Broadband Have-nots

In one of my recent blogs I talked about a few cities that had broadband penetration north of 90%, meaning that most households in those cities have broadband. I’ve run across three such cities this year. But there are also cities with a very different story. I saw a recent article about Syracuse, New York that claimed that 66% of the homes in the city have a landline broadband connection and only a little more than half of households have a connection that meets the FCC definition of broadband at 25/3 Mbps.

It’s easy to look at the national average broadband penetration rate of 84% and think that most people in cities across the country have broadband. This is particularly true when you adjust that national average to remove the millions of rural households that still have no landline broadband option, which adjusts the national average to over 90%.

We’ve always known that there is a correlation between income and broadband subscription rates – in fact, the basic definition of the urban digital divide is households that can’t afford broadband. We also know that in every larger city that the broadband penetration rates are not uniform but are lower in poorer neighborhoods.

I am concerned that the urban digital divide is going to get worse. Most industry analysts believe that we’ll see significant increases in broadband prices over the next decade. The big cable companies have little choice but to raise broadband rates if they want to maintain the steady bottom line revenue growth expected by Wall Street. This means that’s it’s likely over time that broadband penetration rates in cities are going to drop even lower.

Cities badly want to find a solution to the digital divide that is so heavily impacting low-income neighborhoods. They know there are huge negative impacts on households without broadband. There have been several recent studies showing that school students without home broadband lag behind students with broadband, and they never close the gap. Having whole neighborhoods that can’t afford broadband will be condemning whole generations of underperforming students, helping to perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

Syracuse is considering a solution that would bring some broadband to the neighborhoods that most need it. The city has a plan to buy 18,000 streetlights that would include outdoor WiFi hotspots. These WiFi units can produce decent broadband outdoors, but the strength of WiFi signals decrease significantly when passing through the exterior walls of buildings. While any broadband is better than nothing, outdoor WiFi units are not going to provide the same quality of broadband as a landline connection. Such efforts will likely be welcomed by residents without broadband, but this is still second-rate broadband compared to that given to households that can afford to buy broadband from the incumbent ISPs.

The dilemma for cities is that there is no easy solution to the digital divide. For Syracuse, the problem is mostly affordability and not access. Most of the homes without broadband probably have the option to buy from the incumbent providers. I say most because there are still poor neighborhoods present in almost every city that don’t have the same broadband infrastructure as the rest of the city. I’ve seen estimates that there are nearly as many residences in cities with no broadband option as are rural homes without broadband. It’s hard to know for sure because the areas without broadband are comprised of an apartment building here and a dead-end street there rather than big neighborhoods without broadband.

Cities often consider building their own broadband network as a solution to the digital divide. I undertake numerous broadband feasibility studies every year, and almost every city I’ve ever worked for has universal access to fiber as one of their primary goals. However, building fiber or any broadband infrastructure is expensive, and it’s usually hard to justify the cost of providing free or low-cost broadband to low-income homes. It’s challenging in a competitive environment to make enough profit from normal broadband customers to subsidize low-income homes.

We’ve been talking about the digital divide since the late 1990s when we saw the introduction of DSL and cable modems. In my mind, the problem is far worse today than it was then since broadband has grown to become a necessity of the same magnitude as having electric or water in a home. Unfortunately, I think the urban digital divide will be growing as broadband prices climb year after year.

San Jose Tackles the Digital Divide

As a country we have done well with 85% of households in most areas now buying some form of broadband connection. But that still means that 15% of homes don’t have broadband. Certainly there are some homes that don’t want broadband, but it’s clear that a significant percentage of those without broadband can’t afford it.

Affordability is going to become more of an issue now that we see a strategy of the big ISPs to raise rates every year. I don’t think there’s much doubt that the cost of broadband is going to climb faster than the overall rate of inflation. We recently saw Charter raise the rate of bundled broadband by $5 per month. Wall Street is crediting the higher earnings of several big cable companies due to the trend that the companies are cutting back on their willingness to offer special prices for term contracts – I think the cable companies are finally acknowledging that they have won the war against DSL.

San Jose is no different than any big city in that it has big numbers of homes without broadband. The city recently estimated that there are 95,000 residents of the city without a home broadband connection. The city just announced a plan to begin solving the digital divide and pledged $24 million to kick off the effort. They claim this is the biggest effort being taken by a major city to solve the digital divide.

The digital divide became apparent soon after the introduction of DSL and cable modems in the late 1990s. Even then there were households locked out from the new technology due to the cost of buying broadband service. The digital divide gets more acute every year as more and more of our daily lives migrate online. It’s grown to become unimaginable for a student to have an even chance in school without access to broadband. Anybody with broadband only has to stop and imagine for a second what it would be like to lose broadband access – and then realize that there are huge numbers of homes that are missing out on many of the basic benefits that those with broadband take for granted.

The San Jose plan is light on detail at this early stage, but it’s clear that the city will be looking for infrastructure plans to extend broadband rather than subsidizing service from incumbent ISPs. Consider the mayor’s stated vision for broadband:

“Ensure all residents, businesses, and organizations can participate in and benefit from the prosperity and culture of innovation in Silicon Valley . . . Broaden access to basic digital infrastructure to all residents, especially our youth, through enabling free or low cost, high-speed, 1 gigabit or faster broadband service in several low-income communities, and increasing access to hardware, including tablets and laptops, for low-income students.”

The city won’t be tackling the issue alone and is hoping for involvement from the business and charitable organizations in the city. For example, the city is already working with the Knight Foundation that has been addressing this issue for years. The city is interested in technologies like Facebook’s terragraph wireless technology that plans to use 60 GHz spectrum to create fast outdoor wireless broadband.

The city recognizes that there are no instant fixes and already recognizes that it might take a decade to bring fast affordable broadband to everybody in the city. I’m sure that $24 million is also just a downpayment towards a permanent broadband solution. But this plan puts the city ahead of every other major metropolitan area in the willingness to tackle the problem head-on.

There has been a cry for solving the digital divide for twenty years. Some communities have found solutions that help, like the charitable effort by E2D in Charlotte, NC that is bringing laptops and wireless broadband to large numbers of homeless and low-income school students. But no city has directly tackled the problem before with a pledge of serious taxpayer funds to help find a solution. It’s been obvious from the beginning of the digital divide discussions that it was going to take money and broadband infrastructure to solve the problem. I’m sure that many other cities will be watching San Jose because the broadband gap is becoming a significant contributor to creating an underclass that has less access to education, healthcare and the chance for good paying jobs. I’m willing to make a bet that the long-term economic benefits from solving the digital divide in San Jose will be far greater than the money they are putting into the effort.

The FCC and the Digital Divide

The current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai talks a lot about his commitment to solving the digital divide and to bring broadband to everybody in the country. Chairman Pai has now made numerous visits to rural America and to poor communities and has repeatedly promised that this FCC is on board with finding broadband solutions for everyone. Yet there are numerous actions by this FCC that tell a different story.

Redefining Broadband. Last year the FCC considered changing the definition of broadband – a change which would have drastically lowered the count of households without good broadband The FCC suggested that 10/1 Mbps cellular broadband is equivalent to a 25/3 Mbps landline connection. This change would have reclassified millions of homes as having access to broadband and would have instantly ‘solved’ a huge portion of the digital divide without changing anybody’s broadband. The FCC is required by Congressional edict to set policies that bring broadband to all, and their solution was to unilaterally declare that millions of homes served with only cellular broadband needed no further FCC assistance.

The public and the industry rebelled against this suggestion and the FCC backed down. However, the FCC is required by Congress to examine the availability of broadband every year and they will have annual opportunities to redefine broadband and recalibrate the way we count those on the wrong side of the digital divide. One has to only talk to a rural household trying to run their home broadband from a tethered cellphone to understand the ridiculousness of this idea. The high cost, low data caps, slow speeds and high latency make cellular broadband an extremely expensive and unsatisfactory substitute for landline broadband. There are many people who elect to use only cellular data, but that’s not the same thing as assuming that a cellphone connection can provide enough broadband for the typical home.

Lifeline Program. This FCC seems to be trying to eliminate or greatly restrict the Lifeline program. It’s clear that Chairman Pai would like the program to go away completely and the FCC has been whittling away at the program.

First, they stopped accepting new applications for carriers that want to join the Lifeline program. I know of two municipalities that planned to expand their broadband networks to thousands of low-income homes and offer $10 – $20 broadband that would have been enabled by the $9.95 monthly Lifeline subsidy. They were dissuaded when the FCC made it clear they were not likely to approve new Lifeline providers.

The FCC also changed the rules making it hard or impossible for MVNOs (wireless resellers) from receiving the Lifeline subsidies. These companies were the primary proponents and sellers of low-cost cellular phones and data plans for low-income customers. For example, there are MVNOs that provide a low-function phone, and a limited amount of voice and data to the homeless for the $9.95 reimbursement from the Lifeline fund. There have been numerous testimonials how these phones have improved the quality of life for the homeless by providing them with access to social services and allowing them to make phone calls or texts. Blocking these carriers from Lifeline kills this kind of initiative.

The FCC also eliminated the additional $25 per month from the lifeline program that was available to low-income natives living on tribal land. Eliminating this subsidy and also restricting the Lifeline funds to only facility-based carriers is having the effect of making cellphones unaffordable in some of the poorest places in the country. Even the big cellular companies like AT&T and Verizon opposed this change to the Lifeline fund.

Eliminated Title II Regulation. Perhaps the most damaging change the FCC made was to eliminate all FCC regulation of broadband by eliminating Title II regulation. This FCC order is referred to as the net neutrality order, but there are a number of aspects of the order that have nothing to do with net neutrality.

The FCC removed itself as the watchdog on all aspects of broadband including pricing, data caps, disclosure of practices and policies, etc. The FCC instead shuttled broadband issues to the Federal Trade Commission – an agency that can punish companies which badly abuse the public, but which cannot set proactive policies.

We are poised to see big future increases in broadband prices. That’s the only way that the big monopoly ISPs can continue their historic revenue growth. The big ISPs have hit a wall with slowing numbers of new broadband customers and sinking cable TV and telephone revenues. Rising broadband prices will do more harm to universal service than any other policy. One Wall Street analyst last year suggested that Comcast’s basic broadband price ought to be $90 – something that would drive millions of homes from landline broadband. The FCC has removed themselves as broadband regulators, meaning that the big cable monopolies are going to be free to do what monopolies do and raise rates to maximize profits. Even if the FCC never directly regulates broadband prices they have many other ways to pressure big ISPs to act responsibly – but they’ve given away their regulatory authority and any regulatory leverage is gone.

WiFi Kiosks

One of the first thing a visitor to New York City will notice these days is the proliferation around the city of LinkNYC kiosks. There are now about 1,300 of the 9.5 foot tall kiosks scattered around the city with hopes eventually have 7,500 of them. The kiosks are being installed in sites that used to have public payphones.

The kiosks offer a range of connectivity and other services. Each kiosk offers a free blazing fast gigabit WiFi hot spot. Each terminal has a phone that can be used to make free calls to anywhere in the US and allows for calling cards to be used for international calling. There is a button for an instant connection to 911. Each device has a tablet that can be used to access city maps, directions and other services. The kiosks off a fast charger for cellphones and other devices.

Probably most striking about LinkNYC are the two large 55-inch high definition displays on each side. The screens are used to display local ads and public service announcements. The business model for the kiosks relies solely upon advertising revenues from these screens.

The launch of the kiosks was not without some issues. Early kiosks allowed for web browsing on the tablets and there were reports of crowds using the kiosks to view pornography. There are concerns from privacy groups that the network can be used to track the 2.7 million people who have signed up to use the kiosks. The system is essentially a big ISP in terms of being able to match web browsing habits with users who log onto the network.

The kiosks have the potential for more uses in the future. Since they have fast connectivity they are natural places to collocate 5G small cell sites. There was talk when the project started of using the kiosks as platforms for municipal security cameras, although it doesn’t seem like there is much public support for that concept.

One interesting aspect of LinkNYC is the ability to tackle at least some portion of the digital divide in the city. The homeless, or those who can’t afford home broadband can gain access to the web through the WiFi connections at the links. Anybody with a WiFi-enabled phone can be connected to the web or make and receive phone calls without having to subscribe to a cellular plan. The kiosks are bringing some level of Internet access to those who otherwise might never have it.

There are obvious drawbacks to using the kiosks to solve the digital divide. The devices are outdoors and only the hearty are going to use them for very long during the winter. While the WiFi is fast, this isn’t going to make it easier for kids to do schoolwork or for people to take online training or do anything else that takes much time.

I’ve also been wondering how viable these kiosks might be in other cities? New York City is unique in that it’s both the largest US city and also one where people walk everywhere. That means a lot of potential viewers to support an advertising-funded model. Something similar is being built in London. How many other places in the US have the demographics to support this same funding model? Places like San Francisco, parts of Chicago and other major cities come to mind – but none of them have the same potential as New York City. There are other places that have a lot of people, like college campuses, but students are already connected to the web.

The idea is probably not going to be financially viable in more places until some other way to help fund them is found. There are cities that are probably willing to pay to support part of the cost of these systems – many cities have been searching for ways to expand public WiFi access. Getting the wireless companies to install 5G cell sites could be another difference maker. I’m sure that if these platforms become more widely available that other entrepreneurs will find ways to monetize them.

You have to give kudos to New York City for tackling this. Having kiosks spread all over the city is bringing benefits to citizens and providing access to those who would otherwise not have it. I wonder, though, if the city would be willing to step in to keep these operating if this trial is not financially sustainable? Cities have found many times that it’s not easy to kill a service that is widely popular.

One Computer at a Time

We’ve been talking about the digital divide now for decades. There is still a big gulf in our society between homes with broadband, computers and the knowledge to use them and those without. In my view we are now in crisis mode – school children that don’t have computers and broadband are at a massive disadvantage compared to their peers and are nearly destined to fall behind and fail.

I recently ran across a group here in North Carolina that is taking big strides to solve the problem in the greater Charlotte area. The non-profit E2D (End the Digital Divide) has now given laptop computers to over 4,100 families with school kids and has made a serious dent in the digital divide in the area.

The organization has taken a several-prong approach to making this happen:

  • They are soliciting used laptops from businesses in the Charlotte area. Most big businesses replace laptops every few years and most of them have been ending up in the landfill. Now a number of businesses send all of their used laptops to E2D.
  • Used laptops need to be refurbished and E2D started several computer labs in area high schools where they hire students at a decent wage to refurbish the computers and install new software. The purpose of these labs is not only to get the laptops ready to distribute, but they are providing technical training for kids that is helping them move on towards college or a technical career.
  • Households that get a new computer also get a live tutorial and technical support to best take advantage of the new laptops.
  • Finally, the Charlotte area has a lot of homeless families and there are thousands of homeless kids in the area. E2D has partnered with Sprint to provide mobile hot spots and data plans that are providing broadband access to homeless students and others with no broadband.

I’d encourage you to browse their website.  It’s a great story and you ought to view the short video that’s on their home page.

The whole concept got started a few year ago when 12-year Franny Millen asked her father how kids without computers can keep up with schoolwork. She wanted to know what could be done about the problem and resolved to fix it. Her father, Pat Millen, founded E2D as a result of the challenge.

The program has already had great success. Students without computers and broadband are noticeably behind their peers and are far more likely to eventually drop out of school and to earn far less than those who finish high school or college. Early metrics show that kids receiving the E2D computers are catching back up and closing the gap – exactly the result you would hope to achieve.

But E2D knows they still have a long way to go. While they’ve distributed 4,100 computers they estimate there are still 20,000 more computers needed in the Charlotte area to get one to every student that needs one. And those computers must all be replaced every few years.

The organization gets funding from several sources. First are the ever-growing donations of used laptops from companies. They received a $218,000 grant in 2017 and receive donations from the local community. They also hold citywide lemonade sales to involve kids in fundraising. And finally, they ask for a payment from homes that get a computer.

Pat Millen believes that their effort ought to be duplicable in other parts of the country and he would like to see the model grow. Perhaps some other communities will read this blog and take the challenge. There are a lot of young students hoping for computers.

The FCC’s 2018 Broadband Report

The FCC has released a draft the key findings from the 2018 Broadband Deployment Report that will be officially released to Congress this week. This report is usually interesting, and this year’s report includes a few big surprises.

The 25/3 Mbps Speed Benchmark. The FCC announced that it is keeping the 25/3 Mbps definition of broadband that was established by the former Tom Wheeler FCC. This is a surprise because all three Republican commissioners have been writing and making speeches that said that this benchmark is too high. Their positions on the topic garnered a lot of political pressure and it looks like, for now, that they are choosing to leave that benchmark alone. But as you will see below, they have still found a way to dilute the importance of the benchmark.

Mobile Broadband not a Substitute for Landline Broadband. There had also been a lot of discussion by the Republican commissioners to count a cellular broadband connection the same as a landline connection. They have been making the argument that many people are satisfied by a cellular connection and that functionally both kinds of broadband connection can functionally be substituted. They had suggested last year that a customer that uses either of the two kinds of broadband But the new report makes the positive statement that the two kinds of broadband are different and that there are ‘salient differences between the two technologies”.

Continuing to Track Fixed Broadband. Since cellular broadband is not a substitute for landline broadband the FCC concludes that is obligated to continue to track the deployment of landline broadband as it has done in the past. If tracking had been changed to show households that have access to either landline broadband cellular broadband, then almost everybody in the country would have been considered to have broadband.

The FCC is Meeting its Statutory Mandate to Promote Broadband. This is the zinger finding from the FCC. Reminiscent of George W. Bush’s comment after hurricane Katrina of “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”, the FCC has patted itself on the back and concluded that it has already done enough to satisfy the Congressional mandate that everybody in America has access to broadband.

The FCC notes that it has taken sufficient steps to meet its regulatory mandate for improving broadband:

  • Has reduced regulatory barriers to the deployment of wireline and wireless broadband;
  • Created a Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee to make recommendations on how to better deploy broadband;
  • Instituted reforms to the high-cost universal service funds to ensure accountability;
  • Introduced a reverse auction to provide additional rural broadband funding;
  • Revised rules for special access to promote facility-based competition for business services.
  • Authorized new wireless spectrum for use for landline and satellite broadband;
  • Eliminated Title II regulation and returned to light-touch regulations.

I’m not going to pick apart all of the items on that list, and some of them, like releasing more spectrum are positive steps. However, even there this FCC seems to favor licensed spectrum for the large ISPs rather than more public bandwidth. It’s really hard to make the argument that reversing Title II regulation and network neutrality will improve broadband coverage in the country. The recommendations from the FCC’s BDAC sub-committees are nothing more than suggestions, and from what we’ve seen so far most of the recommendations from these groups are parroting the positions of the giant ISPs.

It’s too early to know if the CAF II reverse auction will prove beneficial. There is some speculation that these funds will largely be pocketed by the big cellular carriers as another subsidy to continue to replace rural copper with cellular service. This may just turn into more of the same disaster we’ve seen with the first CAF II subsidy for the big rural telcos.

When the numbers get released with the final report we’ll still see that more than 20 million Americans don’t have access to broadband. While many of these live in rural areas there are still huge pockets of unserved residents in urban areas as well.

It’s true that this FCC has been active in the last year and has made the decisions cited in this draft report. But it’s nearly impossible to see how they can conclude that America has the broadband they need and that they have satisfied the Congressional broadband mandate. I guess we’ll have to see if Congress takes exception with their declaration that the state of American broadband doesn’t need any more help.

FCC to Hide the Digital Divide?

The next big decision on the FCC’s agenda is to consider the agency’s definition of broadband and to also consider if cellular data should be considered as broadband as part of that definition. This is slated to come up for a vote on February 3. The FCC raised the issue back in August and asked for feedback on the two issues.

To put this discussion into context, the FCC previously defined the speed of broadband while issuing mandated reports to Congress about the national state of broadband. These mandated broadband reports are issued every year and discuss major broadband issues, as well as quantifying the number of households that are considered to have broadband.

The FCC used the annual broadband report in 2015 to increase the definition of landline broadband to 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. The FCC is thinking about using this year’s report to revise the definition of broadband lower again. At least two of the Commissioners are in favor of lowering the definition for landline broadband back to the old speed threshold of 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload.

Further, the FCC is considering counting cellular data speeds as a substitute for landline broadband, using a 10/1 Mbps definition. This would mean that a customer who can receive either cellular data or landline data that meets the appropriate speed would be considered to have broadband available.

Even if the FCC doesn’t lower the landline definition of broadband, adding cellular broadband into the test will mean that millions of homes would now be considered to have adequate broadband. That is a significant change, because by law, the FCC is mandated to work towards bringing broadband to any parts of the US that don’t have it. In effect, by a definition change the FCC will have done away with a lot of the digital divide. And if they lower the definition of landline broadband they will categorize even more homes as having adequate broadband.

There are a lot problems with using cellular data speeds to define broadband.  Here are several major ones to consider:

Hard to Measure Cellular Speeds. In the real world cellular speeds are nearly impossible to accurately measure. First, speeds differ by distance from a cell site, much like DSL. Customers more than a few miles from a given cell site get significantly slower speeds. Cellular data speeds also suffer from the same kind of interference as any wireless technology. For instance, homes behind a hill or tall building won’t get speeds as fast as those with a clear line-of-sight. Cellular data speeds change with variations in temperature or with precipitation. And most cell sites are still capable of making both 4G and 3G connections – which obviously has a major impact on speed.

Broadband Speeds are Reported by the Carriers. The cellular carriers are likely to report speeds by cell site, meaning that they will ignore all of the variations of speeds listed above. Further, there is more than one way to measure broadband speeds, which I have discussed before in this blog. There is over a 100% difference in reported cellular broadband speeds between Ookla and Akamai, the two major entities tracking data speeds. The carriers typically use the higher Ookla numbers when bragging about their speeds.

Makes No Assessment of Affordability. There is a monstrous difference in price between landline and cellular data. A household using 100 gigabytes of cellular data in the month might pay nearly $1,000 per month. Most ISPs report that the average US household now uses between 150 and 200 gigabytes of broadband per month. It’s hard to think of cellular broadband as a substitute for landline broadband with such disparate pricing.

Ignores Latency. One of the problems with cellular broadband is latency. This is one of the major reasons that downloading a web site on a cellphone sometimes seems to take forever. (The other reason is that cellular operating systems aren’t really designed to maximize web browsing). The poorer latency means that a 10 Mbps landline connection will feel much faster than 10 Mbps cellular connection.

Takes the FCC Off the Hook. But the major reason that counting cellular data as equivalent to landline data is that it’s going to largely take the FCC off the hook for promoting broadband. They currently have directed billions from the Universal Service Fund to help build faster broadband networks, mostly in rural America. They can discontinue such programs and not expand their effort if most of rural America is considered to have broadband. With a simple vote a large percentage of rural homes on the wrong side of the digital divide will suddenly have broadband. That’s going to be big news to rural people who already understand that cellular broadband is not really broadband.

Telecom Predictions for 2018

It’s that time of year to pause and look at what the next year might bring us. I see the following as the biggest telecom trends for 2018:

End of Net Neutrality Not a Big Deal. At least during 2018 we aren’t going to see the end of the Internet as predicted by many in the press and on social media. First, there are going to be a series of lawsuits challenging the FCC ruling, and ISPs are generally unwilling to do anything that might be changed by the courts. But I also think the big ISPs are unlikely to immediately do anything that will be unpopular with the general public. We might instead see subtle changes like more zero-rating that the public seems to favor. The big ISPs understand that this FCC ruling is immensely unpopular and they have to be worried about Congress or a new administration reversing a lot of the ruling. For now I think this means we won’t see any drastic changes in ISP behavior in the coming year. The big ISPs want the issue to quietly die away, and the best way for them to accomplish that is to not do anything unpopular right away.

Cable TV Declines Faster as a Product. We are seeing the perfect storm of events attacking the traditional cable market. First, programmers are raising programing rates to cable providers at historically high rates. It’s almost as if they want to get the last drop of profits out of the product before it wanes. This means another round of noticeably high cable rate increases – the primary reason that cord cutters cite for leaving traditional cable. We are also seeing a proliferation of alternate programming choices. The most popular cable networks are now available in lower-priced online alternatives. The growth in OTT alternatives has been significant in 2017 and in 2018 a lot more people are going to be lured into switching to one of the alternatives. The 3rd quarter of 2017 saw the cable providers lose a million customers and losses will accelerate in 2018.

Is 5G Hype or Real? In 2018 we are going to find out if the 5G hype is real. Verizon has been talking about rolling out a residential 5G broadband solution to 30 million homes, with a few specific markets identified in 2018. AT&T has been hyping the near-term roll-out of its AirGig 5G product. I think in 2018 we are going to get a look at how these technologies function in real neighborhoods and we’ll find out the real-life benefits and shortcomings of the technologies.

Networked WiFi Goes Mainstream. Poorly configured home WiFi networks are one of the major culprit for poor broadband experiences. Many homes have decent broadband connections but then lose all of the power by using a poorly placed single WiFi router. Many ISPs are now offering managed WiFi as a way to solve this problem. But there are also numerous inexpensive solutions available directly to consumers. Word of mouth about the benefits of networked WiFi are making this into the preferred home solution.

Voice Controls Become Practical. Until now voice control devices like the Amazon Echo have been novelties. But there are now practical applications with these devices that will make them go mainstream in 2018. Functions like simple web searches, home intercom systems, initiating phone calls or texts, controlling TVs and other devices along with the ability to play music everywhere is going to make most houses try the technology. This will be the year when a lot of people accept the idea of a voice interface to technology as an alternative to computers or smart phones.

Real Cellular Competition. The entrance of Comcast and Charter into the cellular markets is going to be significant. We also see T-Mobile increasing competitive pressure by bundling video with cell service. It’s clear that the cellular market in the US is fully saturated and that everybody has a cell phone. This all adds up to another round of price wars between cellular providers. It also means that the ‘unlimited’ plans introduced by the cellular companies in 2017 will quickly move from a novelty to the become the expected norm.

Explosion in Rural Communities Looking for a Broadband Solution. The digital divide between towns and rural areas is now obvious to everybody. Broadband has grown to become a necessity rather than a nice-to-have commodity. Rural citizens are demanding that their local governments help them find a broadband alternative. This movement is accelerated by the numerous success stories from proactive communities that have found a broadband solution. The most common market solution I see is public-private partnerships, but communities are finding other creative solutions. I also see numerous rural communities willing to talk about bringing public financing to help solve the problem. Expect numerous rural communities to start looking for solutions in 2018.

Net Neutrality and the Digital Divide

There is an interesting idea floating around the industry that is bound to annoy fans of net neutrality. The idea comes from Roslyn Layton who does telecom research at Aalborg University in Denmark. She served on the FCC Transition team for the new administration.

She envisions zero-rating as the best way to solve the digital divide and to finally bring Internet access to everybody. She says that after decades of not finding any other solutions that this might the only reasonable path to get Internet access to people that can’t afford a monthly subscription.

The idea is simple – there are companies who will provide an advertising-driven broadband connection for free to customers, particularly on a cellphone. It’s not hard to envision big companies like Facebook or Google sponsoring cellphone connections and providing data access to customers who would be a captive audience for their ads and content.

This idea is already working elsewhere. Facebook offers this same service in other countries today under the brand name “Free Basics.’ While it certainly costs Facebook to buy the wholesale data connections they must have done the math and figured that having a new customer on their platform is worth more than the cost. Facebook’s stated goal is to serve most of the billions of people on earth and this is a good way to add a lot of customers. With Free basics customers get full use of the Facebook platform along with the basic ability to surf the web. However, the free basic service does not allow a user to freely watch streaming video or to do other data-intensive activities that are not part of the Facebook universe – it’s not an unlimited data plan. I can remember similar products in the US back in the dial-up days when several dial-up providers that gave free connections as long as the customers didn’t mind being bombarded by ads.

There are certainly upsides to this. Such a service would provide enough bandwidth for people to use the web for the basics like hunting for a job or doing school work. And users would get unlimited use of the Facebook platform for functions such as messaging or watching Facebook-sponsored video and content. There are still a substantial number of people in the US who can’t afford a broadband subscription and this would provide a basic level of broadband to anybody willing to deal with the ad-heavy environment.

But there are downsides. This idea violates net neutrality. Even if the current FCC does away with net neutrality one has to think that a future FCC will institute something similar. But even with net neutrality rules in place the FCC could make an exception for a service that tackles the digital divide.

The real downside is that this is not the same as the real internet access that others enjoy. Users would be largely trapped inside whatever platform sponsors their product. That could be Facebook or Google, but it could also be an organization with a social or political agenda. Anybody using this kind of free platform would have something less than unfettered Internet access, and they would be limited to whatever the platform sponsor allows them to see or do outside the base platform. At best this could be called curated Internet access, but realistically it’s a platform to give sponsors unlimited access to users.

But I think we have to be realistic that nobody has yet found a solution to the digital divide. The FCC’s Lifeline program barely makes a dent in it. And I’m not aware of any major ISP who has ever found any mechanism to solve the digital divide issue.

While Facebook offers this in many countries around the globe they received massive pushback when they tried to bring this to India. The Indian government did not want a class of people given a clearly inferior class of Internet connectivity. But in India the government is working hard themselves to solve the digital divide. But there is nobody in the US giving the issue any more than lip service. The issue has been with us since the dial-up days and there has been little progress in the decades since then.

I read some persuasive articles a few years ago when the net neutrality debate was being discussed about this kind of product. There were arguments made that there would be long-term negative ramifications from having a second-class kind of Internet access. The articles worried about the underlying sponsors heavily influencing people with their particular agenda.

But on the flip side, somebody who doesn’t have broadband access probably thinks this is a great idea. It’s unrealistic to think that people have adequate broadband access when they can only get it at the library or a coffee shop. For broadband to benefit somebody it needs to be available when and where they need to use it.

I lean towards thinking this as an idea worth trying. I would hope that there would be more than one or two companies willing to sponsor this, in which case any provider who is too obnoxious or restrictive would not retain customers. People who go to sites like Facebook today are already voluntarily subjected to ads, so this doesn’t seem like too steep of a price to pay to get more people connected to the Internet.

The Vision of Next Century Cities

Next Century Cities is an organization comprised of 166 mayors of cities that have the mission statement to make sure that all of their citizens have access to fast, affordable and reliable Internet access. The members range from small towns to NFL cities. They recently published their 2017 Policy Agenda that highlights the issues that they think are the biggest impediments to meeting their broadband goals. These goals are worth some thought since they differ from the wish list of most other stakeholders in the industry.

Restore Local Authority. Cities want to have a hand in finding their own broadband solutions and they don’t want to be restricted by state or federal law from doing so. I would note that the vast majority of cities do not want to be a retail ISP, but they still want to have the ability to make the investments needed to meet their broadband goals. They want to be able to form meaningful public-private partnerships. And more than anything else they want the legal authority to find broadband solutions.

Competition in Multi-Dwelling Units (MDUs). Cities with any significant percentage of citizens living in MDUs are concerned that those citizens are often not getting the same quality broadband products or having the same array of choice as single family homes. For example, even where fiber has been built, overbuilders often skip MDUs that present construction or operational issues. Cities are also still concerned about the proliferation of exclusive contracts between MDU owners and ISPs.

Anti-Monopoly and Competition. Mayors are concerned by what they see as shrinking competition. In many cities the cable companies have won the broadband battle against the telco. Where there are no significant third-party fiber overbuilders the mayors see broadband becoming a monopoly product. The cities generally are against the mergers of gigantic ISPs.

High-Quality Low-Income Internet Access. Cities are still looking for ways to solve the digital divide. They understand that there is a significant percentage of the population that doesn’t have broadband because they can’t afford it. They are currently dismayed by what they perceive as the FCC walking away from the Lifeline program that can subsidize broadband service in low income households.

Small Cell/5G/DAS. Cities are grappling with how to best foster and physically accommodate the coming proliferation of wireless transmitters that will be spread through the community to distribute 5G and millimeter wave spectrum. They are anticipating a host of new wireless broadband products, but they have concerns about how to deal with numerous wireless providers wanting to utilize the same key locations.

One Touch Make Ready. Cities are in favor of regulatory changes that make it easier for fiber overbuilders to get onto poles or into existing conduits. The ‘one touch make ready’ concept would greatly speed up the process and reduce the costs of the pole attachment process. It would give a new fiber builder the ability to more easily move wires of existing carriers to speed up the construction process. In cities with numerous existing carriers on pole lines the cost and time involved in gaining approval and of implementing the changes needed to accommodate a new carrier can be numbingly slow.

Infrastructure Investment. Cities want to be included in broadband infrastructure spending that might come from any federal infrastructure plan. They fear that any broadband money will be aimed only at rural areas and the FCC still estimates that there are more than 10 million people in large urban areas that can’t buy bandwidth that meets the FCC’s 25/3 Mbps threshold. And while smaller rural towns and cities might have broadband that meets that test, they often have older networks that are far below the standards of metropolitan areas.

Summary. Of all of the various stakeholder groups involved in broadband infrastructure deployment, cities the most focus on getting quality broadband to everybody. That focus puts them into opposition with incumbent ISPs on some issues. Experience shows us that cities are often more aligned with new overbuilders, at least to the extent that those ISPs don’t want to only cherry-pick the most lucrative customers in the city. Because of various state restrictions, cities vary widely in how much influence they have over broadband. But cities everywhere are the ones that determine some of the key processes in broadband deployment such as permitting and local construction practices. And that means that their goals must be recognized by anybody wanting to deploy new broadband in cities.