The Rural Broadband Gap is Widening

A lot of attention is being paid to the broadband gap between urban and rural America. There are a lot of different estimates of the number of rural homes and businesses that don’t have broadband. At the low end of the scale are the FCC estimates that come from the overstated FCC broadband maps that are derived from overstated 477 data from ISPs. States and counties have made estimates of broadband coverage which invariably show more places without broadband than the FCC data. What everybody agrees on is that there are still a lot of rural places with poor broadband, be that number 18 million or 30 million people or 50 million – there is a definite urban versus rural broadband gap.

The FCC has been publicly touting that they are solving the gap by funding programs that bring broadband to places that don’t have it. The upcoming $20 billion RDOF grants will make a dent in the places without broadband, although the 6-year required construction buildout that doesn’t start until next year will feel glacial to places that desperately need broadband today. We’ll have to wait for the reverse auction to see how many millions of homes eventually get broadband from this program – at best it’s likely to only help a fraction of those with no broadband. Unless Congress acts, there isn’t going to be a solution for the many millions that are not going to be covered by FCC programs.

There is another broadband gap that is not getting the press coverage. The average speed of broadband is growing rapidly. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai took credit for this growth in a recent tweet and claimed faster speeds are due to the end of net neutrality and to ending broadband regulation: “Two years ago today, some Washington politicians promised you that the Internet would slow down. What’s happened since? Average U.S. fixed broadband speeds are UP over 76% according to Ookla. It [repealing net neutrality] wasn’t the end of the Internet as we know it—not even close.”

I’m not sure what Ookla numbers he’s referring to. In the Ookla Speedtest Global Index, the company says that the average fixed broadband speed in the US climbed from 111.69 Mbps to 134.77 Mbps during 2019 – an impressive 21% increase. This matches with recently announced statistics from OpenVault that says that average speeds in the US increased from 103 Mbps to 128 Mbps for the year ending in the third quarter of 2019 – a growth rate of 24%.

I’m not that sure any of the speed increase is due to FCC actions. Faster speeds come from several sources. Most of the increase comes from the big cable companies unilaterally increasing broadband speed in urban markets to as much as 200 Mbps. Since the big cable companies serve two-third of the broadband market, any changes they make in speeds immediately affects the average. The urban speeds are further increased by the continued migration of urban customers from DSL to cable modem. There is also an increase in customers buying gigabit broadband, which according to OpenVault is now 2.8% of all broadband customers – nearly doubling in 2019. Finally, there is a small increase due to some rural markets getting broadband upgrades – but the rural customers added to the market are too small to make much of an impact on the national average. I guess I’d like Chairman Pai to be more specific, because I don’t see an FCC fingerprint on these industry trends.

It’s great that broadband speeds are improving. Anybody who has been paying attention saw this coming, since average speeds having been growing at a rate of over 20% annually for several decades. What Chairman Pai and most others have missed is that these speed increases come almost entirely from urban customers. The speed gap between urban and rural America is widening rapidly as urban speeds climb.

This urban / rural speed gap is important to recognize because urban customers are finding ways to use the faster broadband. Consider the many uses of broadband in urban areas that are out of reach for a rural household. We routinely back-up data files into cloud storage. Our computers, cellphones, cars, TVs and numerous devices routinely and automatically download updates and upload data into the cloud. We use cloud-based security cameras that we can access when away from home. When we walk into our homes our cellphones automatically start using our home broadband. We are free to work from home, even if it’s only to log into a corporate WAN in the evening. Our kids routinely do online homework and practically all of the communications between schools, students, and parents is online. We now use a huge amount of machine-to-machine data that has nothing to do with video and entertainment.

People living without good broadband can’t do any of these things. In just the last week CCG interviewed several rural residents that tell a different story than that list above. Parents drive an hour so kids can use library broadband for schoolwork. Rural businesses can’t maintain a quality signal on satellite broadband to be able to take credit card payments. Residents frantically try to shut off automatically updating software to avoid going over their data caps. I could fill a week of blogs with the horror stories about rural broadband.

If we look back even just seven or eight years ago, the urban versus rural speed gap didn’t feel so wide. When the average urban home got speeds of 25 Mbps there wasn’t such a giant gap with rural residents because urban residents didn’t use broadband as extensively as they do today. But urban speeds are getting faster and faster while the broadband for too many rural homes has stayed stagnant – where it even exists. To quote a rural resident that we spoke to last week, rural people with poor broadband now feel like they aren’t part of the 21st century.

AT&T Cutting Capital Spending

AT&T announced it will be reducing capital spending in 2020. That news is significant for several reasons. AT&T’s capital plans are always big news because they have the largest annual capital budget of the big telcos and cable companies. The AT&T capital budget for 2019 was $23 billion. It’s big news when they are only planning on spending $20 billion in 2020.

It’s worth noting that some of AT&T’s capital spending is not being done with their own money. In 2020 they will be receiving the final installment of $428 million for the sixth year of the CAF II program. AT&T recently announced that they are 75% finished the construction of the FirstNet network for first responders, so the company should be receiving the last 25% of the $6.5 billion of federal funding next year. In future years AT&T will likely be collecting some significant share of the recently announced $9 billion 5G Fund paid out of the Universal Service Fund to bring better cellular service for the most rural parts of the country.

There are ripples throughout the telecom sector when AT&T increases or decreases its capital budget. For example, a significant slash of AT&T spending has a significant impact on the various major electronics vendors that will now have to lower their revenue expectations for 2020. While the whole telecom sector is busy, this still means lower revenues for the major telecom vendors.

This reduction in AT&T spending makes me wonder about the 5G war we are supposedly having with China. If you listen to the carrier-driven rhetoric in Washington DC, you would think that there is an urgent need to spend huge amounts of capital immediately on 5G infrastructure. It was that rhetoric that gave the FCC cover to double the size of the recently announced 5G Fund to $9 billion.

It’s hard to imagine that AT&T would be cutting its capital budget if 5G implementation was truly a national priority and a crisis. The truth about 5G can be seen by how the cellular carrier CEOs communicate with their stockholders – the big carriers are struggling right now to find an immediate business case that justifies huge spending on 5G. It turns out that much of the public isn’t willing to pay more for faster cellular broadband. Every carrier has a list of future benefits from 5G, but there are no applications that will create the quick revenues that would prompt AT&T to keep spending capital at historic levels.

This is not to say that AT&T and the other wireless carriers aren’t spending money on 5G – but AT&T is fitting 5G expansion into its shrinking capital budget. Contrary to everything that the carriers have been telling Washington DC, the carriers are not planning on spending massive amounts of their own money on 5G just yet.

Lower capital spending by AT&T also takes the wind out of the sails of the FCC’s argument that net neutrality was holding back the big ISPs from making capital expenditures. This was the primary reason cited by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai for killing net neutrality and Title II regulation. He argued that overregulation was stopping the big carriers from investing, and he’s still making this same argument today to justify his decision. If Chairman Pai was right, we should be seeing AT&T increase capital spending rather than cutting it.

The idea that there is a direct correlation between capital spending and regulation was always fictional. Big ISPs spend money on capital that they think will increase future returns – it’s hard to imagine regulations that would stop the big companies from pursuing good business ideas. AT&T’s capital spending is much more related to what its competitors like Verizon, T-Mobile, and Comcast are doing. When the FCC killed Title II regulation and net neutrality, the agency was removing the last regulations major from a broadband industry that was already barely regulated. It’s hard to think that change had much impact in the Board room or the business development groups at the big ISPs.

It’s worth noting that AT&T has now joined many other big US corporations and is using free cash to buy back its own stock. The company already announced plans to buy back $4 billion of its own stock in the first quarter of 2020 – retiring roughly 100 million shares. I’m sure that decision had some impact on the capital budget. This might mean that AT&T upper management values stock buy-backs to increase earnings per share more than they value capital spending.

FCC to Create 5G Fund

On December 4, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced a plan to create what he is calling the 5G Fund. This new fund will replace the already planned $4.5 billion Mobility Fund Phase II Fund and adds another $4.5 billion. The fund has been renamed to suggest that 5G will bring faster broadband to rural America.

The original goal of the Mobility Fund II was to expand 4G LTE coverage to the most rural parts of the country where there is no cellular coverage today. While preparing to award that fund, the FCC figured out that the 4G coverage maps for the biggest cellular companies were significantly overstated. This caused the FCC to pause the Mobility Fund Phase II awards, and they are now rolling that money into this larger new fund. There are things to both love and hate about this announcement.

Some of the Things to Hate:

I hate that the 5G hype got rolled into this announcement. Consider the following from Pai’s announcement:

5G has the potential to bring many benefits to American consumers and businesses, including wireless networks that are more responsive, more secure, and up to 100 times faster than today’s 4G LTE networks. . . . We want to make sure that rural Americans enjoy these benefits, just as residents of large urban areas will. In order to do that, the Universal Service Fund must be forward-looking and support the networks of tomorrow.

That statement is incredibly misleading. The only new technology that is 100 times faster than 4G LTE is the use of millimeter wave spectrum. Millimeter wave spectrum is only faster when the transmitters are fiber-fed. This fund is not going to be used to build the fiber needed to bring millimeter wave hot spots to the most rural parts of America. That technology only broadcasts fast broadband for less than 1,000 feet, so it’s likely to never be economically viable to bring this technology to remote places. Unfortunately, the Chairman’s statement is going to make rural people think they might be getting broadband that is 100 times faster.

I also hate that Chairman Pai used this same announcement to announce that AT&T and Verizon have massively overstated their 4G coverage maps. One would expect there to be some sort of regulatory repercussion for those companies exaggerating their coverage areas. The big carriers have been accused of overstating coverage to limit how much of the Mobility Fund Phase II went to smaller carriers. Instead of punishing the big carriers, this announcement glossed over the bad behavior and instead rewards them by doubling the size of the fund. I’m guessing that the fund doubled in size to cover the areas that the carriers had erroneously claimed as having cell coverage. At the end of the day, this fund is another big dollar giveaway to the biggest carriers in the country. I know this money should greatly improve rural cellular coverage – it’s just getting a bit tiresome watching this FCC hand everything imaginable to the biggest carriers.

I also hate that this order is not likely going to require that any new fiber built using federal money be made available to others. These billions will be used to construct a lot of fiber to rural cell towers and that fiber would be a great launching point for competitiors that want to bring better broadband to rural areas. You might recall that the broadband grants that came from the stimulus program required all fiber constructed with federal funds be made available to ISPs at affordable rates. However, when money is given to the big carriers – in this program and in the CAF II program – there is no such requirement.

Some of the Things to Like:

This reconstituted fund still keeps the primary goal of the original Mobility Fund Phase II, which is to bring better cellular coverage to areas that don’t have it today. I visit rural America regularly and it’s not hard in rural places to drive out of cellular coverage. Hopefully, this fund fills many of those coverage gaps. I’m always amazed when I come upon a small community in an area with zero cellphone coverage. We talk all of the time about the broadband gap, but for many folks, there is a more fundamental connectivity gap.

I also like that some of this money will go to the smaller cellular carriers that already serve in rural America. I have faith that they’ll use the money more wisely than the big carriers. The fund will operate as a reverse auction, and I hope that the many smaller cellular carriers can win the money in places where they already have better networks than the big carriers.

C-Band Announcement Moot on Rural Wireless

On November 18, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told several members of Congress that he had decided there should be a public auction for the C-Band spectrum that sits between 3.7 GHz and 4.2 GHz. The spectrum has historically been used by satellite companies for communication between satellites and earth stations. This is prime spectrum for 5G cellular broadband, but also could provide a huge benefit to fixed wireless providers in rural America. Chairman Pai will be asking the rest of the FCC commissioners to approve an order sometime after the first of next year. Making an early announcement is a bit unusual since major orders like this are usually announced by releasing a written order that comes after a vote of the Commission.

The letters from Chairman Pai describe four reasons behind the decision: First, we must make available a significant amount of C-Band spectrum for 5G. Second, we must make spectrum available for 5G quickly. Third, we must generate revenue for the federal government. And, Fourth, we must protect the services that are currently delivered using the C-Band so that they can continue to be delivered to the American people. 

Missing from Chairman Pai’s letter was any mention of making the C-Band spectrum available for rural fixed wireless. WISPA and other rural proponents have been lobbying for sharing the spectrum so that the C-Band could be used for urban 5G while also benefitting faster rural broadband.

This has been an unusual docket from the start because the satellite providers, under the name of the C-Band Alliance (CBA) offered to relocate to the higher part of the spectrum if they could hold a private auction to sell the vacated spectrum to the cellular carriers. There were several problems with that offer. First, the satellite providers would make billions of dollars of windfall profits through selling spectrum that they don’t own. Federal law makes it clear that the FCC has the right to award or take-back spectrum and it would have been a major precedent for license holders to be able to sell spectrum for a huge profit. There were also obvious concerns about transparency, and it was feared that backroom deals would be struck to give spectrum to the big cellular carriers for bargain prices while still benefitting the satellite companies.

There was also a political nuance. The CBA proposed to give some of the proceeds of the private auction to the federal government, similar to what happens in an FCC auction. However, money given that way would go towards paying off the federal deficit. Proceeds of FCC auctions can be earmarked for specific uses and legislators all wanted to see the spectrum sold by FCC auction so that they could use some of the money.

The rural spectrum-sharing idea might not be not dead since the announcement was made by short letter. However, the Chairman could easily have mentioned rural broadband in the letters to legislators and didn’t. The Chairman has made numerous speeches where he said that solving the rural digital divide is his primary goal. It’s clear by his actions during the last few years that deregulation and giveaways to the big carriers under the guise of promoting 5G are the real priority of this FCC.

The C-Band spectrum sits next to the recently released CBRS spectrum at 3.5 GHz. Just as additional spectrum benefits 5G, fixed wireless technology improves significantly by combining multiple bands of frequency. Rural carriers have been arguing for years that the FCC should allow for the sharing of spectrum. Proponents of rural broadband argue that urban and rural use of spectrum can coexist since most 5G spectrum is only going to be needed in urban areas. They believe that such spectrum can be used in a point-to-point or point-to-multipoint configuration in rural America without interfering with urban 5G. The big cellular carriers are reluctant to share spectrum because it causes them extra effort, so only the FCC can make it happen.

If the final order doesn’t require frequency sharing, it will be another slap in the face for rural broadband. Since there is not yet a written order, proponents of rural broadband still have an opportunity to be heard at the FCC on the topic. However, I fear that the issue has already been decided and that rural broadband will again be ignored by the FCC.

FCC Looks to Kill Copper Unbundling

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai circulated a draft order that would start the process of killing the unbundling of copper facilities. This unbundling was originally ordered with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and unleashed telephone and broadband competition in the US. This new law was implemented before the introduction of DSL and newly formed competitors (CLECs) were able to use telco copper to compete for voice and data service using T1s. The 1996 Act also required that the big telcos offer their most basic products for resale.

The FCC noted that their proposed order will “not grant forbearance from regulatory obligations governing broadband networks”, meaning they are not going to fully eliminate the requirement for copper unbundling. This is because the FCC doesn’t have the authority to fully eliminate unbundling since the obligation was required by Congress –  the FCC is mandated to obey that law until it’s either changed by Congress or until there is no more copper left to unbundle. Much of the industry has been calling for an updated telecommunications act for years, but in the current dysfunction politics of Washington DC that doesn’t look likely.

The big telcos have hated the unbundling requirement since the day it was passed. Eliminating this requirement has been near the top of their regulatory wish list since 1996. The big telcos hate of unbundling is somewhat irrational since in today’s environment unbundling likely makes them money. There are still CLECs selling DSL from unbundled copper and generating monies for the telcos that they’d likely not have otherwise. But the hatred for the original ruling has become ingrained in the big telco culture.

The FCC’s proposal is to have a three year transition from the currently mandated rates that are set at incremental costs to some market-based leased rate. I guess we’ll have to see during that transition if the telcos plan to price CLECs out of the market or if they will offer reasonable lease rates that will continue to offer connections.

This change has the possibility of causing harm to CLECs and consumers. There are still a number of CLECs selling DSL over unbundled copper elements. In many cases these CLECs operate the newest DSL electronics and can offer faster data speeds than the telco DSL. It’s not unusual for CLECs to have 50 Mbps residential DSL. For businesses they can now combine multiple pairs of copper and I’ve seen unbundled DSL products for businesses as fast as 500 Mbps.

There are still a lot of customer that are choosing to stay with DSL. Some of these customers don’t feel the need for faster data speeds. In other cases it’s due to the fact that DSL is generally priced to be cheaper than cable modem products. At CCG we do surveys and it’s not unusual to find anywhere from 25% to 45% of the customers still buying DSL in a market that has a cable competitor. While there are millions of customers annually making the transition to cable modem service, there are still big numbers of households still using DSL – it’s many years away from dying.

There is another quieter use of unbundled copper that still has competitors worried. Any competitor that offers voice service using their own switch is still required by law to interconnect to the local incumbent telcos. Most of that interconnection is done today using fiber transport, but there still is a significant impact from unbundled elements.

Surprisingly, the vast majority of the public switched telecommunications network (PSTN) still uses technology based upon T1s. There was a huge noise made 5 – 10 years ago about having a ‘digital transition’ where the interconnection network was going to migrate to 100% IP. But for the most part this transition never occurred. Competitors can still bring fiber to meet an incumbent telco network, but that fiber signal must still be muxed down to T1 channels using T1s and DS3. The pricing for those interconnections are part of the same rules the FCC wants to kill. CLECs everywhere are going to be worried about seeing huge price increases for the interconnection process.

The big telcos have always wanted interconnection to be done at tariffed special access rates. These are the rates that often had a T1 (1.5 Mbps connection) priced at $700 per month. The unbundled cost for an interconnection T1 is $100 or less in most places and competitors are going to worry about seeing a big price increase to tie their network to telco tandems.

It’s not surprising to see this FCC doing this. They have been checking off the regulatory wish list of the telcos and the cable companies since Chairman Pai took over leadership. This is one of those regulatory issues that the big telcos hate as a policy issue, but which has quietly been operationally working well now for decades. There’s no pressing reason for the FCC to make this change. Copper is naturally dying over time and the issue eventually dies with the copper. There are direct measurable benefits to consumers from unbundling, so the real losers are going to be customers who lose DSL connections they are happy with.

Is the FCC Really Solving the Digital Divide?

The FCC recently released the 2019 Broadband Deployment Report, with the subtitle: Digital Divide Narrowing Substantially. Chairman Pai is highlighting several facts that he says demonstrate that more households now have access to fast broadband. The report highlights rural fiber projects and other efforts that are closing the digital divide. The FCC concludes that broadband is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis – a determination they are required to make every year by Congressional mandate. If the FCC ever concludes that broadband is not being deployed fast enough, they are required by law to rectify the situation.

To give the FCC some credit, there is a substantial amount of rural fiber being constructed – mostly from the ACAM funds being provided to small telephone companies with some other fiber being deployed via rural broadband grants. Just to provide an example, two years ago Otter Tail County Minnesota had no fiber-to-the-premise. Since then the northern half of the county is seeing fiber deployed from several telephone companies. This kind of fiber expansion is great news to rural counties, but counties like Otter Tail are now wondering how to upgrade the rest of their county.

Unfortunately, this FCC has zero credibility on the issue. The 2018 Broadband Deployment Report reached the same conclusion, but it turns out that there was a huge reporting error in the data supporting that report where the ISP, Barrier Free, had erroneously reported that they had deployed fiber to 62 million residents in New York. Even after the FCC recently corrected for that huge error they still kept the original conclusion. This raises a question about what defines ‘reasonable and timely deployment of broadband’ if having fiber to 52 million fewer people doesn’t change the answer.

Anybody who works with rural broadband knows that the FCC databases are full of holes. The FCC statistics come from the data that ISPs report to the FCC each year about their broadband deployment. In many cases, ISPs exaggerate broadband speeds and report marketing speeds instead of actual speeds. The reporting system also contains a huge logical flaw in that if a census block has only one customer with fast broadband, the whole census block is assumed to have that speed.

I work with numerous rural counties where broadband is still largely non-existent outside of the county seat, and yet the FCC maps routinely show swaths of broadband availability in many rural counties where it doesn’t exist.

Researchers at Penn State recently looked at broadband coverage across rural Pennsylvania and found that the FCC maps grossly overstate the availability of broadband for huge parts of the state. Anybody who has followed the history of broadband in Pennsylvania already understands this. Years ago, Verizon reneged on a deal to introduce DSL everywhere – a promise made in exchange for becoming deregulated. Verizon ended up ignoring most of the rural parts of the state.

Microsoft has blown an even bigger hole in the FCC claims. Microsoft is in an interesting position in that customers in every corner of the country ask for online upgrades for Windows and Microsoft Office. Microsoft is able to measure the actual speed of customer download for tens of millions of upgrades every quarter. Microsoft reports that almost half of all downloads of their software is done at speeds that are slower than the FCC’s definition of broadband of 25/3 Mbps. Measuring a big download is the ultimate test of broadband speeds since ISPs often boost download speeds for the first minute or two to give the impression they have fast broadband (and to fool speed tests). Longer downloads show the real speeds. Admittedly some of Microsoft’s findings are due to households that subscribe to slower broadband to save money, but the Microsoft data still shows that a huge number of ISP connections underperform. The Microsoft figures are also understated since they don’t include the many millions of households that can’t download software since they have no access to home broadband.

The FCC is voting this week to undertake a new mapping program to better define real broadband speeds. I’m guessing that effort will take at least a few years, giving the FCC more time to hide behind bad data. Even with a new mapping process, the data is still going to have many problems if it’s self-reported by the ISPs. I’m sure any new mapping effort will be an improvement, but I don’t hold out any hopes that the FCC will interpret better data to mean that broadband deployment is lagging.

Designing the Ideal Federal Broadband Grant Program

In April, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced a new rural broadband initiative that will provide $20.4 billion of new funding. We don’t know many details yet, but here are a few things that will likely be involved in awarding the funding:

  • The FCC is leaning towards a reverse auction.
  • The program will likely require technologies that can deliver at least 25/3 Mbps broadband speeds.
  • The program will be funded within the existing Universal Service Fund, mostly by repositioning the original CAF II plan.
  • The grants might all be awarded at once, similar to A-CAM and CAF II awards, meaning that there might be only one chance to apply, with the awards to be paid out over a longer time period.

I’m writing a series of blogs that will examine the ideal way to design and administer a grant program of this size. We’ve seen both good and also disastously bad federal broadband programs before, and i’m hoping the FCC will take some time to make this grant program one of the effective ones. I’m sure the details of this new program are not yet set in stone, and folks in rural America need to make their voices heard now if they want some of this money to benefit their communities.

I’m going to look at the following topics, and perhaps more as I write this. At the end of this process I’ll post a whitepaper on my website that consolidates all of these discussions into one document.

A well-designed broadband grant program of this magnitude should consider the following:

What is the End Goal?

It’s important up-front for the FCC to determine how the grant moneys are to be used. The best grant programs have a specific goal, and then the application and award process is designed to best meet the goals. The goal can’t be something as simple as ‘promote rural broadband’, because a goal that simplistic is bound to create a hodgepodge of grant awards.

What Broadband Speeds Should be Supported?

This is an area where the FCC failed miserably in the past. They awarded over $11 billion in the CAF II program that was used to upgrade broadband speeds to speeds of only 10/1 Mbps. When the FCC set the 10/1 Mbps speed that didn’t even meet their own definition of broadband. How should the FCC determine eligible speeds this time to avoid a repeat of the CAF II debacle?

Who Should be Eligible?

FCC programs in the past have usually made the monies available to a wide range of recipients. However, the specific details of the grant programs have often made it hard for whole classes of entities like cities or counties to accept the awards. As an example, there are many entities electing to not participate in the current Re-Connect grant program because they can’t accept any part of the awards that include RUS loans.

Is a Reverse Auction the Right Mechanism?

The FCC and numerous politicians currently favor reverse auctions. Like any mechanism, there are situation where reverse grants are a great tool and others where they will distort the award process. Are reverse auctions a good tool for this grant program?

Other Issues

There are two drastically different ways to hand out these grants. One is to follow the CAF II mechanism and award all of the $20 billion in one huge auction and then pay it out over 6 or 8 years. The other would be to divide the award money into even tranches and have a new grant award for each of those years.

In the recent Re-Connect grants the FCC decided to blend grants and loans. I know the loan component stopped most of my clients from pursuing these grants. Should there be a loan component of the grants?

There are also technical issues to consider. I had clients who were outbid in the recent CAF II reverse auction by wireless companies that gained bidding preference by promising that their fixed wireless networks could achieve across-the-board 100 Mbps broadband. I still don’t know of a wireless technology that can do that over a large footprint. How should the FCC make sure that technologies deliver what’s promised?

What’s the Role of States in this Process?

What should states be doing to maximize the chance for federal grant money to be awarded to their state?

This blog is part of a series:

Setting the Right Goals for Grants

Speed Goals for FCC Grants

Who Should be Eligible for Grants?

Are Reverse Auctions the Right Mechanism?

What Technology Should be Covered?

State’s Role in Broadband Grants

Summary and Conclusions

AT&T Withdraws from Lifeline Program

In March the Public Utility Commission of Ohio allowed AT&T to withdraw from the federal Lifeline program. This is a program that let’s qualified low-income homes get a monthly discount of $9.25 from either their landline telephone or their broadband connection – only one discount per home. AT&T successfully withdrew from Lifeline in Illinois in 2018 and in twelve other states in 2017.

AT&T apparently hasn’t been advertising or pushing the potential discount since they only had 7,300 homes in the state on the Lifeline program. The Communications Workers of America say there are almost 1.6 million households in Ohio that qualify for the discount – although not all of them are served by AT&T.

You might think that AT&T supports Lifeline by looking at their web site. However, clicking through to Ohio notifies customers that the discount will end in June and provides customers a list of other companies that might offer them the discount.

The Lifeline program started in 1985, and at the time the amount of discount was a significant savings for customers. Because of inflation the $9.25 discount represents a far smaller portion of a today’s monthly telecommunications bill.

Participation in the Lifeline program has dropped significantly in the past few years, as has the way the fund is being used. The following revenue numbers come from the 2018 annual report from USAC – the entity that operates the Lifeline Fund. I extraopolated out the number of participants at $9.25 per month.

2016 2018
Telephone $1,477,548,000 $312,300,000
Bundle $25,554,000 $293,707,000
Broadband $18,610,000 $536,424,000
Total $1,521,712,000 $1,142,431,000
Participants        13,700,000        10,250,000

Since 2016 there are 2.5 million fewer participants in the plan – many certainly due to carriers like AT&T withdrawing from the plan. The USAC numbers show a big shift since 2016 of participants applying the discount to their broadband bill rather than to landline telephone or cellphone bill.

The Lifeline Program was in the news recently when the FCC Inspector General issued a fraud advisory that says there are a lot of duplicate names requesting Lifeline and a number of deceased people still getting the discount. Chairman Ajit Pai immediately issued a statement saying that the program needs to be cleaned up.

Fraud has always been a concern in the program. However, it’s a little odd for the FCC to be complaining about fraud today since they are in the process of taking over validation of Lifeline subscribers. Eligibility to participate in Lifeline was previously the responsibility of the states, but in June, 2018 USAC launched the National Verifier, a database that lists everybody eligible to receive a Lifeline credit. As of the end of last year, the federal verifier was active in 18 states, with the remaining states and territories joining the program this year. It seems odd to be yelling about problems of the older state programs when the FCC has already implemented a solution that they believe will solve most of the fraud issues.

I published a blog several days ago saying how regulators are letting the public down. It’s mystifying to me why the Ohio PUC and so many other states are letting AT&T out of the Lifeline program. The Lifeline Fund reimburses AT&T for every discount given to customers, so there is zero net cost to AT&T to participate in the plan. With the new National Verifier, AT&T takes no role in enrolling customers, who must enter through the national Verifier portal. I don’t know why regulators don’t insist that AT&T and every other company that sells residential telephone and broadband be required to participate in the program.

Why is the FCC Still Spinning Net Neutrality?

Chairman Ajit Pai and several other FCC Commissioners are still sticking with the story that regulation and net neutrality were quashing capital spending and innovation in the industry. This was the primary argument that justified killing net neutrality and gutting Title II regulation. Pai claimed that net neutrality was disrupting the big ISPs so much that they were reining in capital spending. Chairman Pai further claimed that killing regulation would free the big ISPs to expand their networks and to improve broadband coverage – he’s also repeatedly argued that without regulation that ‘the market’ would solve the rural broadband divide. Chairman Pai launched this story on his first day as Chairman and hasn’t let up – even now, over a year after the FCC successfully killed net neutrality and Title II regulation.

I find this to be unusual. Normally, when somebody in the industry wins a regulatory battle they quietly move on to the next issue, but at almost every public speaking opportunity the Chairman is still repeating these same talking points. I’ve been thinking about why Chairman Pai would keep harping on this argument long after he successfully killed net neutrality. I can think of a few reasons.

The Lawsuits. The FCC is probably concerned about the lawsuits challenging net neutrality. That order used some legal gymnastics in the FCC argument to kill Title II regulation. So perhaps Chairman Pai is continuing to make these same arguments as a way to let the courts know that keeping Title II regulation dead is still the number one priority of this FCC. I’m sure that if the courts challenge the FCC order that the agency will appeal, and so perhaps he continues to make the same arguments in anticipation of that coming court battle.

5G Deployment. In a very odd back-door way, the FCC has been using the net neutrality argument to grease the skids for an unregulated roll-out of 5G. The FCC’s message couldn’t be simpler: “all regulation bad / 5G and innovation good”.

I doubt that the average American understands the magnitude of what this FCC did when they killed Title II regulation. The agency basically killed its own authority to regulate what is probably the most important product it has ever regulated. Broadband is vital to both the economy and to people’s everyday lives. Yet this FCC thinks that their best regulatory role is to not regulate the industry in any manner. That means not regulating the many issues covered by net neutrality. It means not caring about consumer privacy on the web. It means not being concerned with runaway price increases and data caps. Killing Title II regulation means that future FCCs might have a hard time trying to reintroduce any regulation of broadband. The FCC handed the keys of the broadband industry to the monopoly ISPs and told them to run the industry as they see fit.

At the strong urging of the big wireless companies, this FCC wants to also make sure there are no restraints on 5G. It seems the only parties the FCC wants to regulate are those that might create roadblocks for 5G, such as cities that control rights-of-way.

Congress. Congress has the ability to permanently resolve the Title II and net neutrality battle. Congress could codify the current deregulated state-of-affairs or they could put Title II and net neutrality permanently back on the books. In fact, it’s the lack of Congressional action that led the FCC to kill net neutrality – they would much have preferred that Congress did it. But the Congress hasn’t undertaken any policy initiatives in the telecom industry since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, when most of us still were using dial-up.

There has been a lot of recent discussion in Congress on telecom issues and perhaps one of the reasons that Chairman Pai continues to lobby against net neutrality is to keep that position in front of Congress. However, it seems unlikely that any significant regulation is going to come out of a split Congress.

No Better Argument? Finally, and what is my favorite theory, perhaps the FCC doesn’t have any better argument about why they should be killing regulation. They’ve had years to come up with a story that the American people will buy, and the best they’ve come up with is that killing regulation will unleash innovation.

I think the FCC is afraid to touch the policy issues that the public really cares about. People in rural areas are adamant that the FCC finds a way to get them real broadband. The vast majority of broadband users are worried about being hacked and are worried about how the big ISPs are spying on them and selling their data. Everybody is concerned about the talk on Wall Street that encourages the big ISPs to significantly jack up rates. A large majority of the country cares about net neutrality and an open Internet. I can see why the FCC would rather stick with their story about how killing regulation unleashes innovation – because they are afraid of opening Pandora’s box to let all of these other issues into the open.

$20.4 Billion in Broadband Funding?

Chairman Ajit Pai and the White House announced a new rural broadband initiative that will provide $20.4 billion over ten years to expand and upgrade rural broadband. There were only a few details in the announcement, and even some of them sound tentative. A few things are probably solid:

  • The money would be used to provide broadband in the price-cap service areas – these are the areas served by the giant telcos.
  • The FCC is leaning towards a reverse auction.
  • Will support projects that deliver at least 25/3 Mbps broadband.
  • Will be funded from the Universal Service Fund and will ‘repurpose’ existing funds.
  • The announcement alludes to awarding the money later this year, which would be incredibly aggressive.
  • This was announced in conjunction with the auction of millimeter wave spectrum – however this is not funded from the proceeds of that auction.

What might it mean to repurpose this from the Universal Service Fund?  The fund dispersed $8.7 billion in 2018. We know of two major upcoming changes to the USF disbursements. First. the new Mobility II fund to bring rural 4G service adds $453 million per year to the USF. Second. the original CAF II program that pays $1.544 billion annually  to the big telcos ends after 2020.

The FCC recently increased the cap on the USF to $11.4 billion. Everybody was scratching their head over that cap since it is so much higher than current spending. But now the number makes sense. If the FCC was to award $2.04 billion in 2020 for the new broadband spending, the fund would expand almost to that new cap. Then, in 2021 the fund would come back down to $9.6 billion after the end of CAF II. We also know that the Lifeline support subsidies have been shrinking every year and the FCC has been eyeing further cuts in that program. We might well end up with a fund by 2021 that isn’t much larger than the fund in 2018.

There are some obviously big things we don’t know. The biggest is the timing of the awards. Will this be a one-time auction for the whole $20.4 billion or a new $2 billion auction for each of the next ten years? This is a vital question. If there is an auction every year then every rural county will have a decent shot at the funding. That will give counties time to develop business plans and create any needed public private partnership to pursue the funding.

However, if the funding is awarded later this year in one big auction and then disbursed over ten years, then I predict that most of the money will go again to the big telcos – this would be a repeat of the original CAF II. That is my big fear. There was great excitement in rural America for the original CAF II program, but in the end that money was all given to the big telcos. The big telcos could easily promise to improve rural DSL to 25/3 Mbps given this kind of funding. They’d then have ten years to fulfill that promise. I find it worrisome that the announcement said that the funding could benefit around 4 million households – that’s exactly the number of households covered by the big telcos in CAF II.

What will be the study areas? The CAF II program awarded funding by county. Big study areas benefit the big telcos since anybody else chasing the money would have to agree to serve the same large areas. Big study areas means big projects which will make it hard for many ISPs to raise any needed matching finds for the grants – large study areas would make it impossible for many ISPs to bid.

My last concern is how the funds will be administered. For example, the current ReConnect funding is being administered by the RUS which is part of the Department of Agriculture. That funding is being awarded as part grants and part loans. As I’ve written many times, there are numerous entities that are unable to accept RUS loans. There are features of those loans that are difficult for government entities to accept. It’s also hard for a commercial ISP to accept RUS funding if they already carry debt from some other source. The $20.4 billion is going to be a lot less impressive if a big chunk of it is loans. It’s going to be disastrous if loans follow the RUS lending rules.

We obviously need to hear a lot more. This could be a huge shot in the arm to rural broadband if done properly – exactly the kind of boost that we need. It could instead be another huge giveaway to the big telcos – or it could be something in between. I know I tend to be cynical, but I can’t ignore that some of the largest federal broadband funding programs have been a bust. Let’s all hope my worries are unfounded.