Putting the Lifeline Program on Hold

FCC_New_LogoEarlier this month the FCC under new Chairman Ajit Pai reversed earlier FCC approval for nine Lifeline providers who had been granted the ability to provide either wireline or wireless Lifeline broadband service. The Lifeline program grants a subsidy of $9.25 per month for low-income customers.

These were the first nine companies that had filed for the new Lifeline Broadband Provider designation to provide the subsidy for broadband connections. The Lifeline program for 32 years has provided this same subsidy to telephone service, but last year the program was extended also to data services – with the caveat that a given household is only eligible for one monthly subsidy.

The nine providers are Spot On, Boomerang Wireless, KonaTel, FreedomPop, AR Designs, Kajeet, Liberty, Northland Cable, and Wabash Independent Networks. Four of the providers had obtained their new Lifeline status on December 1 with the others being granted in January. Boomerang Wireless had already started to serve lifeline-eligible customers and the FCC ordered them to notify their customers and to cancel all lifeline subsidies within 60 days of the new order.

The stated reason for the reversals was that the FCC wanted to “promote program integrity by providing the Bureau with additional time to consider measures that might be necessary to prevent further waste, fraud, and abuse in the Lifeline program.” None of these companies has been accused of fraud but rather were the first nine companies to be granted the status of Lifeline Broadband Provider with the ability to sell a subsidized data product.

The fraud issue is an interesting one because the FCC had already overhauled the Lifeline processes to protect against fraud. For years carriers were allowed to self-certify that customers met at least one of several qualifications that made them eligible for Lifeline. But the FCC eliminated self-certification by publishing a national list of eligible customers – the list provided by and updated by other federal agencies overseeing eligible programs.

The FCC had also done compliance audits over the last several years looking for Lifeline fraud and didn’t find much of it. The new FCC order cited a $30 million settlement from Total Call Mobile that had been found to be seeking reimbursement for duplicate and ineligible customers. But the vast majority of the lifeline providers were found to have few or no issues.

Customers may have other options because the 800 carriers that already provide a Lifeline voice subsidy are now also allowed to provide a data subsidy. But nobody knows how many of these existing providers plan to offer subsidized data, and in fact over 80 Lifeline-eligible carriers recently asked to be excused from the program. This includes most of the biggest carriers in the country including AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Charter, Cox, Frontier, Fairpoint, Windstream and Cincinnati Bell. There were also a lot of wireless carriers asking to be excused from the program.

It’s possible that politics has something to do with this order. The FCC under past Chairman Wheeler had reset the Lifeline program’s annual budget to $2.25 billion a year, indexed to inflation. There are Republicans in Congress who have called for the program to be capped instead at $1.75 billion annually. Stopping these new providers is one way to stop the program from growing. One would think that the withdrawal of the biggest carriers from the program will also greatly shrink the fund.

The most interesting thing about this order to me is that it seems to conflict with statements made by new Chairman Pai. On his first day as Chairman he addressed FCC employees and told them that one of his top goals was to bring broadband to all Americans. But this reversal of Lifeline status came just three days later and seems contrary to that goal.

It’s certainly possible that after more internal review that these companies might still be granted Lifeline status. But this also might instead be an indicator that the new Chairman wants to curb the Lifeline program, or maybe even eliminate it. I guess we are going to have to wait a while to see what this all means, including the Chairman’s statements about expanding broadband to all.

Is the Lifeline Program in Danger?

FCC_New_LogoOne has to ask if the FCC’s Lifeline program is in trouble. First, within the last month 80 carriers have asked to be relieved from participating in the program. This includes many of the largest ISPs / telcos and includes AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Charter, Cox, Frontier, Fairpoint, Windstream and Cincinnati Bell. There are a lot of wireless companies on the list and it’s easier to understand why they might not want to participate. The rest of the list is filled out with smaller telcos and some fiber overbuilders.

These companies easily represent more than half of all the telephone customers and a significant percentage of data customers in the country. If these companies don’t participate in the Lifeline program then it’s not going to be available to a large portion of the country. The purpose of the Lifeline program is to provide assistance to low-income households to buy telecom services. It’s hard to see how the program can be sustained with such a reduced participation.

Originally the program was used only to subsidize landline telephone service. For the las few years it also has been available to cover cellphone service as an alternative to a landline. The most recent changes expand the definition to also allow the plan to cover broadband connections, with the caveat that only one service can be subsidized per household. While it’s not yet official, one can foresee that ultimately it will be used to subsidize only broadband and that coverage of telephones will eventually disappear.

The coverage that the new Lifeline provides for cellular data is a mystery. The plan covers 3G data connections and allows the providers to cap such services at a measly 500 megabytes of total downloaded per month. This seems to be in direct opposition to the stated goal of the Lifeline program to provide support to close the ‘homework gap’.

I also foresee larger problems looming for the entire Universal Service Fund program, of which Lifeline is one component. It’s already clear that the new administration is going to remake the FCC to be a weaker regulatory body. At a minimum the new FCC will reverse many of the regulations affecting the large telcos and cable companies.

But there is a bigger threat in that there are many in Congress that have been calling for years for the abolishment of the FCC and for scattering their responsibilities to other parts of the government. This could be done during budget appropriations or by including it in a new Telecom Act.

The opponents of the FCC in Congress have also specifically railed against the Lifeline program for years. There was a huge furor a few years ago about the so-called Obamaphones, where carriers were supposedly giving smartphones to customers, all paid for by the government. It turns out those claims were false. The only plan that was anywhere close to this was a plan from SafeLink Wireless. They used the Lifeline subsidy to provide eligible low-income households with a cheap flip-phone that came with one-hour of free calling plus voice mail. This very minimalist telephone connection gave people a way to have a phone number to use while hunting for a job and to connect with social services. But there were no Lifeline plans that provided smartphones to low income households like was portrayed by many opponents of the Lifeline program.

But rightly or wrongly, there are now a number of opponents to the Lifeline program, and that means that the plan could be a target for those trying to trim back the FCC. It’s going to be a lot harder to defend the Lifeline program if none of the major carriers are participating in it. There certainly will be a lot of changes made in the coming year at the FCC, and my gut tells me that programs like Lifeline could be on the chopping block if the big players in the industry don’t support it. If nothing else, the big ISPs would prefer to have funds allocated to Lifeline today to be re-purposed for something that benefits them more directly.

Note:  In an interesting development the FCC just rejected a petition from the NTCA and the WTA that asked that small companies be excused from some provisions of the Lifeline order. The FCC ruling basically says that any small company that is receiving high cost support and that offers a standalone data product must accept requests from customers who want to participate in the Lifeline Program. I am sure that this is not the end of the story and there will be more back and forth on the issue.

2017 Regulatory Trends

FCC_New_LogoNow that we are at the end of the year I’m going to spend a few blogs looking forward into 2017 from the perspective of small carriers. Predictions about the direction of regulation is perhaps the easiest trend to write about since it looks like the trend for 2017 will be to undo many of the things done by the FCC over the last few years. So here are the regulatory trends I think will be most important to small carriers.

Net Neutrality Will be Reversed. It’s pretty obvious that the FCC’s current net neutrality rules will be reversed in short order in the new year. We already have Commissioners Ajit Pai and Mike O’Rielly strongly on the record opposing the FCC’s prior actions. This could be done in two ways. First could be a direct reversal of the net neutrality ruling. But another tactic might be to reverse Title II regulation but allow the net neutrality principles to stay in place – basically to acknowledge the net neutrality principles that the public clearly likes but to remove the ability to enforce those rules.

Interestingly, net neutrality hasn’t had much direct impact on small carriers since none of them have the market power to violate it. The one impact of this reversal for small carriers is that it will unfetter Comcast, Charter, Verizon and AT&T from most regulations and will give them greater market power and the ability to more aggressively squash smaller competitors.

One benefit of net neutrality was that it gave the general public some comfort that they couldn’t be preyed upon by large ISPs. So small carriers might want to periodically remind your customers that you will still be adhering to the principles of net neutrality even though this might not still be a formal requirement.

Reversal of New Privacy Rules. It’s also clear that the FCC is going to reverse most or all of the new privacy rules. These rules stopped ISPs from using customer data without explicit permission. There were parts of these rule that small carriers didn’t like. But for the most part small ISPs don’t use customer data for marketing purposes and don’t sell customer data to marketers. I think small carriers should periodically remind your customers that you don’t misuse or sell their data, but that your big competitors do.

Lifeline Changes. I think it’s likely that the new FCC will change the data lifeline program that pays $9.25 per month towards the data bill for qualifying families. At a minimum they might curtail this for cellular data plans, but there is even the possibility that they will eliminate it.

There is also talk of going back to a numbers-based method to fund the Universal Service Fund. This would impose a tax of around $1 on every telephone number. This is supported by the big telcos since they no longer control the majority of telephone numbers, but even more so because this would remove USF assessments on special access circuits.

A New Telecom Act. I expect Congress to enact a new telecom act. There are certainly parts of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that are way out of date. That Act concentrated on copper telco networks and on traditional large cable line-ups and we need to now acknowledge that copper telco networks are quickly disappearing and that the public wants non-traditional cable packages.

But I also expect that any new act is going to drastically change the role of the FCC. My guess is that Congress wants to throttle the FCC’s power so that the agency won’t have much power if there is another change in administration. There have been threats from Congressmen in the past year to abolish the FCC altogether, but I think once they look at all of the things the agency does that cooler heads will prevail. But we might be seeing permanently reduced federal regulatory oversight of the industry.

Resurgence of State Regulation. If the FCC delivers on the stated goal of the new administration to whack FCC regulations, I expect that some state regulators will step in to fill the regulatory gap. After all, regulators like to regulate! It would not be surprising to see the most active state regulatory commissions like California, New York, Texas and Illinois tackle topics that the FCC might drop. And that would undoubtedly mean a string of states-rights lawsuits.

How to Collect Broadband Lifeline

USF-logoThe Wireline Bureau of the FCC released clarification rules last week in Docket DA 16-1118 that describe how companies can participate in the broadband Lifeline program. This is the program where the Universal Service Fund will compensate ISPs $9.25 per month for broadband customers that qualify for the Lifeline program.

The program requires landline speeds of 10/1 Mbps with a data cap of no less than 150 GB per month. Mobile speeds can be slower and there is also a much lower data cap starting at 500 MB and increasing to 2 GB by the end of 2018. The FCC has established a registry listing eligible participants called the National Eligibility Verifier. Only households in that registry can receive the Lifeline subsidy and only one subsidy is allowed per household.

The new clarification in the docket describes the process for ISPs to participate in the Lifeline Fund. The FCC will require ISPs to register as a Lifeline Broadband Provider (LBP). The FCC is developing an application process for ISPs that want to gain this designation.

The original order said that the FCC had up to six months to act on LBP applications, but there is now the ability to request a streamlined process where the FCC will approve requests within 60 days. Basically an ISP must complete the application, and if they don’t hear back from the FCC then they automatically have the designation on the 60th day after submission of the request. If the FCC asks questions or asks for changes to the submitted information then the request will be approved 60 days after the request filing has been amended and corrected.

In order to qualify for the streamlined and expedited review process an applicant must 1) serve at least 1,000 non-Lifeline voice customers and/or 1,000 Lifeline-eligible broadband Internet access service (BIAS) customers. This would be measured as a snapshot as of the time of making the application; and, 2) has offered broadband service to the public for at least two years, without interruption. So the expedited process is for established ISPs and not new ones.

Any ISP that doesn’t meet the streamlined review process will still have their application reviewed within six months.

Carriers that are already certified as Eligible Telecommunications Carriers (ETCs) or as Lifeline-only ETCs do not need to seek the LBP status unless they are seeking to ask for Lifeline subsidies in new geographic areas where they were not previously certified.

In a petition to seek LBP status a carrier must:

  • Certify that they will meet all of the service requirements of the Lifeline program.
  • They must demonstrate the ability to remain functional during emergency situations and that they have taken precautions such as having back-up power to remain functional.
  • Demonstrate that they will satisfy all applicable consumer protection service quality standards.
  • Demonstrate that they are financially and technically capable of meeting all of the FCC rules needed to provide Lifeline. The FCC will look to see that the company can be viable without receiving the subsidies.
  • Provide the terms and conditions that the ISP will offer to Lifeline subscribers.

The FCC is clearly trying to help as many ISPs as possible to participate in the Lifeline program. If your company is interested in taking part in this program feel free to contact CCG Consulting and we can help you through the application process.

What’s Next After the Net Neutrality Ruling?

Network_neutrality_poster_symbolNow that the US District Court has affirmed the net neutrality ruling in its entirety it’s worth considering where the FCC will go next. Up until now it’s been clear that they have been somewhat tentative about strongly enforcing net neutrality issues since they didn’t want to have to reverse a year of regulatory work with a negative court opinion. But there are a number of issues that the FCC is now likely to tackle.

Zero-Rating. I would think that zero-rating must be high on their list. This is the practice of offering content that doesn’t count against monthly data caps. This probably most affects the customers in the cellular world where both AT&T and T-Mobile have their own video offerings that don’t count against data caps. With the tiny data caps on wireless broadband there is no doubt that it is a major incentive for customers to watch that free content, and consequently drive ad revenues to their own carrier.

But zero-rating exists in the landline world as well. Comcast has been offering some of its content on the web to its own customers. They claim this is not zero-rating, but from a technical perspective it is. However, now that Comcast has raised the monthly data cap to 1 terabit then this might not be of much concern to the FCC right now.

Privacy. The FCC has already proposed controversial rules that apply to the ISPs and consumer privacy. In those rules the FCC proposes to give customers the option to opt-out of getting advertisement from ISPs, but more importantly consumers can opt-out of being tracked. This would put the ISPs at a distinct disadvantage compared to edge providers like Facebook or Google who are still free to track online usage.

Last year the FCC also started to look at the ‘super-cookies’ that Verizon was using to track customers across the web. This privacy ruling (which is now on a lot more secure footing based upon the net neutrality order) could end the supercookies and many other ways that ISPs might track customer web behavior. Interestingly, both Verizon and AT&T have been bidding on buying Yahoo and this potential privacy ruling puts a big question mark on how valuable that acquisition might be if customers can all opt out from being tracked. I think Verizon and AT&T (and Comcast) all are eyeing the gigantic ad revenues being gained by web companies and this ruling is going to make it a challenge for them to make big headway in that arena.

Lifeline. I think that the net neutrality ruling also makes it easier for the FCC to defend their new plans to provide a subsidy to low-income data customers in the same manner they have always done for voice customers. Now that data is also regulated under Title II it fits right in to the existing Lifeline framework.

Data Caps. At some point I expect the FCC to tackle data caps. It’s been made clear by many in the industry that there are no network reasons for these caps, even in the cellular world. The cellular data plans in most of the rest of the world are either unlimited or have extremely high data caps.

The FCC said in establishing net neutrality that they would not regulate broadband rates. And in the strictest sense if they tackle data caps they would not be. The regulatory rate process is one where carriers must justify that rates aren’t too high or too low and has always been used, as much as anything, to avoid obvious subsidies.

But data caps – while they can drive a lot of revenues for ISPs – are not strictly a rate issue, and in facts, the ISPs hop through a lot of verbal hoops to say that data caps are not about driving revenues. And so I think the FCC can regulate data caps as an unnecessary network practice. It’s been said recently that AT&T is again selectively enforcing its 150 monthly gigabit cap, and so expect the public outcry to soon reach the FCC again, like happened last year with Comcast.

Raising Data Caps

comcast-truck-cmcsa-cmcsk_largeBrace yourself, because I am about to say nice things about Comcast. Last week Comcast announced that it was raising its month data caps countrywide to 1 TB (terabyte). This is an increase from the current caps of 300 GB that the company has implemented in a number of markets starting last year. This is good news for me. My household easily exceeds the 300 GB data caps. It’s a relief to know that I am not going to be seeing the small data cap.

There are probably a few reasons why Comcast decided to raise the cap. First, the FCC just required that one of the conditions for Charter’s purchase of Time Warner is that they impose no data caps on customers for seven years. In making that statement the FCC said that they had serious concerns about ISP data caps if those same ISPs also owned video programming, like Time Warner. In such cases, the ISP imposing data caps is favoring their own content over Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu delivered over the Internet.

And of course, the ISP that owns the most content is Comcast. They not only own NBC and other TV networks, but they just announced last week that they are going to buy DreamWorks. And so the company probably raised the data caps voluntarily rather than have it imposed on them during any investigation of the DreamWorks purchase.

Comcast was also taking a lot of bashing about the data caps. Data cap complaints have soared to become the most common consumer issue at the FCC. People complained that Comcast wasn’t measuring their usage correctly and that the caps were penalizing them for watching online video rather than buying Comcast video.

I always found the numbers that Comcast quoted about data caps to be suspicious. When they imposed the 300 GB data caps they said that only 8% of their customers exceeded that cap each month. They said last week that 1% of their customers exceed the 1 TB limit. I always thought the 8% number sounded too small, and if the TB number is correct it probably is. It’s hard to think that any household that watches a significant amount of online video doesn’t hit the 300 GB cap.

In addition to video, anybody who downloads games and 4K movies are surely exceeding that cap. It’s not unusual for a game or 4K movie file to be between 40 GB and 60 GB, and it wouldn’t take long for files that large to blow the 300 GB data cap.

But what perplexes me is that if the FCC is generically against data caps, why did they just impose a cap on the new Lifeline data programs? They imposed a cap on any customer getting a landline data subsidy to a 150 GB monthly cap and imposed an unbelievably paltry cap on mobile data of ½ GB per month. I’ve been scratching my head since I read the order trying to figure out why there are any data caps at all on the Lifeline plan.

This is particularly perplexing since one of the major stated purposes of the Lifeline plan is to close the “homework gap.” From everything I read, a large part of homework these days is assigning videos for homework. Students watch schoolwork videos at home, saving valuable class time to then discuss the video. But having data caps on homework plans – or allowing mobile data to be used for this purpose – is puzzling.

There are still a few big players in the industry with data caps that the FCC is surely watching. Both Verizon and AT&T now have video products as part of their monthly service that don’t count against their mobile data caps. It’s hard to think that this is going to be allowed to stand. Mobile data in the USA is close to the most expensive data in the world and hopefully the FCC can find a way to get the wireless carriers to raise data caps in the same way that they are getting the big landline companies to do so. I think the FCC just missed a big chance by not requiring removal of data caps as a requirement to buy new spectrum.

People in the rest of the world are amazed at our data caps. For most of the world, if you have a mobile data plan you can use it pretty much as much as you want. Foreign cellular providers don’t make any promises that mobile data will always be available, but they expect customers to actually use it.  The fact that US cellular carriers impose incredibly stingy data caps is frustrating and I hope the FCC has the wireless carriers in their crosshairs.

The Puzzling Lifeline Order

USACThe FCC has released more details of the revised Lifeline program order. It’s a long order and I won’t even try to summarize the order in this blog since the Internet will be full of such summaries in a few days.

Instead, I am going to highlight a few parts of the order that truly have me puzzled. The intent of the Lifeline order was to help to promote broadband adoption for low-income households. Unfortunately there are parts of the order that I think might accomplish the opposite of what is intended.

My primary beef with the plan (and it’s a huge one) is that the fund can be used to subsidize 3G cellular service. Not only that, but it will support cellular data plans with a monthly data cap of only 500 MB (half of 1 gigabit). This is mind-boggling to consider.

One of the stated purposes of the Lifeline plan is to help close the “homework gap” by providing data connections for school age children. What sort of homework gap does the FCC think it is closing with a 3G connection and a miniscule monthly data cap? The FCC is basically supporting a flip-phone data plan.

There has been a lot of recent press about how some broadband customers are now opting for mobile data over landline data, and I figure this has to mostly be to save money. The people who are choosing mobile data as their only option either aren’t big data users or else they have access during the day somebody’s WiFi on a landline data connection.

A few weeks ago I was in eastern Washington State at a hotel that had data speeds so slow that I couldn’t even open email. And so for two evenings I used my mobile data to connect my laptop. I didn’t watch any video and just conducted business, followed some election news and looked at Facebook a bit, and in two short evenings I used over 2.5 GB of data. It is impossible to use mobile data to do normal functions over the Internet.

And yet, somehow a family with school kids is supposed to be able to use a 3G mobile connection that has a data cap for the whole month of half of a gigabit? Have you ever tried opening a big web page on 3G? The FCC’s plan is beyond ludicrous. I’m picturing that AT&T and Verizon are either going to cut people off the Lifeline connection when they reach the tiny monthly cap or else they are going to nail the poorest households with data overage charges – and those households will end up spending more for mobile data than they do today.

I guess the FCC thinks the ½ gigabyte cap is too small and the cap will grow to 2 GB by the end of 2018. But even that will provide almost no real functionality for kids doing homework. I’m picturing kids watching assigned videos on their phone and using their monthly data cap on the first school day of the month. The FCC has caved in to special interests and has handed a huge revenue stream to the wireless carriers that is downright sickening. This one provision basically ruins the functionality of the Lifeline plan in my eyes because the wireless carriers are going to siphon off huge amounts of Lifeline fund for worthless data plans.

The other part of the plan that I dislike is the cap on wireline data. This requires that low income households be given connection speeds of at least 10 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream. This is not great (and not broadband according to the FCC) but it is good enough for the homework gap. Yet anybody getting this assistance can still be subjected to a monthly data cap of 150 GB.

And so, a household today that might already have a data plan with no cap is going to get a data cap slapped on their household due to taking advantage of a $10 per month subsidy from the FCC. Comcast just raised their data caps to 1 TB (terabit), something that I was very happy to see. But now the FCC comes along and imposes a much smaller data cap on Lifeline landline connections. Should a customer who is paying $40 today for a data connection be penalized that heavily because they accept a $10 subsidy on their broadband? This feels vindictive to me, as if the sentiment is “No on-line video for you poor people!”

I honestly don’t understand why the FCC would impose data caps on Lifeline plans, and particularly don’t understand why they would impose data caps that are more stringent than what the carriers already have in place today. Hopefully the carriers will ignore these caps and let customers have the same cap as anybody else with the same plan. But I fear otherwise, and that makes the practical application of the Lifeline order pretty rotten in my mind.

Government and the Digital Divide

Capitol_domeThere were two interesting announcements from politicians in the last week concerning the digital divide. First, there was an announcement from President Obama saying that he wants to connect 20 million more Americans to broadband by 2020. Then Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, announced that he wants to connect all of the 5.2 million schoolchildren in Texas to the Internet by 2018.

President Obama’s announcement was accompanied by a plan called ConnectALL. The plan was prompted in part by a recent study that shows that households making less than $25,000 per year are half as likely to have broadband as households that make more. The plan makes a number of specific proposals for things the federal government can do to increase broadband penetration rates:

  • The primary tool proposed is to revise the Lifeline program that subsidizes telephone service for low income households and to redirect the $1.2 billion spent annually on that program to subsidize broadband connections instead. This is something that is already underway at the FCC and the proposed rules on how this might work are expected out later this year.
  • The plan also includes an initiative to improve digital literacy skills. The plan would engage a number of volunteer and non-profit organizations to make this a priority. This would include AmeriCorps volunteers as well as organizations like the Corporation for National and Community Services, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The plan would also promote more computer skill training at two-year colleges.
  • The plan would also promote the reuse of computers and similar equipment no longer needed by the federal government.
  • The plan would also direct the NTIA to get more involved in supporting community broadband planning. It would also bring in a number of non-profits and philanthropic groups to help with this effort.
  • The plan also calls for ISPs to offer more lower-price products for low-income households.

The Texas governor has not yet released any details of how he might go about connecting all school children to broadband in such a short period of time. The only solution I can imagine that could happen that quickly would be some sort of cellular plan just for kids to get connected to school servers. 2018 is practically right around the corner in terms of solving broadband issues.

These kind of announcements always sound great. Certainly both politicians have identified real issues. It’s becoming quite clear that poor households are increasingly finding broadband unaffordable. But one has to ask how much success the federal plan might really have. Certainly subsiding internet connectivity for low-income households will bring some new households onto the Internet. But you need to ask how much of an incentive $10 per month is for a home that can’t afford broadband today.

Certainly the $1.2 billion per year in Lifeline funding can reach 20 million people – that amount will provide cheaper broadband to 10 million homes. But you would have to think that a lot of those homes are already receiving this same subsidy today for their home phone, and when a household swaps a phone subsidy for a broadband subsidy they are no better off in terms of total telecom spending. They will just have swapped a $10 per month discount from one bill to another.

And all of the other proposed solutions sound wonderful on paper – but will they work to get more people on the Internet? I know that computer literacy training can work well if done right. I have one client who has been holding training sessions for customers for well over a decade and over the years they have brought a lot of elderly in their community onto the Internet. But they say that it takes a major time commitment for each potential customer and a concentrated effort for this to work – they often will work with a given customer for many months before that person is comfortable enough to buy Internet at their home.

And none of the federal ideas really fix the underlying problem of affordability. The Lifeline program will reduce broadband by $10 per month, but in homes that are surviving on jobs that pay $12 per hour or less, broadband at any price is hard to afford. I certainly don’t have an answer to this problem, but there are other ideas that I think ought to be considered as well. For example, $1.2 billion per year could supply a lot of broadband by building a huge number of neighborhood WiFi transmitters that could bring cheap or free Internet to many homes at the same time. I’ve always thought that the cities that are looking to provide free WiFi broadband are on the right track because that brings broadband the neediest households  without the paperwork and expense that comes with subsidy programs.

The last item on the list above has the most promise. A lot of good could come from pushing the major ISPs to offer a $10 or $20 broadband alternative. But this was forced onto Comcast a number of years ago and they largely shirked the responsibility and provided low-price broadband to very few homes.

I’ve been skeptical for years that the Lifeline program makes a lot of difference. It probably did when the program first started in 1985 and the typical phone bill was under $20. But the $10 discount that was a lot in 1985 is worth a lot less now. It just doesn’t feel like enough of an incentive to make the difference the government is hoping for.

Broadband Adoption and Income

eyeballThe Brookings Institute just released a report, Broadband Adoption Rates and Gaps in U.S. Metropolitan Areas, that looks at metropolitan broadband rates around the country. The report uses a broad definition of broadband that includes cable modem, DSL, fiber, cellular data, satellite, and fixed wireless service.

The report acknowledges that broadband is still growing and the country saw 2.6 million households add broadband from 2013 to 2014, bringing the overall national penetration rate to 75.1%. But Brookings found that there is a lot of variance in the penetration rates in different parts of the country.

There are metropolitan areas like San Jose where the broadband penetration rate is greater than 88%. The top ten metro markets for broadband has Washington DC in tenth place at 84.7%. But there are a number of other cities that lag behind these national statistics. At the bottom is Laredo, TX at 56.2%, joined at the bottom of the list with places like McAllen, TX, Visalia, CA, Dothan, AL, and Beaumont, TX.

Brookings looked at a number of different factors that affect broadband usage for households. It’s not surprising that household income is a factor. Households with an annual income greater than $50,000 have an 88.8% broadband penetration rate while those with less than $20,000 income are only at 46.8%. Education also seems to be an influence and 91.5% of households with somebody with a bachelor’s degree have broadband while households where nobody finished high school are at 54.1%.

The report did not find a big correlation between race and broadband adoption. While there were cities where blacks or Hispanics have low broadband adoption rates, there were others where they did not. The report concludes that the determining factor is household income and not race.

The report also found some correlation with age and households that have a family member under 18 had a penetration rate of 81.9% while those with everybody over 65 were at 64.5%. But the correlation with age did not hold across all markets and the places where the elderly have lower broadband acceptance seems to be where their income is the lowest. So again, income seems like a more important factor than age.

The report found a few correlations that make a lot of sense. For instance, it found that almost all homes that include a telecommuter have broadband.

Overall the report concludes that metropolitan areas with the highest incomes, with the highest percentage of tech workers, and with the highest average education also have the highest broadband penetration rates.

The report observes that households widely value broadband and that the rate of broadband subscriptions continues to climb. But they conclude that we cannot make the transition to an all-digital society until broadband penetration rate is as ubiquitous as the rates for water and electricity. They conclude that it is going to take targeted assistance programs to get broadband into more homes. While they point to the federal Lifeline and the newly named ConnectHome programs as being a needed part of the solution, they don’t see these kind of programs closing the digital divide. They recommend many more local initiatives, including programs by carriers, to try to get broadband into more households.

FCC Issues for 2016

Alexander_Crystal_SeerIn what seems to be the new normal the FCC has a lot of issues on their plate at the end of this year. Following are the regulatory issues that I think will most affect small telcos, cable companies, and ISPs in the coming year.

Net Neutrality: Assuming that the courts don’t completely overturn this, this is liable to be at the top of the list for several years to come. The ink is barely dry on the new rules and companies like Comcast, T-Mobile, and Verizon are pushing new products that will test the FCC’s resolve to implement net neutrality. And if the courts uphold the law, expect to see a slew of arbitrations between content providers and ISPs. If the courts overturn parts of the new rules, expect the FCC to take one more shot at fixing the parts that don’t pass court muster.

TDM to IP Conversion: This is an ongoing process that is looking at modernizing the backbone telephone network to IP. The large telcos like AT&T and Verizon have commandeered the docket to try to use it as a way to get rid of rural copper lines. The FCC has been micromanaging this process so far and there should be a lot of activity in 2016.

USF Reform: The FCC wants to transition the Universal Service Fund from paying for rural telephone lines to paying for high speed data connections. This process has already started but there is still a lot to be decided. Further, the FCC is facing a crisis in funding the USF and the latest USF contribution factor, representing the ‘tax’ on interstate telecom services, is up to an astounding 18.2% for the first quarter of 2016. The FCC is going to have to find some other ways to help fund this as interstate telecom revenues keep shrinking. This is becoming a big burden on carriers that are buying interstate special access.

Lifeline Reform: Lifeline is another part of the USF that is used to help pay for telecom services for low income households. The FCC decided last year that this should cover both telephone and data expenses for low income households and there is not enough money in the fund to do that. So this year they need to figure out a way to make it work.

Skinny Bundles and OTT: There has been a docket open for most of 2015 that asked for comments on how the FCC ought to regulate video services on the web. There hasn’t been a lot of talk about this for a while, but it’s likely that the FCC is going to have to do something with this in 2016, and anything they do will be groundbreaking. Further, the FCC is in the process of cleaning up their operating rules and Congress is also mandating that they resolve dockets sooner, so this is liable to be forced to come to a head in 2016.

WiFi versus LTE-U: The large wireless carriers really want to dip into WiFi to make cellular data connections using a technology they are calling LTE-U. In places where cellular data is already overloaded this would almost certainly swamp WiFi, making it hard for anybody else to use. The FCC is going to have to decide if and how cellular carriers might be allowed to do this. In a related area, the FCC is also likely to look at opening up new public spectrum next year.

Federal Legislation: While this is nothing to count on, there has been a lot of noise about seeing a new telecom act of some sort out of Congress. If that happens there is no way to predict what Congress might tackle. If a new law passes expect the FCC to get swamped with implementing new law like they did after the Telecom Act of 1996.