No More Underbuilding

Jonathan Chambers wrote another great blog this past week on Conexon where he addresses the issue of federal grants having waste, fraud, and abuse – the reasons given for holding hearings in the House about the upcoming BEAD broadband grants. His blog goes on to say that the real waste, fraud, and abuse came in the past when the FCC awarded federal grants and subsidies to the large telcos to build networks that were obsolete by the time they were constructed. He uses the term underbuilding to describe funding networks that are not forward-looking. This is a phrase that has been around for many years. I remember hearing it years ago from Chris Mitchell, and sure enough, a Google search showed he had a podcast on this issue in 2015.

The term underbuilding is in direct contrast to the large cable and telephone companies that constantly use the term overbuilding to mean they don’t want any grant funding to be used to build any place where they have existing customers. The big ISPs have been pounding the FCC and politicians on the overbuilding issue for well over a decade, and it’s been quite successful for them. For example, the big telcos convinced the FCC to provide them with billions of dollars in the CAF II program to make minor tweaks to rural DSL to supposedly bring speeds up to 25/3 Mbps. I’ve written extensively on the failures of that program, where it looks like the telcos often took the money and made minimal or no upgrades.

As bad as that was – and that is the best example I know of waste, fraud, and abuse – the real issue with the CAF II subsidy is that it funded underbuilding. Rural DSL networks were already dying when CAF II was awarded, mostly due to total neglect by the same big telcos that got the CAF II funding. Those billions could have instead gone to build fiber networks, and a whole lot of rural America would have gotten state-of-the-art technology years ago instead of a tweak to DSL networks that barely crawling alone due to abuse.

The FCC has been guilty of funding underbuilding over and over again. The CAF II reverse auction gave money to Viasat, gave more money for upgrades to DSL, and funded building 25/3 Mbps fixed wireless networks. The classic example of underbuilding came with RDOF, where the areas that were just finishing the CAF II subsidy were immediately rolled into a new subsidy program to provide ten more years of subsidy. Many of the areas in RDOF are going to be upgraded to fiber, but a lot of the money will go into underperforming fixed wireless networks. And, until the FCC finally came to its senses, the RDOF was going to give a billion dollars to Starlink for satellite broadband.

The blame for funding underbuilding lies directly with the FCC and any other federal grant program that funded too-slow technologies. For example, when the CAF II funding was awarded to update rural DSL, areas served by cable companies were already delivering broadband speeds of at least 100 Mbps to 80% of the folks in the country. By the time RDOF was awarded, broadband capabilities in cities had been upgraded to gigabit. The policy clearly was that rural folks didn’t need the same quality of broadband that most of America already had.

But the blame doesn’t just lie with the FCC – it lies with all of the broadband advocates in the country. When the ISPs started to talk non-stop about not allowing overbuilding, we should have been lobbying pro-broadband politicians to say that the FCC should never fund underbuilding. We’ve collectively let the big ISPs frame the discussion in a way that gives politicians and regulators a convenient way to support the big ISPs. Both at the federal and state levels the broadband discussion has often devolved into talking about why overbuilding is bad – why the government shouldn’t give money to overbuild existing ISPs.

Not allowing overbuilding is a ludicrous argument if the national goal is to get good broadband to everybody. Every broadband network that is constructed is overbuilding somebody, except in those exceptionally rare cases where folks have zero broadband options. If we accept the argument that overbuilding is a bad policy, then it’s easy to justify giving the money to incumbents to do better – something that has failed over and over again.

It’s time that we call out the overbuilding argument for what it is – pure protectionism. This is monopolies flexing political power to keep the status quo, however poorly that is working. The big ISPs would gladly roll from one subsidy program to another forever without investing any of their own capital to upgrade rural networks.

Every time a regulator or politician says that we should not be using federal money to overbuild existing networks, we need to prod pro-broadband politicians to counter that argument by saying we should not be spending any more money on underbuilding. Broadband is infrastructure, just like roads and bridges, and we should be investing any grant money into the most forward-looking technology possible. If the national goal is to make sure that everybody has good broadband, then we should be ready to overbuild anywhere the incumbents have underperformed, be that in rural areas or inner cities. It’s time we shift the conversation away from protectionism to instead prioritizing bringing broadband that will still be good a decade or two after the grant award. Let’s not spend another penny of grant money on underbuilding networks by investing in slow technologies that are inadequate and obsolete even before they are completed.

Will the FCC Maps Get Better?

It is unfortunate timing that the new FCC maps were issued in the middle of the process of trying to determine the BEAD grant funding. Congress said that the amount of funding that will go to each state must be based upon the FCC maps – and the first draft of the FCC maps is clearly flawed. The FCC maps whiffed in many cases in counting the location of homes and business, and too many ISPs have clearly exaggerated both the coverage and the broadband speeds that are available to customers. This really bollixes the BEAD grant allocations, but I don’t know anybody who thought the first version of the new maps would have any merit.

Assuming that that grant funding question gets resolved somehow, there remains the bigger issue of whether the new FCC maps will ever accurately portray broadband availability. Is there any hope for these maps to get better? Getting better maps requires improving the three basic flaws of the new FCC maps – the mapping fabric that defines the location of possible customers, the claimed coverage that defines where broadband is available, and the broadband speeds available to customers.

The mapping fabric will get better over time if state and local governments decide this is something that is important to fix. Local folks understand the location of homes and businesses far better than CostQuest. But there are two reasons why the fabric might never be fixed. First, many rural counties do not have the staff or resources to tackle trying to fix the mapping fabric. There are still a lot of counties that don’t have a GIS mapping system that shows the details of every home, business, land plot, etc. But counties with GIS systems are not easily able to count broadband passings. Questions like how to count cabins or farm buildings are always going to be vexing. One of the flaws of asking local governments to fix the maps is that local governments don’t spy on citizens to see which homes are occupied or how many months a year somebody uses a cabin. My bet is that once the BEAD funding has been allocated that state and local governments will quickly lose interest in the FCC mapping fabric. I expect a lot of counties will refuse to spend the time and money needed to fix a federal database.

The FCC has held out hope that the coverage areas claimed by ISPs will become more accurate over time. One of the new aspects of the FCC maps is an individual challenge by any homeowner who disputes that a given ISP can deliver broadband to their home. If Comcast incorrectly claims a home can get broadband, the homeowner can challenge this in the FCC map – and if the homeowner is correct, Comcast must fix its mapping claim. But I have to wonder how many homeowners will ever bother to tackle a broadband challenge. The real kicker is that there is no big benefit to a homeowner to make the challenge. Using this example, Comcast would fix the map, but that doesn’t mean that Comcast is likely to offer broadband to the homeowner who challenged the map – it just means the map gets fixed. Once folks realize that a challenge doesn’t change anything, I’m not sure how many people other than the broadband diehards will care much.

The coverage challenge is only going to get better if ISPs report honestly. Using this same example, there would not be much improvement in the FCC map if Comcast were to fix a false speed claim for a specific homeowner challenge unless Comcast was to fix the maps for neighboring homes – something that a challenge does not require.

The issue that most people care about is broadband speeds. Unfortunately, the new maps are as badly flawed on this issue as the old ones – maybe worse. ISPs are still allowed to claim marketing speeds instead of some approximation of actual speeds – and an ISP gets to define what it means by marketing speeds. For example, it’s hard to dispute a marketing speed if it’s something the ISP displays on its website.

Other than the challenge process, there is another possible remedy for fixing mapping problems. The Broadband Deployment, Accuracy, and Technology Availability (DATA) Act that created the new maps gives the FCC the ability to levy fines against ISPs that knowingly or recklessly submit inaccurate mapping data. But does anybody really think that the FCC is going to fine some small local WISP that exaggerates broadband speeds? I have a hard time thinking that the FCC will ever wade into the issue of disputing claims of marketing speeds versus actual speeds. Doing so would just highlight the fact that reporting marketing speeds is acceptable under the FCC rules.

The State of Vermont reacted quickly to the new FCC maps and showed the extent of the problems. The State sent a challenge letter to the FCC saying that 11% of the locations in the FCC mapping fabric don’t exist. Worse, Vermont says that 22% of locations are missing from the FCC map. Vermont also said the speeds portrayed in the new maps don’t align with its own local mapping effort. The new FCC map shows that over 95% of Vermont homes have access to broadband of at least 100/20 Mbps. The State’s broadband maps show that only 71% of homes in the state can receive broadband at 100 Mbps or faster at the end of 2021.

I really hate to say this, but I doubt that the new maps will ever be significantly better than the old ones. I don’t enjoy being pessimistic, and I should probably let the various challenge processes run the course before complaining too loudly. I think after the flurry associated with allocating the BEAD grant funding ends that most people and local governments will quickly lose interest in the map challenge process. I can’t think of any reason why ISPs won’t continue to misreport broadband speed and coverage if they think it somehow benefits them. And I’m doubtful that the FCC will take any meaningful steps to make the maps better.

Challenging Cellular Data Speeds

There has been a lot of recent press about the new ability for households to challenge broadband coverage claimed at their homes by ISPs. The new FCC National Broadband Map also allows folks to challenge the coverage claimed by cellular carriers. Anybody who lives in rural areas knows that the big national cellular coverage maps have always been badly overstated.

The new FCC maps require each cellular carrier to separately declare where it provides, 3G, 4G, and 5G coverage. You can easily see the claimed cellular broadband coverage at your house by toggling between Fixed Broadband and Mobile Broadband on the map. The FCC has plotted cellular coverage by neighborhood hexagons on the map.

There are two ways to challenge the claimed cellular coverage – by individuals or by local governments. The process of challenging the maps is not as easy as challenging the landline broadband map. The challenge process for individuals is as follows:

  • First, a challenger must download the FCC Speed Test App, which is available on the Google App store for android or the Apple Store for IOS devices. This App has been around since 2013. The app is set to not use more than 1 gigabyte of data in a month without permission. Folks probably don’t realize that repeated speed tests can use data a lot of data.
  • Tests should only be taken between 6:00 AM and 10:00 PM.
  • Users will have to make sure to disconnect from a WiFi network since the goal is to test the cellular connection. Many people don’t realize that cell phones use your home broadband connection for moving data if set on WiFi.
  • The FCC provides only two options for taking the test – either outdoors and stationary, or in a moving car. You’ll have to verify that you are not taking the test indoors.
  • You can take the test anonymously. But if you want the FCC to consider the test results, you’ll have to provide your contact information and verify that you are the authorized user of the cellphone.
  • Individual speed tests are not automatically sent to the carriers until there are enough results in a given local area to create what the FCC is calling a crowdsourced data event.

There are some major flaws for testing rural cellular coverage. If you are in any areas where a certain carrier doesn’t provide service, you obviously can’t take the speed test if you can’t make a cellular connection. You can also only challenge your subscribed carrier and you can’t claim that another carrier doesn’t have the coverage that is claimed in the FCC map. On the plus side, you can take the speed test from anywhere, not just your home, and I picture folks taking the test just to help document cellular coverage.

The other flaw is the low thresholds that constitute a successful test. The tests are based on the FCC’s massively outdated definition of acceptable cellular broadband speeds. The test for acceptable 4G coverage is a paltry 5/1 Mbps. The FCC has two thresholds for 5G at 7/1 Mbps and 35/3 Mbps. These speed definitions are out of touch with actual cellular performance. According to Ookla’s nationwide speed tests, the national average cellular speed at the end of the third quarter of 2022 was 148 Mbps download and 16 Mbps upload. The national median speed (meaning half of people are either faster or slower) was 75 Mbps download and 9 Mbps upload. This is another outdated definition that probably won’t be updated unless the FCC gets the much-needed fifth Commissioner.

I don’t know how useful it is to find out that a carrier can deliver 5/1 Mbps to my home. That’s what is claimed at my home by AT&T for 4G (the company is not yet claiming any 5G). A recent speed test from inside my house showed 173/10 Mbps. How can the FCC adopt any policies for cellar broadband if they are only asking carriers to certify that they meet an absurdly low threshold?

Local governments can also initiate challenges. This can be done by coordinating multiple people to take the tests at various locations to paint a picture of the cellular coverage across a city or county. Local governments can also use engineering-quality devices to take the test, which provides more guaranteed results than a cell phone. Local governments have the ability to document areas with no cellular coverage – something that will be hard to document without a huge number of individual speed tests.

The next time you’re driving in a place where the cellular coverage is lousy, stop by the side of the road, get out of your car, and take the speed test. It’s going to take all of us to document the real rural cellular coverage map. Also, let’s collectively push the FCC to increase the definition of acceptable broadband speeds. We talk about landline broadband speeds all of the time, but cellular coverage in rural areas is equally, or even more important.

An FCC on Hold

It’s now 2023, and it’s been two years since Ajit Pai left the FCC and created an open Commissioner spot. It’s always been routine for the Senate to replace open Commissioner slots within a reasonable time. Washington DC has always been partisan, but the Senate has routinely approved the nominee of the sitting president, giving the administration the swing vote in the FCC and other regulatory bodies like FERC, the SEC, and the FTC. This approval is sometimes given begrudgingly, but both political parties want the courtesy of having its party get to choose regulators when it holds the White House.

For the first time in my memory, the Senate does not have the votes to approve the nominated FCC Commissioner, Gigi Sohn. This is extraordinary, and it has meant that the FCC has been on hold and we’ve had a two-year deadlock between the two Democratic and Republican Commissioners on any controversial issues.

I don’t know Gigi Sohn, but I’ve seen her speak many times, and she seems like a perfect nominee. She has more knowledge of the industry than most past new Commissioners. People from both parties who know her say she is fair-minded and that her main priorities are to look out for broadband consumers and to make sure that all voices are heard through open media. She’s even drawn strong support from conservative organizations like Newsmax, which support her nomination since she believes in open airwaves.

I don’t have any insight into why the Senate, with a Democratic majority, has been unable to muster the votes to approve the nomination. There is a long article in The Verge that postulates that the nomination has been blocked by heavy lobbying by Fox and Comcast. There are other articles saying that there is also heavy lobbying against the nomination from AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile. It makes perfect sense for ISPs to oppose a fifth Democratic Commissioner since one of the first items on the agenda after sitting a fifth Commissioner would be to reinstate net neutrality and broadband regulation. Large content providers want to delay adding a fifth Commissioner since the topic of media consolidation would also be high on the list of topics that a full FCC would investigate. I imagine that these big companies don’t have any personal objection to Gigi Sohn – they would just as strongly oppose any Democratic nominee.

The reality is that the big carriers and content providers are better off with a tied Commission regardless of which political party holds the White House. The best scenario for big corporations is a regulatory agency that don’t rock the boat and change regulatory rules. Big corporations hate regulatory uncertainty and regulatory change. This is true of all regulated industries, not just telecom. It says something about our body politic when lobbyists are strong enough to upset the long-standing mutual consensus in the Senate that a White House ought to be able to select qualified candidates for open slots at regulatory agencies.

There are a number of FCC initiatives that are on hold until there is a fifth Commissioner. Consider some of the following:

  • The big issue is net neutrality, which says that there should be no discrimination used in delivering Internet content. But everybody understands that the real issue at stake in this discussion is the overall regulation of ISPs. Reintroducing net neutrality means having to reinstate Title II authority or some other similar mechanism to regulate broadband. Re-regulation of broadband is the issue that the big ISPs most strongly oppose. Broadband regulation could result in many new rules that big ISPs would hate, like perhaps outlawing data caps.
  • The FCC has needed for years to increase the definition of landline broadband, which still sits at 25/3 Mbps. Equally out of touch is the definition of acceptable 4G cellular broadband set by the FCC at 5/1 Mbps.
  • The FCC recently ordered broadband labels that are supposed to inform customers about their home broadband. The FCC got this authority through the IIJA legislation. But oddly, since the FCC doesn’t currently have the authority to directly regulate ISPs, the Commission can be stymied by ISPs that blatantly fail to honestly disclose the facts to the public.
  • The FCC is considering spending up to $9 billion on subsidies to improve rural cellular coverage. It’s a great idea, but there needs to be a fifth Commissioner to make sure this isn’t just a handout to the giant cellular carriers and not another boondoggle like RDOF.
  • There are probably not the needed votes in the current Commission to impose penalties against ISPs that continue to falsely report to the FCC mapping database.

This article might have a short life if the newly seated Senate finally approves Gigi Sohn. But lobbying money carries a lot of weight in DC, and it’s possible that I’ll be publishing an update to this article next January.

Why the Complexity?

It’s been over a year since the BEAD grant program was announced. While there has been a lot of activity on BEAD, there is still a long way to go before this grant money is used to build new broadband infrastructure. Most of the delay is due to the incredible complexity of the BEAD grant rules.

I work with a lot of different state broadband grant programs, and I can’t help but notice the tremendous difference in the complexity of the process between state and BEAD grants. The priority for state grant programs is usually to quickly get the money out the door and spent on infrastructure. State legislators that approve grant funding want to see construction started no later than the year after the grant award, and hopefully sooner. State grant offices are generally given instructions to identify worthwhile projects and get the money approved and quickly into the hands of the ISPs to build networks.

The differences between state grants and BEAD are stunning. I have one client that won a $10 million state grant based on a simple grant application of less than 20 pages. The grant reviewers asked a few follow-up questions, but the whole process was relatively easy. The grant office was relying on the challenge process by ISPs to identify grants that were asking to overbuild areas that already have broadband. The challenge process seemed to work – a number of the grants filed in this particular program were successfully challenged. But the bottom line is that the funding was made available to start construction in less than a year from the date when the grant office originally solicited grant applications.

Why are the BEAD grants so complicated? It starts with Congress, and a lot of the complexity is directly specified in the IIJA legislation that created the grants. My pet theory is that the complexity was introduced by lobbyists of the large ISPs that wanted to make the grants unfriendly to everybody other than big ISPs with the resources to tackle the complex rules. It’s unfathomable to me that congressional staffers would have invented these complex rules on their own. I knew on my first reading of the IIJA legislation that the grants favor big companies over small ones.

In the legislation, Congress decided to give the administration of the grants to the NTIA. The NTIA had a major decision to make on day one. The agency could have taken the approach of smoothing out the congressional language to make it as easy as possible for ISPs seeking the funding. The NTIA had political cover to take a light-touch approach since the legislation stressed the importance of quick action to solve the rural broadband crisis. The White House has also been urging federal agencies to speed up the process of turning IIJA funding into infrastructure projects.

Unfortunately, the NTIA didn’t take this approach. It looks like the agency did just the opposite – the agency embellished and strengthened the congressional language and made it even more complex to file for the grants.

I don’t think the NTIA had any agenda to make the grant more complicated. It’s impossible to think the agency had early discussions about how to make it harder to use the grant funding. But the agency did have an overriding desire to do these grants the right way. The general industry consensus is that the grants were given to the NTIA instead of the FCC because of the terribly botched RDOF subsidy program. It would be hard to design a federal broadband program that would have been more poorly handled than RDOF (except perhaps for CAF II, which also was done by the FCC).

I think BEAD became more complex, one topic at a time. I think folks at NTIA looked at each congressionally mandated rule and asked how they could make sure that no money went to an unqualified ISP. Instead of softening grant requirements, I think the NTIA staff instead asked how they could be positive that no unworthy ISPs sneak through BEAD process – something that clearly happened in the FCC’s RDOF process. The final NTIA BEAD rules are not a manual on how to get grant money spent efficiently – but a manual on how to make sure that only qualified ISPs win the funding.

That doesn’t sound like a bad goal. Some of the ISPs that won the RDOF funding were spectacularly unqualified – either financially, managerially, or technically. But as each of the many BEAD rules was made as safe as possible, the collective combination of all of the BEAD rules being made super-safe creates major hurdles for ISPs. Almost every ISP I know is going to have a problem with at least a few of the rules – and I think many qualified ISPs are going pass on the BEAD grants. There is something wrong with a grant program that has hundred-year-old telephone companies wondering if they can qualify for the grants.

There is still a chance for State broadband offices to smooth out the worst of the BEAD rules. A State broadband office can push back against the NTIA BEAD rules that make it too hard for ISPs to get funded. The NTIA can’t excuse any specific mandate that was created by Congress – but the NTIA can relax and compromise on its interpretation of these rules.

The big challenge facing State grant offices is how hard they are willing to push back against the NTIA. Every State is under pressure to finally get the grant process underway, and any challenge will likely add time before funding is available. Every State broadband office already knows the ISPs it would like to see win the funding – those ISPs that will be conscientious in operating the network after its built. State broadband offices need to listen and react to the concerns that these ISPs have about the grant process – because if they don’t, many of the best ISPs are going to take a pass on the grants.

FCC Cellular Broadband Mapping

I mostly write about broadband, but one of the most common complaints I hear from rural folks is the lack of good cellular coverage. Poor cellular coverage doesn’t seem to have gotten the same press as poor broadband, but not having access to cell phones might be more of a daily challenge than the lack of broadband.

For the first time, the new FCC maps now show us the claimed coverage everywhere for each cellular carrier. This coverage is shown on the same maps used for broadband.

People are going to find the claimed cellular coverage to be confusing since the FCC is showing coverage using massively out-of-date cellular speeds. The FCC maps only ask a cellular carrier to show if it meets the FCC definition of cellular broadband, which is embarrassingly low. A cellular carrier only needs to achieve a speed of 5 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload to be considered covered for 4G. The FCC has two claimed speed tiers for 5G at 7/1 Mbps and 35/3 Mbps.

The FCC speed thresholds for cellular are massively out of touch with modern technology. According to Ookla’s nationwide speeds test, the national average cellular speeds at the end of the third quarter of 2022 was 148 Mbps download and 16 Mbps upload. The national median speed (meaning half of people are either faster or slower) was 75 Mbps download and 9 Mbps upload. The FCC is sticking with its obsolete definition of cellular broadband speeds for the same reasons it has stuck with using 25/3 as the official definition of broadband – the primary reason likely being the lack of a fifth FCC Commissioner.

That makes the FCC cellular maps largely useless for people in cities. What does it mean if a cellular carrier claims a 5G connection of 7/1 Mbps – that’s probably not even one bar of coverage. My house shows coverage from AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, TDS (US Cellular), and Project Genesis, the new Dish Network offering. AT&T claims only 4G coverage at my house and doesn’t claim a speed capability, even though I just tested at over 150 Mbps download as I was writing this blog. The other four carriers claim 5G coverage and speeds of at least 7/1 Mbps, while T-Mobile and Project Genesis claim speeds of at least 35/3 Mbps. The FCC reporting doesn’t give me any idea if I can trust any of these carriers at my house.

That’s because cellular coverage areas are incredibly hard to map. This is something that everybody in America is already an expert on. No matter where you live, you see the bars of available data vary at your house hour-by-hour and day-by-day. Cellular networks are broadcast networks that blast signals to anybody in range of a cell tower. Cellular radio signals can be disturbed by heat, humidity, air pollution, and temperature. And the strength of the signal varies depending on the number of users on the network at a given time.

It’s convenient to picture cellular coverage areas as a circle around a tower, with the signal being broadcast outward everywhere – but that is only true to the flattest and most open places in the county. Cellular signals are blocked or deflected by impediments in the environment, like hills and buildings. While cellular signals travel decently through foliage, leaves still add distortion and cut the distance and strength of a signal. A more apt way to picture a cellular coverage area is as an amoeba with different length arms reaching in many directions.

Because of the physics of cellular delivery, the claimed coverage by cellular companies has been badly overstated. For years, cellular companies have published maps that claim they have the best nationwide coverage – but those maps are badly distorted when looking at real places. Every cell phone user understands dead spots. My house is a good example. I live downtown in a city, and cellular coverage is generally good. But I live partway up a hill, and at my house, there is zero Verizon coverage, although folks at the other end of the block can get Verizon. I use AT&T and run into AT&T dead spots as I drive around.

Rural cellular coverage in the past is often the most exaggerated. Anybody who has driven through rural America knows that a lot of the claimed coverage is bosh. The FCC is hoping to rein in the exaggerated coverage claims of cellular carriers. You can challenge the cellular coverage at your home in the same way that you can challenge landline broadband coverage. The challenge is built directly into the FCC broadband map. When you type in an address, you’ll see a place on the top right to toggle between fixed and mobile broadband. Unfortunately, the method of challenging cellular coverage is cumbersome, and I’ll cover it in another blog.

There is also a process for bulk challenges of cellular broadband by local governments. This means gathering a lot of cellular speed tests around a community, done in a way that meets the FCC rules. I’ve already seen several counties that have started the bulk speed testing to challenge the maps.

Access to the FCC Broadband Maps

I suspect that there are already a lot of communities and other folks who are in violation of the license agreement to view and use the new FCC mapping fabric and associated data. CostQuest, the firm that created the mapping fabric, has provided communities and others with a basic license to view and utilize the mapping data strictly for the purpose of the Broadband Data Collection (BDC) process – for reviewing and challenging the FCC maps.

Anybody that wants to use the mapping data for any other purpose must sign a different agreement and pay to utilize the data. The basic CostQuest agreement clarifies that the mapping data can’t be used for any other purposes and gives examples of uses that are prohibited under the basic use contract. Communities or others with the basic license can’t use the mapping data to:

  • Prepare for the BEAD program, grant proposals, or other funding initiatives.
  • Broadband Mapping.
  • Opportunity Analysis.
  • Network Planning or Design.
  • Marketing purposes, such as sending mailers to addresses or identifying new customers to target marketing efforts.

I have to think that communities have already violated some of these prohibitions. It’s natural when getting the new data to want to map it so that elected officials and other stakeholders can see what has been reported to the FCC. I have a hard time thinking that ISPs won’t use the data when determining areas that are eligible for grants.

I am completely flabbergasted by this whole process. The FCC paid CostQuest $44 million to create the maps. One would think that would mean the resulting maps and data belongs to the FCC, and that CostQuest is just a vendor hired to create the maps and mapping fabric. But it appears that having created the maps is creating a permanent revenue stream for CostQuest, and the company is acting as if it is the owner of the federal mapping data. The NTIA has been negotiating to pay an additional $49.9 million to CostQuest to be able to use the mapping data during the BEAD grant process.

You have to let that sink in. One federal agency is paying a license fee that is higher than the cost of creating the maps in order to use the data that is gathered by the FCC. I have to imagine that CostQuest plans to extract fees from ISPs and communities to use the data for any purpose other than the BDC mapping challenge.

This raises a lot of questions, starting with the big question of why the FCC would allow a vendor to extract big fees to utilize a software system and data mandated and paid for by the FCC. Perhaps the bigger question is why broadband mapping data isn’t publicly available to everybody.

The funny thing is that you don’t need a license to use the data – just a license to use it easily. I looked at my own neighborhood, and I can see the ISPs that claim to be able serve each home, and in doing so I can see the border of any ISP’s claimed service area. For example, I can see in my neighborhood the several block area where AT&T has built fiber.

A small town could easily gather and map everything about its community by gathering the data for each home from the national map provided by the FCC. The licensing makes things easier by allowing the use of the underlying databases needed to analyze the data in mass instead of one home at a time.

It’s easy to see why there was such a big battle to win the mapping RFP, because this created a huge new permanent revenue stream for CostQuest to provide access to use the FCC data. I wrote a blog earlier this year talking about creating policies to make sure that communities have access to government data. I don’t know if there is anything more vital to communities with poor broadband than understanding the broadband map of who has and doesn’t have access to broadband.

I hope that the FCC will come to its senses and reclaim its own data, or at least mandate that it should be easily available to everybody. If not, this is something Congress ought to address. We’re spending billions to bring better broadband while absurdly making it hard for communities to use the public data that documents broadband coverage.

Maybe some smart programmer will solve this for everybody by capturing the data one house at a time from the FCC map and make the data available to everybody for free.

The Individual FCC Map Challenge

Hopefully, the word is getting out that individuals can challenge the FCC mapping. We’ve known for years that the FCC mapping is full of errors. ISPs often claim coverage and broadband speeds that are not actually available.

The new FCC map includes the ability to challenge the information that ISPs claim about the coverage at your home or business. The challenge process is built directly into the FCC Broadband map. Anybody can zero in on the map and see the broadband options that ISPs say are available at your location. There are a number of issues you can challenge for a given ISP:

  • The ISP denied a request for service via phone, the company’s website, or another method.
  • The ISP does not offer the technology reported on the FCC broadband map.
  • The ISP is unable or failed to schedule an installation date within 10 business days of your service request.
  • The ISP scheduled an installation but failed to perform the install at the scheduled date and time.
  • The ISP wants a fee greater than the advertised fee for an installation.
  • The ISP does not offer a product with the speed reported on the map. This challenge doesn’t say the ISP doesn’t deliver the speed, just that they didn’t offer the speed listed on the map.
  • No wireless or satellite signal is available at your location.
  • The ISP must construct new network to reach your location. Report if the ISP wants you to pay for construction.

If you challenge any of these items for a given ISP, the FCC will forward on your challenge to the ISP. If that ISP doesn’t respond or dispute the challenge, it must change its reporting for that location on the FCC map. For example, if it doesn’t offer service at your location, it must take you off its FCC map. If the ISP doesn’t offer the speed claimed to the FCC, it would have to lower the claimed speed it offers.

If the ISP disputes your claim, it must provide evidence to you and to the FCC that broadband is available at your location. After a dispute, the ISP has 60 days to reach an agreement with you about its claim. If you and the ISP can’t come to an agreement, the FCC says that it will then resolve the dispute within 90 days. That’s a real puzzler because the FCC doesn’t have the staff to process large volumes of such claims – they are banking on the ISP and the consumer reaching an agreement or the ISP backing down on the claim made on the maps.

The FCC hopes that over time that millions of such challenges will clean up the FCC mapping. The FCC believes that nobody knows more than you about what is available at your home. Rural folks, in particular, have dealt with ISPs that advertise but can’t actually deliver broadband to their home.

The challenge is somewhat weak in that making a challenge will rarely find you a broadband solution. But it’s possible that an ISP will agree to connect you after you make a challenge. The real benefit of the challenge process is to the whole community in that the FCC map gets cleaned up so that we can finally see and count the folks who can’t buy broadband. When it’s proven that your area doesn’t have broadband, the area becomes available for broadband grants.

Unfortunately, the challenge does not include the one thing that folks most want to challenge. You can’t file a formal challenge against an ISP that delivers speed that are far slower than what they sold to you. For example, you can’t file a formal challenge if an ISP sells you ‘up to’ 100 Mbps but delivers 3 Mbps. The FCC will accept this information, but they will treat it as a consumer complaint and not a mapping challenge. Unlike the challenge process, an ISP does not have to respond to a complaint. In fact, by deregulating broadband, the FCC under Ajit Pai weakened the complaint process to the point that it is toothless.

Note that you must provide your name and contact information to make a challenge because the FCC or an ISP might want to contact you. This means you can only challenge for your own location and not your neighbors. The real benefit of the challenge process will come if enough people in neighborhoods make the complaint to get the area maps corrected.

Don’t Forget Lifeline

There has been a big push nationwide to get customers enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), that provides a $30 monthly subsidy for broadband providers – a discount that can be applied to any broadband product. With the ACP discount, a qualifying customer can buy a broadband product normally priced at $60 for $30.

Most ISPs seem to have forgotten about the FCC Lifeline program that can provide a monthly discount of $9.25 off a telephone or broadband bill for qualifying customers. Consumers can qualify for the Lifeline discount if the household income is at or below 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines or else by participating in Medicaid, SNAP (formerly Food Stamps), SSI, Federal Housing Assistance, VA Veterans pension, or VA survivor’s pension.

It’s a little easier to qualify for ACP since it is available to homes at or below 200% of Federal Poverty Guidelines. The ACP discount is also available to those who participate in Medicaid, SNAP, Federal Housing Assistance, WIC, SSI, or Lifeline.

That last requirement is the important one – customers can qualify for both the ACP discount and Lifeline, meaning an ISP can collect a total subsidy of $39.25 for a qualifying customer.

The FCC made some changes to the Lifeline program in July. The most important change for ISPs is that the cap for a lifeline subscriber was increased to 1.28 gigabytes per month – which is higher than the data cap for ISPs like Comcast. The FCC set the new annual budget for 2023 at $2.57 billion and changed the rule so that the size of the funding will be increased each year using the Consumer Price Index.

There have been a few barriers that have kept many ISPs from participating in Lifeline. Many of them thought that the $9.25 subsidy was too small to bother with. There also is a requirement that an ISP must be an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC), a status that is granted by State regulatory Commissions. Years ago, this implied that an ETC gained carrier of last resort obligations, which meant they were required to serve anybody in a service area. But since broadband has been largely deregulated, carrier-of-last-resort doesn’t have much meaning these days.

A lot of ISPs said that Lifeline was a pain to implement. There was no easy way for ISPs to know if a household qualified, and audits of the program would often mean rebating funds to the FCC. That issue has largely been resolved since the FCC now maintains a database that is updated monthly of homes that participate in the various federal subsidy programs. An ISP can feel safe in giving the discount to a household on this list.

Any ISP that is participating in ACP in order to reach low-income households should consider the Lifeline discount as well. Extending a $39.25 discount to households is a significant saving.

There are still a few nuances for ISPs that try this. Practically everybody that qualifies for Lifeline will qualify for ACP, but not everybody that qualifies for ACP can get Lifeline due to the lower limit on household income.

There are still a lot of questions about how many ISPs are actually trying to implement the ACP discount. Most ISPs have a lot of customers that qualify, but ISPS don’t seem to be pushing the discount. But for any ISP that wants to bring broadband to as many folks in a community as possible, a $39.25 customer discount can make it a lot easier to make broadband affordable.

FCC Implements Broadband Labels

The FCC voted recently to implement consumer broadband labels. This was required by section 60504 of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The new rules will become effective after the Office of Management and Budget approves the new rules and after the final notice is published in the federal register. ISPs will then generally have six months to implement the labels.

The labels look a lot like the nutrition labels that accompany food. The label will include basic information like a customer’s service plan name, the monthly price for standalone broadband, any special pricing that in place currently and when that special pricing expires, and a description of other monthly and one-time fees. The labels also must disclose the typical broadband speeds and latency.

It’s going to be interesting next summer to see how ISPs react to the label requirement. The pricing information alone must be giving shivers to the marketing folks at the biggest ISPs. This will make them list the price of standalone broadband to every customer and compare that to what the customer is currently paying. It’s been incredibly easy for consumers to subscribe to broadband in the past and never know the list price of what they are buying.

The requirement that I think will be the most controversial is the requirement to disclose the typical broadband speed and latency. I can’t wait until next year to see big ISPs implement this requirement. In the many surveys we have done, most consumers tell us that they have no idea of the speeds they are supposed to get – and that most of their monthly broadband bills don’t mention the speed.

Some ISPs will have a real dilemma with the speed disclosure.

  • It’s extremely challenging for a DSL or fixed wireless ISP to tell any customer the speed, since speeds vary from home to home and by the time of day. Even if one of these ISPs wants to disclose a reasonable estimate of speed, it’s hard to think how they can reasonably do so. I can’t imagine how these ISPs can provide a label to a prospective customer since the ISP won’t know the real speed until they try to connect to the customer.
  • What will ISPs do who have been exaggerating speeds in the FCC broadband reporting? Just to use an example I heard yesterday, there are places where Starlink reported 350 Mbps to the FCC where a customer was barely getting 50 Mbps. If ISPs report the FCC speeds to customers, they are going to hear a mountain of complaints from folks who aren’t seeing the high speeds. But if an ISP tries to be more truthful about speeds on the broadband label, it will have demonstrated that it has fudged the speeds for the FCC mapping.
  • The most interesting speed issue might be upload speeds. It’s hard to think that any cable company or WISP is going to report upload speeds under 20 Mbps because doing so would be an admission of not delivering broadband. But declaring 20 Mbps or faster upload speeds won’t sit well with customers who are getting something far slower.

We’ll have to wait and see, but my guess is that ISPs will report the same speeds to customers that are reported to the FCC. But an ISP that is exaggerating FCC speeds should be ready for an onslaught of customer complaints from customers that know the speeds on the label are not right. I think this is part of the reason why these labels were mandated – to force ISPs to come closer to telling customers the truth. But there are going to be some contentious years coming for ISPs that claim imaginary speeds on the broadband label or to the FCC.

The FCC is not quite done with the labels. The FCC issued a Future Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to solicit input on a few issues. One is how to include bundling on the labels. The surveys my firm does are still showing more than 50% of customers on bundles in urban areas, and bundling allows ISPs to hide the pricing for any component of the bundle.

The FNPRM also asks if there is a better way to disclose speeds, such as average speeds instead of typical speeds. Finally, the FCC is asking if ISPs should disclose network management policies that might harm consumers, such as blocking, throttling, or paid prioritization for some customers.

We won’t see the broadband labels in practice until at least next summer – but I’m expecting an uproar after folks see what ISPs say about prices and speeds.