Licensed Spectrum and Broadband Mapping

As I work with clients who are thinking about applying for the BEAD grants, I keep stumbling across new issues that I see as problems. Today’s blog talks about how the BEAD grants in a given location could go sideways because of the NTIA’s decision to declare facility-based wireless technologies that use licensed spectrum to be considered as a reliable technology that is eligible for BEAD grants. I can foresee two different problems that might result from this decision.

There are two kinds of wireless carriers that could qualify under this new definition. First, cellular carriers like T-Mobile and Verizon are aggressively marketing FWA fixed wireless for homes using licensed spectrum. In the not-too-distant future, we can expect AT&T, Dish Network, and probably many of the smaller cellular carriers like U.S. Cellular to deploy the technology using licensed spectrum. The carriers are largely advertising this as 5G, but the actual technology being used for now is still 4G LTE.

The other set of facility-based wireless providers are the fixed wireless WISPs that use a mix of licensed and unlicensed spectrum to deliver broadband from towers. Most of these WISPs are using the licensed portion of Citizen Band Radio Spectrum (CBRS), but they can use other licensed spectrum like 700 MHz or other cellular spectrum purchased at auction in the past.

The first problem I foresee is that these wireless carriers can use the upcoming FCC broadband mapping update to lock down huge areas of real estate from eligibility for BEAD grants. Anywhere that these carriers claim speeds of 100/20 Mbps in the next set of FCC maps will be initially declared by the BEAD rules to be served and ineligible for grants.

Unfortunately, the new mapping rules allow for this since ISPs can claim marketing speeds in the FCC mapping. I’m positive that many WISPs will declare the speeds that will classify their areas as served, because many of them already have been reporting these speeds in the past. In just the past year, I’ve worked with at least thirty counties where at least one wireless ISP claimed countywide coverage with broadband  – in some cases at speeds of 100 Mbps or faster. These WISPs might have the 100/20 Mbps capability for some customers close to a tower, but it’s impossible to be able to deliver those speeds to everybody across an entire county.

To use an example, I talked to a farmer recently who is thrilled to get the new T-Mobile FWA product at the farm. The tower is on his property, and he is getting 200 Mbps downloads. But the stories from his neighbors are quite different. One neighbor less than a mile away is seeing 75 Mbps download speeds. A few other neighbors two miles or more away claim the broadband is unusable. If T-Mobile was to claim a fairly wide coverage for this technology in the FCC maps, it would be blocking BEAD grant money inside whatever areas it claims.

But let’s say that T-Mobile reports honestly. Under the new FCC mapping rules. a wireless ISP is supposed to input a wireless propagation map like the one below. This map is typical of wireless coverage in that the wireless signal travels further in directions where it is unimpeded. But this example propagation map doesn’t tell the whole story because you might imply that the speeds are the same over the whole propagation area. My farmer example shows that wireless speeds can drop off rapidly with distance from a tower. A map of a 200 Mbps coverage area or even a 100 Mbps coverage area will be tiny for a wireless ISP. The map that should be input to the new FCC maps is just the areas that can get good broadband speeds. In the propagation map below, probably 80% of the green areas probably don’t even see one bar of broadband. It’s also worth noting that the propagation map is not fixed – the coverage area changes with temperature, precipitation, and more mundane factors like the amount of backhaul provided to a given tower.This raises the second issue. If the wireless carriers with fast licensed spectrum report properly in the new maps, there are going to be splotches of areas around every rural cell tower that will be off-limits for grants. In the same way that the swiss cheese RDOF awards goofed up anybody else from bringing a fiber broadband solution, these fixed wireless or cellular blotches will make it hard to build a coherent network in areas that have to avoid the wireless areas. In a real deployment, An ISP will likely build to everybody in an area – but because of the mapping rules, they won’t get grant funding everywhere. I can’t even begin to imagine how somebody building a fiber network is going to properly account for assets that are inside and outside of areas that are supposedly already served.

I wonder if the NTIA understands what it has done. The agency seems to have worked very hard to avoid the problems the FCC caused in the RDOF reverse auction. But this ruling brings in one of the most damaging aspects of RDOF – incoherent grant serving areas. I know there is a challenge process for the maps used for BEAD, but it’s going to be extremely difficult to dispute an ever-changing propagation map around every cell tower or fixed wireless radio. I fear this is going to be one of the newest nightmares to pop out of the revised FCC maps.

Mapping and Broadband Grants

Hopefully by now, most communities with poor broadband will have heard about the gigantic federal grants on the way to provide broadband solutions. The largest is the $42.5 BEAD (Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment) grants that will be administered by states, with the funding and the rules established by the NTIA.

There is one provision in the enabling legislation that established these grants that makes me nervous and should concern everybody. The federal grants give priority to locations that are unserved (broadband speeds under 25/3 Mbps) and can also be used to fund underserved locations (speeds between 25/3 and 100./20 Mbps). The troubling provision is that Section 60102 of the legislation makes it clear the determination of eligible locations will rely upon the FCC maps.

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, the agency that oversees the NTIA and the grant program, acknowledges that this is a problem. In an interview with CNBC, the Secretary admitted that grants might not be awarded until sometime in 2023 after the FCC maps have been updated.

I think it’s a huge problem if we need corrected FCC maps before we can decide which parts of the country are eligible for these grants. I fully expect the first version of the new FCC maps to be a disaster. ISPs will struggle with changing from reporting simple tallies by Census block to drawing complicated polygons around customers who are served or who can be served within ten days after a request. There will be a lot of honest mistakes made in the first few iterations of the new mapping as ISPs adapt to the new reporting methodology. It might take a few rounds of reporting until ISPs get the new maps right.

But the real problem will come from the big telcos who distort the current broadband maps by over-reporting broadband speed capabilities. Several of the big telcos have notoriously been reporting speeds of 25/3 Mbps or greater to shield monopoly areas from grants. ISPs today are largely free to claim any speeds they want. The current FCC rules say that ISPs can report marketing speeds – something the ISP can determine. There are huge parts of the country where speeds of 25/3 Mbps are claimed in the FCC maps when actual speeds might be a few Mbps.

The new FCC maps will not stop this practice. The big telcos can still claim fast speeds that don’t exist. In fact, if it stops the award of the BEAD grants, the telcos are likely to report even more areas as having 25/3 Mbps capability. Recall that just before the RDOF reverse auction, Frontier and CenturyLink tried to change tens of thousands of Census blocks to speeds of 25/3 Mbps, which would have kept them out of the RDOF auction. The FCC rejected most of these claims, but the attempt demonstrates the blatant deceptions that the big ISPs are willing to take to keep customers and revenues.

There is currently no penalty at the FCC for overreporting speeds, and some of the big telcos have found this to be a convenient tool to use to maintain monopoly service areas. The BEAD grant might be the last big grant program for a long time, so I can’t see any motivation for the big telcos will suddenly become honest and create honest maps.

We’ve seen in the challenges to the current NTIA grants that the big telcos have no shame. The telcos have been challenging grant eligibility in huge numbers of Census blocks where they know that speeds are poor  – these grant challenges are all about keeping out competition.

If there is any glimmer of hope, it’s that the BEAD grant funds will funnel through the states. Many of the states that already have grant programs have become tired of the games played by telcos and don’t pay them much heed. There are some states that have created their own broadband maps that they believe to be more accurate than the current FCC maps. We’ll have to see how much leeway the NTIA will allow for states to use the better mapping data. Unfortunately, the grant language in the BEAD legislation is fairly clear that the mapping that matters for this map is the FCC mapping. The grant legislation says that broadband data maps are the maps created under section 802(c)(1) of the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 642(c)(1)).

It’s already a shame that the mapping issue is immediately going to delay the BEAD grants from being awarded this year when millions of homes are waiting for better broadband. This mapping issue will easily add six months to a year until grants are awarded – and that means a longer time until there is a broadband solution deployed. The worse travesty will come if parts of the country continue to be denied grant funding due to dishonest maps. I think we’re only going to have one chance to get this right – and I’m not optimistic about this first basic step of defining who is eligible for the grants. I hope somebody proves me wrong.

Broadband on Tribal Lands

The American Indian Policy Institute recently issued a report titled Tribal Technology Assessment – The State of Internet Service on Tribal Lands. The report looks in-depth at broadband issues concerning tribal lands and reports on a survey of tribal members that is the first attempt ever of quantifying the issues of Internet access on tribal lands.

The FCC has often noted in various reports that tribal areas suffer from poor broadband. However, the FCC has been relying on the same faulty data to describe tribal lands that is used to look at rural broadband in general. The data collected from ISPs in the Form 477 process has been discredited in numerous ways, the latest being a test of the FCC data in Virginia and Missouri by USTelecom that showed that the 477 data had underestimated unserved homes by 38%. This AIPI report takes the first stab ever at understanding the real nature of broadband on tribal lands.

According to the FCC’s 2018 Broadband Progress Report, 35% of the 1.5 million people living on tribal lands lack access to 25/3 Mbps broadband, compared to 8% for the country as a whole. The older 2016 Broadband Progress Report showed that 41% of tribal lands lacked access to 25/3 Mbps compared to 10% of the whole country. Not all tribal lands are rural, and the FCC report showed that 72% of rural tribal residents in the lower 48 states lack broadband access while 33% of urban ones lack access. It showed that 70% of rural tribal lands in Alaska lack broadband access while 15% of urban areas there lack access.

The AIPI study included a survey of numerous tribal members from around the country. Following is a small sample of the responses to the survey, which are covered in more depth in the report.

  • 35% of respondents own or use a smartphone. 24% own or use a desktop or laptop computer. 16% own or use a tablet. All of these results are far lower than the US average.
  • For survey respondents with access to the internet, 36% have a connection through a telco like CenturyLink, Frontier or Windstream, 29% use a cellphone, 12% buy broadband from a cable company, six percent use satellite, and 1% still use dial-up. The rest of the respondents get access to the Internet at work, from libraries or at public hotspots.
  • Only 47% of respondents subscribe to a cellular plan, far below the 94% penetration for the country as a whole. 22% of respondents said that they have spotty access to home cellular coverage and 6% said they have no home cellphone coverage.
  • 50% of respondents said they feel limited by the broadband choices available to them.

The report makes specific recommendations for getting better broadband to tribal lands. Some of the recommendations include:

  • The FCC should earmark and prioritize some of the funding from the Universal Service Fund to solve the tribal broadband shortfalls instead of generically targeting hard-to-serve areas.
  • The RUS and USDA should identify and recommend pathways for Tribes to create rural cooperatives, consortia or creative partnerships to provide affordable broadband.
  • The FCC should prioritize spectrum licensing directly to Tribes or those who want to serve tribal lands.
  • Tribes should be allowed to challenge Form 477 data that misstates the broadband available on tribal lands.
  • Congress should provide an annual budget and provide more independence to the Office of Native Affairs and Policy at the FCC.

The report also includes numerous other recommendations for Congress, the FCC, large telcos and service providers, and tribal governments.

It’s clear that in aggregate that tribal lands are more poorly served than rural America as a whole. The report describes a broadband environment on tribal lands that lacks in both landline and cellular broadband.  I’ve seen numerous papers and articles on the topic over the years, but this report goes into more depth than anything else I’ve read on the topic.

Trusting Big ISP Data

The FCC has finally come to grips with the fact that big ISPs are supplying bad data to the various FCC mapping efforts that are then used to distribute FCC funding and to set national policies. The latest mapping snafu come from one-time data collection from the cellular carriers last year showing rural cellular coverage. These maps were to be used to establish a new federal fund called the Mobility Fund II which will distribute $4.53 billion for the expansion of 4G cellular coverage to rural parts of the country that have little or no cellular coverage.

The big cellular companies have been lying about their cellular coverage for years. If you look at the nationwide 4G LTE coverage maps from AT&T and Verizon you’d think that they have cellular coverage virtually everywhere except in areas like deserts and mountains. But anybody living or traveling in rural America knows better. It’s not hard to drive very far off main highways and hit areas that never see a bar of cellular coverage. And even where there is coverage, it’s still often 3G or even older technology.

When the FCC collected data for the Mobility II funding the big carriers stuck to this same flawed mapping data. It turns out that overclaiming rural cellular coverage will keep funding from going to the smaller cellular companies that still serve in many parts of rural America. Luckily the FCC effort included a challenge process and the FCC was flooded with challenges showing that cellular coverage is far worse than is claimed by the big carrier maps. There were so many challenges that the FCC put the Mobility II award process on hold until they can sort it out.

This is just one of the mapping efforts from the FCC that have been used to award billions of dollars of funding over the last decade. The FCC relied on mapping data from the big telcos to establish the areas that were eligible for the billions of dollars of CAF II funding.

Since rural areas served by the biggest telcos have been neglected for years, and since the big telcos deployed very little rural DSL outside of towns it’s not hard to identify huge swaths of rural areas that have little or no broadband. But the big telco broadband coverage data contains a ton of inaccuracies. For example, there are numerous smaller rural towns that are listed in the telco databases as having decent broadband, when the reality on the ground is broadband speeds of a few Mbps at best. It looks like the big telcos often reported marketing speeds rather than actual speeds. This inaccuracy has stopped others from seeking federal grants and loans to upgrade such towns.

I fear that rural broadband mapping is on the verge of the next crisis. As a blogger I am contacted a lot by folks in rural America describing their broadband situation. I’ve heard enough stories to convince me that the big telcos have made only a half-hearted effort at implementing CAF II. I think many homes that should have seen CAF II broadband upgrades will see zero upgrades while many others will get upgraded to speeds that don’t meet even the measly CAF II goal of 10/1 Mbps.

The big telcos are not likely to come clean about having pocketed CAF II funding rather than spending every penny to make upgrades, and so they are going to claim that the CAF II areas have been upgraded, regardless of the actual situation on the ground. Rural households that didn’t see the promised upgrades will then be counted by the FCC as having better broadband. That will make these areas off limits to future federal funding to fix what the telcos botched. We already see the newest federal grant programs having a new requirement that no more than 10% of the homes covered by federal funding can have broadband today. Because of the falsified mapping, many homes without broadband are going to be deemed to be covered and it will be a massive challenge for somebody else to get funding to help such areas. These communities will be harmed twice – once by the telcos that aren’t upgrading speeds and second by the inaccurate mapping that will stop others from funding assistance to fix the problem.

The big telcos and carriers have huge incentives to lie about rural broadband coverage. None of the big telcos or cellular carriers want to spend any of their own money in rural areas, but they love the revenues they are receiving by a captive rural customer base who pays high prices for poor broadband. The big companies are fighting hard to preserve these revenues, which means they don’t want anybody else to get funding to improve broadband. To make matters worse, the big telcos continue to eliminate technicians and maintenance budgets in rural America, making it nearly impossible for customers to get repairs and service.

I unfortunately don’t have any easy solution for the problem of crappy mapping. Perhaps the FCC could entertain challenges to the broadband maps in the same way they are accepting challenges in the Mobility II process. I know a number of rural communities that would make the effort to create accurate broadband maps if this might bring them better broadband.