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Technology The Industry

DOCSIS 4.0 vs. Fiber

Comcast and Charter previously announced that they intend to upgrade cable networks to DOCSIS 4.0 to be able to better compete against fiber networks. The goal is to be able to offer faster download speeds and drastically improve upload speeds to level the playing field with fiber in terms of advertised speeds. It’s anybody’s guess if these upgrades will make cable broadband equivalent to fiber in consumers’ eyes.

From a marketing perspective, there are plenty of people who see no difference between symmetrical gigabit broadband offered by a cable company or a fiber overbuilder. However, a lot of the public has already become convinced that fiber is superior. AT&T and a few other big telcos say they quickly get a 30% market share when they bring fiber to a neighborhood, and telcos claim aspirations of reaching a 50% market share within 3-4 years.

At least a few big cable companies believe fiber is better. Cox is in the process of overbuilding fiber in some of its largest markets. Altice has built fiber in about a third of its markets. What’s not talked about much is that cable companies have the same ability to overlash fiber on existing coaxial cables in the same way that telcos can overlash onto copper cables. It costs Cox a lot less to bring fiber to a neighborhood than a fiber overbuilder that can’t overlash onto existing wires.

From a technical perspective, engineers and broadband purists will tell you that fiber delivers a better broadband signal. A few years back, I witnessed a side-by-side comparison of fiber and coaxial broadband delivered by ISPs. Although the subscribed download speeds being delivered were the same, the fiber connection felt cleaner and faster to the eye. There are several technical reasons for the difference.

  • The fiber signal has far less latency. Latency is a delay in getting bits delivered on a broadband signal. Higher latency means that a smaller percentage of bits get delivered on the first attempt. The impact of latency is most noticeable when viewing live sporting events where the signal is sent to be viewed without having received all of the transmitted bits – and this is seen to the eye as pixelation or less clarity of picture.
  • Fiber also has much less jitter. This is the variability of the signal from second to second. A fiber system generally delivers broadband signals on time, while the nuances of a copper network cause minor delay and glitches. As one example, a coaxial copper network acts like a giant radio antenna and as such, picks up stray signals that enter the network and can disrupt the broadband signal. Disruptions inside a fiber network are comparatively minor and usually come from small flaws in the fiber caused during installation or later damage.

The real question that will have to be answered in the marketplace is if cable companies can reverse years of public perception that fiber is better. They have their work cut out for them. Fiber overbuilders today tell me that they rarely lose a customer who returns to the cable company competitor. Even if the cable networks get much better, people are going to remember when they used to struggle on cable holding a zoom call.

Before the cable companies can make the upgrade to DOCSIS 4.0, which is still a few years away, the big cable companies are planning to upgrade upload speeds in some markets using a technology referred to as a mid-split. This will allocate more broadband to the upload path. It will be interesting to see if that is enough of an upgrade to stop people from leaving for fiber. I think cable companies are scared of seeing a mass migration to fiber in some neighborhoods because they understand how hard it will be to win people back. Faster upload speeds may fix the primary issue that people don’t like about cable broadband, but will it be enough to compete with fiber? It’s going to be an interesting marketing battle.

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The Industry

The Fiber Land-Grab

It’s becoming clear that we are now deep into a fiber land-grab. By that, I mean that companies that overbuild fiber are moving as quickly as possible into markets to build fiber. The biggest ISPs have publicly discussed their plans for building a lot of fiber in 2023. Following are some of the latest projections for 2023:

  • AT&T plans to build past 2 – 2.5 million new passings.
  • Frontier plans to pass 1.3 million new homes.
  • Altice is aimed for 900,000 new fiber passings.
  • Brightspeed is planning on 600,000 new passings.
  • Verizon hasn’t announced a number, but built 550,000 new passings in 2022.
  • MetroNet is aiming for 500,000 new passings.
  • Lumen plans to build 500,000 passings.
  • Consolidated Communications is planning on 350,000 passings.
  • Charter announced plans for 300,000 passings.
  • Comcast announced plans to pass more than 200,000 homes.
  • TDS plans on 175,000 new passings.

This list doesn’t include the numerous smaller companies that are building fiber. The largest among the rest include fiber builders like Bluespeak, Clearwave, Omni Fiber, Surf Internet, WOW!, and Ziply Fiber. I would guess that there are a few hundred other companies with aggressive fiber plans. This also doesn’t even count the fiber being built by over 200 electric cooperatives.

I call it a land grab because these ISPs are all hoping to get to towns and neighborhoods first in order to dissuade anybody else from building fiber. Since most places getting fiber are already served by a cable company, most of this land grab is not going to create monopolies – but these fiber builders all think they can win a significant share of the market away from the cable competitor.

It doesn’t always work out the way that the fiber overbuilders hope. I talked to somebody in Lansing, Michigan who was amazed that there were three different fiber providers in their alley offering fiber broadband. As somebody who builds fiber business plans, I have to wonder about the third company that constructed fiber when there were already two other competitive fiber providers on the poles. Will any of the three ISPs get enough customers to be successful? But most markets are not seeing that kind of competition, although some of the announced plans on the list above must be in markets where somebody else has already built fiber.

This level of fiber construction bodes poorly for cable companies. Every one of these fiber providers will tell you that they will get at least a 30% market share, and most are hoping for 50%. They are all banking on the current public sentiment that fiber is the superior technology compared to cable company coaxial networks. These ISPs almost all have lower broadband prices than the big cable companies.

Of course, cable companies are rushing to fight back by upgrading upload speeds to become symmetrical. You can expect when that happens to see a huge blitz everywhere talking about symmetrical gigabit speeds. Cable companies also compete by offering very low introductory rates intended to win or keep customers from leaving for fiber. But much of the public has gotten tired of that cycle of having to renegotiate rates every few years.

Only time will tell if cable companies will be successful with this strategy. If enough of the public believes fiber is superior, then any cable marketing plan is going to fall on deaf ears for some portion of every market.

Rural fiber land grabs are different because anybody building fiber in a rural market probably will have a monopoly for fast landline broadband. It’s hard to think that many companies will consider building a second fiber network in places with low housing density. The rural fiber builders will likely face competition from WISPs deploying the latest radios. Just like with competition with cable companies in cities, it’s going to be interesting to see who wins that battle. It’s likely going to be a neighborhood-by-neighborhood battle. I suspect local WISPs with good local reputations will fare well against fiber built by the giant telcos or cable companies. On the flip side, local cooperatives and other local fiber builders will likely do extremely well against the giant WISPs. It’s going to be an interesting battle to watch.

I have no idea how Starlink and FWA cellular wireless fit into this battle. Fiber and fixed wireless with the newest radios will both be faster than these two technologies, and the market battle might come down to prices. The next decade is going to be an epic battle for broadband customers, and a boon to ISP marketers.

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The Industry

The Public Loves Fiber

The latest Customer Satisfaction Index is out from ACSI, which measures the public satisfaction of a wide range of U.S. industries and institutions. The survey this year continued to show that the public has a poor opinion of ISPs. As a group, ISPs had an average ACSI annual rating of 68. The only industry with a lower rating is gas stations at 65. Subscription TV had an average rating of 69, and the U.S. Post Office had a rating of 70.

But there is some interesting good news for some ISPs. Companies serving customers with fiber rated higher with the public than other ISPs, including cable companies using coaxial networks. Consider the following table that shows the 2023 ranking for fiber and non-fiber ISPs.

Fiber Non-Fiber
Altice 58
AT&T 80 72
Cable One 71
CenturyLink 78 62
Charter 64
Comcast 73 68
Cox 64
Frontier 74 61
Google Fiber 76
Mediacom 65
T-Mobile 73
Verizon 75
Windstream 70

For companies that offer both fiber and another technology, customers served by fiber liked an ISP more than non-fiber customers. CenturyLink has the biggest difference in satisfaction (78 for fiber and 62 for non-fiber). Frontier also has a dramatic difference (74 fiber and 61 non-fiber). The only cable company ranked for both technologies also has a sizeable difference, and Comcast has a ranking of 73 for its fiber network versus 68 for the coaxial network.

Customer satisfaction involves many other factors than just technology, but the differences for the companies that offer multiple technologies have to be mostly related to fiber. However, there are other factors in play. For example, it seems likely that CenturyLink and Frontier provide better customer service and faster repairs for fiber customers than for DSL customers.

Cable companies have to be noticing this giant difference as part of any consideration of how to upgrade their networks. The big cable companies are all at the beginning of the upgrades to improve upload speeds on coaxial networks, and they must be hoping that customers like them more after the upgrades. But there is a chance that the public has come to think of fiber as a superior technology and will not rank a coaxial system as highly even after speed increases. There is still a noticeable difference in latency and jitter between cable and fiber networks, and customers who see both in action believe fiber is better.

There is still a noticeable range of ISP rankings within each list. Non-fiber customers rate T-Mobile and AT&T the highest and rank Altice and Frontier DSL as the worst ISPs. It’s interesting to see Charter near the bottom of the rankings.

Fiber customers clearly rate AT&T as the best and Comcast Fiber as the lowest. Fiber technical performance should be consistent regardless of the ISP, so the difference in rankings between fiber providers has to be related to customer service and the other non-technical aspects of being an ISP.

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The Industry

Can WISPs Compete Against fiber?

I already know that when certain WISP readers see this blog headline that they are going to say, “There goes that damned Dawson again. This is going to be another anti-WISP rant”. I think they might be surprised if they read past the headline.

I know WISP operators who are some of the best ISPs in the country. When I rate them as best, I’m talking about how they deliver products their customers are happy with and how they provide great customer service and timely repairs. They are the kind of ISP that builds customer loyalty. I fully expect high-quality WISPs to be able to compete against fiber networks. While the industry lately seems to be fixated on broadband speeds, there are customers that value other aspects of being an ISP, such as trust and reliability.

I’ve never built a business plan that assumes that any fiber ISP will sweep the market and get every customer, so there will always be room for other ISPs. There is some portion of customers in any market that will switch immediately to fiber. There has been so much hype about fiber that many folks accept it as the gold standard. But the penetration rate of a new fiber network builder is going to depend on who builds and operates the network.

I think WISPs (and every other ISP) will have a hard time competing against a cooperative that builds fiber, particularly one that sets low prices like $50 or $60 for a gigabit. But not all coops will have affordable rates, and not all coops are loved by their members.

WISPs will have a much easier time competing against big telcos that win broadband grants. My firm does a lot of surveys, and a lot of the public has a massive dislike of big telcos like Frontier, CenturyLink, Windstream, AT&T, and some others. The public rightfully blames these big ISPs for walking away from rural America. I don’t think that folks will flock to these big ISPs just because they build fiber – particularly in cases where there is already a high-quality WISP that customers like. I will not be surprised in the future to find some markets where a great WISP will outsell a big ISP with a fiber network. A WISP might survive and thrive in such a market for a long time.

WISPs should also do well against a cable company that builds rural fiber if the cable company charges the same high rates as in cities. There are a lot of homes that can’t or won’t pay $90 – $100 per month for broadband.

But not all WISPs will be able to compete. There is a quiet truth that you will never hear WISPA talk about. There are some absolutely dreadful WISPs in the country. Lousy WISPs come in all sizes, but some of the largest WISPs are among the worst. Our broadband surveys often show rural folks who despise some of the WISPs in their neighborhood and either refuse to use them or plan to drop them with the first better broadband alternative. These are the WISPs that are not upgrading technology. These are the WISPs that will sell broadband to customers who are too far away from a tower where a WISP might deliver only 1 Mbps broadband but still charge full price. These are the WISPs that build long chains of wireless backhaul through tower after tower until there is not enough bandwidth for customers. These are the WISPs that have terrible customer service.

Interestingly, the most pointed critcism I hear about these poor WISPs comes from the high-quality WISPs. Good WISPs complain about how some WISPs cheat by exceeding power limits or constantly changing channel assignments just to goof up competing WISPs. There are WISPs who might read that as an anti-WISP statement, but these folks have not been reading my blog. I have been complaining about the big telcos non-stop for the last ten years. Small telcos that do a great job have spent the last few decades explaining how they are different from the big telcos. Great WISPs have to point out that they are different than the lousy WISPs that are poisoning the WISP brand name.

WISPA often responds to my blogs by saying I have a fiber bias and am anti-WISP. I admittedly think fiber should be the first choice for grant funding, but that’s a topic for another blog. But I am not anti-WISP, and I have WISP clients that are terrific. I know many other wonderful WISPs. I fully expect some of these WISPs will be around and thriving a decade from now. WISPs who thrive will do so for the same reasons as any other successful ISP – they will deliver a reliable product, priced reasonably, and will provide great customer service.

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The Industry

Who’s On First?

I saw a short article in Business Wire that said that Comcast Business had landed a project to provide a private wireless network for the guests of The Sound Hotel Seattle Belltown. This is an example of the continuing convergence in the industry where the big cable companies, ISPs, and wireless carriers are freely competing on each other’s turf. For decades we’ve neatly categorized companies as telcos, cable companies, or wireless carriers, but this convenient categorization is starting to fray around the edges, and its getting a lot harder to distinguish between the big industry players.

If we look back ten or fifteen years, the distinctions between these companies were clearly defined. The big telcos served residences and small businesses using DSL. The big telcos were clearly structured in silos. There was practically no interface between the wireless companies at Verizon and AT&T and the broadband business. Verizon went so far as to set up Verizon FiOS, its fiber business, separately in every aspect from the copper and DSL business.

The cable companies had faster broadband than DSL after the upgrades were made to DOCSIS 3.0. Speeds up to 300-400 Mbps blew away the capabilities of DSL. Once those upgrades were completed, the cable companies took market share in cities from the telcos year after year until the cable companies had a near-monopoly in many markets.

The market with more balanced competition has been the large business market. This is the market where fiber quickly became king. At one point the telcos controlled most of this market, with their fiercest competition coming from a handful of big CLECs. Verizon responded to this competition by buying MCI, XO, and others in the northeast. CenturyLink become one of the nationwide market leaders through the acquisition of Qwest and then Level 3. The big cable companies cautiously launched fiber ventures for this market twenty years ago and have picked up a decent market share.

But those simple explanations of the business plans of the big ISPs is now history. As the Business Wire announcement showed, the big companies are crossing technology barriers in new ways. Comcast

Providing a private wireless network for a large hotel is emblematic of a new trend in competition. In doing this, Comcast is crossing technical lines that it would never have considered years ago. From a business perspective, Comcast is going after the full suite of services for businesses like this hotel, not just the wireless network. The newest word in the competitive market is stickiness, and Comcast is likely tying down this hotel as a customer for a long time, assuming it does a great job.

These crossovers are even more evident in the residential and small business markets. Comcast, Charter, and other cable companies are bundling cellular service with broadband and the triple play, something that the telcos have never managed to pull off. Telcos have decided to reclaim urban market share by building huge amounts of fiber. And the cable companies are reacting to that threat by rushing some early versions of DOCSIS 4.0 to the market in order to fix the upload bandwidth issues. The big wireless companies have joined the fray with the FWA cellular wireless broadband products. While these products can’t compete with the bandwidth on fiber or cable networks, the product is still adequate for many homes and hits the market at a much lower price.

This has to be confusing to the average residential consumer. Consumers who abandoned DSL years ago are being lured back by to the telcos by fiber. Folks who have been paying far too much for cellular service are moving to the more affordable cable company wireless service. And people who can’t afford the high price of cable broadband are seemingly flocking to the more affordable FWA wireless. I have to imagine that the customer service desks at the various ISPs are being flooded by customers canceling service to try something different.

Markets always eventually reach an equilibrium. But for now, both the residential and business markets in many cities are seeing a fresh new marketing efforts. A decade from now, it’s likely that we’ll reach a predicable mix of the various technologies. We know this from having watched the markets where Verizon FiOS battled with the cable companies for several decades. But much of the country is just now entering the era of refreshed competition.

Unfortunately, this new competition isn’t everywhere. There is already evidence that new investments are not being made at the same pace in lower-income neighborhoods. Some cities are seeing widespread fiber construction while others are seeing almost none. There will still be a lot of work to do to make sure that everybody gets a shot at the best broadband – but the obvious convergence in the industry shows that we’re headed in the right direction.

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The Industry

Measuring Sustainability

I’ve seen folks around the country suggesting that State Broadband offices ought to put a priority on sustainability when selecting winners of broadband grant funding. It’s a concept that has instant appeal, but I immediately asked myself what it means. How do you measure sustainability in a way that can be used to score grant requests?

It’s likely that most folks would agree on the definition of sustainability. If we are going to use government grant money to build a broadband network, we want that network to be providing broadband service for as long as possible. We expect sustainability for other kinds of infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and buildings, so why shouldn’t we expect the same thing from a grant-funded broadband network?

But what does sustainable mean for a broadband network? The first test of sustainability is the expected life of the assets being constructed.

  • The longest-lived asset that is being constructed with grants is conduit. There is no reason why a well-maintained conduit system shouldn’t still be fully functional a century from now.
  • There are big debates about the economic life of fiber. If you go by the economic lives allowed by IRS depreciation, then the expected life of fiber is 25 or 30 years. We know that’s ridiculous because there is plenty of forty-year-old fiber still chugging along in the field. We also know that fiber constructed today is far better than fiber built forty years ago. The manufacturers have learned to make higher-quality glass with less impurities. But the big change in the industry is that the folks that install fiber have learned techniques that minimize damage during construction. Poor handling of fiber manifests twenty years later as micro-fissures – and that means cloudy glass. Nobody will give an expected life for well-maintained fiber, but scientists at some of the manufacturers have privately told me that they think it’s at least 75 years – we’ll just have to wait to find out.
  • The assets that cause the most concern for sustainability are electronics – be that fiber electronics or fixed wireless electronics. All electronics must periodically be replaced. I’ve seen some fiber electronics last fifteen years – but that seems to be near the upper end of economic life. The general industry wisdom is that fixed wireless systems have to be replaced every 7 to 10 years.
  • We largely eliminated some ISPs from grant eligibility due to poor sustainability. For example, low-orbit satellites like Starlink are designed to only last 5 to 7 and then fall from orbit. It’s hard to make an argument that grant funding buys great value with this kind of asset.

This all means that the sustainability of electronics must be a concern for all technologies. Any ISP that wins grant funding will likely be replacing some electronics within a decade. One test of any ISP on sustainability is the financial ability and willingness to replace those electronics. That’s hard to judge.

There is another measure of sustainability that is even harder to measure. A big factor in sustainability is the operating philosophy of the ISP that owns the networks. We know there is a big range of what I would call corporate responsibility between ISPs.

If we go strictly by the past, then the ISPs that have the most likely chance of operating a sustainable network for the long term are cooperatives or other ISPs that expect to still be serving the same customers fifty years from now. But not all cooperatives are the same. We see this when looking at how some electric cooperatives have allowed their poles to deteriorate badly over time.

Next in line in trustworthiness might be small telcos that have been around for as long as a hundred years. But over the last few decades, a large percentage of these companies sold to larger ISPs – so, the question for a grant reviewer is if the small telco that gets a broadband grant today will be the same owner of the network a decade or two from now?

A big question mark for many folks is the large ISPs. We saw the big telephone companies let copper and DSL networks rot in place by basically ceasing all maintenance years ago. This was clearly done as a cost savings measure. These companies will argue that there was no sense in continuing to support a dying technology, but we know that is nonsense. The copper networks in places like Germany were well-maintained and still offer DSL today with speeds in many places over 100 Mbps. The big telcos decided to unilaterally cut costs at the expense of customers. Should a grant office award funding to a company that has already failed the public once before? I’m guessing that grant offices will make awards to the big companies by reasoning that fiber networks will last a long time, so maintenance doesn’t matter. But I would argue just the opposite. I think a fiber network can deteriorate even faster without good maintenance than a copper network because the technology is less forgiving. There is still 20-year old DSL cards chugging away, something that likely won’t happen with fiber. If an ISP ignores and doesn’t maintain fiber network electronics, a fiber network could quickly turn into a brick.

I’ve not said anything above that is not common knowledge. But I am at a loss of how to turn what we’ve learned from the past behavior of ISPs in a way to consider sustainability when awarding grants. If sustainability was the most important factor in awarding a grant, I personally would give all of the money to cooperatives and none to big ISPs. And I wouldn’t fund technologies that must be largely replaced within a decade. This is probably why nobody is asking me to award grants!

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Uncategorized

AT&T in the News

AT&T has not been in the headlines a lot this year, but recently I’ve seen the company’s name everywhere.

In the recently released financial results for the third quarter, AT&T noted that it now has more fiber broadband customers than non-fiber customers. At the end of the quarter, AT&T had 6.93 million fiber customers compared to 6.86 million remaining non-fiber customers. Non-fiber customers are predominantly U-Verse customers served by two pairs of telephone copper. The company still also has 340,000 DSL customers served by a single copper pair. There are also some rural fixed-wireless customers.

In the third quarter, AT&T added 338,000 fiber customers. The company lost 367,000 non-fiber customers in the second quarter – although counting them as lost is probably a misnomer since many were likely upgraded to fiber.

Upgrading to fiber is good for the company’s bottom line. For the quarter, the average revenue per user (ARPU) was $62.62 for fiber customers compared to only $54.60 for non-fiber customers. AT&T has also been saying for years that the cost of maintenance for copper is a lot higher, so the company is likely shedding costs as it sheds customers served on copper.

We also got a peek at market AT&T’s penetration. AT&T says it passes 18.5 million potential customers with fiber, meaning the company has achieved an overall 37% market penetration on fiber. In the third quarter, the company added fiber to pass 500,000 new locations.

I saw another interesting news blurb about AT&T. Bloomberg reported that AT&T is looking for an equity partner to invest in a major expansion of fiber. That would be a big departure from the past since AT&T has always funded its own capital expenditures and networks.

But it’s not hard to see from the third quarter results why AT&T might be seeking additional funding. In the third quarter, the company generated $9.87 billion of cash. It invested $4.71 billion in new infrastructure and paid $3.75 billion in dividends – leaving only $1.41 billion in free cash.

I would conjecture that AT&T wants to invest more heavily in fiber immediately since it’s clear that there is a mad rush nationwide to build fiber in cities. Fiber overbuilders hope that if they are the first to a market with fiber that it might dissuade other fiber overbuilders – so we are currently seeing a fiber land grab. In the long run, sharing fiber profits with an investor will decrease future AT&T earnings. The calculus that the company is betting on is that the market share gained by building first to markets outweighs the cost of sharing profits.

AT&T is currently debt-heavy. AT&T hasn’t had a recent track record of making good investment decisions. It’s been reported that AT&T lost as much as $50 billion from its purchase of DirecTV. In almost the same time frame, the company lost as much as $42 billion from its purchase and sale of WarnerMedia. The company might not be able to easily borrow the money, particularly at current interest rates.

The final news is that AT&T was fined $23 million to resolve a federal investigation that the company had “unlawfully influenced” the former Illinois Speaker of the House, Michael J. Madigan. AT&T admits that it paid Madigan, through an ally, to promote legislation that would eliminate carrier of last resort in the state – meaning that the company is obligated to serve people who ask for a telephone line. That obligation also comes with legacy regulatory requirements that AT&T wanted to ditch.

What always dismays me, but never surprises me, is that nobody at a big company like AT&T got in trouble for breaking the law – in this case, bribing a government official. The size of the fine might be appropriate for the magnitude of the crime, but I’ve always thought that the folk at big companies would be more likely to hesitate to be unethical if they saw others going to jail for breaking the law. The only real consequence for AT&T, in this case, is that they got caught, and the fine will just be viewed as the cost of doing business.

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Regulation - What is it Good For? Technology

The NTIA Preference for Fiber

As might be expected when there is $42.5 billion in grant funds available, we are probably not done with the rules for the BEAD grants. There are several areas where heavy lobbying is occurring to change some of the rules established by the NTIA in the NOFO for the grants.

One of the areas with the most lobbying is coming from WISPs that are complaining that the NTIA has exceeded its statutory authority by declaring a strong preference for fiber. The NTIA went so far as to declare that fixed wireless technology that doesn’t use licensed spectrum is not a reliable source of broadband and isn’t eligible for BEAD grants. The wireless industry says that the NTIA is out of bounds and not sticking to a mandate to be technology neutral.

I decided to go back to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs legislation and compare it with the NOFO to see if that is true. Let’s start with the enabling language in the legislation. The IIJA legislation makes it clear that the NTIA must determine the technologies that are eligible for the BEAD grants. One of the criteria the NTIA is instructed to use is that grant-funded technologies must be deemed to be reliable. Reliable is defined in the Act using factors other than speed and specifically says that the term “reliable broadband service’ means broadband service that meets performance criteria for service availability, adaptability to changing end-user requirements, length of serviceable life, or other criteria, other than upload and download speeds.

I interpret ‘adaptability to end-user requirements’ to mean that a grant-eligible technology must have some degree of what the industry has been calling being future-proofed. A grant-funded technology must be able to meet future broadband needs and not just the needs of today.

‘Length of serviceable life’ refers to how long a grant investment might be expected to last. Historically, broadband electronics of all types typically don’t have a useful life of much more than a decade. Electronics that sit outside in the elements have an even shorter expected life, with components like outdoor receivers for wireless not usually lasting more than seven years. The broadband assets with the longest useful lives are fiber, huts, and new wireless towers. If you weigh together the average life of all of the components in a broadband network, the average useful life of a fiber network will be several times higher than the useful life of a wireless network.

NTIA then used the reliable service criteria to classify only four technologies as delivering a reliable signal – fiber, cable modem hybrid fiber-coaxial technology, DSL over copper, and terrestrial fixed wireless using licensed spectrum. Since DSL cannot deliver the speeds required by the grants, that leaves only three technologies eligible for BEAD grants.

The legislation allows the NTIA to consider other factors. It appears that one of the other factors the NTIA chose is the likelihood that a strong broadband signal will reach a customer. I speculate that fixed wireless using only unlicensed spectrum was eliminated because interference of unlicensed spectrum can degrade the signal to customers. It’s a little harder to understand which factors were used to eliminate satellite broadband. The high-orbit satellites are eliminated by not being able to meet the 100-millisecond requirement for latency established by the legislation. I would speculate that low-orbit satellites are not eligible for grants because the average life of a given satellite is being touted as being about seven years – but I’m sure there are other reasons, such as not yet having any proof of the speeds that can be delivered when a satellite network fills with customers.

From the short list of technologies deemed to be reliable, the NTIA has gone on to say several times in the NOFO that there is a preference for fiber. When looking at the factors defined by the legislation, fiber is the most future-proofed because speeds can be increased drastically by upgrading electronics. Fiber also has a much longer expected useful life than wireless technology.

The accusations against the NTIA seem to be implying that the NTIA had a preference for fiber even before being handed the BEAD grants. But in the end, the NTIA’s preference for fiber comes from ranking the eligible technologies in terms of how the technologies meet the criteria of the legislation. It’s worth noting that there are other parts of the NOFO that do not promote fiber. For example, state broadband offices are encouraged to consider other alternatives when the cost of construction is too high. I think it’s important to note that any NTIA preference for fiber does not restrict a state from awarding substantial awards to fixed wireless technology using licensed spectrum – that’s going to be a call to make by each state.

There is a lot of lobbying going on the expand the NTIA’s list to include fixed wireless using unlicensed spectrum and satellite broadband. I’ve even heard of rumors of lawsuits to force the expansion of the available technologies. That’s the primary reason I wrote this blog – as a warning that lobbying and/or lawsuits might delay the BEAD grants. I think the NTIA has done what the legislation required, but obviously, anybody who is being excluded from the grants has nothing to lose by trying to get reinstated in the grants. When there is this much money at stake, I don’t expect those who don’t like the NTIA rules to go away quietly.

Categories
The Industry

Broadband Now or Later?

I just heard about a County that is using its ARPA funds to build fixed wireless broadband. This is a traditional fixed wireless broadband technology that will probably deliver speeds of 100 Mbps to those close to the towers, slower speeds to homes further away, and which will not reach all homes in the County.

I understand why they did this. The County is listening to residents who want a broadband solution right now – and an ISP knocked on their door and offered a quick solution. I can’t fault them for this decision. But the wireless company they are partnering with is one of the larger ones and is not known for great customer service. The WISP doesn’t have any customers in the area today, and one hopes the WISP will hire a few local technicians to make this work.

The County had an alternative. It could follow the lead of other counties and used its ARPA money to instead attract an ISP to build fiber to everybody in the rural parts of the county. There are several regional ISPs close to this county that would probably jump at the chance to build a fiber network that is funded by both BEAD grants and local matching grants. It’s my firm belief that counties that form such a partnership with an ISP and also bring local cash to the deal will be the ones that will win the BEAD grants.

But this is not an easy choice. For an area that doesn’t have broadband today, the BEAD grants sound like a far distant opportunity. It’s hard to think that any recipients of BEAD grants will be constructing networks any sooner than 2024 – assuming by then that they’ll be able to get the needed fiber and electronics. Building fiber to a whole county can easily take two or three years, meaning that the last household in this county might not see fiber broadband until late 2026 – or even later with supply chain issues.

The BEAD grant program is feeling agonizingly glacial to anybody in the industry. To some degree, it’s good that the grants weren’t awarded right away since most communities needed time to prepare for grants. To win the grants, somebody has to estimate the cost of building a new network, and the community must choose an ISP partner to fulfill the broadband goal. These are not things that can happen overnight.

But the processes described in the legislation to release BEAD funding are slow and cumbersome. The cynical part of my brain suspects that some of the slow pace of the BEAD grant program was inserted into the legislation through influence from some of the big ISPs. I’ve heard that lobbying is why the grant process insists on using only the FCC maps to determine areas with grant availability. Color me cynical, but a big ISP can use that rule to show poor broadband to the FCC in areas where it wants to pursue grants and show good broadband in areas it would rather protect against competition.

The decision is easy for some counties that have already been approached by local ISPs they know and trust, like small telcos or cooperatives. Such counties know that they are going to get a solution they like, provided by somebody they know will do a good job. But even for these counties, having to wait for fiber construction is torturous. What does a county official say to the family of an eighth-grader who needs home broadband now but may not see it until senior year?

And what about all of the counties that don’t have these trustworthy local ISP partners? Can they just assume that somebody will step in and ask for the BEAD grant funds for their area? What if the ISP winning BEAD grants is one of the giant telcos they don’t trust or some new venture capital firm that is only chasing grants to build and flip the networks? Can a county even assume that anybody will be funded in their area? $42.5 billion sounds like a lot of money, but I’m certain that there are still going to be areas with no broadband solution after all of the smoke clears from the grant awards.

There will be great long-term benefits for a county that is willing to wait to get a fiber network. It’s an asset that is going to be good for the rest of the century, and that can provide as much broadband as homes and businesses are ever going to need. I know some of the WISPs are telling communities to let them build wireless now and that they’ll take the profits and roll that back into fiber eventually. If the ISP telling you that is somebody other than an electric or telephone cooperative, the chances of them self-funding the future conversion to fiber is basically zero. It takes about five minutes of math to show that there will ever be enough profits to fund that promise.

What makes the decision harder is that there will be some WISPS who will do a great job. They’ll start with the best electronics on the market, will build fiber backhaul to towers, and will invest in every coming decade to upgrade radios to keep up with the state of the art. A county that gets this kind of WISP probably is in great hands and made a good decision to get broadband now and not wait. But there are other WISPs who will take the grant money and never invest another dime. It’s hard for a community to know what to believe since both kinds of WISPs will likely make the identical sales pitch.

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The Industry

AT&T Feels Sorry for Cable Companies

In a recent interview given to Diana Goovaerts of FierceTelecom, Chris Sambar, the AT&T EVP of Technology Operations said that the company is not worried about competition from cable companies. He said that AT&T’s fiber technology, which is capable of symmetrical 10-gigabit speeds is far beyond the capability of the cable companies.

He rightfully identified that cable companies must spend a lot on DOCSIS 4.0 to come close to catching up with fiber. What he didn’t mention is that the new cable technology is probably five years away from being market-ready. His zinger in the interview was when he said, “I almost feel bad for them (the cable companies)”.

This is interesting because we haven’t seen any real trash-talking between telcos and cable companies in decades. There was a lot of noise when DSL and cable modems both had 1 Mbps download capabilities, and then again when Verizon first launched FiOS. This quote is going to be talked about in every cable company board room in the coming months because it encapsulates an industry of fiber providers that are not afraid of tackling the cable companies head-on.

The cable companies have had an unprecedented run of clobbering DSL in the market and becoming near-monopolies in most urban markets. My firm hasn’t done a survey in several years where the cable company hasn’t captured at least two-thirds of broadband customers in an urban market.

But as AT&T and other telcos undertake an aggressive fiber overbuilding program, the industry is about to change. AT&T alone plans to pass an additional 15 million homes and businesses by the end of 2025. We also see aggressive buildouts planned by Verizon, Frontier, Windstream, Consolidated, and many others.

AT&T’s CEO John Stankey was quoted last year saying that the company believes that it will gain at least a 50% market share within three years after building fiber in a neighborhood. Some of those customers will be AT&T DSL customers converted to fiber, but a lot of the customers are going to be coming from the cable companies.

If the broadband world only consisted of the cable companies and the big telcos, we could pass off this latest episode as posturing by two industries that intend to continue to share duopoly market power. Telcos will win back customers with fiber, but if the two big incumbents were the only competitors in markets, then after a few years, we’d see a new equilibrium with telcos bigger than today. That’s what we’ve seen in the Northeast in the years since Verizon built its FiOS fiber – Verizon and the cable companies reached an equilibrium where each enjoys high prices and where both are profitable.

But the world is changing around the two big sets of incumbents. There are other competitors edging into urban broadband markets. For example, in the fourth quarter of 2021, T-Mobile added 224,000 customers to its fixed cellular home broadband. While this is being offered in rural areas, T-Mobile says most of its gains are coming from suburban and urban markets where the product offering of decent 100 Mbps speeds and low prices is peeling customers from both the cable companies and the telcos. While 224,000 new customers may not sound like a lot, the whole rest of the broadband industry only added 632,000 net customers in the third quarter of last year. T-Mobile has quickly grown to 646,000 total home broadband customers and will soon break into the top ten list of ISPs.

If T-Mobile was the only competitor, there still wouldn’t be much concern from the big companies. But both AT&T and Verizon are getting ready to unleash a nationwide rollout of a fixed wireless product similar to T-Mobile’s. We’re also seeing the rudimentary beginnings of other wireless providers like Starry, which said it plans to grow to 1.4 million customers by 2026. As mentioned earlier, there are millions of lines of fiber being built each year by Frontier, Windstream, Consolidated, TDS, and many other smaller players – all of these ISPs have the cable companies in their crosshairs.

AT&T has thrown down the gauntlet for the cable companies. The cable companies can watch customers erode while waiting for DOCSIS 4.0. Or the cable industry could follow the lead of smaller cable companies like Altice and start converting to fiber now. But unlike AT&T, which will get new revenues to help pay for fiber, the cable companies already have a large majority of customers in most markets. Building fiber will be harder to justify for the cable companies if they are losing customers.

Comcast and Charter still see the lion’s share of the growth of cable customers each quarter. We’ll really know the cable companies are in trouble when we see that metric slip. If everything AT&T says comes to pass, we ought to see cable companies losing customers a few years from now.

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