The Challenge of Accepting RDOF

I’ve been wondering lately if some of the RDOF reverse auction winners are having second thoughts about accepting the RDOF awards. It’s amazing how much the broadband world has changed since the end of that auction in December 2020.

It’s gotten more expensive to build fiber projects over the last year. The supply chain has played havoc with the costs of the raw components needed to build fiber networks. Many clients tell me that the cost of fiber components like conduit are collectively up by 40% or more over the last year. As somebody who has worked through several periods of inflation in the past, there is not a big likelihood that prices will return to the old levels even after the supply chain gets back to normal.

A bigger concern is the cost of labor. The explosion in the volume of fiber construction projects is almost too hard to grasp. The demand for construction crews is going to soon outstrip the number of experienced technicians. That means big challenges for finding and keeping construction crews. Shortages always lead to higher labor costs.

The federal government also layered on a new requirement that didn’t exist at the time of the auction. The Buy American Act now applies to infrastructure projects awarded with federal funds after November 18, 2021. These rules will apply to any RDOF winner that is approved by the FCC after that date. These rules don’t automatically add to the cost of building a fiber network, but they kill any thoughts of using lower-cost foreign fiber or components. The Act makes it clear that components like fiber and conduit must be 100% sourced to U.S. manufacturers. The new rules also make it seem unlikely that there will be many waivers allowed – these new rules have teeth.

The biggest kick in the teeth to an RDOF winner are the huge new grants are offering far more funding than anybody won in the RDOF auction. The giant BEADS grants can fund up to 75% of the cost of building a network for a rural project. Grants like ReConnect also have a 75% grant option. An RDOF winner that was unopposed in the auction got 60% of the FCC’s bid price – and that price was not set at the full cost of building a network but based upon some screwball federal cost models. An electric cooperative that won the RDOF auction could get a lot more funding from ReConnect grants or the upcoming BEAD grants – but nobody in the industry knew this at the time of the RDOF auction.

Another issue to consider is that RDOF winners might have missed out on the opportunity for matching state grants. While some states might make matching grants to go along with RDOF awards, many will not. That means the RDOF funding is all such winners will see.

What I’ve never figured out is why some RDOF winners bid the awards down to ridiculously low levels. There are places where bidders accepted RDOF awards under 10% of the expected cost of building a network – in some cases as low as 1%. In one county I’m familiar with, an RDOF bidder accepted less than 5% of the cost of building the network. This is a county with some of the easiest costs in the country to bury fiber. But this county is typical of rural areas and is sparsely populated, so the cost per passing is still high. Even considering the relatively low construction costs in the area, I couldn’t make a business case in this county for accepting less than 50% outside funding to make the project viable. I’m still scratching my head, wondering how this RDOF winner expects to make a business plan out of such a low award.

It’s not hard to imagine that some RDOF winners are having second thoughts. There are penalties for walking away from RDOF, but those penalties might be a lot smaller than the downside of being forced to build a rural network that will never generate enough revenue to cover the cost of construction. I was mystified by some of the winning RDOF bids in 2020 – and those bids make a lot less sense when viewed from 2022.

Auditing RDOF Performance

Today’s blog covers an issue that gets my blood boiling every time I think about it. The FCC just announced increased testing for ISPs accepting funding from FCC High Cost programs, which includes CAF II and RDOF. The new rules include the following:

  • The number of audits and verifications will double in 2022 compared to 2021 and will include some on-site audits.
  • There will be more verification prior to the first required deployment milestone.
  • Large dollar funding recipients will be subject to an on-site audit in at least one state.
  • High-risk recipients will be subject to additional audits and verifications.
  • Audit results, speed tests, and latency performance will now be posted online.

That all sounds good until you look at the practical results of the testing program. The worse that can happen to an ISP for failing the FCC tests will be to lose some small portion of any remaining funding.

Under current rules, ISPs can choose between three methods for testing. They may elect what the FCC calls the MBA program, which uses an external vendor approved by the FCC to perform the testing. ISPs can also use existing network tools if they are built into the customer CPE that allows test pinging and other testing methodologies. Finally, an ISP can install ‘white boxes’ that provide the ability to perform the tests. What’s not easy to dig out of the rules is that ISPs have a hand in deciding who gets tested.

In the past, the number of required tests was as follows. For award areas with 50 or fewer households the test was for 5 customers; for 51-500 households the test was 10% of households. For 500 or more households the test was 50 households. ISPs declaring a high latency had to test more locations with the maximum being 370. Doubling the testing probably means doubling the number of locations that are tested.

Tests for a given customer are done for a full week each quarter. Tests must be conducted in the evenings between 6:00 PM and 12:00 PM. Latency tests must be done every minute during the six-hour testing window. Speed tests, run separately for upload speeds and download speeds,  must be done once per hour during the 6-hour testing window.

ISPs are expected to meet latency standards 95% of the time. Speed tests must achieve 80% of the expected upland and download speed 80% of the time. An example of this requirement is that a carrier guaranteeing a gigabit of speed must achieve 800 Mbps 80% of the time. ISPs that meet the speeds and latencies for 100% of customers are excused from quarterly testing and only have to test once per year.

The real kicker of all of this is that the penalties for failing the tests have no teeth. The following financial penalties are applied only to the remaining subsidy payments:

  • If between 85% and 100% of households meet the test standards, the ISP loses 5% of any remaining FCC support.
  • If between 70% and 85% of households meet the test standards, the ISP loses 10% of future support.
  • If between 55% and 75% of households meet the test standards, the ISP loses 15% of future FCC support.
  • If less than 55% of households meet the test standard, the ISP loses 25% of their future support.

The penalties for an ISP that doesn’t perform on RDOF are minor. Consider a WISP that accepted $100 million of RDOF to build gigabit wireless but only delivers a few hundred Mbps speeds. The first chance for testing is in the third year of RDOF, where an ISP is required to have completed 40% of the buildout. My example WISP will fail more than 55% of speed tests and will incur the maximum FCC penalty. That means the ISP will collect $10 million in the first two years and $7.5 million in years 3 – 10. By the end of the 10-year payout, the ISP will still have collected $80 million of the original $100 million RDOF award. That is not much of a penalty for massive underperformance.

I think these weak penalties emboldened ISPS to lie about the speeds of their technologies in the RDOF auction. ISPs are still paid handsomely even if they don’t come close to meeting the promised speeds. And that’s not the entire story. There were bidding penalties for ISPs promising speeds slower than gigabit. A WISP that told the truth about speeds in the auction (and many did) likely lost in the auction if bidding directly against a WISP that exaggerated speeds.

These penalties are shameful and are another example of the FCC favoring ISPs over the public.  If an ISP whiffs the test in the third year they should stop receiving all future subsidies. If an ISP fail the tests badly enough, such as delivering 200 Mbps when promising a gigabit, then they ought to be forced to return 100% of the previous RDOF awards. If those were the rules, any ISPs that lied about speed capabilities would all withdraw from RDOF tomorrow.

People will ask why it’s so bad that an ISP that overstated speed capabilities won the RDOF. This cheats the people living in the RDOF award area. Residents thought they would get gigabit broadband and will get something far less. While customers might be pleased with the initial speeds in this example, the network being built is not ready to provide good broadband for the rest of the century. There is a good chance that in a decade or two we’ll be looking at these same award areas again and asking if these areas need more federal subsidy to swap out to a faster technology.

If an ISP takes big federal money and fails to perform there should be real penalties. If that was made clear upfront, then ISPs that can’t meet speed requirements would not be tempted to apply. One only has to look back at CAF II to see how ineffective this testing is. Does anybody remember any big penalties for the big telcos not upgrading DSL?

FCC – Please Do the Right Thing with RDOF

The $42.5 federal BEAD broadband grants that are being funded from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act should be a gamechanger for rural broadband. There will be many hundreds of millions of grants given to each state to fund the construction of broadband networks. This is likely once-in-a-generation funding, so there will only be one chance to do this right.

There is one pending issue that could really gum up the BEAD grants – there are pending RDOF awards that should not be funded. These pending RDOF grants fall into three categories.

First are RDOF auction winners that have probably bitten off more than they can chew. An example of this might be LTD Broadband. I don’t have any inside knowledge of the company, but I’ve seen estimates that the company would need to raise something north of $7 billion dollars to go along with the $1 billion RDOF award. There are likely other similar companies in the auction. The FCC has had almost a year to determine the financial ability of grant winners to fund the rest of the projects they won. If these companies don’t have the needed funding, it’s time for the FCC to cut them loose. This shouldn’t be a hard determination.

The second category is unique. Starlink won nearly a billion dollars of RDOF funding. There are still a lot of unknowns about the company’s capabilities. I know some of the RDOF areas won by Starlink are heavily wooded, and from what I hear, that’s a big problem for the technology. There are also still questions about the ability of Starlink to serve every home in a grant area – which is what the RDOF requires. I have nothing against Starlink, and if I lived in a rural area, I would have been first in line for the beta test. But the company is still an unproven technology in terms of being able to serve everybody. The company is still a start-up with no guarantee of success or longevity. At the end of the day, Starlink doesn’t meet the basic requirement that federal funding should only go to companies that can guarantee to meet the requirements of the award.

Finally, are the RDOF auction winners that claim to be able to deliver gigabit wireless technology. Like Starlink, these are not field-proven technologies and likely will never deliver what is being promised. Over the last year, I haven’t talked to a single engineer who thinks it’s possible to deliver a wireless gigabit to every customer in rural Census blocks with gigabit wireless. I have no doubt that the new wireless technologies have the capability of being a lot faster than current fixed wireless technology. But these grants weren’t awarded to deliver a few hundred megabits per second. These grant winner should be tossed for overclaiming the technology, since doing so gave them an unfair advantage in the auction. If they had bid with the ability to deliver 200 Mbps the auction results would have been very different. These companies gamed the auction rules and that alone should have invalidated the awards. Unfortunately, the FCC might be ready to make these awards, having recently awarded funding to Resound Networks to provide gigabit wireless broadband.

It’s obvious that the FCC is already wrestling with all of these issues because it’s been eleven months since the RDOF winners filed their long-form information. But the FCC must know that the BEAD grants change everything. If it had known that BEAD grants were coming, the FCC probably would not have held the reverse auction. This new federal grant money changes the equation and brings a new paradigm that should make it easier for the FCC to make up its mind about questionable RDOF awards.

If the FCC gets this wrong, then the RDOF areas in question won’t be seeing the same broadband solutions that are coming everywhere else. The BEAD grants make it easy for the FCC to reject applicants that have not demonstrated the financial wherewithal to fund the promised RDOF solution. The BEAD grants should make it easy to reject Starlink – the company is still free to market broadband to all of rural America, and it already has a huge waiting list of people willing to buy service. The BEAD grants should make it easier for the FCC to admit it erred in letting bidders overclaim technology.

It’s not going to be easy for the FCC to publicly admit that it made some big mistakes in the RDOF auction. Most of these issues could have been avoided if the FCC had pre-screened applicants. Any technology that was not already proven to work in the real world should have been excluded from the auction. Applicants should have been given a dollar limit for participation in the auction based on their balance sheet. But the FCC has a chance to set this right by rejecting the questionable awards and letting the folks that live in these areas have a chance for a better and more permanent broadband solution through BEAD grants. FCC – please do the right thing.

Penalizing Bad FCC Broadband Reporting

It’s universally understood throughout the industry that the broadband data reported by ISPs to the FCC is full of big problems. Some of the problem in the database can be blamed on the FCC, which allows an ISP to claim an entire Census block as having good broadband even if only one customer in the Census block can actually get that faster speed.

However, in looking in detail at counties all over the country, this seems to be a relatively minor part of the overstatement of broadband. For example, the issue crops the in Census blocks near to a town that has cable broadband, and the FCC reporting system usually assumes that some homes past the end of the cable network can get fast broadband. The FCC has proposed to fix this by asking ISPs to draw polygons around customers, and if the ISPs serving towns do that right, this issue would disappear.

The much bigger problem in the FCC database come from ISPs that overstate broadband coverage, broadband speeds, or both.  I’ve seen entire counties where the FCC database claims broadband coverage that doesn’t exist.

Part of this problem is due to a poor interpretation of the FCC rules. A lot of ISPs interpret the FCC rules to  mean they should report the fastest speed they advertise instead of the fastest speed they can deliver. I’ve seen numerous places where the big telcos have claimed 15 Mbps or 25 Mbps download on DSL, when speed tests can’t find anybody in the area getting more than 5 Mbps download. I’ve looked at counties where WISPs claim speeds of 50 Mbps up to 300 Mbps when customers largely have speeds under 10 Mbps.

Even more aggrevating are ISPs that claim broadband coverage that doesn’t exist. For example, I’ve seen WISPs that claim coverage of an entire county when they are only located on one or two towers. But this isn’t done only by fixed wireless providers, and the FCC is finally talking about fining an ISP for faulty reporting.

The FCC is threatening to fine Barrier Communications Corp. from New York that markets under BarrierFree. In 2017 the ISP made big news when they falsely claimed that they were providing fiber broadband to 62 million customers that largely didn’t exist. The FCC went published an annual report to Congress that included the imaginary broadband, which led the agency to crow about the big nationwide improvement in broadband coverage. The FCC got egg on their face when the issue was brought to its attention, and the agency was forced to reissue the annual report to Congress. As part of that process, the FCC warned BarrierFree to cease the overreporting.

Apparently, the ISP is at it again because the FCC is now threatening a fine of $164,000 for BarrierFree for continued overreporting. The FCC says that’s the maximum penalty allowed by law. There were supposedly substantial overreporting in both the September 2019 and March 2020 data. To the best of my knowledge this would be the first fine due against an ISP due to false reporting in the 477 process. The FCC has threatened fines against Verizon and a few other ISPs for falsely reporting rural 4G cellular coverage, but I’m not aware of any fines being levied.

The idea of levying fines against ISPs for blatant broadband overreporting is long overdue. There can be huge consequences when ISPs can freely claim broadband coverage that doesn’t exist. The biggest current consequence of such overreporting is that it can block eligibility for grants. The FCC used the faulty 477 data when determining the areas that are eligible for the $16.4 billion in RDOF grants that will be awarded in October. I know of counties where no RDOF grants are being offered due to the FCC data falsely showing counties to already have adequate broadband. There are many rural counties where at least some portion of the county has been incorrectly excluded from RDOF grant eligibility due to ISP overreporting of broadband speeds and coverage.

I have to believe the FCC when they report this is the biggest penalty allowed by law – but it’s not nearly high enough. How large should a fine be if an ISP keeps tens of millions of grant dollars from coming to a county? That question is even more pointed if the overreporting ISP gains a market advantage by keeping out grant funding. In my mind, if an ISP blatantly overreports broadband and keeps $10 million of grant funding from benefitting a county, then that ISP owes that community $10 million. I’m sure there are ISPs that are glad I’m not an FCC Commissioner.

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.