Means Testing for FCC Funding – Part II

Yesterday I wrote about the recent blog by FCC Commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Mignon Clyburn that suggests that there ought to be a means test for anybody accepting Universal Service Funds. Yesterday I looked at the idea of using reverse auctions for allocating funds – an idea that I think would only serve to shift broadband funds to slower technologies, most likely rural cellular service for broadband. Today I want to look at two other ideas suggested by the blog.

The blog suggests that rural customers ought to pay more for broadband since it costs more to provide broadband in sparsely populated areas. I think the FCC might want to do a little research and look at the actual prices charged today for broadband where commercial companies have built rural broadband networks. It’s something I look at all of the time and all over the country, and from what I can see the small telcos, cooperatives, WISPs and others that serve rural America today already charge more than what households pay for broadband in urban areas – sometimes considerably more. I am sure there are exceptions to this and perhaps the Commissioners have seen some low rural pricing from some providers. But I’ve looked at the prices of hundreds of rural ISPs and have never seen prices below urban rates.

The small rural ISPs have to make a commercial go of their broadband networks and they’ve realized for years that the only way to do that is to charge more. In most urban areas there is a decent broadband option starting around $40 per month and you rarely see a price close to that in rural America. If you see a low price in rural America it probably offers a very slow speed of perhaps a few Mbps, which certainly doesn’t compare to the 60 Mbps I get from Charter for $44.95 per month.

The issue of rural pricing does raise one policy issue. Historically the Universal Service Fund was used for precisely what this blog seems not to like – to hold telephone rates down in rural America so that everybody in the country could afford to be connected. That policy led to the country having telephone penetration rates for decades north of 98%. I’m not advocating that USF funds ought to be used to directly hold down rural broadband rates, but it’s worth a pause to remember that was the original reason that the Universal Service Fund was started and it worked incredibly well.

The second idea raised by the blog is that Universal Service Funds ought not be used to build broadband to wealthy customers. They suggest that perhaps federal funding ought not to be used to bring broadband to “very rich people who happen to live in the more rural portions of our nation.”  The blog worries that poor urban people will be subsidizing ‘some of the wealthiest communities in America.’  I am sure in making that statement that the Commissioners must have a few real-life communities in mind. But I work all over the country and there are not very many pockets of millionaires in rural America, except perhaps for farmers.

Farmers are an interesting case when it comes to broadband. By definition farmers are rural. But US agriculture is the largest industry in the country and the modern farmer needs broadband to be effective. We are headed soon towards a time when farm yields can increase dramatically by use of IoT sensors, farm robots and other high technology that is going to require broadband. I know that a lot of the rural communities that are clamoring for broadband are farming communities – because those farms are the economic engine that drives numerous counties and regions of the country. I don’t think it’s unreasonable if we are going to rethink policy to talk about bringing broadband to our largest industry.

The FCC blog suggests that perhaps wealthier individuals ought to pay for the cost of getting connected to a broadband network. It’s certainly an interesting idea, and there is precedent. Rural electric companies have always charged the cost of construction to connect customers that live too far from their grid. But with that said we also have to remember that rural electric grids were purposefully built to reach as many people as possible, often with the help of federal funding.

This idea isn’t practical for two reasons. It’s already incredibly hard today to finance a fiber network. I picture the practical problem of somehow trying to get commitments from farmers or other wealthy individuals as part of the process of funding and building a broadband network. As somebody who focuses mostly on financing fiber networks this would largely kill funding new networks. To get the primary borrower and all of the ‘rich’ people coordinated in order to close a major financing is something that would drive most lenders away – it’s too complicated to be practically applied. The FCC might want to consult with a few bankers before pushing this idea too far.

But there is a more fundamental issue and the FCC blog touches upon it. I’m trying to imagine the FCC passing a law that would require people to disclose their income to some commercial company that wants to build a fiber network. I’m not a lawyer, but that sounds like it would bump against all sorts of constitutional issues, let alone practical ones. For example, can you really picture having to report your income to AT&T?  And I then go back to the farmers again. Farmers don’t make a steady income – they have boom years and bust years. Would we put them on or off the hook for contributing towards a fiber network based upon their most recent year of income?

I certainly applaud the Commissioners for thinking outside the box, and that is a good thing when it leads to discussions of ways to improve the funding process. I will be the first to tell you that the current USF distributions are not always sensible and equitable and there is always room for improvement. Some of the ideas suggested by the blog have been discussed in the past and it never hurts to revisit ideas. But what most amazes me about the suggestions made by this blog is that the proposed solutions would require a heavy regulatory hand – and this FCC, or at least its new Chairman has the goal of reducing regulation. To impose a means test or income test would go in the opposite direction and would require a new layer of intrusive regulations.

Means Testing for FCC Funding – Part I

A recent blog by FCC Commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Mignon Clyburn asks if there should be a means test in federal high cost programs. This blog is something every telco, school, library or health care provider that gets any form of Universal Service funding needs to read.

There is already some means testing in the Universal Service Fund. For instance, the Lifeline program brings subsidized voice and broadband only to households that meet certain poverty tests. And the Schools and Libraries program uses a mean test to make certain that subsidies go to schools with the most low-income students. The FCC blog talks about now applying a means test to the Universal Service Funds that are used to promote rural broadband. There are several of these programs, with the biggest dollar ones being the CAF II funding for large telcos and the ACAM program for small telcos to expand rural broadband networks.

The blog brings up the latest buzzword at the FCC, which is reverse auction. The FCC embraces the concept that there should be a competition to get federal money to expand broadband networks, with the funding going to the carrier that is willing to accept the lowest amount of funding to expand broadband into an area. On the surface that sounds like a reasonable suggestion in that it would give money to the company that is the most efficient.

But in real-life practice reverse auctions don’t work, at least for building rural broadband networks. Today these FCC infrastructure programs are aimed at bringing broadband to places that don’t have it. And the reason they don’t have it is because the areas are largely rural and sparsely populated, meaning costly for building broadband infrastructure. In most of these places nobody is willing to build without significant government subsidy because there is no reasonable business plan using commercial financing.

If there was a reverse auction between two companies willing to bring fiber to a given rural area, then in my experience there wouldn’t be much difference between them in terms of the cost to build the network. They have to deploy the same technology over the same roads to reach the same customers. One might be slightly lower in cost, but not enough to justify going through the reverse auction process.

And that is the big gotcha with the preference for reverse auctions. A reverse auction will always favor somebody using a cheaper technology. And in rural broadband, a cheaper technology means an inferior technology. It means using federal funding to expand DSL or cellular wireless as is being done with big telco CAF II money instead of building fiber, as is being done by the small telcos accepting ACAM money.

Whether intentional or not, the FCC’s penchant for favoring reverse auctions would shift money from fiber projects – mostly being done by small telcos – to the wireless carriers. It’s clear that building cellular technology in rural areas is far cheaper than building fiber. But to use federal money to build inferior technology means relegating rural areas to dreadfully inadequate broadband for decades to come.

Forget all of the hype about how 5G cellular is going to bring amazing broadband speeds – and I hope the FCC Commissioners have not bought into cellular company’s press releases. Because in rural areas fast 5G requires bringing fiber very close to customers – and that means constructing nearly the same fiber networks needed to provide fiber into homes. The big cellular companies are not going to invest in rural 5G any more than the big telcos have ever invested in rural fiber. So a reverse auction would divert federal funds to Verizon and AT&T to extend traditional cellular networks, not for super-fast wireless networks.

We already know what it looks like to expand rural cellular broadband. It means building networks that deliver perhaps 20 Mbps to those living close to cell towers and something slower as you move away from the towers. That is exactly what AT&T is building with their CAF II funding today. AT&T is taking $426 million per year for six years, or $2.5 billion in total to expand cellular broadband in rural areas. As I’ve said many times in the past this is perhaps the worse use of federal telecom funding I have ever seen. Customers on these cellular networks are getting broadband on day one that is too slow and that doesn’t even meet the current FCC’s definition of broadband. And in the future these customers and rural communities are going to be light-years behind the rest of the country as household demand for broadband continues to grow at a torrid pace while these customers are stuck with an inadequate technology.

The FCC blog also mentions the concept of possibly re-directing future USF payments, and if I am a small telco that scares me to death. This sounds like the FCC may consider redirecting this already-committed ACAM funding. Numerous small telcos just accepted a 10-year commitment to receive ACAM funding from the USF Fund to expand broadband in rural areas, and many are already borrowing matching funds from banks based upon that commitment. Should that funding be redirected into a reverse auction these small companies will not be able to complete their planned expansion, and if they already borrowed money based upon the promise of that ACAM funding they could find themselves in deep financial trouble.

Michael O’Rielly’s Vision of Broadband Expansion

FCC_New_LogoA whole lot of the telecom industry is anxiously watching the news to see if there will be a federal program to expand rural broadband. We’ve already had new FCC Chairman Pai come out in favor of closing the digital divide and bringing broadband to everyone. And there are those in Congress pushing for money to expand rural broadband.

Last week FCC member Michael O’Rielly entered the fray with a blog post about funding rural broadband expansion. There are things in that blog I heartily agree with, and others that I disagree with (as you might expect).

O’Rielly warns that the government should not shovel money at a rural solution in such a way as to drastically overspend to get a solution. I completely agree and I wrote a series of blogs last year (1, 2, 3, and 4) that make the same point. The government wasted a lot of money when handing out stimulus grants in the past and I’d hate to see them make the same mistakes again. There is a long list of things that were done poorly in that grant program, but a lot of this was because it was cobbled together quickly. Hopefully, if we give out new federal money to help deploy broadband we can take the time to get it right.

O’Rielly suggests that any rural broadband expansion program be handled through the Universal Service Fund. No matter which part of government tackles this there will be a need to staff up to implement a major broadband expansion program. But I agree it makes more sense to hand this to an existing program rather than to hand it to somebody like the NTIA again.

He stated one thing that has me scratching my head. He stated that he has heard of ‘countless’ examples of where stimulus middle-mile fiber routes hurt commercial providers. I have hundreds of clients, most of them commercial ISPs, and I have never once heard anyone complain about this. Many of my clients instead are enjoying lower-cost rural transport on the BTOP networks. These complaints have to be coming from AT&T and Verizon who don’t like lower-cost alternatives to their massively overpriced special access. Special access transport is one of the biggest killers of rural business plans.

It’s clear that O’Rielly has a bias towards having commercial solutions for broadband rather than government ones. I don’t know anybody that disagrees with that concept. But by now it’s pretty obvious that the big commercial ISPs are never going to invest in rural America and it’s disingenuous to keep pretending that if government funds rural broadband that it will somehow harm them. The big ISPs have been working hard to withdraw from rural America and the providers that are left – the independent telcos, cooperatives, and rural governments – are the ones we should trust to deploy the broadband we know is needed.

I take major exception to his contention that “ultra-fast residential service is a novelty and good for marketing, but the tiny percentage of people using it cannot drive our policy decisions.” This statement has two glaring omissions. First, there are many households that need fast speeds today for home-based businesses, education, and reasons beyond just watching videos or playing games. When 10% of homes in the US don’t have broadband those homes are excluded from participating in the benefits of the digital economy. It’s hard to put a dollar value on what that is costing our economy – but it’s huge.

But second – and more importantly – this ignores the inevitable increase in demand over time. US households have been doubling their need for speed and the amount of total download every three years since 1980 – and there is no sign that growth in demand is over. This means any network that is just adequate today is going to feel obsolete within a decade – and this also means you don’t make policy for today’s demands, but for demands that we already know will be here in another decade. This is why there has to continue to be a focus on fiber first. As much as O’Rielly might hate some of the worst practices of the stimulus grants, his FCC approved the disastrous giveaway of billions to the big telcos to expand rural DSL in the CAF II program. We can’t take that path again.

Finally, O’Rielly says that the government should not be picking broadband winners and losers. That sounds like a great political sentiment, but if the government is going to supply funding to promote rural broadband that money has to go to somebody – and by definition that is picking winners. But O’Rielly does temper this statement by saying that funding shouldn’t just go to the ‘well-connected’. I hope he really means that and gets behind a plan that doesn’t just hand federal broadband funding to AT&T, Verizon and CenturyLink.

Is the Internet a Necessity?

The InternetIn a speech recently made by FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, he said that the Internet was “not a necessity in the day-to-day lives of Americans.” That’s a rather startling statement from somebody who seemingly has the job of making sure that the country has adequate broadband to meet its needs. But if we look at his statements in context, it raises some important policy issues that are worth public discussion.

O’Rielly made the comment as a counterargument to the spreading concept that access to the Internet has become a necessity, perhaps even a right. It’s also widely expressed today that broadband is now a utility, much like electricity and water.

It’s an interesting discussion. Several surveys in the last few years show that a significant majority of households rank Internet access as the most important service purchased at their homes. I certainly know that my daughter and all of her 16-year old friends would ‘die’ without the Internet and it seems like the younger you are, the more the Internet is an important component of daily life.

But O’Rielly’s comment was really a political and policy statement. There are certainly a lot of implications for governments if the country adopts the idea that having Internet access is a right. For instance, that would put a lot more pressure to bring Internet access to the places that don’t yet have it and to work hard to close the gap in the quality of the Internet between urban and rural places.

But it seems to me that the FCC has largely already bought into the argument that the Internet is a necessity. They are pouring billions of dollars into improving rural broadband. They are going to subsidize broadband access to low income households. They have adopted net neutrality as a policy which, to some degree, protects the ability of consumers to get what they pay for from an ISP. These all seem like the actions of an agency who thinks that everybody ought to have access to broadband.

FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler responded to O’Rielly’s statement by saying that “broadband is the defining infrastructure of the 21st century. We should not and will not let up on our policies that make broadband more available.”

It’s obvious that Internet access is now a fundamental part of daily life for many people. I work from my home and I can’t imagine how I would function without it. Actually, I can imagine it, because after a hurricane and tornado hit me a few years ago I was without power and Internet access for 6 weeks. I basically regressed to what felt like the Stone Age. I essentially threw my hands up and gave up on work (and spent the time instead cleaning up the huge mess the storm left behind). I use the Internet almost continuously in making my living and as a society we have grown to a place where there is no realistic substitute for email and the ability to quickly exchange files and work products with others.

This is an issue that hundreds of municipalities are wrestling with. Communities look in envy at urban places that have great Internet bandwidth and they understand that if they don’t have adequate Internet in their community that they are liable to decline economically and fade away from relevance. Internet access is to cities today what the railroads were two centuries ago, and what electricity and Interstate highways were in the last century. Put into that context it starts feeling a lot like a necessity, at least at the community level.

I work with dozens of rural communities that have limited or no Internet access today. It’s heart-wrenching to hear people talk about trying to maintain a household of teenagers with only a cellular wireless plan or to hear parents lament that their kids can’t keep up in school without access to the Internet. For the vast majority of us who have Internet access it’s really hard to imagine going without.

I understand where Commissioner O’Rielly is coming from. He was formerly a Republican congressional aide and the Republicans feel generally that there are few ‘rights’ that the Federal government is obligated to recognize. But on this specific topic he might be on the wrong side of history, because my guess is that the vast majority of people in this country have grown to believe that having Internet access is a right and is something they cannot live without.