The Upload Speed Lie

In the 2020 Broadband Deployment Report, the FCC made the following claim. “The vast majority of Americans – surpassing 85% – now have access to fixed terrestrial broadband service at 250/25 Mbps”. The FCC makes this claim based upon the data provided to it by the country’s ISPs on Form 477. We know the data reported by the ISPs is badly flawed in the over-reporting of download speeds, but we’ve paid little attention to the second number the FCC cites – the 25 Mbps upload speeds that are supposedly available to everybody. I think the FCC claim that 85% of homes have access to 25 Mbps upload speeds is massively overstated.

The vast majority of the customers covered by the FCC statement are served by cable companies using hybrid fiber-coaxial technology. I don’t believe that cable companies are widely delivering upload speeds greater than 25 Mbps upload. I think the FCC has the story partly right. I think cable companies tell customers that the broadband products they buy have upload speeds of 25 Mbps, and the cable company’s largely report these marketing speeds on Form 477.

But do cable companies really deliver 25 Mbps upload speeds? One of the services my consulting firm provides is helping communities conduct speed tests. We’ve done speed tests in cities recently where only a tiny fraction of customers measured upload speeds greater than 25 Mbps on a cable HFC network.

It’s fairly easy to understand the upload speed capacity of a cable system. The first thing to understand is the upload capacity based upon the way the technology is deployed. Most cable systems deploy upload broadband using the frequencies on the cable system between 5 MHz and 42 MHz. This is a relatively small amount of bandwidth that sits at the noisiest part of cable TV frequency. I remember back to the days of analog broadcast TV and analog cable systems when somebody running a blender or a microwave would disrupt the signals on channels 2 through 5 – the cable companies are now using these same frequencies for uploading broadband. The DOCSIS 3.0 specification assigned upload broadband to the worst part of the spectrum because before the pandemic almost nobody cared about upload broadband speeds.

The second factor affecting upload speeds is the nature of the upload requests from customers. Before the pandemic, the upload link was mostly used to send out attachments to emails or backup data on a computer into the cloud. These are largely temporary uses of the upload link and are also considered non-critical – it didn’t matter to most folks if a file was uploaded in ten seconds or five minutes. However, during the pandemic, all of the new uses for uploading require a steady and dedicated upload data stream. People now are using the upload link to connect to school servers, to connect to work servers, to take college classes online, and to sit on video call services like Zoom. These are critical applications – if the upload broadband is not steady and sufficient the user loses the connection. The new upload applications can’t tolerate best effort – a connection to a school server either works or it doesn’t.

The final big factor that affects the bandwidth on a cable network is demand. Before the pandemic, a user had a better chance than today of hitting 25 Mbps upload because they might have been one of a few people trying to upload at any given time. But today a lot of homes are trying to make upload connections at the same time. This matters because a cable system shares bandwidth both in the home, but also in the neighborhood.

The upload link from a home can get overloaded if more than one person tries to connect to the upload link at the same time. Homes with a poor upload connection will find that a second or a third user cannot establish a connection. The same thing happens at the neighborhood level – if too many homes in a given neighborhood are trying to connect to upload links, then the bandwidth for the whole neighborhood becomes overloaded and starts to fail. Remember a decade ago that it was common for downloaded videos streams to freeze or pixelate in the evening when a lot of homes were using broadband? The cable companies have largely solved the download problem, but now we’re seeing neighborhoods overloading on upload speeds. This results in people unable to establish a connection to a work server or being booted off a Zoom call.

The net result of the overloaded upload links is that the cable companies cannot deliver 25 Mbps to most homes during the times when people are busy on the upload links. The cable companies have ways to fix this – but most fixes mean expensive upgrades. I bet that the cable companies are hoping this problem will magically go away at the end of the pandemic. But I’m guessing that people are going to continue to use upload speeds at levels far higher than before the pandemic. Meanwhile, if the cable companies were being honest, they would not be reporting 25 Mbps upload speeds to the FCC. (Just typing that made me chuckle because it’s not going to happen.)

We Need Penalties for Bad FCC Mapping Data

The FCC has been in the process of implementing revised mapping that will fix a lot of the problems with the current 477 broadband reporting process. The needed changes should be further boosted by the Broadband DATA Act that was signed into law on Monday. The new mapping will use polygons, and ISPs are supposed to show precise coverage areas for where they offer or don’t offer broadband.

If ISPs do this correctly – and that’s a big if – then this will fix at least one big problem that I call the town boundary problem. The current FCC data gathering asks ISPs to report the fastest speed they can deliver in a census block. Unfortunately, census blocks don’t stop at town boundaries, and so the FCC databases regularly assumes that all of the people outside of town can receive the same speeds as people inside the towns. If cable companies and fiber providers draw honest polygons that stop where their network stops, this boundary issue should disappear.

Unfortunately, the benefits of the new mapping are not so clear cut in rural areas. DSL providers and fixed wireless providers are also supposed to draw polygons. The rural polygons are supposed to only cover existing customers as well as places that can be connected within ten business days of a customer request for activation.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately looking through the claimed coverage on Form 477 by telco DSL and WISPs. Some of the things I see in the FCC database are massively erroneous and I’m not convinced that rural ISPs will clean up their act even if they are forced to use the polygons. Consider a few examples:

  • I’ve been working with a sparsely populated county that has large rural census blocks – which is pretty normal. The incumbent telco claims 25/3 Mbps coverage for almost all of the rural areas of the county. We’ve been working with the county to have residents perform speed tests and have seen almost no speeds faster than 5 Mbps, with some speeds on DSL below 1 Mbps. The incumbent telco does widely offer DSL, but the claimed 25/3 Mbps capability reported to the FCC is pure fantasy.
  • I’m working with another rural county where two WISPs claim to provide 100 Mbps wireless service covering the whole county. The WISPs don’t operate towers in the county and their nearest towers are in a nearby county. The county has undertaken a large canvass of residents to identify the ISPs in the county and so far hasn’t found even one customer of these WISPs. Even if they find a few customers, the WISPs can’t deliver 100 Mbps wireless broadband from towers more than 10 miles away – it’s doubtful they deliver that much speed even next to the existing towers.

I am not convinced that the revised FCC mapping is going to fix these two situations. The incumbent telco is going to say that they can install DSL within ten business days everywhere in the county – so they might not shrink their claimed coverage when going to the polygons. The problem with the telco isn’t the coverage area – it’s the claimed speeds. If the new FCC reporting still allows ISPs to overstate speeds, then nothing will be fixed in this county with the new mapping.

The two WISPs have a double problem. First, the coverage area of the two WISPs seem to be highly exaggerated. The WISPs are also exaggerating the broadband speeds available and there is zero chance that the WISPs are delivering speeds even remotely close to 100 Mbps broadband from a distant tower. These WISPs seem to be guilty of overstating both the coverage areas and the speeds. Unfortunately, the WISPs might still claim they can install in this area within 10 business days and might not shrink their claimed coverage. And unless they are somehow forced, the WISPs might not lower the claim of 100 Mbps.

There are real life consequences to the claims made in these two examples. In the first example, the FCC believes the whole county has access to 25/3 Mbps DSL, when in fact it looks like nobody has DSL even close to that speed. The county with the two WISPs is in even worse shape. The FCC considers this county completely covered with 100/10 Mbps broadband, when in fact there is no fast broadband coverage. In reality, the fastest broadband option in some parts of the county is a third WISP that markets speeds of 15 Mbps but mostly delivers less.

The consequences of the current mapping are dire for both of these counties. These counties are not included in the FCC’s eligible areas for $20 billion RDOF grants that was just published because the FCC thinks these counties have good broadband. If the ISP data being reported was honest, both counties would be eligible for these grants. These counties might be eligible for other grants that would allow the grant applicant to challenge the FCC speed data – but such challenges are a lot of work and don’t always get accepted.

I know there are hundreds of other counties in the same situation, and I have little faith that new mapping is going to fix this in rural areas. What is needed are severe fines for ISPs that overstate speed or coverage areas. In this case, the existing ISPs are causing huge economic harm to these counties and the fines ought to be set accordingly. I don’t understand what motivates ISPs to claim speeds that don’t exist – but if we are going to fix rural broadband, we need to start by kicking the bad ISP actors hard in the pocketbook.

The Broadband DATA Act allows for a challenge process so that localities can force honest reporting. The FCC needs to implement this immediately, without more study or delay.

How Many Homes Can’t Get Broadband?

cheetah-993774The FCC periodically puts out some very high-level statistics that talk about the state of broadband in the US. They issued their annual broadband report in January and made the following high-level announcements:

  • 39% of rural households don’t have access to broadband that meets the FCC definition of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.
  • 4% of urban households don’t have access to those speeds.
  • 41% of schools still do not have 100 Mbps download speeds.
  • Only 9% of schools have 1 Gbps broadband.

I looked deeper into how the FCC counts these various numbers to try to make some sense of them, and the following is what I discovered.

First, they followed the Census definition of urban and rural areas. The Census defines urban areas in one of two ways. One definition of an urban area is a defined geography with more than 50,000 people. It can also be a cluster of smaller towns in a fairly adjacent geographical area that has more than 2,500 people but less than 50,000. In the Census estimate for 2015 the urban areas include about 260 million people. Anything that is not urban is rural, which in 2015 is about 61.5 million people.

If a rural county has a county seat with more than 50,000 people, the county seat would counted as urban and the rest of the county would be rural. Otherwise the whole county is normally counted as rural. But in big urban areas, like the northeast corridor, many areas that you would consider as rural are included in the urban areas. So there is a significant amount of crossover at the edges of these two types of areas. For instance, for broadband purposes we know that somebody that lives 50 feet past where the cable company stops at a county seat might not be able to get broadband, but they might often still be counted as urban.

The raw data that backs up these statistics is still self-reported to the FCC by the ISPs annually on Form 477. On this form telcos and cable companies must report the speeds that they deliver to census blocks, which are census-defined areas of 500 to 900 homes. I looked through this mass of data and there are a huge number of census blocks that are reported at broadband speeds like 3 Mbps or 6 Mbps download. In most cases this is DSL, and our experience is that a whole lot of people in rural DSL areas can’t really get those speeds. That is the ‘advertised’ speed or the theoretical speed. This has always been an issue and I’ve always contended that there are far more homes that can’t get broadband than are reported by Form 477.

Using these FCC numbers means that there are about 24 million people (or 10 million homes) in the rural areas that can’t get the FCC’s defined broadband speeds. While the 4% of urban areas that can’t get fast broadband sounds small, it still equates to 10.4 million people or 4.3 million homes. So what the FCC numbers are really saying is that there are 34 million people and 14.7 million homes in the country that can’t get an FCC-define broadband connection.

I am positive that this number is conservatively low. Census blocks are not assigned by nice political boundaries and there are huge numbers of census blocks that cover both towns and country areas. There has to be many homes that are in census blocks where some of the people can get the speeds shown on Form 477 while others can’t. My guess is that there must be additional millions of people that supposedly can get broadband but that really can’t. Even in towns anybody that lives right past where the cable TV network stops is not going to get much broadband.

The FCC says that they are solving part of the rural broadband problem with CAF II funding which is supposed to bring faster connections to 3.6 million of these homes. But those funds only require upgrades to technology that will achieve 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. That program is not going to remove any homes from the list of those that can’t get broadband.

I really hate to see public announcements that talk in nationwide percentages instead of numbers. This always makes it feel like they are trying to pull something over on us. I had to dig really hard to go one level behind the one-page press release – and that doesn’t really help the public to understand the situation. Much more useful would have been detailed tables by geographic areas that let people see the state of broadband in their area. I suspect they don’t do that because then many of the problems with carrier self-reporting would be more obvious.