Increased Telehealth Funding

On July 11 the FCC announced that they are seeking a new $100 million use of the Universal Service Fund to create a “Connected Care Pilot Program”. The announcement was made in a joint op-ed by FCC Commissioner Brandan Carr and Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker.

Commissioner Carr got interested in the concept when he visited Mississippi six months ago and looked at a telemedicine trial for diabetes patients in the Mississippi Delta. That trial was monitoring patients 24/7 and drastically reduced the cost of patient care by alerting doctors to problems at an early stage and avoiding costly hospital stays. That trial had saved $700,000 per year in savings due only to avoiding hospital readmissions. It’s hard to put a number of the avoidance of misery and early death that was avoided. It’s estimated if the same monitoring was done just for 20% of the diabetes patients in the state that the annual savings would be $189 million.

In the past the Telemedicine Fund has only been used support rural brick-and-mortar facilities – rural health clinics and rural hospitals. This new trial fund will be used to instead fund larger trials to monitor patients in their homes. It’s going to concentrate on programs that will benefit low-income patients including those on Medicaid and veterans receiving free health care. If approved the funding will support a handful of projects for a two or three-year period with the goal of measuring the savings.

We already have evidence that medical monitoring works. The Veterans Administration spends an average of $1,600 on patients in it’s remote monitoring program compared to $13,000 per year for similar patients who have home-based primary care. Another monitoring trial in the northeast showed a $3.30 net savings for every dollar spent on remote monitoring.

The FCC blog on the issue also points out that home monitoring improves the health outcome for patients.

  • A study of 20 remote patient monitoring trials found a 20% reduction in all-cause mortality and a 15% reduction in heart failure-related hospitalizations;
  • The VHA’s remote patient monitoring program resulted in a 25% reduction in days of inpatient care and a 19% reduction in hospital admission;
  • One remote patient monitoring initiative showed a 46% reduction in ER visits, a 53% reduction in hospital admissions, and a 25% shorter length of stay.

For the FCC to get involved in this means there will be connectivity costs to cover. I envision that a significant share of this program will go towards paying for some kind of broadband connectivity for patients in the program. In some places there will be decent broadband and in rural areas this is likely going to mean buying a fixed cellular connection for the monitoring.

Health care costs are out of control in this country and after more of these trials we’ll hopefully see insurance covering the needed connectivity costs for monitoring programs. If the savings are as large a promised then insurance companies and everybody will benefit from monitoring and early detection of problems compared to acute care costs when problems have gone too far.

This funding will be voted on at the August FCC meeting. The FCC in May already increased the annual funding for telehealth from $400 million to $571 million. I can’t tell by the press releases if this would be funded by that increase or if this is additive on top of it.

Reclaiming Spectrum

The FCC recently wrote a letter to DISH Networks warning the company that it had not complied with the FCC’s build-out requirements for its AWS-4 and its E and H blocks of 700 MHz spectrum. The warning was more sternly worded than what we normally see from the FCC, and perhaps they will take steps to reclaim the spectrum if DISH is unable to meet the required deployment of the spectrum. The company has a long history of sitting on spectrum and delaying its use. They recently told the FCC that they want to use the AWS spectrum to launch a nationwide IoT monitoring network and that they are interested in entering the cellular business with the 700 MHz licenses.

Today’s blog is not about DISH specifically. Instead, I want to talk about the FCC reclaiming spectrum. This is an important issue for rural America because the majority of licensed spectrum sits idle in rural America for a number of reasons. We could go a long way towards fixing the rural broadband problem if the unused spectrum could be reclaimed by the FCC and repositioned for rural use. There are a number of reasons why the spectrum sits idle today.

Coverage Rules. Most FCC licenses come with coverage requirements. For instance, a given spectrum might need to eventually be deployed to cover something like 70% of the households in a license area. That rule allows spectrum holders to deploy spectrum to urban areas and legally ignore the surrounding rural areas.

There is nothing wrong with this from a business perspective. Cellular companies only need to use their full inventory of spectrum in urban areas where most customers live, and the FCC rules should not require deployment of spectrum where nobody will use it. But the coverage rules mean that the spectrum will remain unused in rural areas as long as the primary license holder is serving the urban areas – effectively forever. Since the spectrum is licensed, nobody else can use it. This problem is caused by the way that the FCC licenses spectrum for large geographic areas, while the spectrum buyers are interested in serving only a portion of the license areas.

Ideally unused spectrum should be made available to somebody else who can make a business case for it. There are several ways to fix this issue. First, licensed holders could be compelled by the FCC to sub-license the spectrum to others where it sits idle. Or the FCC could reclaim the spectrum in unused geographic areas and distribute it to those who will use it.

Deployment Delays. Other spectrum goes unused due to deployment delays by license holders. The DISH Network spectrum is a perfect example. The company bought this spectrum for a use that they were unable to execute. Since the spectrum is valuable the license holders deploy delaying tactics to stop the FCC from reclaiming the spectrum. The FCC has largely been derelict in enforcing its own rules and I’m sure that DISH was shocked at the FCC response. DISH probably figured that this would be business as usual and that the FCC would grant them more time as had been done in the past. I have no idea if DISH really intends to deploy an IoT network or go into the cellular business – but those are the kinds of new competitive ventures that the FCC has been publicly asking for, so DISH is telling the FCC exactly what it wants to hear. But it’s likely that DISH just wants another delay until they can find a buyer for their sinking satellite business by somebody who will value the spectrum. Regardless of the reasons, the FCC has ignored its own deployment rules numerous times and granted license holders more time.

Spectrum Speculators. There is a class of investors who buy spectrum with the hopes of selling it or licensing it to somebody else. They will buy spectrum and rig up a bogus use of the spectrum to meet the build-out requirements. I’ve seen wireless links deployed that carry no data but that are intended only to prove to the FCC that the spectrum is being used. The FCC ought to do a better job of identifying the fake deployments that are done only to preserve the license.

There’s no way to know if the letter to DISH signals a change at the FCC and if they intend to enforce the spectrum rules. Better enforcement of the rules alone won’t help rural America if the spectrum gets re-licensed and the same cycle repeats. We need spectrum rules that free up spectrum in rural areas where the spectrum sits idle. Perhaps this could be done by requiring license holders to sub-license the spectrum to others where it sits idle. The FCC has said numerous time that wireless technology can be the salvation for rural broadband, yet they allow the most valuable spectrum to sit idle while WISPs are relegated to delivering broadband using a few tiny swaths of unlicensed spectrum. This is not a hard problem to solve, but it requires the will to solve it, and an FCC that won’t cave-in to the big spectrum license holders.

Regulating Over-the-Top Video

I know several cable head-end owners that are developing over-the-top video products to deliver over traditional cable networks. I define that to be a video product that is streamed to customers over a broadband connection and not delivered to customers through a settop box or equivalent. The industry now has plenty of examples of OTT services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Sling TV, Hulu and a hundred others.

While the FCC has walked almost totally away from broadband regulation there are still a lot of regulations affecting cable TV, so today I am looking at the ramifications of streaming programming to customers instead of delivering the signal in a more traditional way. Why would a company choose to stream content? The most obvious benefit is the elimination of settop boxes. OTT services only require an app on the receiving device, which can be a smart TV, desktop, laptop, tablet or cellphone. Customers largely dislike settop boxes and seem to love the ability to receive content on any device in their home. A provider that pairs OTT video delivery with a cloud DVR has replaced all of the functions of the settop box.

There are a few cable companies that have been doing this. Comcast today offers a streaming service they label as Xfinity Instant TV. This package starts with a package of ten channels including local broadcast networks. They then offer 3 add-on options: a kids and family package for $10, an entertainment package for $15 and a sports and news package for $35. Comcast also touts that a customer can choose to stream the content to any of the millions of Comcast WiFi hotspots, not only at their homes.

It’s an interesting tactic for Comcast to undertake, because they have invested huge R&D dollars into developing their own X1 settop box that is the best in the industry. The company is clearly using this product to satisfy a specific market segment which is likely those considering cutting the cord or those that want to be able to easily download to any device.

A second big benefit to Comcast is that they save a lot of money on programming by offering smaller channel line-ups. Traditional cable packages generally include a lot of channels that customers don’t watch but which still must be paid for. Comcast would much prefer to sell a customer a smaller channel line-up than to have them walk away from all Comcast programming.

The third reason why a cable provider might want to stream content is that it lets them argue that they can selectively walk away from cable regulations. The only real difference between Comcast’s OTT and their traditional cable products is the technology used to get a channel to a customer. From a regulatory perspective this looks a lot like the regulatory discussions we had for years about VoIP – does changing the technology somehow create a different product and different regulations. Before VoIP there were numerous technology changes in the way calls were delivered – open wire, party-lines, digitized voice on T-carrier, etc. – but none of the technology upgrades every changed the way that voice was regulated.

I can’t see any reason why Comcast is allowed, from a regulatory perspective, to stream their ITT content over their cable network. The company is clearly violating the rules that require the creation of specific tiers such as basic, expanded basic and premium. What seems to be happening is that regulators are deciding not to regulate. You might recall that three or four years ago the FCC opened investigation this and other video issue – for example, they wanted to explore if video delivered on the web needs to be regulated. That docket also asked about IP video being delivered over a cable system. The FCC never acted on that docket, and I chalk that up to the explosion of online video content. The public voted with their pocketbooks to support streaming video and the FCC let the topic die.  There are arguments that can be made for regulating streaming video, particularly when it’s delivered over the same physical network as traditional cable TV, like in the case with Comcast.

Clearly the FCC is not going to address the issue, and so the technology an lack of regulation ought to be made available to many other cable providers. But that doesn’t mean that the controversy will be over. I predict that the next battleground will be the taxation of streaming video. Comcast would gain a competitive advantage over competitors if they don’t have to pay franchise fees for streaming content. In fact, a cable company can argue they don’t need a franchise if they choose to stream all of their content.

It’s somewhat ironic that we are likely to have these regulatory fights with the cable product – a product that is clearly dying. Customers are demanding alternatives to traditional cable TV, yet the FCC is still saddled with the cable regulations handed to them by Congress. One nightmare scenario for Comcast and the industry would be if some competitor sues a cable company to stop the streaming product – because that would require the regulators, and ultimately the courts to address the issue. It’s not inconceivable that a court could decide that the Comcast streaming service is in violation of the FCC rules that define channel line-ups. Congress could fix this issue easily, but unless they do away with the current laws there will always be a background regulatory threat hanging over anybody that elect to use the product.

Comcast Dismantles Data Throttling

On June 11 Comcast announced they had dismantled a congestion management system that had been in place since 2008. This system was used to throttle data speeds for large users of residential data. The company says that their networks are now robust enough that they no longer need to throttle users and that they system wasn’t used for the last year.

Comcast implemented the congestion management system in 2008 after it had been caught throttling traffic to and from Bit Torrent. The FCC said the throttling was discriminator and ordered Comcast to cease the practice. Comcast responded to the FCC with the introduction of the congestion management system that cut back usage for all large residential data users, with what Comcast said was a non-discriminatory basis.

At the time Comcast claimed that large data users, who at that time were exchanging video files, were slowing down their network – and they were probably right. The ISP industry has been blindsided twice in my memory by huge increases in demand for bandwidth. The first time was in the 1990s when Napster and many others promoted the exchange of music MP3 files. The same thing happened a decade ago when people started sharing video files – often pirated copy of the latest movies.

To be fair to Comcast, a decade ago the number one complaint about cable company broadband was that speeds bogged down during the evening prime time hours – the time when most customers wanted to use the network. The Comcast throttling was an attempt to lower the network congestion during the busiest evening hours. Comcast says the throttling system is no longer needed since the widespread implementation of DOCSIS and improvements in backhaul have eliminated many of the network bottlenecks.

Comcast now offers gigabit download speeds in many markets. I suspect that they are relying that only a small percentage of their customers will buy and use this big bandwidth in a given neighborhood, because a significant number of gigabit users could still swamp an individual neighborhood node. I wonder if the company would reinstitute the throttling system again should their network become stressed with some future unexpected surge in broadband traffic. It’s possible that some big bandwidth application such as telepresence could go viral and could swamp their data networks like happened in the past with music files and then video.

Interestingly, the company still maintains customer data caps. Any customer that uses more than 1 terabyte in a month must pay $10 for each extra 50 gigabytes or pay $50 extra to get unlimited data. Comcast never directly said that the data caps were for congestion management, although they often hinted that was the reason for the caps.

The official explanation of the data caps has been that heavy users need to pay more since they use the network more. Comcast has always said that they use the revenues from data caps to pay for the needed upgrades for the network. But this seems a little ingenuous from a company that generated $21.4 billion in free cash in 2017 – nearly $1.8 billion per month.

Comcast is not the only ISP that has been throttling Internet traffic. All four major wireless carriers throttle big data users at some point. T-Mobile is the most generous and starts throttling after 50 GB of month usage while the other three big wireless carriers throttle after 20 – 25 GB per month.

A more insidious form of data throttling is the use of bursting technology that provides faster broadband speeds for the first minute or two of any given broadband session. During this first minute customers will get relatively fast speeds – often set at the level of their subscription – but if the session is prolonged past that short time limit then speeds drop significantly. This practice fools customers into thinking that they get the speeds they have subscribed to – which is true for the short duration of the burst – but is not true when downloading a large file or streaming data for more than a minute or two. The carriers boast about the benefits of data bursts by saying they give extra broadband for each request – but they are really using the technology to throttle data for any prolonged data demands.

Now That Net Neutrality is Dead . . .

The FCC’s net neutrality rules expired last week. There is a process for FCC rule changes that require the agency to take steps like publishing their decisions in the Federal Register, and all of the administrative steps have been taken and the old rules expired.

The press and social media made a big deal about the end of the administrative process, but the issue is a lot more complicated than that and so today I’ll look at what happens next. Officially the big ISPs are now free to make changes in their policies that were prohibited by net neutrality, but for various reasons they are not likely to do so.

First, 22 states filed a lawsuit against the FCC challenging various aspects of the FCC’s ruling. That suit now resides at the US Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington DC. The big ISPs are unlikely to make any significant changes in policies that might be reversed by the courts. In the past the whole industry has waited out the appeals process on this kind of lawsuit because the Courts might find reason to reverse some or all of the FCC’s actions. The ISPs aren’t legally obligated to wait out the lawsuits, but I’m sure their legal counsel is telling them to do so.

Interestingly, the judges hearing this case also heard the previous appeals associated with net neutrality and are familiar with the issues. This court previously had ruled that the FCC had the authority to use Title II regulation as the way to regulate broadband and net neutrality. I’ve not read any predictions yet of how the courts might rule in this case. But if the FCC had the authority to institute Title Ii authority I would think they also have the authority to reverse that decision.

The big ISPs also have to worry about Congress. The Senate voted to reverse the repeal of Title II regulations as part of the Congressional Review Act (CRA) that was used to pass the last budget. The issue is not currently slated for a vote in the House of Representatives and it seems clear that there are not enough votes there to reverse the FCC’s decisions. But it’s only four months until the next election and there is a chance that the Democrats will win a majority of seats. One would think that net neutrality would be on the list of legislative priorities for a Democratic House since polls show over an 80% public approval of the issue.

A vote by Congress to implement net neutrality would end the various court cases since the new laws would supersede any actions taking by the FCC on prior rules. It’s been the lack of Congressional action that has been the underlying reason for all of the various FCC actions and lawsuits on the topic over the years – Congress can give the FCC specific direction and the authority to enforce whatever Congress wants done.

There is another wild card in the mix in that numerous states have either passed rules concerning net neutrality or are contemplating doing so. Most of the state laws would restrict the award of state telecom business to vendors that adhere to net neutrality. My guess is that these lawsuits will make it through appeals because States have the authority to determine their purchasing preferences. But realistically these laws might backfire since most ISPs that are large enough to tackle state telecom needs are likely to be in violation of net neutrality. States implementing these rules might find themselves unable to find a suitable telecom vendor.

The most direct state net neutrality law comes from Washington. Their law, which went into effect automatically when the FCC net neutrality laws expired, prohibits ISPs from blocking or throttling home landline or mobile data. It also specifically prohibits paid prioritization.  An even more stringent bill was near passage by the California legislature. As I was writing this blog it appears that AT&T lobbyists were successful in derailing that legislation. It’s likely that we’ll see more actions from state legislatures in the coming year.

The FCC stated in the Title II repeal order that States were not allowed to override the FCC order. But as we’ve seen many times in the past at the FCC, there is a constant battle between federal authority and state’s rights, .and disputes of this kind are almost always resolved by the courts. There is a long history of battles between FCC authority and State’s rights and over the years both sides have won battles.

The big ISPs hate uncertainty and each of these paths provide a way to reinstate net neutrality. It seems unlikely that the big ISPs will be aggressive with changes until they get a better feel for the resolution of these various challenges to the FCC. Some of the ISPs already had practices that skirted net neutrality rules such as zero-rating of their own content. It’s seems likely that the ISPs will continue to push around the edges of net neutrality, but it seems unlikely that the ISPs will be more aggressive with implementing products and practices that are clear net neutrality violations. The bottom line is that the end of the FCC administrative process was only the beginning of the process and we still have a way to go to get a clear resolution of the issue.

5G Cellular for Home Broadband?

Sprint and T-Mobile just filed a lengthy document at the FCC that describes the benefits of allowing the two companies to merge. This kind of filing is required for any merger that needs FCC approval. The FCC immediately opened a docket on the merger and anybody that opposes the merger can make counterarguments to any of the claims made by the two companies.

The two companies decided to highlight a claim that the combined Sprint and T-Mobile will be able to roll out a 5G network that can compete with home broadband. They claim that by 2024 they could gain as much as a 7% total market penetration, making them the fourth biggest ISP in the country.

The filing claims that their 5G network will provide a low-latency broadband product with speeds in excess of 100 Mbps within a ‘few years’. They claim that customers will be able to drop their landline broadband connection and tether their home network to their unlimited cellular data plan instead. Their filing claims that the this will only be possible with a merger. I see a lot of holes that can be poked into this claim:

Will it Really be that Fast? The 5G cellular standard calls for eventual speeds of 100 Mbps. If 5G follows the development path of 3G and 4G, then those speeds probably won’t be fully met until near the end of the next decade. Even if 5G network can achieve 100 Mbps in ideal conditions there is still a huge challenge to meet those speeds in the wild. The 5G standard achieves 100 Mbps by bonding multiple wireless paths, using different frequencies and different towers to reach a customer. Most places are not receiving true 4G speeds today and there is no reason to think that using a more complicated delivery mechanism is going to make this easier.

Cellphone Coverage is Wonky.  What is never discussed when talking about 5G is how wonky all wireless technologies are in the real world. Distance from the cell site is a huge issue, particular with some of the higher frequencies that might be used with 5G. More important is local interference and propagation. As an example, I live in Asheville, NC. It’s a hilly and wooded town and at my house I have decent AT&T coverage, but Verizon sometimes has zero bars. I only have to go a few blocks to find the opposite situation where Verizon is strong and AT&T doesn’t work. 5G is not going to automatically overcome all of the topographical and interference issues that affect cellular coverage.

Would Require Significant Deployment of Small Cell Sites. To achieve the 100 Mbps in enough places to be a serious ISP is going to require a huge deployment of small cell sites, and that means the deployment of a lot of fiber. This is going to be a huge hurdle for any wireless company that doesn’t have a huge capital budget for fiber. Many analysts still believe that this might be a big enough hurdle to quash a lot of the grandiose 5G plans.

A Huge Increase in Wireless Data Usage. Using the cellular network to provide the equivalent of landline data means a magnitude increase in the bandwidth that will be carried by the cellular networks. FierceWireless along with Strategic Analytics recently did a study on how the customers of the major cellular companies use data. They reported that the average T-Mobile customer today uses 18.4 GB of data per month with 5.3 GB on the cellular network and the rest on WiFi. Sprint customers use 18.2 GB per month with 4.4 GB on the cellular networks. Last year Cisco reported that the average residential landline connection used over 120 GB per month – a number that is doubling every three or four years. Are cellular networks really going to be able to absorb a twenty or thirty times increase in bandwidth demand? That will require massive increases in backhaul bandwidth costs along with huge capital expenditures to avoid bottlenecks in the networks.

Data Caps are an Issue.  None of the cellular carriers offers truly unlimited data today. T-Mobile is the closest, but their plan begins throttling data speeds when a customer hits 50 GB in a month. Sprint is stingier and is closer to AT&T and Verizon and starts throttling data speeds when a customer hits 23 GB in a month. These caps are in place to restrict data usage on the network (as opposed to the ISP data caps that are meant to generate revenue). Changing to 5G is not going to eliminate network bottlenecks, particularly if we see millions of customers using cellular networks instead of landline networks. All of the carriers also have a cap on tethering data – making it even harder to use as a landline substitute – T-Mobile caps tethering at 10 GB per month.

Putting it all into Context. To put this into context, John Legere already claims today that people ought to be using T-Mobile as a landline substitute. He says people should buy a multi-cellphone plan and use one of the phones to tether to landline. 4G networks today have relatively high latency and 4G speeds today can reach 15 Mbps in ideal conditions but are usually slower. 4G also ‘bursts’ today and offers faster speeds for the first minute or two and then slows down to a crawl (you see this when you download phone apps). I think we have to take any claims made by T-Mobile with a grain of salt.

I’m pretty sure that concept of using the merger to create a new giant ISP is mostly a red herring. No doubt 5G will eventually offer an alternative to landline broadband for those homes that aren’t giant data users – but it’s also extremely unlikely that a combined T-Mobile / Sprint could somehow use 5G cellular to become the fourth biggest ISP starting ‘a few years from now’. I think this claim is being emphasized by the two companies to provide soundbites to regulators and politicians who want to support the merger.

The Big Telco Problem

A few weeks ago I made the observation in a blog that we don’t really have a rural broadband problem – we instead have a rural big telco problem. As I work around the country helping communities that are looking for broadband solutions it finally struck me that the telcos in almost all of these areas are the big companies – AT&T, CenturyLink, Verizon, Frontier, Windstream, etc.

I don’t see these same problems in areas served by smaller telephone companies. These smaller telcos have either upgraded networks to deliver faster broadband or have plans to do so over the next few years. I know of numerous rural telcos that are currently building fiber to rural areas, and those networks are going to serve those areas for many decades to come. There are undoubtably a few small telcos that are not making the needed upgrades, but for the most part the smaller telcos are doing the right thing – they are reinvesting into the rural areas and making the upgrades needed for the future.

The large telcos have done just the opposite. Most of them have been ignoring rural America for decades. They yanked customer service centers from smaller communities many years ago. They drastically cut back on rural technical staffs and it often takes weeks for customers to get repairs. They stopped investing in rural networks and have not upgraded electronics or networks for decades.

There is currently a burst of activity in these rural areas for those big telcos that accepted the billions of dollars of CAF II funding. This funding requires them to upgrade rural broadband to a measly and inadequate broadband speed of at least 10/1 Mbps. However, the rules in the CAF program are weak and there are no repercussions for not meeting the goals and I’ve always expected they will spend the FCC’s money until it’s gone, and then stop the upgrades. This means while some rural customers will get speeds even a little faster than 10 Mbps that there are likely to be many customers who will so no upgrades. I don’t expect the big telcos to spend a dime of their own in rural America once the CAF II upgrades are finished.

While I call this a big telco problem I might just as easily have called it a regulator problem. The FCC and the various state commissions largely deregulated telephone service, and the FCC recently washed their hands of broadband regulation. The big telcos have been milking big profits out of the rural copper networks for decades and have not reinvested any of those profits back into the networks. That’s how big companies act if regulators don’t require them to spend some of their profits on service and upgrades.

By contrast the smaller telcos were not required to upgrade networks, but they have done so anyway. The small companies got a big boost recently from the ACAM program – a different FCC plan that encourages building forward-looking broadband networks. Many of these companies had already upgraded to fiber before the FCC money was available. These smaller telcos are part of the rural community and feel an obligation to do the right thing – and the right thing is to find a way to bring broadband that rural customers need.

Regulators have let us down by not forcing the big telcos to act responsibly. The big telcos now want to walk away from rural copper that they claim is obsolete and in bad shape. But that copper would be in much better shape had these telcos done routine maintenance for the last thirty years. We built a great nationwide copper network due to the simple regulatory principle of universal service. Regulators at both the state and local level believed that the role of government was to ensure that everybody got access to the communications networks that ties us together as a nation. They know that universal service was good for people, but also good for the economy and good for the country as a whole. It’s something that very few other countries did and set America apart from the rest of the world.

I worked at Southwestern Bell pre-divestiture and it was a source of company pride that the company served every customer to the best of our ability. But along came competition and any sense of obligation to the public went out the door and the big telcos instead concentrated on satisfying Wall Street’s demand for ever-higher profits. There have been big benefits from this competition that are hard to deny, but what was missed in the transition to a competitive telecom world was that competition was never going to benefit rural America in the same way it benefits urban areas. We should have foreseen this and kept the universal service policy in place for rural America.

I get angry when I hear politicians and regulators say that municipalities shouldn’t be in the broadband business because the commercial sector will take care of our broadband needs. That is obviously not true and one only has to look at the big telco networks ten miles outside any urban area to see how the big telcos have abandoned customers in higher cost areas.

The big telcos are still milking big profits out of rural America and are still not reinvesting any of their own capital there. I don’t know if there is a way to put the genie back into the bottle and reintroduce regulation for rural America. If we don’t then we are only a few years away from having third-world telecom networks in rural America that will be a major drag on our society and economy.

The 3.5 GHz Tug-of-War

I’ve written a number of blogs this year that show how the current FCC is largely favoring the large carriers over small ones. The agency will soon be deciding how to handle the 3.5 GHz spectrum – and it appears that they are again likely siding with large cellular carriers over the rest of the market.

This is the spectrum that has generally been referred to as Citizen’s Band Radio, although it is not close in spectrum to the CB radios highlighted in every movie with a big rig truck. The FCC is currently reconsidering the rules adopted for this spectrum by the last FCC in 2015. The 2015 rules made this spectrum widely available to anybody who wanted to use it. The licenses for the spectrum were to be awarded for very small footprints, at the census tract – an area encompassing 2,500 to 8,000 people. The rules also gave anybody licensing a small footprint a one-year head-start over any larger company that wants to use the spectrum in the same area. This was a perceived boon for WISPs and others wanting to deploy the spectrum for rural broadband.

Small carriers want to use the spectrum because of the great operating characteristics. First, by being licensed it means less interference than using WiFi spectrum. The spectrum also can carry a signal a long distance from a tower and is less sensitive to line-of-sight issues as some other spectrum being used in rural areas.

However, these same characteristics make the spectrum attractive to the large cellular carrier for providing 4G LTE cellular broadband, and the big cellular companies want as much of this spectrum as they can get their hands on. It was lobbying by the CTIA, the lobbying arm of the big cellular companies that convinced the FCC to vote 4-1 last year to reconsider the rules for use of the spectrum.

The original FCC rules allowed for up to seven separate licenses in each census tract – with 74,000 census tracts that meant up to 500,000 separate licenses were possible. The new rules drastically reel in the number licenses. It would grant large footprint licenses in metropolitan areas and county-size licenses in the rest of rural America. There are 306 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) and 3,200 counties – and under the new rules this reduces the number of licenses to 19,000.

Under the original rules small providers could bid for licenses that fit a small geographic foot print – a small town or a portion of a rural county. These small license areas are ideal for the business plans for rural providers like WISPs, telephone companies, electric cooperatives, cable companies, and even Internet of Thing providers. There were farming cooperatives considering the spectrum as an interference-free way to monitor smart-farm sensors.

The FCC is currently being lobbied by those on both sides of the issue. The large cellular carriers are represented by their lobbying arm, the CTIA. The smaller providers have banded together during the last few years under a loose umbrella called the CBRS Coalition. This includes many small wireless providers, but also some large corporations like Cox Communications, Edison Electric Institute, Exelon Corp., FedEx, General Electric Co., Motorola Inc., the Port of Los Angeles, Southern Linc, and Union Pacific Corp. The CBRS Coalition filed a compromise plan with the FCC that is in the middle between the old rules and the proposal from the CTIA. In a letter filed on May 9 this group asks to allow five licenses in each county and two licenses in each census tract.

We know from past experience that the spectrum owned by the big cellular companies goes largely unused in rural America. In a rural market they use a handful of the spectrum bands to support rural cellular service compared to the wide array of spectrum they use in urban areas. For various reasons the big wireless carriers seem to want to hoard spectrum rather than ever find themselves short.

In an ideal world the FCC would force big carriers to give back spectrum they never use, but we’ve never had an FCC that’s been serious about reclaiming unused spectrum. The large carriers don’t have plans to use most spectrum bands in rural areas but also don’t want to be bothered to defend their licenses – and so they fight any suggestions that unused spectrum should be returned to the FCC for use by somebody else.

We don’t know how the FCC will vote on this issue – but the fact that they opened the issue based upon a petition by the CTIA tells us their likely sentiment. So far this FCC has voted for the big carriers on every issue where there is a big company / little company tug of war. If the FCC follows their trend and votes for the CTIA petition, it will be another dagger stuck into the heart of rural broadband.

Legislating Better Broadband

The Senate Commerce Committee recently passed the Rural Reasonable and Comparable Wireless Act if 2018. The bipartisan bill was co-sponsored by Senators Maggie Hassan (D NH) and Shelly Moore Capito (R WV).

It’s an innocuous bill that would have the FCC compare urban and rural pricing and availability of cellular voice service, cellular broadband service and broadband internet access services. Rather than do this nationwide the bill would gather data in and around the top twenty metropolitan markets. The sponsors of the bill say it will help to close the digital divide and will provide the extra tools the FCC needs to make sure that people in rural communities get a fair shake when with access to mobile broadband.

This sounds great, but the bill does nothing more than require gathering data to point out what we already know – that urban areas have better broadband of all types, landline and cellular. The bill won’t help to close the digital divide or fix any broadband problems because it doesn’t require the FCC to do anything other than gather more data – much of which it already gathers today.

The bill doesn’t require the FCC to take action should coverage gaps be identified (which will happen in every market), and so it’s another toothless broadband bill – it’s what I call addressing the broadband problem by press release. I don’t know anything about these two Senators, but I am sure that in the upcoming elections they, and other Senators who vote for this bill will point at this bill as proof that they are trying to help fix the rural broadband problem. Instead, this bill just spends money to create another big annual report from the FCC and will not try to fix any of the problems causing the rural broadband gap.

I really didn’t intend to bust on this bill when I started writing this blog. But this legislation is another example of the toothless telecom bills we’ve seen out of Congress over the last few decades. The FCC can only do those things that Congress authorizes and Congress could tackle the rural broadband issue. Prior FCC’s have tried to do so, but without a clear edict from Congress the FCC has been forced to concoct complicated legal authority, like Title II regulation to tackle broadband issues.

I’ve seen the public mood shift drastically in the last few years in rural America. People have gone from wanting better broadband to now demanding better broadband and politicians better start listening to their constituents if they want to keep their jobs. Broadband is a non-partisan issue and rural America is ready to listen to anybody who can bring them a broadband solution.

Rural America doesn’t need more reports from the FCC telling them what they don’t have – they need funding to build rural broadband infrastructure. I travel extensively in rural America and I’ve noticed that every rural household can identify the nearest place that has real broadband. They don’t need the FCC to tell them that broadband is better in the County seat or in the nearest big city – they are well aware of it.

We are badly in need of a new telecom bill. The current FCC is now chipping away at some of the last vestiges of the Telecom Act of 1996 by killing resale and the use of unbundled network elements. This Congress sat blithely by while the current FCC undid Title II regulation of broadband. The public and the press have been attacking Chairman Ajit Pai for killing net neutrality and Internet privacy – but at the end of the day this is all the fault of Congress.  Congress could give new instructions any day on these issues to the FCC, but they’ve punted on that responsibility.

Aside from the politicians running the current FCC, who are clearly in the pockets of the big ISPs, most reasonable people would agree that broadband should be regulated to some degree. We are nearing the time when the big cable companies will have a monopoly stranglehold over broadband in most US markets. And even where they don’t have a monopoly, where they compete against large fiber builders like AT&T the two sides cooperate to keep prices high – classic duopoly competition.

Monopolies must always be regulated. With Title II regulation now dead we are going to see the big ISPs aggressively monetizing customer data. We’ll see them raise broadband rates as the easiest way to meet Wall Street earnings expectations. We’ll see them tighten and enforce data caps and use every trick available to extract as much money as they can from customers. This is what big corporations do when they are free of regulation.

The current FCC has washed their hands of even trying to regulate the big ISPs, and only Congress can create the rules that can put some reasonable curbs on bad ISP behavior. I don’t hear even one member of Congress calling for Congressional responsibility – instead of solutions that can provide better rural broadband and that controls the worst impulses of the big ISPs we will get bills like this that creates a new annual report that reminds us that broadband is not as good in rural Maryland and Virginia as it is in Washington DC.

Prices for Wireless Pole Attachments

The FCC’s advisory BDAC group looking at pole attachment issues gathered prices for wired and wireless pole attachments. Their goal was to understand the range of attachments prices and to see if the group could come up with a consensus pricing recommendation to the FCC. Wired pole attachments are the annual fee that the owner of a wired network (telco, cable company, fiber) pays for each place one of their wires connects to a pole. Wireless pole attachments are the fees charged for putting some kind of wireless transmitter on a pole.

There were no surprises for wired pole attachments. The group looked at 577 different attachments and found that the average price was $17.58 per year for each wired pole attachment while the median was $15.56. These are similar to the prices I see all over the country.

Wireless attachments varied a lot more. The BDAC group looked at 407 samples of wireless pole attachment prices from around the country and the average price was $505.56 while the median price was $56.60. For the median to be that low means that the sample was stacked with low readings.

That’s easy to understand if you look at wireless pole attachment rules around the country. Three states – Arizona, Indiana and North Carolina have capped the annual price of a wireless pole attachment at $50 per year, while Texas capped it at $20. Other states like Colorado, Delaware and Virginia cap rates at actual cost. For the median price to be that low means that just less than half of the of the 407 same prices were likely from this group of states. And this means that that no conclusions can be drawn from the results of the BDAC’s sampling – it was definitely not a random or representative sample – yet the BDAC group summarized the results as if it was, and even calculates a standard deviation.

Thirteen states have already acted to limit the cost for wireless attachments, mostly through legislation. Florida and Rhode Island have capped the cost of a wireless pole attachment at $150; Minnesota set the rate at $175 and Ohio set the maximum rate at $200. Kansas says the rate must be ‘competitively neutral’ and Iowa caps the rate at the FCC rate.

One of the biggest issues with arbitrarily setting wireless pole attachment rates is that the wireless devices being put onto poles vary by size and can use between 1 and 10 feet of pole space. Regulators have traditionally used the concept of allocating costs by the amount of usable space taken by a given connector, and in fact uses the term ‘pole real estate’ to describe the relationship between space used and price paid. Any attachment that uses more of the pole real estate should expect to pay more for the attachment – largely in a linear relationship.

The results of the sample might have been more valid has the group not included prices for places where the legislators have capped or limited rates. Also, the big wireless companies are part of the BDAC group and I have to suspect that they brought in the worst case examples they could find where they are paying the highest prices. This exercise proved nothing other than that the price for wireless connections are higher in states where the rates are not capped.

It’s not surprising, but the BDAC group was unable to secure a consensus on prices or pricing methodology for the FCC. Unsurprisingly the network operator – those who attach to poles – think rates should be cost based. Pole owners think rates ought to be market based.

There are, of course, many other factors to consider in setting pole attachment rates. In the case of wireless connections there are concerns about the safety of working near the wireless devices after storm damage. There are also significant concerns in cities about aesthetics.

The battle in setting these rates is still heating up. An additional fifteen states – AK, CA, CT, GA, HI, IL, ME, MO, NE, NM, PA, WA and WI – have considered pole attachment legislation that didn’t pass. There is the possibility of the FCC trying to set rates and there have been drafts of several bills in Congress that have considered the idea. Since this seems to be the primary focus of the wireless companies there will be a lot of lobbying on the issue.