the ‘big telco problem’. All of the rural places that still don’t have good broadband are served by these big telcos. The rest of telcos and other companies that operate in rural America are finding solutions for better rural broadband. These big telcos have refused to reinvest the billions of profits they have made back into rural America and are now trying to make sure that nobody else makes those investments. The big telcos want to milk every last penny they can out of rural America.

AT&T’s Fiber Strategy

On the most recent earnings call with investors, AT&T’s EVP and CFO John Stevens reported that AT&T has only 800,000 customers nationwide remaining on traditional DSL. That’s down from 4.5 million DSL customers just four years ago. The company has been working hard to work its way out of the older technology.

The company overall has 15.8 million total broadband customers including a net gain of 82,000 customers in the first quarter. This compares to overall net growth for the year of 2017 of only 114,000 customers. The company has obviously turned the corner and after years of stagnant growth is adding broadband customers again. The overall number of AT&T broadband customers has been stagnant for many years, and if you go nearly a decade the company had 15 million broadband customers, with 14 million on traditional DSL.

The 15 million customers not served by traditional DSL are served directly by fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) or fiber-to-the-node (FTTN) – the company doesn’t disclose the number on each technology. The FTTN customers in AT&T are served with newer DSL technologies that bond two copper pairs. This technology generally has relatively short copper drops of less than 3,000 feet and can deliver broadband download speeds above 40 Mbps download. AT&T still has a goal to pass 12.5 million possible customers with fiber by the end of 2019, with an eventual goal to pass around 14 million customers.

The AT&T fiber buildout differs drastically from that done by Verizon FiOS. Verizon built to serve large contiguous neighborhoods to enable mass marketing. AT&T instead is concentrating on three different customer segments to reach the desired passings. They are building fiber to business corridors, building fiber to apartment complexes and finally, offering fiber to homes and businesses that are close to their many existing fiber nodes. Homes close enough to one of these nodes can get fiber while those only a block away probably can’t. It’s an interesting strategy that doesn’t lend itself to mass marketing, which is probably why the press has not been flooded with stories of the company’s fiber expansion. With this buildout strategy I assume the company has a highly targeted marketing effort that reaches out only to locations it can easily reach with fiber.

To a large degree AT&T’s entire fiber strategy is one of cherry picking. They are staying disciplined and are extending fiber to locations that are near to their huge existing fiber networks that were built to reach large businesses, cell sites, schools, etc. I work across the country and I’ve encountered small pockets of AT&T fiber customers in towns of all sizes. The cherry picking strategy makes it impossible to map their fiber footprint since it consists of an apartment complex here and a small cluster of homes there. Interestingly, when AT&T reports these various pockets they end up distorting the FCC’s broadband maps, since those maps count a whole census block as having gigabit fiber speeds if even only one customer can actually get fiber.

Another part of AT&T’s strategy for eliminating traditional DSL is to tear down rural copper and replace DSL with cellular broadband. That effort is being funded to a large extent by the FCC’s CAF II program. The company took $427 million in federal funding to bring broadband to over 1.1 million rural homes and businesses. The CAF II program only requires AT&T and the other telcos to deliver speeds of 10/1 Mbps. Many of these 1.1 million customers had slow DSL with typical speeds in the range of 1 Mbps or even less.

AT&T recently said that they are not pursuing 5G wireless local loops. They’ve looked at the technology that uses 5G wireless links to reach from poles to nearby homes and said that they can’t make a reasonable business case for the technology. They say that it’s just as affordable in their expansion model to build fiber directly to customers. They also know that fiber provides a quality connection but are unsure of the quality of a 5G wireless connection. That announcement takes some of the wind out of the sails for the FCC and legislators who are pressing hard to mandate cheap pole connections for 5G. There are only a few companies that have the capital dollars and footprint to pursue widespread 5G, and if AT&T isn’t pursuing this technology then the whole argument that 5G is the future of residential broadband is suspect.

This is one of the first times that AT&T has clearly described their fiber strategy. Over the last few years I wrote blogs that wondered where AT&T was building fiber, because outside of a few markets where they are competing with companies like Google Fiber it was hard to find any evidence of fiber construction. Instead of large fiber roll-outs across whole markets it turns out that the company has been quietly building a fiber network that adds pockets of fiber customer across their whole footprint. One interesting aspect of this strategy is that those who don’t live close to an AT&T fiber node are not likely to ever get their fiber.

CenturyLink and Residential Broadband

CenturyLink is in the midst of a corporate reorganization that is going to result is a major shift in the focus of the company. The company merged with Level 3 in 2016 and the management team from Level 3 will soon be in charge of the combined business. Long-time CEO Glen Post is being pushed out of day-to-day management of the company and Jeff Storey, the former CEO of Level 3 will become the new CEO of CenturyLink. Storey was originally slated to take the top spot in 2019, but the transition has been accelerated and will happen this month.

It’s a shift that makes good financial sense for the company. Mr. Storey had huge success at Level 3 and dramatically boosted earnings and stock prices over the last four years. Mr. Storey and CenturyLink CFO Sunit Patel have both made it clear that they are going to focus on the more profitable enterprise business opportunities and that they will judge any investments in last-mile broadband in terms of the expected returns. This differs drastically from Mr. Post who comes from a background as an independent telephone company owner. As recently as a year ago Mr. Post publicly pledged to make the capital investments needed to improve CenturyLink’s last-mile broadband networks.

This is going to mean a drastic shift in the way that CenturyLink views residential broadband. The company lost 283,000 broadband customers for the year ending in December 2017, dropping them to 5.7 million broadband customers. The company blames the losses on the continued success of the cable companies to woo away DSL customers.

This size of the customer losses is a bit surprising. CenturyLink said at the end of 2017 that they were roughly 60% through their CAF II upgrades which is bringing better broadband to over 1.1 million rural households. Additionally, the company built FTTP past 900,000 potential business and residential customers in 2017. If the company was having even a modest amount of success with those two new ventures it’s hard to understand how they lost so many broadband customers.

What might all of this mean for CenturyLink broadband customers? For rural customers it means that any upgrades that are being made using CAF II funding are likely the last upgrades they will ever see. Customers in these rural areas are already used to being neglected and their copper networks are in lousy condition due to decades of neglect by former owner Qwest.

CenturyLink is required by the CAF II program to upgrade broadband speeds in the rural areas to at least 10/1 Mbps. The company says that over half of the upgraded customers are seeing speeds of at least twice that. I’ve always had a concern about any of the big telcos reaching the whole CAF II footprint, and I suspect that when the CAF II money is gone, anybody that was not upgraded as promised will never see upgrades. I’ve also always felt that the CAF II money was a waste of money –  if CenturyLink walks away from the cost of maintaining these newly upgraded DSL networks they will quickly slide back into poor condition.

There are already speculation on Wall Street that CenturyLink might try to find a buyer for their rural networks. After looking at the problems experienced by Frontier and Fairpoint after buying rural telco copper networks one has to wonder if there is a buyer for these properties. But in today’s world of big-deal corporate finance it’s not impossible to imagine some group of investors willing to tackle this. The company could also take a shot at selling rural exchanges to independent telcos – something US West did over twenty years ago.

It’s also likely that the company’s foray into building widespread FTTP in urban areas is done. This effort is capital intensive and only earns infrastructure returns that are not going to be attractive to the new management. I wouldn’t even be surprised to see the company sell off these new FTTP assets to raise cash.

The company will continue to build fiber, but with the emphasis on enterprise opportunities. They are likely to adopt a philosophy similar to AT&T’s which has been building residential fiber only to large apartment complexes and to households that are within short distances from existing fiber pops. This might bring fiber broadband to a lucky few, but mostly the new management team has made it clear they are deemphasizing residential broadband.

This management transition probably closes the book on CenturyLink as a last-mile ISP. If they are unable to find a buyer for these properties it might take a decade or more for their broadband business to quietly die. This is bad news for existing broadband customers because the company is unlikely to invest in keeping the networks in operational shape. They only ones who might perceive this as good news are those who have been thinking about overbuilding the company – they are not going to see any resistance.

Carrier-of-Last-Resort Obligations

Earlier this month the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia upheld FCC orders that still require large telcos to be the carrier-of-last-resort provider of telephone service for at least some of their service territory. The ruling is the result of appeals made by CenturyLink and AT&T that required them to provide telephone service to new rural households.

The idea of carrier of last resort has been part of the telephone industry for nearly as long as the FCC has been regulating the industry. The concept was a key component of spreading the telephone network to all corners of the country – the Congress and the early FCC understood that the whole country was better off if everybody was connected.

Over the years the FCC and various state regulatory commissions ruled that telcos had to make a reasonable effort to connect rural customers. Telcos always had the option to petition against adding customers in really hard to reach places like mountaintops, but for the most part telcos routinely added new homes to the telephone network.

Carrier-of-last-resort started to weaken with the introduction of competition from the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Since that time the big telcos have been able to walk away from carrier-of-last-resort obligations in most of their territory. This court order ruled that in areas where the telcos are still receiving federal high cost support that the telcos are still obligated to connect homes that request service.

I worked for Ma Bell pre-divestiture and there was a real pride in the telephone industry that the network reached out to everybody. Telcos then also deployed huge numbers of pay telephones throughout the network to reach those that couldn’t afford phone service – even though they lost money on many of the payphones. The Bell company and the smaller independent telcos made it their mission to extend the network to everybody.

This order made a few comments, though, that puzzled me. They point out that many of the high-cost areas served by the big telcos are up for new funding from the upcoming CAF II auctions. Any winners of that auction are required to file to become the Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) for any areas they receive funding. The discussion in the court order implies that these new ETCs will become the carrier-of-last-resort in these areas.

That surprised me because there are plenty of carriers that have ETC status and yet are not the obligated carrier-of-last-resort. The best example is the same big telcos examined in this case who are the ETC of record for their whole footprints but now only have carrier-of-last-resort obligations for the last most rural areas covered by this case. There have been stories for years of people who built new homes, even in urban areas, and are refused service by both the telco and cable company. The cable companies have no carrier-of-last-resort obligations, but it’s clear that in many places the telcos have been able to walk away from the obligation.

I think that companies seeking the CAF II reverse auction funding might be surprised by this interpretation of the rules. Being carrier-of-last-resort means that a carrier is obligated to build to reach anybody in the covered area that requests telephone service. The reverse auction doesn’t even require total coverage of the covered census blocks and that seems to be in conflict with the court’s interpretation. The reverse auction census blocks are some of the most sparsely populated areas of the country and building to even one remote customer in some of these areas could be extremely expensive.

Unfortunately, the carrier-of-last-resort obligation only applies to telephone service and not to broadband. It would be nice to see this concept applied to broadband and the FCC missed a good opportunity to do this when they handed out billions of federal dollars in the CAF II plan. With that plan the big telcos are only required to make their best effort to reach customers with broadband in the areas that got the CAF II funding – I’m hearing from rural people all over the country that a lot of the CAF II areas aren’t seeing any upgrades. For the most part the idea of carrier-of-last resort and universal coverage are becoming quaint concepts of our past.

$600M Grants Only for Telcos?

The Omnibus Budget bill that was passed by Congress last Thursday and signed by the President on Friday includes $600 million of grant funding for rural broadband. This is hopefully a small down payment towards the billions of funding needed to improve rural broadband everywhere. As you might imagine, as a consultant I got a lot of inquiries about this program right away on Friday.

The program will be administered by the Rural Utility Service (RUS). Awards can consist of grants and loans, although it’s not clear at this early point if loan funding would be included as part of the $600 million or made in addition to it.

The grants only require a 15% matching from applicants, although past federal grant programs would indicate that recipients willing to contribute more matching funds will get a higher consideration.

When I look at the first details of the new program I have a hard time seeing this money being used by anybody other than telcos. One of the provisions of the grant money is that it cannot be used to fund projects except in areas where at least 90% of households don’t already have access to 10/1 Mbps broadband. One could argue that there are no longer any such places in the US.

The FCC previously awarded billions to the large telcos to upgrade broadband throughout rural America to at least 10/1 Mbps. The FCC also has been providing money from the A-CAM program to fund broadband upgrades in areas served by the smaller independent telephone companies. Except for a few places where the incumbents elected to not take the previous money – such in some Verizon areas – these programs effectively cover any sizable pocket of households without access to 10/1 broadband.

Obviously, many of the areas that got the earlier federal funding have not yet been upgraded, and I had a recent blog that noted the progress of the CAF II program. But I have a hard time thinking that the RUS is going to provide grants to bring faster broadband to areas that are already slated to get CAF II upgrades within the next 2 ½ years. Once upgraded, all of these areas will theoretically have enough homes with broadband to fail the new 90% test.

If we look at past federal grant programs, the large incumbent telcos have been allowed a chance to intervene and block any grant requests for their service areas that don’t meet all of the grant rules. I can foresee AT&T, CenturyLink and Frontier intervening in any grant request that seeks to build in areas that are slated for near-term CAF II upgrades. I would envision the same if somebody tried to get grant money to build in an area served by smaller telcos who will be using A-CAM money to upgrade broadband.

To make matters even more complicated, the upcoming CAF II reverse auction will be providing funds to fill in the service gaps left from the CAF II program. But for the most part the homes covered by the reverse auctions are not in any coherent geographic pockets but are widely scattered within existing large telco service areas. In my investigation of the reverse auction maps I don’t see many pockets of homes that will not already have at least 10% of homes with access to 10/1 broadband.

Almost everybody I know in the industry doesn’t think the large telcos are actually going to give everybody in the CAF II areas 10/1 Mbps broadband. But it’s likely that they will tell the FCC that they’ve made the needed upgrades. Since these companies are also the ones that update the national broadband map, it’s likely that CAF II areas will all be shown as having 10/1 Mbps broadband, even if they don’t.

There may be some instances where some little pockets of homes might qualify for these grants, and where somebody other than telcos could ask for the funding. But if the RUS strictly follows the mandates of the funding and won’t provide fund for places where more than 10% of homes already have 10/1 Mbps, then this money almost has to go to telcos, by definition. Telcos will be able to ask for this money to help pay for the remaining CAF II and A-CAM upgrades. There is nothing wrong with that, and that’s obviously what the lobbyist who authored this grant language intended – but the public announcement of the grant program is not likely to make that clear to the many others entities who might want to seek this funding. It will be shameful if most of this money goes to AT&T, CenturyLink and Frontier who were already handed billions to make these same upgrades.

I also foresee one other effect of this program. Anybody who is in the process of seeking new RUS funding should expect their request to go on hold for a year since the RUS will now be swamped with administering this new crash grant program. It took years for the RUS to recover from the crush of the Stimulus broadband grants and they are about to get buried in grant requests again.

Progress of the CAF II Program

If readers recall, the CAF II program is providing funds to the largest telcos to upgrade rural facilities in their incumbent operating territories to broadband speeds of at least 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up. The CAF II deployment began in the fall of 2015 and lasts for 6 years, so we are now almost 2.5 years into the deployment period. I was curious about how the bigger telcos are doing in meeting their CAF II build-out requirements. The FCC hasn’t published any progress reports on CAF II deployments, so I found the following from web searches:

AT&T. The company took $427 million annually for the six years ($2.56 billion) to bring broadband to 2.2 million rural customers. The company has said they are going to use a combination of improved DSL and fixed wireless broadband using their cellular frequencies to meet their build-out requirements. From their various press releases it seems like they are planning on more wireless than wireline connections (and they have plans in many rural places of tearing down the copper).

The only big public announcement of a wireless buildout for AT&T is a test in Georgia initiated last year. On their website the company says their goal at the end of 2018 is to offer improved broadband to 440,000 homes, which would mean a 17% CAF II coverage at just over the mid-point of their 6-year build-out commitment.

On a side note, AT&T had also promised the FCC, as a condition of the DirecTV merger that they would be pass 12.5 million homes and business with fiber by mid-2019. They report reaching only 4 million by the end of 2017.

CenturyLink. CenturyLink accepted $500 million annually ($3 billion) in CAF II funding to reach 1.2 million rural homes. In case you’re wondering why CenturyLink is covering only half of the homes as AT&T for roughly the same funding – the funding for CAF II varies by Census block according to density. The CenturyLink coverage area is obviously less densely populated than the areas being covered by AT&T.

FierceTelecom reported in January that CenturyLink has now upgraded 600,000 CAF II homes by the end of last year, or 37% of their CAF II commitment. The company says that their goal is to have 60% coverage by the end of this year. CenturyLink is primarily upgrading rural DSL, although they’ve said that they are considering using point-to-multipoint wireless for the most rural parts of the coverage areas. The company reports that in the upgrades so far that 70% of the homes passed so far can get 20 Mbps download or faster.

Frontier. The last major recipient of CAF II funding is Frontier. The company originally accepted $283 million per year to upgrade 650,000 passings. They subsequently acquired some Verizon properties that had accepted $49 million per year to upgrade 37,000 passings. That’s just under $2 billion in total funding.

FierceTelecom reported in January that Frontier reached 45% of the CAF II area with broadband speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps by the end of 2017. The company also notes that in making the upgrades for rural customers that they’ve also upgraded the broadband in the towns near the CAF II areas and have increased the broadband speeds of over 900,000 passings nationwide.

Frontier is also largely upgrading DSL, although they are also considering point-to-multipoint wireless for the more rural customers.

Other telcos also took major CAF II funding, but I couldn’t find any reliable progress reports on their deployments. This includes Windstream ($175 million per year), Verizon ($83 million per year), Consolidated ($51 million per year), and Hawaiian Telcom ($26 million per year).

The upcoming reverse auction this summer will provide up to another $2 billion in funding to reach nearly 1 million additional rural homes. In many cases these are the most remote customers, and many are found in many of the same areas where the CAF II upgrades are being made. It will be interesting to see if the same telcos will take the funding to finish the upgrades. There is a lot of speculation that the cellular carriers will pursue a lot of the reverse auction upgrades.

But the real question to be asked for these properties is what comes next. The CAF II funding lasts until 2021. The speeds being deployed with these upgrades are already significantly lower than the speeds available in urban America. A household today with a 10 Mbps download speed cannot use broadband in the ways that are enjoyed by urban homes. My guess is that there will be continued political pressure to continue to upgrade rural speeds and that we haven’t seen the end of the use of the Universal Service Fund to upgrade rural broadband.