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Current News Regulation - What is it Good For?

Free the Fiber Now

A few blogs ago I mentioned that the FCC had taken away restrictions to allow broadband supplied by E-Rate funding to be used to provide free WiFi for the public. That’s a good idea that will provide some relief for areas with little or no other broadband. But the announcement raises a more fundamental question – why was such a restriction in place to begin with?

I see such restrictions all of the time where broadband infrastructure that is built with public dollars cannot be used for commercial purposes, or in the case of school bandwidth, can’t even be used to distribute broadband to the public for free.

The first time I ran across this was over twenty years ago when I was working with a city in Virginia that wanted to build a backbone fiber to connect city buildings, but also to connect to a few business districts that had lousy broadband. The city had a fairly robust fiber network that was used to control streetlights and there was enough spare fiber in this network to provide a significant portion of the needed solution. Upon investigation, it turns out that about one-fourth of that fiber had been funding through a grant from the state highway department that came with a clear prohibition from using the fiber for any other purpose other than traffic control. The city attorney read that grant prohibition to even mean the city couldn’t use the fiber to connect city buildings, let alone run the fiber to a business district. And this was after the city had paid for most of the fiber out of local tax dollars. The city would have been far better off financially had it never taken the highway grant.

This happens all of the time. I’ve seen similar restrictions on fiber networks built to reach schools. There are often similar restrictions on fiber built to connect public buildings. Some states have laws that prohibit fiber built by a municipal electric or water utility to be used for any other purposes.

There are other fibers funded 100% by taxpayer dollars that are also off-limits for other purposes. For example, there was a lot of middle-mile fiber built as part of the $11 billion CAF II program that was given to the large telcos. The fiber was built as middle-mile fiber to reach DSL huts and cellular towers. None of that fiber was made available to anybody else, although the fiber was funded by federal money and most of the fiber sits unused today.

There are a few reasons such restrictions exist. In the case of the Virginia city, after a lot of investigation, we figured out that Comcast and Verizon had lobbied to restrict the use of state-funded fiber. The restriction wasn’t from a specific law in this case but had been written into state grant awards. In some cases such restrictions are written in state law, which likely is also due to lobbying by the big telcos and cable companies. We’ve found a few restrictions against using government-funded fiber that seem to come from bureaucrats who simply invented the rules without understanding the long-term ramifications.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that all of these restrictions must go. Government-funded fiber ought to be made available to ISPs, cities or others that want to use it to solve the digital divide. It’s ridiculous for the country to be sitting on huge amounts of empty fiber due to stupid political restrictions or boneheaded bureaucratic decisions at a time when people don’t have broadband in their homes.

The only way to fix this is in Congress. They could write and a pass a short simple bill that would remove all restrictions against using fiber funding by the government. The federal law should override contracts, state laws, and any restrictions created by state or federal agencies. The FCC sadly can’t consider this kind of ruling since they have written themselves almost completely out of the broadband regulation business. Since the FCC killed its own regulatory powers, a federal law should give the power to state regulatory commissions to work out any details.

I run into people all of the time who are upset because they live close to fiber but have no broadband. They get doubly mad when they find out that the fiber was funded by their tax dollars to provide broadband to highway signs or to serve a nearby school. A new law won’t automatically bring relief to everybody who lives near fiber because you shouldn’t cut into a long-haul fiber anywhere except existing access points. However, there is a huge amount of government-funded fiber in the world and this one simple change would unleash ISPs to find many more last-mile solutions.

Categories
Regulation - What is it Good For?

The Government Needs to Address the Homework Gap

I’ve been at a bit of a loss over the last few days on what to write about, because suddenly newspapers, blogs, and social media are full of stories of how impossible it is for some students to work at home during the Covid-19 shutdowns. I’ve been writing this topic for years and there doesn’t seem to be a lot I can add right now – because the endless testimonials from students and families struggling with the issue speak louder than anything I can say.

There have been some tiny reactions of the federal government to help solve the issue. For example, the FCC removed the E-Rate exemption that said that government-powered broadband couldn’t be used for the general public. This allowed schools and libraries to aim their broadband outside for the general public and for students trying to keep up with homework. This was always a stupid restriction and I hope whatever DC bureaucrat originally dreamed this up is forced to use satellite broadband for the next year.

I’ve also seen notices from small ISPs that are distributing WiFi hotspots to students that need them. That is a great idea and I totally support. What I haven’t seen is anybody talking about who is going to pay the cellular data bills on those hotspots when they come due. Verizon has halped a little by temporarily adding 15 GB of usage to its data plans, but it doesn’t take long to rack up a big cellular data bill working on a hotspot.

These fixes are temporary bandaids. I’m sure any students benefiting by these recent changes are grateful. But it’s still second-class broadband that makes families park in cars while kids do homework. And as much as cellular hotspots are a great solution that brings broadband to the home – it’s also a curse if this brings monthly broadband bills of hundreds of dollars per month just to do homework.

I’m sure that most school systems will somehow slog through the rest of this school year. However, I’ve talked to several rural school administrators in the last week who worry that half of the children working at home are learning little or nothing while at home. I’ve seen school systems already asking if they should push all students to the next grade this year, whether they are ready or not.

The big challenge is going to come if this crisis carries forward into the next school year starting this fall. I doubt that there are many school systems with rural students that are ready to face this for a whole school year. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen, but if it does then our lack of broadband for students becomes a national shame.

I don’t have many suggested quick solutions that will help the homework gap by the fall. It’s hard to even predict how much fiber construction will be done this summer due to social distancing – likely less than was planned.

One might hope that communities will install many more outdoor-facing hotspots. It would be nice to see these at every government building and at socially-minded businesses everywhere. This is a fix that is within the reach of every community. Any business that has broadband ought to consider sharing it during the times of the day or night when the business isn’t using it. Let’s turn all parking lots for towns of all sizes into WiFi zones.

It would also be nice if the FCC could somehow turn up the pressure on the wireless carriers to provide fixed cellular broadband. This is the technology used by AT&T that beams data using cellular frequencies from cell sites to small dishes at homes. This provides a better indoor signal than regular cellular service, and the cellular companies price this more like a broadband service than cellular service. AT&T has halfheartedly rolled out the product as a way to implement their CAF II obligations – but the word from rural areas is that it’s not marketed and nearly impossible for customers to buy. T-Mobile promised to roll this product out in every rural market as part of the agreement to merge with Sprint and the government needs to hold their feet to the fire to make this happen quickly this year.

Unfortunately, the FCC sabotaged their ability to push for better broadband solutions when they killed Title II authority and stopped regulating broadband. The solution we really need this year is for Congress to resolve the Title II issue once and for all and to make the FCC responsible for finding broadband solutions. Right now everything the FCC says on the topic is rhetoric because they have no power to compel ISPs to do anything. This is no time for politics and rhetoric, but a time for action.

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Current News

Will Covid-19 Traffic Kill the Internet?

This is the question being asked all across the industry as the volume of data traffic has leaped upward due to students and employees working from their homes. We got our first glimpse of the impact of the crisis when Verizon announced a week into the crisis that they were seeing a 22% increase in data traffic in their network. More recently AT&T announced a 27% increase in network traffic. In perhaps a peek at what might be coming, Italy, which has been in a lockdown for longer than the US has seen a 90% increase in Internet traffic.

The answer to the question differs depending on somebody’s perspective of the network. For example, Evan Swartztrauber, described as an advisor to the FCC, says that the US Internet network is handling the surge in traffic just fine. He says the increased volume is significant, but it’s not at the same level as what is seen during the Superbowl or the finale of Game of Thrones. That’s reassuring news to hear, but he’s talking from the perspective of the big Internet POPs and the long-haul networks that carry Internet traffic from city to city. Even his answer is a bit glib because we’ve just seen more than a year’s growth in traffic in a matter of weeks and there must be places in the Internet backbone that need to be beefed up to meet the increased demand.

The question that matters is if Internet performance is getting worse for the average user, which is a question about the last mile network. I’ve been checking in on clients to understand the impact. So far, everybody with a fiber-to-the-home network says they are weathering the increased volumes, although several clients are looking into increasing bandwidth in a few parts of the network, such as between the core and field huts. Several clients who operate HFC or DSL networks have told me that their biggest problem is with upload speeds. People working from home as well as students are using a lot more upload bandwidth as they communicate with office and school servers. Gamers also need significant upload bandwidth. These technologies were not designed to handle significant amounts of uploaded bandwidth and customer performance is seriously degrading.

Many clients also say that they are increasing the bandwidth needed to connect to the Internet. Luckily most of them can do this easily, but some rural clients are constrained on the ability to easily add more bandwidth.

What nobody is talking about is the last-mile networks that were already broken. For example, I helped a rural county to get citizens to take speed tests right before the pandemic and we found almost no rural households in that county with broadband speed greater than 5 Mbps – and most are far under that modest number. These customers are served with DSL or fixed wireless broadband, and the local telco and WISPs are obviously bandwidth restricted either due to older technology or due to lack of backbone bandwidth.

Rural networks that are already underperforming might easily collapse under increased bandwidth usage. A 30% increase in usage won’t cut speeds by just 30%, the extra usage is likely to crash the networks. A large portion of rural America already has dreadful broadband. There are terrible ramifications if a network that is only delivering 3 Mbps broadband today gets further stressed. Degraded usage means that a home where a student might have been able to connect to a school server before Covid-19 might now be unable to maintain a connection. Good luck to somebody trying to connect to an office server as they work from home for the first time. And considering that some of these stressed rural networks have upload speeds measured in kilobits per second, good luck to anybody wanting to make a video connection for school or working from home.

Perhaps it’s true that the overall US Internet is not in danger yet of collapsing. Networks are going to see additional stress if the shelter-at-home restrictions carry through April and into May or June. What all of the national headlines are missing is that many rural Internet networks were barely functional before the pandemic. I’ve talked to numerous rural businesses in the last year that don’t even have adequate broadband to sustain a credit card transaction. I hear from homes across the country where the Internet is too slow, or latency too high to sustain connections to a school network to do homework. The current burst in new traffic is going to mean that the Internet performance for many rural users is going to go from barely functional to non-functional.

We might see a little relief if some of the biggest bandwidth users of the web cut back on broadband demand. Google announced that they are going to reduce the quality of video signals from YouTube as a way to cut back on the volume of data hitting networks. There is pressure on Netflix to do the same. AT&T announced that Netflix’s traffic volumes have hit an all-time high. Netflix announced that it is going to reduce traffic volumes by 25% in Europe but hasn’t made the same claim yet for the US. Unfortunately, these fixes are unlikely to make a big difference. the problems in last mile networks is due to having many more Internet users than before the pandemic, and the sheer number of users along with their attempts at using bandwidth-hungry applications is going to kick rural networks in the teeth.

This pandemic has highlighted the horrendous inadequacies of rural broadband. The shortfalls of rural broadband already existed, but with the added traffic volumes, rural broadband is going to significantly worsen. Unfortunately, we didn’t see much funding to help rural broadband as part of the recent stimulus plan. I’m pretty sure politicians with rural constituents are going to hear a lot about this – at least constituents with enough bandwidth to tell their story.

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Current News

Congress Ignores Rural Broadband

One of the biggest topics in rural America right now is the inability of employees to work from home and students to stay connected to schools from home due to the lack of broadband. Rural homes have struggled with poor broadband for many years, but the Covid-19 pandemic has brought the issue into a focus as rural residents are told to shelter in place, but don’t have the broadband needed to stay employed or to keep up with schoolwork.

I expected Congress to tackle this issue to some significant extent in the stimulus package that was just passed. However, the level of funding for broadband is disappointingly small in terms of finding any meaningful broadband solutions. The Senate bill contains the following:

  • $25 million to the RUS Distance Learning, Telemedicine & Broadband Program for the ‘‘Distance Learning, Telemedicine, and Broadband Program” (page 617).
  • $100 million for the USDA Reconnect program. This is a grant program administered by the USDA that provides grants and loans for bringing broadband to areas where at last 90% of households don’t have access to broadband of at least 10/1 Mbps. The money is to be prioritized to previous recipients of this grant (pages 622/623)
  • $50 million to the Institute of Museum and Library Services to prevent, prepare for, and respond to the coronavirus, including grants to States, territories, and tribes to expand digital network access (page 773).
  • Secretary of Veterans Affairs may enter into short-term agreements with telecommunications companies to provide temporary, fixed or mobile broadband service to provide mental health services to isolated veterans (page 807).

There is no such thing as bad grant money that brings better broadband, and all of the above allocations are welcome. However, none of this money is going to make more than a miniscule dent in the rural broadband issue. The only award that is likely to construct new broadband facilities is the $100 million for the ReConnect grant program. I’ve seen estimates over the years that it will take $100 billion to bring fiber to everybody in rural America. While a $100 million grant program might sound huge, if the need is $100 billion, then Congress just allocated one-tenths of one percent (0.1%) of the money needed to solve the rural broadband issue. It would take 1,000 years of grants at that level to bring fiber broadband to rural America.

Don’t get me wrong – the ReConnect grants have been going to independent telcos, electric cooperatives, and independent ISPs and any ISP that gets this extra money will be glad to get it. But when we map out the areas covered by this extra money you won’t be able to see it on a map of the US.

I think Congress is misreading rural America. My consulting firm does surveys and interviews in rural America and we have continued to do this during the pandemic. Rural America is pissed. They aren’t annoyed, they aren’t just sore – they are fuming mad that the government has been ignoring them for a decade by not bringing them broadband. They are mad at everybody – local politicians, state politicians, and federal politicians. Broadband isn’t a partisan issue, and I’m getting the sense that folks without broadband are ready to vote out anybody who is not bringing them a broadband solution, regardless of party.

You can’t blame them for being mad. One of the counties I’m working with right now is typical of much of rural America. We’ve done speed tests across the county and found almost nobody getting speeds faster than 5 Mbps, with many getting only a fraction of that. These homes mostly have DSL or fixed wireless broadband. These slow speeds are for the homes that can get at least some broadband – many homes have nothing. A large percentage of residents have tried satellite broadband and found it to be worthless. That’s understandable since we’re seeing latency of 700 to 900 milliseconds for satellite households – too much latency to connect to a corporate server or to connect to a school for remote classes or to do homework.

Almost every home we talk to has a story about how a lack of broadband costs them money when they have to drive 30 minutes each way to sit outside for a WiFi connection so their kids can complete their homework. Residents tell us of the inability to work from home or to start a home-based business. These folks are frantic and angry now that they are cut off from their jobs and schools.

It’s impossible not to sympathize with these rural residents. I am sitting in an office with good broadband. Sheltering in place is, at worst, a hassle for my wife and me. We’re able to work all day and we’re able to spend as much time on the Internet as we want when we’re not working. But what about people who have lost their paycheck because they are unable to work from home? What about students who feel they are losing a school year and are fearful they’ll have to repeat a grade? I find it impossible to believe that members of Congress aren’t hearing these same stories and I can’t understand how Congress ignored the millions of Americans without broadband in the stimulus plan.