Broadband and Real Estate

Polk County SignBy now many of you have probably seen the articles about a guy, Seth, who bought a home in Kitsap County Washington only to find out that it didn’t have broadband. Seth works from home and needs broadband access. He did his homework first and was told by employees at both the Comcast and Xfinity phone numbers that the address had service previously and that he would be able to get broadband there. Here is Seth’s blog, and as someone who works at home I can certainly feel his pain.

If you work at home then having broadband is no small matter – it’s your lifeline. This is what I find so dreadful about the thousands of rural communities with little or no broadband. The people in those places do not have the same opportunities as the rest of us. It would be an inconvenience to not be able to watch streaming video, but it would be economically devastating if you couldn’t take a good-paying job because you don’t have broadband.

In this case I hope Seth knows a good lawyer, because Comcast directly caused him great financial harm. Multiple Comcast employees told him that the house had service in the past and that he could get broadband there, which turns out to be untrue. Instead, the home had never been served by Comcast and they were going to have to build cable to serve it. As anybody knows who has ever tried to get Comcast to build cable strand, it’s like trying to get water to run uphill.

I have my own similar Comcast story with a happier ending. When I moved to my house in Florida I knew Comcast was all over the neighborhood and my new house even had a Comcast pedestal in the driveway. But it took what felt like 40 calls to Comcast to get them to come out and give me a 40 foot drop wire. We started out with them not knowing if they serve my neighborhood until finally they decided to charge me $150 to verify that I could get service. Even with that it took me over a month from the first call until I had working broadband – and a lot of people are not willing to suffer through that ordeal. I know it soured me on Comcast and no matter what good they ever do for me I will always have in the back of my mind how I had to practically threaten them to get them to give me service.

Over a decade ago when I moved to the Virgin Islands, the first thing on my ‘must have’ list was broadband. Every real estate agent there lied to me and told me that the house I wanted could get DSL from the local telephone company. But luckily I understood that for a home that was 10 miles from the nearest town they were probably wrong. I found through knocking on my potential neighbors’ doors that the only broadband there was wireless, but that it was good enough for my needs (in those days about 2 Mbps download). If I had relied on what the real estate agents all told me, and if there had not been wireless, then I would have been in the same situation as Seth. It turns out that the copper lines at that house were so bad that they couldn’t even support a telephone call let alone broadband.

Seth’s troubles were further multiplied when he found out that he also couldn’t get DSL from CenturyLink. While they served his neighborhood, they had a ‘network exhaust’ situation, meaning that all of the wires in the telco cables are being used. I have lived in such neighborhoods and you have to get on a waiting list to buy a second line or add a burglar alarm. Sadly, there are numerous older neighborhoods where the copper network is totally full. Over the years some pairs of copper go bad and so the inventory of potential working lines slowly drops as the network ages.

The final insult to Seth is that the FCC would have told him he has options there. According to the National Broadband Map, that part of Kitsap County shows 10 options for broadband. That is a phenomenally large number of choices and even includes fiber from the local electric company. Yet none of these options were actually available to Seth.

What Comcast did was negligent by telling him there was broadband available when there wasn’t. But we are now at a time when a house’s value can be drastically affected by lack of access to broadband. I hope this guy sues Comcast and wins, but I also hope that people without broadband keep screaming and make themselves heard. Because for a lot of America, Seth’s story is just another day of normal life for rural America.

If You Think You Have Broadband, You Might be Wrong

Speed_Street_SignThe FCC has published the following map that shows which parts of the country they think have 25 Mbps broadband available. That is the new download speed that the FCC recently set as the definition of broadband. On the map, the orange and yellow places have access to the new broadband speed and the blue areas do not. What strikes you immediately is that the vast majority of the country looks blue on the map.

The first thing I did, which is probably the same thing you will do, is to look at my own county. I live in Charlotte County, Florida. The map shows that my town of Punta Gorda has broadband, and we do. I have options up to 110 Mbps with Comcast and I think up to 45 Mbps from CenturyLink (not sure of the exact speed they can actually deliver). I bought a 50 Mbps cable modem from Comcast, and they deliver the speed I purchased.

Like a lot of Florida, most of the people in my County live close to the water. And for the most parts the populated areas have access to 25 Mbps. But there are three urban areas in the County that don’t, which are parts of Charlotte Beach, parts of Harbor View and an area called Burnt Store.

I find the map of interest because when I moved here a little over a year ago I considered buying in Burnt Store. The area has many nice houses on large lots up to five acres. I never got enough interest in any particular house there to consider buying, but if I had, I would not have bought once I found there was no fast broadband. I don’t think I am unusual in having fast Internet as one of the requirements I want at a new home. One has to think that in today’s world that housing prices will become depressed in areas without adequate Internet, particularly if they are close to an area that has it.

The other thing that is obvious on the map of my county is that the rural areas here do not have adequate broadband, much like most rural areas in the country. By eyeball estimate it looks like perhaps 70% of my county, by area, does not have broadband as defined by the FCC. Some of that area is farms, but there are also a lot of large homes and horse ranches in those areas. The map tells me that in a county with 161,000 people that over 10,000 people don’t have broadband. Our percentage of broadband coverage puts us far ahead of most of the rest of the country, although the people without broadband here probably don’t feel too lucky.

I contrast the coasts of Florida by looking at the Midwest. In places like Nebraska it looks like nobody outside of decent sized towns has broadband. There are numerous entire counties in Nebraska where nobody has access to 25 Mbps broadband. And that is true throughout huge swaths of the Midwest and West.

There are pockets of broadband that stick out on the map. For example, there is a large yellow area in rural Washington State. This is due to numerous Public Utility Districts, which are county-wide municipal electric systems, which have built fiber networks. What is extraordinary about their story is that by Washington law they are not allowed to offer retail services, and instead offer wholesale access to their networks to retail ISPs. It’s a hard business plan to make work, and still a significant amount of fiber has been built in the area.

And even though much of the map is blue, one thing to keep in mind that the map is overly optimistic and overstates the availability of 25 Mbps broadband. That’s because the database supporting this map comes from the National Broadband Map, and the data in the map is pretty unreliable. The speeds shown in the map are self-reported by the carriers who sell broadband, and they frequently overstate where they have coverage of various speeds.

Let’s use the example of rural DSL since the delivered speed of that technology drops rapidly with distance. If a telco offers 25 Mbps DSL in a small rural town, by the time that DSL travels even a mile out of town it is going to be at speeds significantly lower than 25 Mbps. And by 2–3 miles out of town it will crawl at a few Mbps at best or not even work at all. I have helped people map DSL coverage areas by knocking on doors and the actual coverage of DSL speeds around towns looks very different than what is shown on this map.

Many of the telcos claim the advertised speed of their DSL for the whole area where it reaches. They probably can deliver the advertised speeds at the center of the network near to the DSL hub (even though sometimes this also seems to be an exaggeration). But the data supplied to the National Broadband Map might show the same full-speed DSL miles away from the hub, when in fact the people at the end of the DSL service area might be getting DSL speeds that are barely above dial-up.

So if this map was accurate, it would show a greater number of people who don’t have 25 Mbps broadband available. These people live within a few miles of a town, but that means they are usually outside the cable TV network area and a few miles or more away from a DSL hub. There must be many millions of people that can’t get this speed, in contradiction to the map.

But the map has some things right, like when it shows numerous counties in the country where not even one household can get 25 Mbps. That is something I can readily believe.

Who Has Fast Broadband?

The Department of Commerce issued the following graph recently as part of a report titled Competition Among US Broadband Service Providers. The graph is a little hard to read, so I include it here for easier viewing. The purpose of the graph is to show that there is not very much competition for data speeds of 25 Mbps and higher. The graph shows the number of households that are able to buy various speeds of broadband from a low of 3 Mbps to a high of 1 Gbps. It does a good job of demonstrating the story that the Commerce Department wants to tell – which is that for most markets there is only one provider of fast Internet.

commerce_department_broadband

But there is another story told by this graph that nobody seems to want to talk about, which is how the government is doing a really lousy job of counting the number of households that still can’t get the slower speeds of Internet access. This graph shows, for example that only two million US households can’t get 3 Mbps download speeds and that 6 million can’t get 10 Mbps. And those numbers are total bosh.

These numbers are based upon the database that supports the National Broadband Map, and frankly, for rural America, this data is a farce. The problem with the map is that the data speeds are self-reported by the telcos and cable companies and supposedly represents the speeds that the carriers advertise in various markets, not the speeds that people can actually get. Further, the speeds are counted by census block, and if only a few homes in a block can get a certain speed then it is assumed that most can. This blog is too short of a forum to go into a detailed discussion of why the sampling method behind the map is a misuse of statistics, which would require a math-based whitepaper, and maybe one of these days I’ll take the time to write it.

Consider the actual speeds that can be achieved with DSL, where the speed drops rapidly with distance from the DSL hub, called a DSLAM. On very good copper DSL can deliver 10 Mbps of speed for about 7,000 feet. That’s not 7,000 feet as the crow flies, but 7,000 feet of pole lines. In most places that is not a whole lot more than a mile. Good copper can deliver 3 Mbps up to about 13,000 feet, which is almost twice as far as 10 Mbps but which only still equates to maybe 2.5 miles. And the sad reality is that most rural copper is not very good and so actual distances that can be achieved are going to be less than these theoretical distances. It’s well known that the largest telcos like AT&T, Verizon and Qwest neglected rural copper for decades and their copper in many places is a disaster.

Further, a lot of rural towns are still equipped with older DSL technology that tops off at a capacity of between 1 Mbps and 6 Mbps. In those communities even the people in town can’t get 10 Mbps as is suggested by the National Broadband Map. The reality is that the large telcos generally advertise the same products everywhere in a region. So small towns will see advertisements that say something like “speeds up to 20 Mbps, with fine print at the bottom of the ad that will say “where available”. Thus the large companies are not lying when they say they advertise fast speeds in rural areas, but the whole point of the Map is supposed to be to measure the broadband that people can buy.

What is even worse is that the large telcos will sell you DSL that barely works. I’ve heard of rural customers who buy DSL with speeds as low as 144 kbps, just a little faster than dial-up. At peak times some of these people revert to dial-up which is faster. And they pay the same price as a customer in the nearby town who might have 6 Mbps. Households with these slow speeds are undoubtedly shown on the Broadband Map as able to buy broadband.

Cable companies have a more definable situation. Cable ends where the coaxial cable ends and if you live one home beyond the last connection you can’t get cable modem. Almost all of the faster speeds on this chart are from urban and suburban cable modems. Many of those systems have been upgraded to deliver over 100 Mbps, and in competitive places like Austin TX they can deliver over 300 Mbps. But rural cable systems share a problem with rural telcos in that many of the systems are old. Some older cable systems don’t yet offer cable modems. And many other older systems can’t deliver speeds greater than 6 Mbps, making them very similar to rural copper systems.

So this graph works for the story it wants to tell, which is that there is often only one provider in a market that will offer speeds of 25 Mbps and higher. But the government really needs to stop publishing statistics  that make it look like most of the country already can get speeds of 10 Mbps, because it simply is not true in much of rural America. I get a little angry every time I see the government make pronouncements based upon this bad data. It feels like a cover-up with the government and the FCC together to deny how poor our broadband is. I wish it was true that  only two million people can’t get 3 Mbps and only 6 million can’t get 10 Mbps, because we wouldn’t have as far to go to improve.

How Many Households Have Broadband? – Part II

Speed_Street_SignYesterday I described a few reasons why the National Broadband Map does not accurately capture who has broadband. My experience tells me that in rural America there are many places that deploy a ‘broadband’ technology without achieving broadband speeds. So I think there are many places where the Map overstates the speeds that are actually available. But there are also places where the Map shows broadband coverage where there is none and today I’ll look at a real life example.

This are several consequences of overstating actual broadband speeds. First, the Map is used by the FCC and others to talk about the state of broadband in the country. The speech that Chairman Wheeler gave last week assumes that the Map is right. To the extent that the Map stretches the truth about broadband speeds and availability we are basing policies upon incorrect facts.

Another use of the Map is to define those specific areas that don’t have broadband for purposes of defining where federal and state broadband grants and Connect America funds can be used. As an example, the FCC’s current $100 million Experimental Grants are aimed at areas that are either unserved (meaning that 90% of the households don’t have access to broadband) or underserved (meaning that at least 50% of the households there don’t have access to broadband.

Let’s look at a real life example of how the National Broadband Map doesn’t compare well to the real world. Below I am going to give you a link to some photographs, but before I do I want to explain what the pictures show. These pictures came to me from my good friends Melvin and Madonna Yawakie from TICOM. They show some CenturyLink telephone gear on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. This area was formerly served by Qwest, and before that US West and before that the old Ma Bell version of AT&T.

There are a few interesting things to note in these pictures. First, they show that the customers in this area are served using an old technology called ALC carrier. I was very surprised to see this equipment still working because it is over forty years old, which is a remarkable age for field installed electronics of any kind. I guess it shows that Ma Bell built things to last. This carrier was installed in a lot of rural areas in the 70’s as part to an FCC initiative to get people off party lines. The technology works using ISDN to put two to four phone signals over one strand of copper. The ALC carrier gives each customer on a party-line their own phone number and a private connection while the customers continue to  share one strand of copper. The other thing to notice in the pictures is that some of the copper lines are strung over fencing instead of being on poles. Locals say that the wires have been that way for a long time.

What these pictures show is an area that has no broadband. There is no wireless ISP and no cable company. The only broadband option is DSL, and DSL cannot operate on lines that use ALC carrier. CenturyLink (and their predecessor Qwest) has told the tribe multiple times since 2009 that they have no intentions of upgrading the copper in the area or of bringing them broadband.

There are plenty of rural places in the US that have no broadband, so there is no surprise that this area does not have it. And it is no surprise that the areas without broadband are served by ancient technologies and by copper in poor working condition. What is surprising is that the National Broadband Map shows the tribal areas as largely having broadband available. That means that the tribal areas are not eligible for the FCC Experimental Grants, not will they be eligible for the Connect America Funds that are going to be available in the next few years to bring broadband to areas like this. The tribe is willing to build fiber in the area, but they need the help of these federal funds that are intended for exactly this kind of situation.

Unfortunately there are examples like this all over rural America. I have clients all over the US who say that the National Broadband Map is wrong in their area. What is most bothersome to me is that there is no easy way to fix the Map. The FCC has said that they will not award a grant to any area where there is any contention about the designation of the broadband in the area as defined by the Map. This means that a telco or WISP can refuse to correct errors in the Map and thus stave off competition from those who are willing to invest in broadband in areas that need it badly.

What is needed is some streamlined way for people to correct the National Broadband Map. The carriers seem unable (or unwilling) to define where their broadband coverage stops. And that is a bit ironic because in rural neighborhoods everybody knows where broadband is and isn’t. They will be able to tell you that “Nobody past Joe’s house can get DSL”. While there seem to be a lot of errors in the Map today the situation is only going to get worse since the FCC is expected to soon define broadband to be at least 10 Mbps download instead of the current paltry 4 Mbps. That change is going to declare overnight that many more millions of Americans don’t have broadband. But unfortunately the Map might say otherwise.

How Many Households Have Broadband? – Part I

Polk County SignFCC Chairman Wheeler made a speech last week about the lack of broadband competition in the country. As part of the speech he released four bar charts showing the percentage of households that have competitive alternatives at the download speeds of 4 Mbps, 10 Mbps, 25 Mbps and 50 Mbps. His conclusion was that a large portions of the households in the US can only buy broadband from one or two service providers. I was glad to hear him talking about this.

But unfortunately there is a lot of inaccuracy in the underlying data that he used to come to this conclusion, particularly at the charts showing the slower speeds. The data that the FCC relies on for measuring broadband is known as the National Broadband Map. While the data gathered for that effort results in a Map, it’s really a database, by census block, that shows the number of providers and the fastest data speed they offer in a given area.

A census block is the smallest area of population summarized by the US Census. It is generally bounded by streets and roads and will contain from 200 – 700 homes (with the more populated blocks generally just in urban areas with high-rise housing). A typical rural census block is going to have 200 – 400 homes. The National Broadband Map gathers data from carriers that describe the broadband services they offer in each census block. As it turns out, self-reporting by carriers is a big problem when it comes to the accuracy of the Map. In tomorrow’s blog I will show a real life example of how this affects new deployment of rural broadband.

Broadband service providers don’t generally track their network by census blocks, so part of the problem is that census block don’t match the physical way  that broadband networks are deployed in a rural area. Anybody who lives in rural America understands how utilities work there. In every small town there is a very definite line where utilities like City water and cable TV stop. Those utilities get to the edge of the area where people live and they stop. That doesn’t match up well with Census blocks that tend to extend outward from many small towns to include rural areas. Rural census blocks are not going to conveniently stop where the utilities stop.

There are three widely used rural broadband technologies – cable modem, DSL and fixed wireless. Let’s look briefly at how each of these match with the broadband mapping effort. Cable is the easiest because every cable network has a discrete boundary. There is some customer at the end of every cable route and the next house down the road cannot get cable. So it is not too likely that the cable companies are claiming to serve census blocks where they have no customers.

DSL and fixed wireless are a lot trickier. Both of these technologies share the characteristic that the bandwidth available with the technology drops quickly with distance. For example, DSL can transmit over a few miles of copper from the last DSLAM in the network. The household right next to that DSLAM can get the full speed offered by the specific brand of DSL while the last house at the end of the DSL signal gets only a small fraction of the speed, often with speeds that are not really any better than dial-up.

The same thing happens with fixed wireless. A WISP will install a transmitter on a tower or tall structure and the customers close to that tower will get decent broadband, and those transmitters tend to be installed in small towns where people live. But wireless broadband speeds drop rapidly with distance from the transmitter and if you go more than a few miles from any tower there is barely any bandwidth.

Both telcos and WISPs input their coverage areas into the National Broadband Map database. And in doing so, it appears that they claim broadband anywhere where they can provide service of any kind. But for DSL and fixed wireless, that service-of-any-kind area is much larger than the area where they can deliver actual broadband. Remember that broadband is currently defined as the ability to deliver 4 Mbps download. Because of the nature of their technologies, a lot of the people who can buy something from them will get a product that is slower than 4 Mbps, and at the outer ends of their network speeds are far slower than that.

I don’t necessarily want to say that the carriers inputting into the system are lying, because in a lot of cases customers can call and order broadband and a technician will show up and install a DSL modem or a wireless antenna. But if that customer is too far away from the network hub, then the product that gets delivered to them is not broadband. It is something slower than the FCC definition of broadband, but it is probably better than dial-up. But customers with slow connections can’t use the Internet to watch Netflix or do a lot of the basic things that require actual broadband. And as each year goes by, and as more and more video is built into everything we do on the Internet there are more and more web sites and services that out of reach for such customers.

But unfortunately, there are also areas where it appears that the carriers have declared that they offer broadband where there isn’t any. If you were to draw something like a 5-mile circle around every rural DSLAM and every WISP transmitter you will see the sort of broadband coverage that many rural carriers are claiming. But the reality is that broadband can only be delivered for 2-3 miles, which means that the actual broadband coverage area is maybe only a fourth of what is shown on the Map. If you go door-to-door and talk to people outside of rural towns you will find a very different story than what is shown on the National Broadband Map. Unfortunately, the Chairman’s numbers are distorted by these weaknesses and distortions underlying the Map. There are a lot more rural Americans without broadband than are counted in the Map and rural America has far fewer broadband options than what the Chairman’s charts claim.

Tomorrow, a real life example.