Time to Stop Talking about Unserved and Underserved

I work with communities all of the time that want to know if they are unserved or underserved by broadband. I’ve started to tell them to toss away those two terms, which are not a good way to think about broadband today.

The first time I remember the use of these two terms was as part of the 2009 grant program created by the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009. The language that created those grants included language from Congress that defined the two terms. In that grant program, unserved meant any home or business that has a broadband speed of less than 10/1 Mbps. Underserved was defined as homes having speeds above 10/1 Mbps but slower than 25/3 Mbps.

As far as I can tell, these terms have never been defined outside of broadband grant programs. However, the terms began to be widely used when talking about broadband availability. A decade ago, communities all wanted to know if they were unserved or underserved.

The terms began to show up in other grant programs after 2009. For example, the FCC’s CAF II grant program in 2015 gave money to the largest telephone companies in the country and funded ‘unserved’ locations that had speeds less than 10/1 Mbps.

The same definition was used in the ReConnect grants created by Congress in 2018 and 2019. Those grants made money available to bring better broadband to areas that had to be at least 90% unserved, using the 10/1 Mbps definition.

The biggest FCC grant program of 2020 has scrapped the old definition of these terms. This $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) grant program is being made eligible to Census blocks that are “entirely unserved by voice and with broadband speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps”. That seemingly has redefined unserved to now mean 25/3 Mbps or slower broadband – at least for purposes of this federal grant program.

There are also states that have defined the two terms differently. For example, following is the official definition of broadband in Minnesota that is used when awarding broadband grants in the state:

An unserved area is an area of Minnesota in which households or businesses lack access to wire-line broadband service at speeds that meet the FCC threshold of 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload. An underserved area is an area of Minnesota in which households or businesses do receive service at or above the FCC threshold but lack access to wire-line broadband service at speeds 100 megabits per second download and 20 megabits per second upload.

It must also be noted that there are states that define slower speeds as unserved. I’m aware of a few state broadband programs that still use 4/1 Mbps or 6/1 Mbps as the definition of unserved.

The main reason to scrap these terms is that they convey the idea that 25/3 Mbps broadband ought to be an acceptable target speeds for building new broadband. Urban America has moved far beyond the kinds of broadband speeds that are being discussed as acceptable for rural broadband. Cable companies now have minimum speeds that vary between 100 Mbps and 200 Mbps. Almost 18% of homes in the US now buy broadband provided over fiber. Cisco says the average achieved broadband speed in 2020 is in the range of 93 Mbps.

The time has come when we all need to refuse to talk about subsidizing broadband infrastructure that is obsolete before it’s constructed. We saw during the recent pandemic that homes need faster upload speeds in order to work or do schoolwork from home. We must refuse to accept new broadband construction that provides a 3 Mbps upload connection when something ten times faster than that would barely be acceptable.

Words have power, and the FCC still frames the national broadband discussions in terms of the ability to provide speeds of 25/3 Mbps. The FCC concentrated on 25/3 Mbps as the primary point of focus in its two recent FCC broadband reports to Congress. By sticking with discussions of 25/3 Mbps, the FCC is able to declare that a lot of the US has acceptable broadband. If the FCC used a more realistic definition of broadband, like the one used in Minnesota, then the many millions of homes that can’t buy 100/20 Mbps broadband would be properly defined as being underserved.

In the last few months, the FCC decided to allow slow technologies into the $16.4 billion RDOF grant program. For example, they’ve opened the door to telcos to bid to provide rural DSL that will supposedly offer 25/3 Mbps speeds. This is after the complete failure in the CAF II program where the big telcos largely failed to bring rural DSL speeds up to a paltry 10/1 Mbps.

It’s time to kill the terms unserved and underserved, and it’s time to stop defining connections of 10/1 Mbps or 25/3 Mbps as broadband. When urban residents can buy broadband with speeds of 100 Mbps or faster, a connection of 25/3 should not be referred to as broadband.

Charter Considering RDOF Grants

Charter let the world know that it plans to pursue RDOF grant funding in its most recent 8-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The company says that it might pursue grant funding to build to ‘multi-million passings’ involving ‘multi-billion investments’. It’s an interesting strategy. Charter already serves rural county seats and other towns across the country which puts them close to many of the areas where RDOF funding is available.

The RDOF grants cover the most rural and remote pockets of customers in the country. While there are some small rural towns included in the RDOF grant footprint, most of the customers covered by the grants are truly rural, consisting of farms and scattered homes in rural counties.

Charter will have to make some technology choices about how to serve rural America. The company can win the most money in the grant process if they file as a gigabit-speed provider. Gigabit speeds are available today with fiber technology and also with the hybrid fiber-coaxial networks operated by Charter and other cable companies. The RDOF grants can be awarded to technologies that support speeds over 25/3 Mbps. However, the grant includes incentives to favor ISPs willing to use faster technologies.

Charter could pursue slower technologies, like fixed wireless, but that funding is harder to win. To date, none of the big cable companies have ventured into wireless technology, other than a few trials. It’s always been a bit of a mystery why Charter and other cable companies haven’t erected wireless antennae at the fringes of their network to cheaply capture customers just out of reach of the HFC networks. My theory has always been that big cable companies are not nimble enough to handle drastically different technology platforms since all of their processes are designed for around coaxial and fiber technologies.

Charter is likely considering building fiber-to-the-home networks if they win RDOF grant funding. The hybrid fiber-coaxial technology that cable companies use in urban areas is poorly suited to serving scattered rural customers. The signal on an HFC network has to be boosted every two miles or so, and every time the signal is amplified some of the effective bandwidth carried on the network is lost. It would be a major challenge to maintain gigabit speeds required by the grants on a rural HFC network. It would only be possible with lots of fiber and tiny neighborhood nodes serving only a few homes. Charter has often cited the technology challenges of uses HFC technology in low-density areas as the reason it doesn’t expand outward from existing markets – and those reasons still hold true.

Charter claims to have expanded to add 1.5 million homes to its existing networks over the last two years, and in the 8-K filing says these are mostly rural customers. However, from what I’ve heard, most of these new Charter neighborhoods are in small subdivisions surrounding existing Charter markets. Charter has not been building rural networks to reach 1.5 million farms.

Charter and the other big cable companies have quietly introduced last-mile fiber technology into their networks. When cable companies build into new subdivisions today, they mostly do so with fiber technology.

It would be interesting if Charter’s strategy is to use the grant money to build fiber to farms. I know plenty of other ISPs considering the same business plan in places where there is enough RDOF grant funding available to make a business case.

There is no guarantee that Charter will ultimately win any grant funding and filing the grant short form on July 15 only gives Charter the option to participate in the auction in October. However, if the company bids in the auction, it will be good news for markets where Charter would build fiber technology. The big downside to the RDOF grant process is that in markets where no ISPs propose to build gigabit technology, the funding could end up going to satellite broadband providers – and there is no rural neighborhood that would prefer Viasat over Charter.

The FCC Finally Tackles New Mapping

Almost a year after having first approved the concept, the FCC recently started the process of developing new databases and maps. Last August the FCC approved the concept of having ISPs report broadband coverage by polygons, meaning that ISPs would draw lines around areas where they have active broadband customers or areas where ISPs can install a customer within a week of a request for service.

The FCC has been slow-rolling the process for the last year. They made announcements over a year ago that made rural America think that better maps are coming that will make it easier to correctly identify areas that have poor broadband. But last year’s big announcement only adopted the concept of better maps, and the recent vote took the first step towards implementing the concept.

Even now, it’s not clear that the FCC is ready to implement the new maps and the agency is still saying that it doesn’t have the money to change the ISP reporting process. This is hard to believe from an agency that is self-funded by fees and by spectrum auctions – the agency could have required the industry to pay for the new mapping at any time – but the FCC wants a specific allocation of funding from Congress. This feels like another delaying tactic.

There are good reasons for the FCC to not want better mapping. The FCC is required by law to take action to solve any big glaring difference between broadband availability in urban and rural areas. The agency has been doing everything possible over the last decade to not have to take such extraordinary steps.

Everybody involved in rural broadband knows that the current maps are dreadful. ISPs are free to claim broadband coverage and speeds in any manner they want, and from my experience, most rural counties have areas where broadband coverage or speeds are overstated. In many cases the overstatement of broadband is unbelievable. I recently was working with counties in Washington, New Mexico, and Minnesota where the FCC databases show 100% broadband coverage in rural areas when in real life there is almost zero broadband outside of towns.

This same mandate is the primary reason why the FCC doesn’t increase the definition of broadband, which has been set at 25/3 Mbps since 2015. Residents in well over half of the country, in cities and suburbs, have the option to buy broadband of 100 Mbps or faster. But the FCC sticks with the slower definition for rural America so that it doesn’t have to recognize that millions of rural homes, many in county seats in rural counties, don’t have broadband as good as in larger cities.

It is that same requirement to solve poor broadband that has driven the FCC to stick with mapping that FCC Commissioners all admit is inadequate. If the FCC fixes the maps, then many more millions of homes will become properly classified as not having broadband, and the FCC will be required to tackle the problem.

Unfortunately, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for the new broadband mapping process. The biggest reason that today’s mapping doesn’t work is that ISPs are not required to tell the truth. Drawing polygons might decrease some of the areas where the ISPs claim coverage that doesn’t exist – but there is nothing in the new rules that force ISPs to report honest speeds. A rural county is still going to have overstated broadband coverage if ISPs continue to claim imaginary speeds – sometimes amazingly exaggerated. One of the counties I recently was working with has two wireless ISPs that claim countywide coverage of 100 Mbps broadband when it looks like the ISPs don’t operate in the county. The new mapping is not going to fix anything if an ISP can draw false polygons or report imaginary speeds. The new maps aren’t going to stop the exaggeration of rural DSL speeds by the big telcos.

Unfortunately, there are huge negative repercussions for areas where the ISPs lie about broadband coverage. The best example is the current RDOF auction where the FCC is awarding $16.4 billion in grants. None of the areas where ISPs have lied about broadband coverage are included in that grant program and won’t be included in future grants as long as ISPs keep lying about broadband coverage.

Lets not forget that ISPs have motivation for lying to the FCC about broadband coverage. Keeping grants our of rural areas shields the ISPs already operating there and protects rural ISPs that are selling 2 Mbps broadband for $70 per month. If these areas get grants the ISPs lose their customers. The penalties for overstating broadband speeds and coverage ought to be immense. In my mind, if an ISP deprives a rural county from getting broadband grants, then the ISP ought to be liable for the lost grant funding. If the FCC was to assess huge penalties for cheating the maps would be cleaned up overnight without having to switch to the polygons.

As usual, the FCC is pursuing the wrong solution and I suspect they know so. The big problem with the current maps is that ISPs lie about their coverage areas and about the speeds that are being delivered to customers. The FCC has the ability to require truthfulness and to fine ISPs that don’t follow its rules. The FCC could have implemented penalties for false reporting any time in the last decade. Implementing new mapping without implementing penalties for lying is just kicking the can down the road for a few more years so that the FCC won’t have to address the real rural broadband shortfalls in the country.

Will Congress Fund Rural Broadband?

Members of Congress seem to be competing to sponsor bills that will fund rural broadband. There are so many competing bills that it’s getting hard to keep track of them all. Hopefully, some effort will be made to consolidate the bills together into one coherent broadband funding bill.

The latest bill is the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, introduced in the House of Representatives. This is part of a plan to provide $1.5 trillion of infrastructure funding that would include $100 billion for rural broadband. $80 billion of the funding would be used to directly construct rural broadband. It’s worth looking at the details of this bill since it’s similar to some of the other ideas floating around Congress.

The bill focuses on affordability. In addition to building broadband it would:

  • Require ISPs to offer an affordable service plan to every consumer
  • Provide a $50 monthly discount on internet plans for low-income households and $75 for those on tribal lands.
  • Gives a preference to networks that will offer open access to give more choice to consumers.
  • Direct the FCC to collect data on broadband prices and to make that data widely available to other Federal agencies, researchers, and public interest groups
  • Direct the Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth to conduct a biennial study to measure the extent to which cost remains a barrier to broadband adoption.
  • Provide over $1 billion to establish two new grant programs: the State Digital Equity Capacity Program, an annual grant program for states to create and implement comprehensive digital equity plans to help close gaps in broadband adoption and digital skills, and the Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program which will promote digital inclusion projects undertaken by individual organizations and local communities
  • Provide $5 billion for the rapid deployment of home internet service or mobile hotspots for students with a home Internet connection.

This bill also guarantees the right of local governments, public-private partnerships, and cooperatives to deliver broadband service – which would seemingly override the barriers in place today in 21 states that block municipal broadband and the remaining states that don’t allow electric cooperatives to be ISPs.

This and the other bills have some downsides. The biggest downside is the use of a reverse auction.  There are two big problems with reverse auctions that the FCC doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge. First, a reverse auction requires the FCC to predetermine the areas that are eligible for grants – and that means relying on their lousy data. Just this month I was working with three different rural counties where the FCC records show the entire county has good broadband because of over-reporting of speeds by a wireless ISP. In one county, a WISP claimed countywide availability of 300 Mbps broadband. In another county a WISP claimed countywide coverage of 100 Mbps symmetrical broadband coverage, when their closest transmitter was a county and several mountain ranges away. Until these kinds of mapping issues are fixed, any FCC auctions are going to leave out a lot of areas that should be eligible for grants. The people living in these areas should not suffer due to poor FCC data collection.

Second, there are not enough shovel ready projects ready to chase $80 billion in grant funding. If there is no decent ISP ready to build in a predetermined area, the funding is likely to revert to a satellite provider, like happened when Viasat was one of the largest winners in the CAF II reverse auction. The FCC also recently opened the door to allowing rural DSL into the upcoming RDOF grant – a likely giveaway to the big incumbent telcos.

This particular bill has a lot of focus on affordability, and I am a huge fan of getting broadband to everybody. But policymakers have to know that this comes at a cost. If a grant recipient is going to offer affordable prices and even lower prices for low-income households then the amount of grant funding for a given project has to be higher than what we saw with RDOF. There also has to be some kind of permanent funding in place if ISPs are to provide discounts of $50 to $75 for low-income households – that’s not sustainable out of an ISP revenue stream.

The idea of creating huge numbers of rural open-access networks is also an interesting one. The big problem with this concept is that there are many places in the country where there a few, or even no local ISPs. Is it an open-access network if only one, or even no ISPs show up to compete on a rural network?

Another problem with awarding this much money all at once is that there are not enough good construction companies to build this many broadband rural networks in a hurry. In today’s environment that kind of construction spending would superheat the market and would drive up the cost of construction labor by 30-50%. It would be just as hard to find good engineers and good construction managers in an overheated market – $80 billion is a lot of construction projects.

Don’t take my negative comments to mean I am against massive funding for rural broadband. But if we do it poorly a lot of the money might as well just be poured into a ditch. This much money used wisely could solve a giant portion of the rural broadband problem. But done poorly and many rural communities with poor broadband probably won’t get a solution. Congress has the right idea, but I hope that they don’t dictate how to disperse the money without talking first to rural industry experts, or this will be another federal program with huge amounts of wasted and poorly spent money.

Expanding the Universal Service Fund

A bipartisan bill has been introduced in Congress that would expand the size of the FCC’s Universal Service Fund by adding a fee on top of broadband bills. This fund is currently funded by fees added to landline telephone and cellular bills. The USF assessment on Interstate traffic recently increased to 26.5% – which is an extraordinarily high tax.

The bill was introduced by Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and Don Young (R-Alaska). Also sponsoring the bill are T.J. Cox (D-Cal.), Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), Angie Craig (D-Minn.), Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma), Luis Correa (D-Cal.) Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.), Ed Case (D- Hawaii), and Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas).

I’ve been advocating this for a decade because the Universal Service Fund is the FCC’s only tool to tackle the rural broadband issue. The USF already does a lot of good. The Fund is used to bring affordable gigabit broadband to schools. It’s used to bring affordable broadband to rural health care facilities. And even though the FCC keeps fighting it, the USF is used to hold down broadband bills for low-income households, with the Lifeline program that makes ISPs whole for providing lower prices.

In the past the Fund was used to fund two large-dollar broadband expansion projects – one successful and one a total bust. The successful program was ACAM, which has provided the funding to build rural fiber networks by small telcos. I see people around the industry praising the rural broadband in states like North and South Dakota – and that fiber was largely funded by the ACAM program.

Unfortunately, the USF doesn’t always get used wisely. This was the source of funding for the CAF II program that handed $11 billion to the big telcos to ostensively upgrade rural broadband speeds to 10/1 Mbps. It appears that money was largely frittered away or pocketed by the telcos because it’s still hard to find rural households with DSL speeds of 10/1 Mbps. The entire project basically shoveled billions to the bottom line of the telcos.

The Universal Service Fund is about to be used again in big ways. USF is the source of the $16.4 RDOF grants that will be awarded later this year, with another $4 billion to be awarded next year. Assuming this reverse auction doesn’t go cockeyed by awarding money to satellite providers instead of fiber networks, then this will be the biggest boost to rural broadband ever. I’ve been working with a lot of ISPs planning to use this money to build fiber in rural counties all over the country.

The Universal Service Fund is also the source of the proposed $9 billion 5G Fund with a goal of bringing cellular coverage to everybody in the US. Again, assuming the FCC does this right, this would make it a lot easier to live in rural America. Done poorly, this could instead line the pockets of the giant cellular companies.

What nobody is talking about is that those two programs – the RDOF grants and the 5G Fund will use all of the dry powder in the Universal Service Fund. These programs will both award funding over 10 years, and if we don’t find a new source of funding, there will be no additional big grants coming from the USF for the next decade.

What’s even scarier is that the revenues into the Universal Service Fund are dropping as people continue to drop landline telephones. Without some bolstering, there is no assurance that future FCCs will be able to meet the obligations to the recipients of the RDOF and 5G grants.

The revenue impact of imposing a $1 fee on broadband connections is gigantic. There are currently around 106 million broadband customers in the US. A $1 monthly fee on broadband would add $1.3 billion annually to the USF, or over $13 billion over the next decade. That would allow for another big rural broadband grant program.

The members of Congress sponsoring this bill seem to trust the FCC to disperse grant funding. Honestly, their track record on choosing winning grants is mixed. There are also plenty of policy people who think we should take every step possible to keep broadband affordable and that even a $1 monthly fee helps to push broadband out of the affordability range for homes.

If the Universal Service Fund is not expanded, then the only other source for funding rural broadband is Congress. There is a lot of talk about broadband funding coming out of the various COVID-19 stimulus packages. But if that doesn’t happen, we are likely facing an economy with a lot of problems for the next few years. In that environment, rural broadband funding might get shuttled behind other priorities.

Frontier’s Lack of Fiber

The primary reason that Frontier cites for going into bankruptcy is the lack of fiber. They are finally acknowledging that customers are bailing on them due to the poor broadband speeds on their copper networks. This is being presented as if this is a sudden revelation – as if the company woke up one day and realized that it’s selling services that nobody wants to buy. I must admit this gave me a chuckle and there are some giant flaws with this argument.

Rural customers don’t hate DSL – they hate DSL that doesn’t work. If Frontier had implemented the CAF II upgrades as had been promised, then rural customers would all be using the 10/1 Mbps or faster rural DSL that would have been created as a result of those upgrades. Instead, customers have gotten disgusted by overpriced DSL that is so slow that they can’t stream video or connect to a school or work server. We’ve been doing speed tests all over the country and it’s rare to find rural DSL in many markets that delivers even 5 Mbps download – much of it is far slower than that, some barely faster than dial-up. If Frontier had provided 10/1 Mbps DSL to millions of homes, those households would gratefully be buying that broadband during the COVID-19 crisis.

Frontier blames its woes on lack of fiber with no mention of their reputation for unconscionably bad customer service. I’ve talked to customers who talk about routine network outages that lasts for many days. Customers complain about losing broadband and having to wait weeks to get it repaired – or worse, are told that the electronics needed to replace a bad DSL modem are out of stock. This is a company that has trimmed, then trimmed again its maintenance staff to the bone. Talk to any rural Frontier technician and they’ll tell you that they don’t have the time or resources available to address routine customer problems.

Frontier complains about lack of fiber, but as recently as 2015 they purchased another huge pile or dilapidated Verizon copper networks as part of a $10.5 billion acquisition. While that acquisition came with some FiOS fiber networks, the company also doubled down on buying non-functional copper networks. The speculation in the industry was that Frontier continued to buy lousy properties because it created opportunities for huge management bonuses – the company never had any plans to make the purchased copper networks any better.

And that’s the real issue with Frontier’s claim – they have no fiber because they’ve made almost no effort to migrate to fiber. The company burned all of its cash on trying to service the debt for overpriced acquisitions rather than rolling cash back into its networks.

It’s interesting to compare Frontier to the many smaller independent telephone companies. The FCC brags about places like the Dakotas that have a huge amount of rural fiber to homes. But that rural fiber didn’t happen all at once. It happened over decades. Most rural telcos went through two rounds of investment where they invested to improve rural DSL. In doing so they built fiber to go deeper into the rural areas, the first build brought fiber within maybe ten miles of homes, the second got fiber to within 3 miles of most homes. When the rural telcos decided to take fiber the rest of the way, it was reasonably achievable because they already had fiber deep into rural neighborhoods.

Frontier has done very little of that kind of incremental improvements over the years. They found it more enticing to keep borrowing to buy new rural properties rather than roll cash back into the existing networks. It doesn’t even look like they did all of that much new fiber as part of the CAF II upgrades. I’m sure Frontier would refute that statement and say they are fully compliant with CAF II, but if they had built fiber deep into the network then rural DSL would have gotten better – and for the most part, it hasn’t.

I can’t how the bankruptcy will benefit frontier’s customers. The company will likely get to walk away from a lot of the debt that was provided for the last few acquisitions – and it’s hard to feel bad for lenders who thought it was a good idea in 2015 to lend to buy copper networks. But bankruptcy won’t fix any of the fundamental problems with the Frontier networks. Customers are going to continue to bail on inferior and nonfunctional broadband products. The upcoming RDOF auction is going to give a lot of money to ISPs that are going to overbuild Frontier copper with something better (even though Frontier made a last-minute filing at the FCC to block grant funding by claiming they had magically upgraded 16,000 rural census blocks).

Is Frontier going to somehow start investing in rural fiber? My best guess is that they won’t even after bankruptcy. If they can raise any money for new capital spending they’ll likely try to salvage some of the county seats and other markets where there is a mass of customers. However, in many of those markets they’ve already lost the battle to the cable companies.

Frontier is right in that they are failing from lack of fiber. But that statement doesn’t tell the full story. They are failing because the company decided decades ago to not invest capital into their own networks – and now they are paying the price.

Say No to Data Caps

Last week I had a blog that asked why the FCC is seemingly supporting data caps by allowing caps on broadband built with federal grant money. The FCC has established grants that place premium value on fast broadband speeds and low latency but that ignores one of the most important aspects of broadband today – usability.

A broadband connection that doesn’t let homes partake in the same online world as the rest of America is inferior broadband – and there is no better example of an unusable data plan than one a low data cap. The FCC’s RDOF rules support monthly data caps of 250 gigabytes for plans offering 25/3 or 50/5 Mbps. The FCC is clearly saying to rural America – we’ll give grant money to ISPs to bring you better broadband, but we’re going to let the ISPs cripple that broadband so that they can bill you an extra $50 or $100 per month if you want to use that broadband like everybody else in the country.

Recall that ISPs that win the RDOF grants have six years to build the new networks. How will a 250 GB data caps look by the time these networks are built? OpenVault says that the average home used 274 GB per month in 2018 – already higher than the FCC’s proposed data cap. By the end of 2019 average usage had grown to 344 GB for the average home and exploded to 402 GB by March due to people and students working from home during the pandemic. Trending household usage forward until 2026 would suggest that the average home will be using more than a terabyte of data each month by then. That’s not a big stretch since more than 10% of homes are already using a terabyte or more of data today.

The FCC is not the only one to point a finger at. There are plenty of state broadband programs that have awarded grants to ISPs that have data caps. This has happened because policymakers have not viewed data caps as providing inferior broadband. This is easy to understand since just a few years the vast majority of homes used a lot less broadband than the data caps. You might recall in 2015 when there was big public pushback when Comcast tried to introduce a 300 GB data cap. At that time, Comcast said that only a tiny number of customers used more data than 300 GB per month – but in five short years, the national average data usage is significantly higher than the cap Comcast wanted to impose in 2019.

We need a new policy at the state and federal level that says that ISPs with data caps are not welcome to broadband grant funding. Not only should they not be able to impose data caps on grant-funded networks – an ISP that has routine data caps for others should be prohibited from participating in any grant funding anywhere.

There are still ISPs that say that data caps help to protect the integrity of their network. This argument went out the door when most ISPs stopped billing for data caps during the pandemic – the one time when protecting the network would have been important.

What hasn’t been said enough is that a broadband connection with a data cap is an inferior broadband connection. A home with data caps faces the monthly choice of either curtailing broadband usage or else spending a lot more for broadband. Are we going to fix the rural broadband gap by transitioning rural homes with slow broadband connections to ones with tiny data caps that cost a lot more than everybody else in the country?

It’s always been clear that data caps are mostly about greed. There is no better example of this than the AT&T rural hotspot that has a data cap that allows for as much as an extra $200 in monthly fees to a subscriber. It’s outrageous that the FCC gave grant money last year to Viasat which has tiny monthly data caps. The whole proposed 5G Fund is outrageous if billions of federal money will allow the cellular carriers to sell more rural hotspots with tiny data caps and huge monthly fees.

It’s time for broadband policymakers at all levels to categorically say no to data caps. Shame on the FCC for allowing data caps into the discussion of the RDOF grant. But also shame on Congress for not issuing a new telecom bill to stop all of this nonsense. And shame on any state policymaker or regulator who has allowed state resources to be used to support broadband with data caps. It’s time to say no.

Congress, Don’t Be Too Hasty

As Congress is handing out relief money for the COVID-19 crisis, rumors are flying around that rural broadband relief is one of the issues being discussed. The plight of employees and students unable to work from home has certainly bubbled up to a majority of those in Congress.

My advice to Congress is to not be to hasty. Don’t have the knee-jerk reaction of just tossing big bucks towards the rural broadband problem, because if you do much of the money will be wasted. There have been back-of-the-envelope estimates made that it would take anywhere from $60 billion to well over $100 billion to bring fiber to everywhere in rural America. Nobody knows the number and my guess is that it’s towards the upper end of that scale.

The typical Washington DC approach to the problem would be to earmark a pile of money to solve the problem, with no forethought of how to use the funds. This tendency is bolstered by the fiscal year spending nature of government funding, and Congress would likely expect broadband money to be spent quickly.

And that’s where the rub comes in. The broadband industry is not prepared to handle a sudden huge influx of funding. Consider all of the following issues that would quickly become apparent if this were to happen:

  • The first big question that would be asked with funding is where to spend the money – which parts of the country need the funding help? Unfortunately, the FCC will be of nearly zero help in this area, so you can’t run a giant grant program through them. The upcoming RDOF grants are supposedly aimed at bringing broadband to all of the places that don’t already have 25/3 broadband. But due to the dismal FCC mapping process, the current maps miss huge swaths of rural America that also need better broadband but that are misclassified by the FCC maps. If Congress gives the money to the FCC to disperse, the agency has no idea where to spend it according to its flawed data.
  • The next big question is how to award funds. The FCC’s RDOF grant program is using a reverse auction to award funds – but this only works when the funding is awarded to a specific footprint of grant areas. More traditional grant awards require the writing of extensive grant requests to prove the worthiness of a grant applicant and the worthiness of grant project. Anybody that remembers the Stimulus grants for broadband recalls that even at that time there were almost no qualified and experienced people available to review grant applications – and a lot of the Stimulus funding went to unworthy projects. A poorly run grant program also invites fraud and waste – the bigger the dollars the bigger the problems.
  • In perhaps the hardest issue for many to believe, there are not enough qualified ISPs ready and able to handle a big influx of funding and of operating the ensuing broadband businesses. We hear about small ISPs offering service all over the country, but all of them together don’t serve more than perhaps 5% of the broadband customers in the country today. Most small ISPs are already fully leveraged today as they’ve borrowed money to expand their footprint. Any grants that require matching funds might find a dearth of takers. If we throw money at the industry too quickly, it’s going to all end up going to the big telcos – and that likely just means pouring money down a black hole. It’s not hard to look back at the total bust of the CAF II program where the big telcos spent $11 billion in FCC funding and didn’t make any dent in the rural broadband problem. If Congress spreads awards out over time, then big new ISPs like electric cooperatives can prepare to go after the awards – most of them are not close to ‘shovel-ready’ today.
  • You can’t ask for broadband funding without some sort of engineering estimate of the cost of building a network and some sort of business plan showing that the network can operate profitably at the end of the funding. There are not a lot of ‘shovel-ready’ broadband projects laying around waiting for funding, and so the first step after a big Congress funding program would be to develop hundreds of new business plans. All of the consultants and engineers I know are already full-time busy helping companies to prepare for the $16.4 billion RDOF grants and the various state grant awards around the country.
  • The same is true of fiber construction companies. During this last construction season, we started seeing construction companies bidding up rates to go to the builder willing to pay the most for their services. There are not a lot (if any) idle fiber construction crews sitting around waiting for work. Fiber construction is not something that can be taught quickly to new workers – it takes years to develop a good fiber splicer or to train somebody to be able to determine pole make-ready.
  • We’re also starting to see backlogs for fiber materials. The waiting times for ADSS fiber that goes into the power space recently crept up to six months. The far bigger concern is electronics. Right now, the world supply chains are a mess due to COVID-19 and the industry is expecting delays in electronics delivery in the coming construction season. Supply houses and vendors aren’t talking about this, hoping it will magically go away, but there will likely be electronics shortages in the 2020 construction season even without pressure from new grants. Such shortages can cripple construction projects.
  • Finally, I am positive that any federal broadband grant money will come with stupid rules, many slapped on the funding by the big ISP lobbyists. There will be needless hoops to jump through and rules that make it hard to spend the money well. There is zero chance that federal grant funding wouldn’t come with ridiculous rules and ridiculous restrictions. If Congress is going to award big money they need to take a little time that the rules are fair and efficient.

There will be people reading this in amazement and wondering how a rural broadband advocate could be recommending caution. One only has to look back to the stimulus grants to recall that probably half of that money was wasted due to the haste of the grant programs. My fear is a knee-jerk federal reaction that will throw giant bucks at the problem when the proper solution would be a series of grants awarded over five or more years to allow ISPs time to get ready. Funding in one giant lump would result in a mess of epic proportions. I fear that DC would then wash their hands of rural broadband by saying that they already funded it, and any communities left behind after a flawed grant program would likely be left behind for decades to come. Congress, if you want to help your constituents, please ask for advice and get it right.

Another FCC Disaster?

Anybody thinking of filing an RDOF grant needs to pay a lot of attention to the challenges being made to the $16.4 billion RDOF grant footprint. The FCC invited ISPs to notify them if there are any Census blocks where the ISP has added broadband of at least 25/3 since June 30, 2019. Even though the RDOF is covering the most remote households that supposedly don’t have even 10/1 Mbps broadband, you’d expect that some ISPs have built into the RDOF footprint over the last 9 months. However, that’s not the response that the FCC got. While there were a number of ISPs that claimed to have built into a few Census blocks, the large incumbent telcos are claiming to have built into a huge numbers of blocks since last June. Frankly, the responses of the of large telcos are not credible and the FCC needs to take a pause and challenge these results.

Here’ what the big telcos claimed:

  • AT&T claims about 1,500 Census blocks that have been upgraded to at least 25/3 since June 30, 20198.
  • Frontier claims over 16,000 Census blocks have been upgraded.
  • CenturyLink claims over 5,400 Census blocks have been upgraded.
  • Windstream claims 1,713 upgraded Census blocks.
  • Consolidated claims over 7,300 Census blocks.

To put these numbers into perspective, the Census Bureau says that the average Census block contains 40 – 45 people. Rural Census blocks often have fewer residents than urban blocks, and even if the average for these blocks is 40 people, the big telcos are asking to remove about 1/3 of the people out of consideration for RDOF grants. That number is mind-boggling. If the big telcos had been making this kind of progress in expanding 25/3 Mbps rural broadband before June 30, 2019, then we wouldn’t have a rural digital divide.

Consider the individual claims:

  • Frontier lost 235,000 broadband customers in 2019, representing 6.3% of their customer base. The company has been cash-strapped and has not been making rural capital investments. It’s fairly well understood in the industry that the company didn’t even spend much of its CAF II funding to upgrade rural customers to 10/1 Mbps. It’s inconceivable that the company that just entered bankruptcy upgraded over 16,000 Census blocks in the last 9 months.
  • Consolidated Communications is next on the list claiming upgrades in 7,300 Census blocks. The company purchased Fairpoint in July 2017 and has been actively making upgrades since then. But even for a company actively making upgrades, a claim of improvements in this many Census blocks seems hard to believe over a 9-month period that includes the winter months.
  • CenturyLink claims upgrades in 5,400 Census blocks. The company has loudly proclaimed a number of times that it is not making investments that earn ‘infrastructure returns’. It’s frankly hard to believe that they would have spent the money in rural America needed to make these upgrades.
  • Windstream is claiming over 1,700 Census blocks. The company has been flirting with bankruptcy during the last nine months and it’s reasonable to ask if they were really this active in making upgrades in the last 9 months.
  • AT&T claims over 1,500 Census blocks have been upgraded. This is the company that wants badly to get out of the rural wireline business. These upgraded Census blocks need to have come from the AT&T Fixed wireless technology. I’m not aware of AT&T having launched any mass marketing effort aimed at rural census blocks. Consider AT&T’s broadband subscriber numbers for 2019. AT&T lost a little over 300,000 broadband customers during the year. To offset that loss, AT&T claims to have added over 1 million customers on fiber. One would think it would be obvious if AT&T was also out heavily promoting the rural fixed-wireless product.

It’s easy to understand why an incumbent telephone company would make these claims. Any Census blocks that remain in the RDOF grant process are going to be overbuilt by faster technology than the rural DSL offered by these telcos. The incumbents can only remain as the monopoly provider by removing Census blocks from the RDOF footprint.

The FCC needs to investigate these claims. This is reminiscent of the overstated wireless coverage claimed last year by Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint that prompted the FCC to delay the rural cellular grants, now labeled as 5G Grants, for a year. It was obvious to the FCC that those wireless carriers were making the erroneous coverage claims to keep out competition. There has to be a whole lot of that going on here as well.

Remember that these claims are being made under the existing rules for the FCC’s 477 process. In the current process an ISP only has to have one customer in a Census block getting the declared speed. The easiest way for the FCC to check these numbers is to require each telco to provide the addresses of customers in each Census block that supposedly now has 25/3 Mbps broadband. The FCC could call and talk to those homes and ask them to take a speed test to see if the telco claims are even remotely plausible. I expect the lists would quickly revised and shrink if the carriers are required to get that specific.

The FCC also needs to allow Census blocks that have only a few 25/3 customers to remain in the RDOF grant. It would be a huge disservice to the other customers in these Census blocks to doom them to remain as monopoly customers for another decade.

These filings are so blatantly suspicious that the FCC has to pause, even if that means delaying the RDOF grants. Considering the hardships being experienced by everybody in these areas during the current COVID-19 crisis, the FCC cannot accept these crazy claims without challenging them. It would have been possible credible if each of these big telcos claimed a few hundred Census block upgrades – but in aggregate this filing looks like a monopoly land grab more than anything else. If these claims prove to be false the FCC needs to fine these telcos into the stone age – such fines deserve to be in the billions.

The FCC is Ignoring Its Section 706 Responsibilities

I was recently re-reading the FCC’s 2019 Broadband Deployment Report to Congress. That report was mandated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and gave the FCC specific obligations to make sure that everybody in the country has access to ‘advanced telecommunications’, which today is understood to mean broadband. It’s worthwhile for broadband advocates to occasionally be reminded of the FCC’s legal obligations concerning broadband. Following is a slightly abridged version of Section 706 of the Commission’s rules:

The Commission and each State commission with regulatory jurisdiction over telecommunications services shall encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans by utilizing, in a manner consistent with the public interest, convenience, and necessity, price cap regulation, regulatory forbearance, measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment. The Commission shall determine whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. If the Commission’s determination is negative, it shall take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market.

As I read the 2019 report, I can’t help but conclude that the Commission is failing its Section 706 obligations in several big ways. The first obligation is to determine if advanced telecommunications are being deployed to all Americans. The 2019 report has hundreds of pages of numerical data concerning the deployment of landline and cellular broadband. However, the tables are largely fiction since they are based upon massively faulty data reported by ISPs and cellular carriers.

We know that rural cellular coverage data is also terrible because the FCC just issued a report saying so in December. It didn’t take the FCC report to validate this, because anybody living or working in rural America knows there are still huge holes in cellular coverage.

The FCC data on landline broadband is abysmal. I know this from working with rural counties to find broadband solutions. In those counties, we’ve mapped out the FCC’s data that shows that large swaths of counties have broadband speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps, or even 25/3 Mbps when in fact there is practically no broadband outside of a county seat or another town or two. In county after county, the FCC data is seriously wrong and claims broadband coverage where it doesn’t exist. Where there is rural broadband coverage, the FCC data generally overstates the speeds and classifies areas where homes can get just a few Mbps as having decent broadband.

The FCC knows their data is bad and has been shown the extent of the errors in ex parte meetings with local officials. Yet the FCC continues to accumulate the lousy data and make policies based upon the bad numbers. In the 2019 report, they say: the data demonstrates that six percent of Americans, over 19 million households, lack access to fixed terrestrial advanced telecommunications capability and we recognize that the situation is especially problematic in rural areas, where over 24% lack access, and Tribal Lands, where 32% lack access. Those statistics are incredibly understated. Across the country local counties claim that the rural data for their counties is off by 20% to 60%, meaning that the numbers cited above by the FCC are likely off that much as well. While the FCC claims there are 19 million rural homes without good broadband we don’t know if this is really 24 million or 28 million or 32 million – because of the FCC complacency we have no way to guess at the extent of the lack of broadband.

The FCC is clearly shirking its duty to fix poor rural broadband. The Section 706 language couldn’t be clearer. The FCC is required to take immediate action to accelerate broadband deployment where it is not being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion.

In the 2019 report, the FCC defends not taking immediate steps to fix the lack of broadband as follows: the Commission has previously explained, the statute requires that we determine whether advanced telecommunications capability “is being deployed to all Americans”—not whether it has already been deployed to all Americans. Our policymaking efforts over the last two years are promoting broadband deployment, and the data show that ISPs are making strong progress in deploying advanced telecommunications capability to more and more Americans. These circumstances warrant a positive finding. The FCC not only shirks taking any action, but they also pat themselves on the back for having undertaken policies that promote broadband deployment.

I should make it clear that this is not just an indictment of the current FCC. The last several FCCs have used similar verbal gymnastics to avoid taking responsibility to fix rural broadband. But there is one new thing the current FCC has done that makes it harder for them to tackle rural broadband. The Section 706 language directs the FCC to use regulatory tools such as price cap regulation and regulatory forbearance to help tackle the lack of broadband. The current FCC actively wrote themselves out of the regulatory picture for broadband. They can no longer use price caps or forbearance (relaxing regulations in rural areas) as regulatory tools since they no longer regulate broadband.

To give the FCC some credit, they have undertaken huge RDOF grants that will bring better broadband to a few million rural homes. However, by keeping on the blinders about the bad data these grants will not be used to tackle broadband in areas where the FCC maps overstate broadband coverage. And the grants are likely, in some cases, to go to ISPs like the satellite providers that bring no new solutions to rural America. Unfortunately, it’s easy to predict that the FCC will rest on their laurels for years to come, claiming that the RDOF grants take them off the hook for further solving the lack of rural broadband.