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.

Will the Big Telcos Pursue RDOF Grants?

One of the most intriguing questions concerning the upcoming $16.4 billion RDOF grant program is if the big telcos are going to participate. I’ve asked the question around the industry and I’ve talked to folks who think the big telcos will fully wade into the reverse auctions, while others think they’ll barely play. We’re not likely to know until the auctions begin.

The big telcos were the full beneficiaries of the original CAF II program when the FCC surprisingly decided to unilaterally award the big telcos the full $9 billion in funding. In that grant program, CenturyLink received over $3 billion, AT&T almost $2.6 billion, Frontier nearly $2 billion, and Windstream over $1 billion. The telcos were supposed to upgrade much of their most rural properties to receive broadband speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps.

CenturyLink and Frontier both recently told the FCC that they are behind in the CAF II build out and didn’t meet their obligation at the end of 2019 to be 80% finished with the upgrades. From what I hear from rural communities, I think the problem is a lot more severe than just the telcos being late. Communities across the country have been telling me that their residents aren’t seeing faster speeds and I think we’re going to eventually find out that a lot of the upgrades aren’t being made.

Regardless of the problems with the original CAF II, the FCC is now offering the $16.4 billion RDOF grant program to cover much of the same areas covered by CAF II. The big telcos are faced with several dilemmas. If they don’t participate, then others are going to get federal assistance to overbuild the traditional big telco service territories. If the big telcos do participate, they have to promise to upgrade to meet the minimum speed obligations of the RDOF of 25/3 Mbps.

Interestingly, the upgrades needed to raise DSL speeds on copper to 25/3 Mbps are not drastically different than the upgrades needed to reach 10/1 Mbps. The upgrades require building fiber deeper into last-mile networks and installing DSL transmitters (DSLAMs) in the field to be within a few miles of subscribers. Fiber must be a little closer to the customer to achieve a speed of 25/3 Mbps rather than 10/1 Mbps – but not drastically closer.

I think the big telcos encountered two problems with the CAF II DSL upgrades. First, they needed to build a lot more fiber than was being funded by CAF II to get fiber within a few miles of every customer. Second, the condition of their rural copper is dreadful and much of it probably won’t support DSL speeds. The big telcos have ignored their rural copper for decades and found themselves unable to coax faster DSL speeds from the old and mistreated copper.

This begs the question of what it even means if the big telcos decide to chase RDOF funding. Throwing more money at their lousy copper is not going to make it perform any better. If they were unable to get 10/1 speeds out of their network, then they are surely going to be unable to get speeds upgraded to 25/3 Mbps.

We can’t ignore that the big telcos have a natural advantage in the RDOF auction. They can file for the money everywhere, and any place where a faster competitor isn’t vying for the money, the big telcos will have a good chance of winning the reverse auction. There are bound to be plenty of places where nobody else bids on RDOF funding, particularly in places like Appalachia where the cost is so high to build, even with grant funding.

It would be a travesty to see any more federal grant money spent to upgrade rural DSL particularly since the FCC already spent $9 billion trying to upgrade the same copper networks. The copper networks everywhere are past their expected useful lives, and the networks operated by the big telcos are in the worst shape. I’ve known many smaller telcos that tried in the past to upgrade to 25/3 on rural DSL and failed – and those companies had networks that were well-maintained and in good condition. It would be impossible to believe the big telcos if they say they can upgrade the most remote homes in the country to 25/3 Mbps speeds. Unfortunately, with the way I read the RDOF rules, there is nothing to stop the big telcos from joining the auction and from taking big chunks of the grant money and then failing again like they did with the original CAF II.

Is the FCC Killing State Matching Grants?

In a bizarre last-minute change of the language approved for the upcoming $16.4 billion RDOF grant funds, the FCC inserted new language into the rules that would seem to eliminate grant applicants from accepting matching state grants for projects funded by the RDOF grants.

The new language specifically says that the RDOF grant program now excludes any geographic area that the Commission “know[s] to be awarded funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Program or other similar federal or state broadband subsidy programs or those subject to enforceable broadband deployment obligations.”

It’s fully understandable that the FCC doesn’t want to award grant money from multiple federal grant programs for the same project, and that was a loophole that is sensible to close. I think most industry folks understood this to be true even if it wasn’t in writing.

But the idea of blocking states from making grants to supplement RDOF is counterintuitive. More than half of the states now have state broadband grant programs. It makes no sense for the FCC to tell states how they can spend (or in this case how they cannot spend) their state grant monies.

The whole concept of blocking state matching grants goes against the tradition of federal funding. The vast majority of federal funding programs for infrastructure encourage state matching funds and many programs require it. Matching state grants are used along with federal grants for building infrastructure such as roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, airports, etc. Why would the FCC want to block this for broadband?

The state grant programs that I’m most familiar with were planning to provide matching grants for some RDOF grants. Broadband offices at the state level understand that building broadband networks can be expensive and they know that in some cases the extra funding is needed to make broadband projects viable.

It’s important to remember that the RDOF grants are aimed at the most remote customers in the country – customers that, by definition, will require the largest investment per customer to bring broadband. This is due almost entirely due to the lower household densities in the RDOF grant areas. Costs can be driven up also by local conditions like rocky soil or rough terrain. Federal funding that provides enough money to build broadband in the plains states is likely not going to be enough to induce somebody to build in the remote parts of Appalachia where the RDOF grants are most needed.

State grant programs often also have other agendas. For example, the Border-to-Border grants in Minnesota won’t fund broadband projects that can’t achieve at least 100 Mbps download speeds. This was a deliberate decision so that government funding wouldn’t be wasted to build broadband infrastructure that will be too slow and obsolete soon after it’s constructed. By contrast, the FCC RDOF program is allowing applicants proposing speeds as slow as 25 Mbps. It’s not hard to argue that speed is already obsolete.

I know ISPs that were already hoping for a combination of federal and state grants to build rural infrastructure. If the FCC kills matching grants, then they will be killing the plans for such ISPs that wanted to use the grants to build fiber networks – a permanent broadband solution. Even with both state and federal grants, these ISPs were planning to take on a huge debt burden to make it work.

If the matching grants are killed, I have no doubt that the RDOF money will still be awarded to somebody. However, instead of going to a rural telco or electric coop that wants to build fiber, the grants will go to the big incumbent telephone companies to waste money by pretending to goose rural DSL up to 25 Mbps. Even worse, much of the funding might go to the satellite companies that offer nothing new and a product that people hate. I hate to engage in conspiracy theories, but one of the few justifications I can see for killing matching grants is to make it easier for the big incumbent telcos to win, and waste, another round of federal grant funding.

The RDOF Grants – The Good and Bad News

The FCC recently approved a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that proposes how they will administer the $16 billion in RDOF grants that are going to awarded later this year. As you might imagine, there is both good news and bad news coming from the grant program.

It’s good news that this grant program ought to go a long way towards finally killing off large chunks of big telco rural copper. Almost every area covered by these grants is poorly served today by inadequate rural DSL.

The related bad news is that this grant award points out the huge failure of the FCC’s original CAF II program where the big telcos were given $11 billion to upgrade DSL to at least 10/1 speeds. The FCC is still funding this final year of construction of CAF II upgrades. The new grant money will cover much of the same geographic areas as the original CAF II deployment, meaning the FCC will spend over $27 billion to bring broadband to these rural areas. Even after the RDOF grants are built, many of these areas won’t have adequate broadband. Had the FCC administered both grant programs smartly, most of these areas could be getting fiber.

Perhaps the best good news is that a lot of rural households will get faster broadband. Ironically, since the grants cover rural areas, there will be cases where the RDOF grant brings faster broadband to farms than will be available in the county seat, where no grant money is available.

There is bad news on broadband speeds since the new grant program is only requiring download speeds of 25/3 Mbps. This means the FCC is repeating the same huge mistake they made with CAF II by allowing federal money to spend on broadband that will be obsolete before it’s even built. This grant program will be paid out of ten years and require deployment over six years – anybody paying attention to broadband understands that by six years from now a 25/3 Mbps broadband connection will feel glacial. There is grant weighting to promote faster data speeds, but due to the vagaries of a reverse auction, there will be plenty of funding given to networks that will have speeds close to 25/3 Mbps in performance.

There is further bad news since the FCC is basing the grants upon faulty broadband maps. Funding will only be made available to areas that don’t show 25/3 Mbps capability on the FCC maps. Everybody in the industry, including individual FCC Commissioners, agrees that the current maps based upon 477 data provided by ISPs are dreadful. In the last few months, I’ve worked with half a dozen counties where the FCC maps falsely show large swaths of 25/3 broadband coverage that isn’t there. It’s definitely bad news that the grant money won’t be made available in those areas where the maps overstate broadband coverage – folks in such areas will pay the penalty for inadequate broadband maps.

There is a glimmer of good news with mapping since the FCC will require the big ISPs to report broadband mapping data using polygons later this year. Theoretically, polygons will solve some of the mapping errors around the edges of towns served by cable TV companies. But there will only be time for one trial run of the new maps before the grants, and the big telcos have every incentive to exaggerate speeds in this first round of polygon mapping if it will keep this big pot of money from overbuilding their copper. I don’t expect the big telco mapping to be any better with the polygons.

Another area of good news is that there will be a lot of good done with these grants. There will be rural electric cooperatives, rural telcos, and fiber overbuilders that will use these grants as a down-payment to build rural fiber. These grants are not nearly large enough to pay for the full cost of rural fiber deployment, but these companies will borrow the rest with the faith that they can create a sustainable broadband business using fiber.

The bad news is that there will be plenty of grant money that will be used unwisely. Any money given to the traditional satellite providers might as well just be burned. Anybody living in an area where a satellite provider wins the grant funding won’t be getting better broadband or a new option. There is nothing to stop the big telcos from joining the auction and promising to upgrade to 25/3 Mbps on DSL – something they’ll promise but won’t deliver. There are likely to be a few grant recipients who will use the money to slap together a barely adequate network that won’t be fast and won’t be sustainable – there is a lot of lure in $16 billion of free federal money.

It’s dismaying that there should be so many potential downsides. A grant of this magnitude could be a huge boost to rural broadband. Many areas will be helped and there will be big success stories – but there is likely to be a lot of bad news about grant money spend unwisely.

My Telecom Predictions for 2020

Technical Resource Shortage. There is already a growing shortage of fiber resources that includes engineers, construction companies, and fiber consultants. The upcoming $16.4 billion RDOF program will create a resource shortage in 2020 for those who can help companies seek grant funding. Once the grants are awarded, the size of the program will add stress to the resources needed to build networks. Companies that don’t line up their experts early might find themselves without help.

Broadband Price Increases Are Now Routine. The biggest ISPs including Comcast, AT&T, Charter, Verizon, and others have now made it clear that they will be raising broadband rates annually – at least in the majority of their markets where they don’t face real competition. Anybody building a business plan for a new market has to decide how to predict future rate increases.

5G Cellphones Will Prove to be a Joke. At least for 2020, almost everybody who spends extra for a 5G handset is going to be disappointed. The companies deploying millimeter wave spectrum are doing it in limited downtown areas of major cities – and the speeds are only faster outdoors. Carriers implementing low frequencies like 600 MHz and 850 MHz admit that service won’t be any faster than 4G LTE.

FCC Will Eliminate the Last Vestiges of Regulation. The FCC has been actively tearing down regulations affecting the biggest ISPs. The agency has completely deregulated broadband and killed net neutrality. They’re in the process of gutting the use of unbundled network elements They’ve preempted local authority on the placement of wireless infrastructure. Since there is a chance that the administration will change at the end of the year, the FCC will kill as many regulations as they can during 2020.

T-Mobile / Sprint Merger Will be Approved. While there is a lot of opposition to the merger, the reality is that Sprint is not particularly viable as a cellular carrier. The biggest cable companies are entering the cellular markets and will push down urban cellular prices. Dish Networks seems to have a viable plan to become a major carrier if the T-Mobile/Sprint merger is approved.

Courts Will Chip Away at the 5G Pole Attachment Rules. The authority of the FCC to override local policy for the placement of cellular infrastructure boils down to a state versus federal jurisdiction battle. The courts have already said that cellular companies must heed some historic preservation and aesthetics rules. Ultimately the courts will weaken, but not kill the FCC rules, giving cellular carriers more rights than they historically had, but not full carte blanche authority to place devices anywhere.

State Net Neutrality Will Be Almost as Powerful as Federal Policy. It will be hard for the big ISPs to comply with net neutrality rules in California and Washington without complying everywhere. It’s also likely that more states will pass similar net neutrality rules

The RDOF Grants Will Fund Poor Broadband Solutions. Unfortunately, the $16.4 billion RDOF grants will award some grant money to technologies that are not future-proofed. Since the grants can be awarded for technologies that deliver broadband speeds of as little as 25/3 Mbps, we’ll see money go to technology solutions that might be obsolete before the end of the RDOF implementation period.

Cellular Networks Will Continue to Degrade. The nationwide use of cellular data is currently doubling every two years, which is greatly stressing cellular network quality. The cellular carriers need to implement massive numbers of small cells, add new spectrum, and fully implement 5G to keep up with the growing demand. Since those solutions will take 3 – 7 years to implement, cellular network quality is going to get a lot worse before the problems are solved.

Household Bandwidth Usage Will Continue to Grow. OpenVault says the average home now uses 275 gigabytes of data per month, with cord cutting households using 520 GB per month. Opensignal and Cisco both report that household broadband usage continues to grow rapidly, at about 21% annually, or a doubling every 4 years. There is nothing to suggest this growth will be slowing.