Big Government and Broadband

Capitol_domeOne of the platforms of Hillary Clinton’s campaign is to create a 5-year $275 billion infrastructure plan that would, among other things, foster faster broadband for rural America. The plan would also pay for crumbling roads and bridges and other infrastructure. I’ve seen estimates that as a country we have a several trillion dollar infrastructure deficit, and so this plan would be the proverbial drop in the bucket towards bringing our infrastructure back to where it needs to be. But it’s a start and is better than doing nothing.

This plan leads me to speculate on the role that big government might be able to play in solving our broadband needs. What might the US government do with billions of dollars aimed at improving broadband?

We’ve seen two previous big federal broadband programs and the results have not been very good. First was the billions that were part of the broadband stimulus package. This money was used mostly to create middle mile fiber – that is fiber that stretches between communities. Some of that fiber has been used to get better broadband to the last mile, but the vast majority of that investment has not benefitted a whole lot of people other than the cellular companies who use that fiber to get cheaper access to cell towers.

The stimulus money also put a lot of emphasis on getting fiber to ‘anchor institutions’ which it defined as schools, libraries, city halls, and other government institutions. So we ended up with rural fiber networks that serve only a handful of these anchor institutions, but not to the neighborhoods surrounding these locations. As I’ve written many times, bringing fiber only to anchor institutions is actually a disincentive to get fiber everywhere because it removes these large bandwidth customers from being potential customers of locally built fiber networks.

To give the federal government a little credit, the stimulus money popped onto the scene with no notice and there was no plan in place or even people in place to review the various grant proposals. There were some last mile networks financed from the stimulus money and I’m sure those communities are thrilled to have been the lucky few that benefitted from the many billions in spending.

More recently we have seen the FCC throw billions of dollars at the large telcos with the CAF II funding. They have given Frontier, AT&T, and CenturyLink billions of dollars to improve rural DSL broadband to 10 Mbps. And gave them six years to get it done. This is such a bad idea on so many levels that you’ll have to go and read my other rants on this. But this is mostly the equivalent of pouring money onto the ground and it going to bring no real broadband to anybody. This is a classic case of a government boondoggle that spends a lot of money and accomplishes almost nothing useful.

So what might the feds do if they were to give out more billions? One thing they will probably do is to overspend on broadband like was done with the stimulus money. Those grants included rules that inflated the cost of building fiber. The companies taking the money had to do expensive environmental and historical studies, something that makes no sense for fiber that is placed into pre-existing road rights-of-ways. And they required the contractors building the networks to use prevailing wages, which mostly meant paying large city wages for projects that could have normally been done in rural areas for a lot less. Altogether these extra requirements probably added 15% – 20% to the cost of the projects.

What is scary is that in order to shovel the money out the door quickly the federal government might either give the money to the incumbents as corporate welfare or else end up backing projects like more middle mile that largely build fiber to nowhere.

The most cost effective way to use federal money would be to give it to local groups in some sort of matching arrangement. This would stretch the federal money the farthest and would also enable communities to find the best local broadband solution. Some communities might tackle this directly using bond money for the match, while many others would seek out public/private partnerships with local carriers. And the small telcos and coops around the country could use this money to extend their fiber networks – many of them have already showed us how to bring fiber to remote places.

I have no idea if there will even be another big pile of federal money aimed at broadband – it’s a long way from a campaign platform to reality. But if this does happen I hope that this time they have a better plan that would use the money to build last mile fiber to rural communities – the only permanent solution to closing the rural broadband gap. I hope they take the time to listen to the industry and this time that they do it right – or at least better.

Taking Federal Broadband Funding

USDAThe USDA recently announced a new round of loan financing for the Rural Broadband Loan and Loan Guarantee Program as authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill. The loans are administered by the Rural Utility Service (RUS), a part of USDA.

The loans are available to bring or improve broadband in areas where at least 15% of the households do not have broadband today. The loans can be used to build technologies that are as slow as the old FCC definition of broadband – 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload, although the RUS will strongly encourage building technology capable of meeting the new broadband definition of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. The projects can range between $100,000 and $20 million.

Over the years I have helped numerous clients acquire these loans, but I have seen more and more reluctance to use them in recent years for a variety of reasons. Following are some of the issues my various clients have with this loan program:

Slow Response Time. I don’t know what the current backlog is, but there have been times over the last five years when a loan application might wait 18 months or more for a decision from the RUS. Those kinds of wait times might have been acceptable back in the days of all-regulated telephony, when companies worked slowly on five and ten year capital plans. But the world has gotten more competitive for everybody and nobody is willing to wait that long for a yes or no answer on a major capital program.

Paperwork. The loans take a lot of paperwork. The application itself is like writing a book and my firm has historically charged up to $20k for writing one of these applications – it’s that much work. And the paperwork doesn’t stop with the application. Once you’ve taken the loan there is major annual compliance paperwork that can overwhelm the staff of smaller borrowers.

Engineering. The loan applications for larger projects must be signed by a professional engineer, and this means that projects must be nearly fully engineered just to apply for funding. That differs from the rest of the industry where projects typically are done with ‘pre-engineering,’ which means that an engineer has made a very good estimate of the cost of the project, and in my experience those pre-engineered estimates are usually pretty reliable.

Extra Costs. Sometimes the loans require extra steps that are not required for other financing. For example, I’ve seen federally-funded loans require an expensive environmental study. Nobody else ever does this because fiber is almost always built into existing public rights-of-way, which by definition have already been cleared for these purposes. Depending on the size of the loan there can also be some kind of customer survey required.

Mostly Still for Regulated LECs. Most of the loans still go to regulated telephone companies for a variety of reasons. For instance, the projects usually require 10% to 20% equity from the borrower and also first lien against the assets built with the loan. These requirements have largely stopped government entities from using these loans. Another issue that these loans entail is that they have loan covenants that can be burdensome. As an example, there might be limits on dividends that can be paid to company owners while one of these loans is outstanding.

Rates are Not that Attractive. There have been times in the past when the RUS interest rates were significantly lower than commercial bank rates and thus were very attractive. But with today’s low interest rates there is currently not a lot of difference between the government rates and commercial rates. By the time you factor in all of the extra costs of applying for and complying with these loans, the RUS loans might be more expensive.

At times in recent years the RUS has built up billions of uncommitted funds because not enough borrowers have been interested in the money. Over the last decade I have helped more clients refinance RUS loans with other lenders than I have helped people get new RUS loans. I’ve read other articles that say that the RUS is too conservative. That may or may not be true, because for the carriers I know it’s generally one or more of the above factors that have turned them off government money.

I don’t want to sound like I am trashing the program, because RUS loans have helped to fund many worthwhile projects. But a lender needs to weigh all of their options and consider all of the costs of borrowing money from different sources. Borrowing money is about a whole lot more than just the interest rate and you need to take all of the other aspects of any loan into consideration.