State’s Role in Broadband Grants

This is another blog in the series looking at the upcoming FCC $20.4 billion broadband grant program. Today I discuss how states might best take advantage of that large federal grant program.

A lot of states either have or are considering the establishment of state broadband grant programs. The grant programs vary widely in terms of the amount of annual grant, eligibility to receive the grants, etc. Most state programs award at least some grant dollars to help to pay to bring broadband to unserved and underserved places in a state.

Unless the FCC chooses a different mechanism, it looks like the federal grants might be awarded using a reverse auction. That means that ISPs that can accept the least amount of federal grant funding will receive the grants. That implies that ISPs that enter the federal auction that already have state grant money will have an advantage over other ISPs with a similar business plan. This means that states can attract a greater amount of federal grant dollars by coordinating state grants with the federal grant cycle.

The obvious way to do this is to award state grants to go along with projects that get the FCC grants. That sounds easy, but my guess is that figuring out the mechanics and the timing to do this right is going to be complicated. Getting that timing right is vital because awarding the state grants before the federal grants will improve ISP’s chances of winning a federal award. Timing is also vital because, in many cases, an ISP that wants to build fiber is going to need both both state and federal grants to make an economic business case. An ISP that gets only one of the two grants is likely to return the grant money rather than proceed. We’ve seen funding returned to both state and federal grant programs and that process is messy and benefits nobody.

The circumstances of these grants are different than the normal government grants. There is a routine coordination between state and federal grants for a wide array of purposes such as building bridges or roads. The normal process is that the entity receiving the grants apply to both the state and federal grant programs and they only proceed when they’ve received both grants – timing is not normally an issue and it doesn’t matter if the state or federal grant is approved first. If the FCC uses a reverse auction then there is no guarantee that an applicant will receive the federal funding – it’s vital that the state grant is in place first in order to increase the chance of winning the federal grant.

An ISP needs to know before the federal reverse auction that they can rely on state grants. Most state grant programs are awarded on some sort of merit scale, with a scoring system. That process might make it difficult to award state grants to those most likely to win federal grant funding. This likely means somehow changing the mechanism of the state grant program to favor projects that can win federal funding.Following are a few ideas of how states might do this – I’m sure there are other ways.
• States could have a formula that guarantees a fixed amount of state grant for anybody that wins a federal broadband grant. The formula might be something like, ‘the state will match the lesser of 50% of the amount of the federal grant award or $1 million’. With that kind of formula, an ISP could count on state money during the federal reverse auction. The downside to this idea is that if a state attracts a lot of federal grants they might owe more in matching than their grant budget.
• It might be as simple as awarding state grants before the federal reverse auction and requiring that anybody receiving a state grant must also apply for a federal grant. The downside to this is that there will likely be returned state grants for those that don’t win the federal grants.

The states also have an opportunity to influence the technology solutions they want to see. For example, a state might only offer matching grants for fiber and refuse to match grants for technologies like DSL, satellite or fixed cellular. Or states could promote fast speeds by awarding grants only to projects that provide 100 Mbps or faster.

Finally, the best way for a state to take advantage of the $20.4 billion in federal grants is to step up their game. Many state grant programs today have annual budgets of $5 million to $20 million per year. That is a paltry amount when the FCC is awarding $2 billion annually in grants. States that want to attract a bigger share of the federal grant money can do so by increasing the annual size of the state grant awards. If a state is serious about finding broadband solutions they want to attract as much of the federal grant money as possible. The federal grant program will likely reward states that are bold enough to get serious about also funding broadband. I know state legislators like to pat themselves on the back because they have created a state broadband grant program. However, state grant programs that only award $20 million annually in grants might need to make such awards for fifty years or longer to actually solve their rural broadband gap. States can do better and the federal grant program makes it easier to justify larger state grants.

This blog is part of a series on Designing the Ideal Federal Broadband Grant Program.

Reverse Auctions for Broadband Grants

In April, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced a new rural broadband initiative that will provide $20.4 billion of new funding. We don’t know many details, but one of the most likely parameters of that funding is that the money will be awarded by reverse auction. Today I ask if a reverse auction is really the right tool for this particular auction.

In a government reverse auction the winner is the entity willing to take the least amount of money to provide a given task. A reverse auction is much akin to awarding money to the low-cost vendor in government contracting. The big question to ask is if we really want to award grant money to the low-cost bidder? By definition that will reward certain behavior:

Favors Slower and Lower-cost Technologies. If the criteria for award is the percentage of grant matching, it’s far easier for an applicant to accept a lower match if they are deploying a lower-cost technology. Fixed wireless has a big cost advantage over fiber. Satellite has a huge advantage over every other technology since any award for them is 100% gravy. For a reverse auction to work it has to find an equitable weighting process to bring technologies into some sort of parity. The recent CAF II reverse auction is a good example. While some of the money went for fiber, a huge amount went to fixed wireless and satellite broadband – and fiber only got funded in areas where it wasn’t competing against the lower-cost technologies. If there is a reverse auction for the whole country, then the lower-cost technologies will win almost all of the grant funding.

Favors Lower-Cost Regions of the Country. Some parts of the country like Appalachia have a higher cost of construction for every technology, and a reverse auction is going to benefit lower-cost places like the Midwest plains. A reverse auction will also favor grant applications with higher density that include towns versus requests that are 100% rural.

Favors Upgrades over New Construction. A reverse auction will favor applicants that are seeking funds to upgrade existing facilities rather than build new ones. For example, it would promote upgrading DSL over building new fiber.

Formulaic and Allows for No Policy Awards. The FCC and Congress is going to want to see the awards spread across the country to every state. A reverse auction might favor a specific region of the country or even favor a single technology – all of this is outside of the control of the FCC once the auction begins. A reverse grant is self-selecting and once the process is started those willing to take the smallest percentage grant will win all of the money. I think the whole country is going to be furious if most of this huge grant only favors one region or one technology. Most states have elected to not use a reverse auction for state grants because they want some say to make sure that grants are awarded to all corners of a state.

There’s No Fix for Problem Grants. I have clients who think that fixed wireless companies that claimed they could deploy ubiquitous 100 Mbps broadband cheated in the CAF II reverse auctions. They claim the technology can’t deliver that speed to all customers. We’ll find out when these networks are deployed. This was relevant in that particular auction since bidders got extra bid credits for promising faster speeds. This is a cautionary tale about bidders who will manipulate the bidding rules to get an advantage.

Another issue we often see in grant programs is that some of those who are awarded grants find themselves ineligible to take the grants. This happened with the stimulus grants and the returned money was awarded to the next companies in the grant grading process. This is not possible in a reverse auction. By the time of the final award everybody else has dropped out of the process.

The bottom line is that a reverse auction is a terrible process for this grant program. No matter how carefully the FCC sets the eligibility rules, a reverse auction is always going to favor certain technologies or certain parts of the country over others – it’s inevitable in a nationwide reverse auction. A $20.4 billion grant program can bring great broadband to a lot of households. A reverse auction will be a disaster if it pushes money towards upgrading DSL or gives the funding to satellite providers rather than awarding all of the money to build permanent broadband infrastructure.

I know that taking the time to review and rank grant applications is hard work. A reverse auction simplifies this process by sinply declaring if a grant application is eligible for the grant. If you want proof that slogging through grants and choosing the best ones then look at the successful state grant programs. A reverse auction is inevitably going to allocate funds in ways that the FCC is not going to be proud of.

This blog is part of a series on Designing the Ideal Federal Broadband Grant Program.

Carrier of Last Resort

Every once in a while I see a regulatory requirement that makes me scratch my head. One of the requirements of the current CAF II reverse auction is that every winner must become an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) before receiving the funding – and I wonder why this is needed? This requirement is coupled with another puzzling requirement that anybody taking this funding must provide telephone service in addition to broadband. Since the purpose of the CAF II program is to expand rural broadband these requirements seem incongruous with the purpose of the program.

The ETC regulatory status was created by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Congress created this new class of carriers to mean any carrier that is willing to provide basic services within a specified geographic area (and in 1996 this was specified as providing voice service) and for that willingness to serve would be eligible to receive any available subsidies.

While this is not in writing anywhere, I’m guessing that these requirements are part of the ongoing plan to erode the rural carrier of last resort obligation (COLR) for the big telcos. Carrier of last resort is a regulatory concept that is applied by regulators to utility infrastructure providers including telco incumbents, electric, gas and water providers. The textbook definition of carrier of last resort is a utility provider that is required by law to serve customers within a defined service area, even if serving that customer is not economically viable. Further a COLR is required to charge just and reasonable prices and generally has legal hurdles that make it difficult to withdraw from serving within the defined service area.

We are seeing rural carrier of last resort obligations eroding all over the place. For example, the FCC is proposing rules that will allow copper providers to tear down copper networks with no obligation to replace them with some alternate technology.

I think this requirement in the CAF II reverse auction is along the same vein. All of the areas covered by this auction are within the historic regulated footprint of one of the large telcos. Except for the Verizon service areas, where Verizon did not accept the original CAF II funding, these are the most remote customers in this auction are in very rural areas. These are the customers at the far end of long copper lines who have no broadband, and likely no quality telephone service.

Anybody accepting the CAF II reverse funding must file for ETC status for those census blocks where they are getting funding. This is a requirement even if the auction winner is only going to be serving one or two people within that census block. Census blocks are areas that generally include 600 – 800 homes. In cities a census block might be as small as a block or two, but in rural areas a census block can be large.

My bet is that the large telcos are going to claim that they no longer have carrier of last resort in any rural area where there is now a second ETC. They will ask regulators why they need to serve a new home built in one of these areas if there is another carrier with similar obligations. If that’s the case, then this reverse auction is going to remove huge chunks of rural America from having a carrier of last resort provider. It’s likely that incumbent telcos will use the existence of a second ETC to avoid having to bring service to new homes.

I have an even more nagging worry. ETC status is something that is granted by state regulatory commissions. In granting this status it’s possible that some states are going to interpret this to mean that a new ETC might have some carrier of last resort obligations. If the incumbent telco tears down the copper network, it’s not unreasonable to think that state regulators might turn to the new ETC in an area to serve newly constructed homes and businesses.

I would caution anybody seeking ETC status as part of getting this funding to make sure they are not unknowingly picking up carrier of last resort obligations along with that status. If I was making such a filing myself I would query the regulators directly to get their response on the record.

I will be the first to tell you that I could be off base on this – but this feels like one of those regulatory requirements that could have hidden consequences. I can’t think of any reason why this program would require a new provider to supply telephone service other than for letting the large telcos off the hook to do so. I know that many companies going after this funding would think twice about taking it if it means they become the carrier of last resort.

The FCC’s 2018 Broadband Report

The FCC has released a draft the key findings from the 2018 Broadband Deployment Report that will be officially released to Congress this week. This report is usually interesting, and this year’s report includes a few big surprises.

The 25/3 Mbps Speed Benchmark. The FCC announced that it is keeping the 25/3 Mbps definition of broadband that was established by the former Tom Wheeler FCC. This is a surprise because all three Republican commissioners have been writing and making speeches that said that this benchmark is too high. Their positions on the topic garnered a lot of political pressure and it looks like, for now, that they are choosing to leave that benchmark alone. But as you will see below, they have still found a way to dilute the importance of the benchmark.

Mobile Broadband not a Substitute for Landline Broadband. There had also been a lot of discussion by the Republican commissioners to count a cellular broadband connection the same as a landline connection. They have been making the argument that many people are satisfied by a cellular connection and that functionally both kinds of broadband connection can functionally be substituted. They had suggested last year that a customer that uses either of the two kinds of broadband But the new report makes the positive statement that the two kinds of broadband are different and that there are ‘salient differences between the two technologies”.

Continuing to Track Fixed Broadband. Since cellular broadband is not a substitute for landline broadband the FCC concludes that is obligated to continue to track the deployment of landline broadband as it has done in the past. If tracking had been changed to show households that have access to either landline broadband cellular broadband, then almost everybody in the country would have been considered to have broadband.

The FCC is Meeting its Statutory Mandate to Promote Broadband. This is the zinger finding from the FCC. Reminiscent of George W. Bush’s comment after hurricane Katrina of “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”, the FCC has patted itself on the back and concluded that it has already done enough to satisfy the Congressional mandate that everybody in America has access to broadband.

The FCC notes that it has taken sufficient steps to meet its regulatory mandate for improving broadband:

  • Has reduced regulatory barriers to the deployment of wireline and wireless broadband;
  • Created a Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee to make recommendations on how to better deploy broadband;
  • Instituted reforms to the high-cost universal service funds to ensure accountability;
  • Introduced a reverse auction to provide additional rural broadband funding;
  • Revised rules for special access to promote facility-based competition for business services.
  • Authorized new wireless spectrum for use for landline and satellite broadband;
  • Eliminated Title II regulation and returned to light-touch regulations.

I’m not going to pick apart all of the items on that list, and some of them, like releasing more spectrum are positive steps. However, even there this FCC seems to favor licensed spectrum for the large ISPs rather than more public bandwidth. It’s really hard to make the argument that reversing Title II regulation and network neutrality will improve broadband coverage in the country. The recommendations from the FCC’s BDAC sub-committees are nothing more than suggestions, and from what we’ve seen so far most of the recommendations from these groups are parroting the positions of the giant ISPs.

It’s too early to know if the CAF II reverse auction will prove beneficial. There is some speculation that these funds will largely be pocketed by the big cellular carriers as another subsidy to continue to replace rural copper with cellular service. This may just turn into more of the same disaster we’ve seen with the first CAF II subsidy for the big rural telcos.

When the numbers get released with the final report we’ll still see that more than 20 million Americans don’t have access to broadband. While many of these live in rural areas there are still huge pockets of unserved residents in urban areas as well.

It’s true that this FCC has been active in the last year and has made the decisions cited in this draft report. But it’s nearly impossible to see how they can conclude that America has the broadband they need and that they have satisfied the Congressional broadband mandate. I guess we’ll have to see if Congress takes exception with their declaration that the state of American broadband doesn’t need any more help.

Is the Reverse Auction Right for You?

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the FCC’s reverse auction for federal support towards building to some of the most remote households in the country. The FCC is awarding $1.98 billion to be dispersed monthly over ten years to winners of this auction.

I’m not going to repeat all of the rules of the auction. A good summary of the auction rules is at this FCC link. The FCC also released a detailed list of the areas of the country that are eligible for these awards, with the list of census groups and maps here. Finally, the FCC has released a draft of the specific auction rules which they are expected to approve at the open meeting later this month. If you are interested in joining this auction you must notify the FCC with a detailed application by March 30 for an auction to tentatively begin on July 24.

The question I’ve been getting is if it’s worthwhile to pursue this auction. My analysis of the opportunity tells me that this is only going to be of interest to specific business plans that almost need to already be underway today. Consider the following issues involved in this funding:

Coverage Areas. The minimum bidding area is a census block group. This is an area comprising 39 census blocks. These average about 1,500 households but can vary between 600 and 3,000. The locations in this auction are all rural and this the coverage areas are likely to be large – half a county or larger. And since census block groups don’t follow political boundaries, these are not going to follow county boundaries. For example, if a county was already planning on building to their whole county there is a good chance that the census block groups in the auction will bleed into neighboring counties – and a winner has to build to the whole auction areas. This will be a huge hurdle for any project that anticipates using some public money.

The Most Remote Households. The households covered by this auction are the most remote households. They are mostly the leftover households from the CAF II awards where AT&T, CenturyLink and other big telcos accepted money to build to rural households. This auction covers those households that were too far away from an existing central office and too expensive using the CAF II awards. There are no pockets of households in these coverage areas, just a smattering of remote households who are at the very ends of the existing copper networks. These households don’t create a coherent coverage area for building broadband.

Small Percentage of Households in an Area. Since these households are scattered, they represent only a small percentage of the households in any area. To reach them with broadband is going to require building broadband to everybody else – and that construction was already funded in the CAF II awards to the big telcos.

My conclusion from this is that the only sensible reason to pursue the reverse auction funding is if somebody is already building broadband to the wider rural community already. Since the households covered by this funding only are going to represent some small percentage of the total households in the area, this funding is going to only be a drop in the bucket towards funding a total broadband buildout.

The reverse auction provides a bidding advantage to somebody willing to build gigabit fiber. But because of the location and number of households that will be covered in a given area I only see two possible kinds of builders, 1) somebody that is already planning to build fiber that would cover at least a whole census block group, or 2) a WISP or cellular provider that already covers a whole census block group or who is willing to build the towers and transmitters needed to reach a whole census block group.

Finally, after all of these other issues, anybody that bids will need to demonstrate the financial wherewithal to meet the buildout requirements. This is going to make it extremely difficult for start-ups or for government entities that haven’t already raised money to build broadband for a given area. This requirement probably even makes it hard for existing providers that don’t have strong balance sheets, such as many existing WISPs.

My guess is that most of the money in this auction will go to wireless providers. But I also expect that there will be some large swaths or rural America for which nobody bids – mostly due to the fact that the awards in a given area are not going to be sufficient to create a reasonable business plan. The auction can provide a piece of the funding which can be a big benefit if somebody is already planning on building to an area. There is a lot of risk in accepting the money if you are not positive you can fund it because the FCC warns that auction winners are obligated to complete the buildout.

New Connect America Funds

auction-845x321Our regulatory world is messed up sometimes – that’s the only way to describe it. The FCC last week announced that there would be an auction for the Connect America Fund to provide $2 billion of funding to build rural broadband. The funds are for places where the large telcos elected to not take the Connect America Funds. Verizon seems to have largely just decided that they aren’t interested in upgrading their rural networks. But I have to imagine that places that were not selected by the other large telcos like Windstream have to be because the cost of building those places is too high.

The new funding will be awarded by reverse auction, meaning the company willing to take the least amount of money for a given service area will be awarded the funds. And this is the first area where this whole process is messed up. The FCC handed out $6 billion to the large telcos with no auction and no such low bid requirement and so the big companies get every penny of that FCC funding, without contention.

But any company bidding in this new reverse auction is going to worry that somebody will bid slightly lower than them to get the funding, and so most bidders are likely to bid for less than the full potential funding. The bottom line of this is that the big telcos got every penny of funding available to them without having to worry about somebody else wanting to use it while the remaining companies are likely to get something less.

The original award of funds should have also been a reverse auction. There are plenty of smaller telcos, electric coops and local governments that would have vigorously bid on the original $6 billion, and in doing so would have brought real broadband to the millions of people in those areas that are going to instead get a lousy DSL upgrade to speeds that aren’t even broadband by today’s standards. The FCC is only requiring speeds of 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload, and even then allows the big telcos six years to get this done.

The original $6 billion award of the Connect America Fund was basically a hand-out to the big telcos. There’s really no other way to characterize it. I saw right after these awards that companies like Frontier got a big bump in stock valuation since they are claiming the Connect America Fund as revenue. I know a number of people who speculate that the big telcos will not upgrade everywhere they are supposed with this funding and will just shrug and weakly apologize. And there is likely to be no penalty for that.

To make matters even worse, the new funding (as well as the old) allows carriers to impose a 150 GB monthly data usage cap on customers covered by the funding. This is telling rural people, “Here’s the broadband you’ve been waiting many years for, but now, don’t actually use it”. My many clients report to me that the average residential monthly download is already somewhere between 150 GB and 200 GB per month, so that cap is already too low even by today’s standards. And we all know that broadband usage in homes keeps increasing exponentially and has been doubling every three years.

So there is already $6 billion being used to provide inadequate DSL upgrades from the large incumbent telcos. And when the people in those areas finally get upgraded to 10 Mbps bandwidth sometime during the next five years they will be told there is a 150 GB monthly data cap on monthly usage. We could have instead used that $6 billion to seed hundreds of rural fiber projects that would have brought real broadband to a lot of homes. That is my definition of messed up.

You Want a Piece of the $9 Billion CAF Fund?

USACI have been asked by several clients if they will be eligible to go after the new CAF II universal service funding that will be disbursed by the Connect America Fund. Over the next 5 – 7 years the fund will be paying out over $9 billion in support of rural broadband. And the answer to them all is – maybe. It’s somewhat complicated and also involves waiting a while to see how certain events play out.

The first issue to consider is who the incumbent telephone area is in the area you might want to compete. Rate of return carriers, meaning all of the small independent telephone companies, are going to continue to receive CAF funding, although the amounts they get are going to be severely phased down over the next five years. But competitors cannot go after the CAF funds in areas served by these rate of return carriers.

So the only places where CAF funding might be available is in areas served by the price cap carriers. That is AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Cincinnati Bell, Consolidated Communications, Fairpoint, Frontier, Windstream and the phone companies in the US territories like Puerto Rico. So if you want to compete in one of these areas there is a chance of getting the funding.

But first, each of these large carriers gets a chance to say that they will take the CAF funding. If they do, then they have to upgrade their rural areas to have broadband that delivers at least 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload to everyone in the supported areas. They have to meet milestones of completing percentages of the construction each year or lose the funding. They are also going to have to do speed tests to verify the upgrades.

The large carriers can take funding for a whole state or just for certain census blocks within the state. The amount of CAF funding that is available by census block is summarized on a CAF map published by the FCC. This shows each area that is eligible for CAF and the amount of money that will be available for that block. These amounts were determined by the use of a very complicated and controversial cost model that purported to calculate the cost of providing service in every part of the country. It considers things like population density, geography and regional labor costs.

So the large incumbents are considering which areas of their service territory they are willing to upgrade through the help of the money available through the CAF models. These subsidies are not intended to pay for the entire cost of upgrading, but rather to be enough to entice the big carriers to make the needed investments.

So if you are interested in the funds, you will need to wait a few months until the big carriers announce their intentions. They will get all of the funding listed on the map for any area they decide to upgrade.

The CAF funding for areas where the price cap carriers elect to not upgrade will then be available to other companies. As you would expect the process to get those funds is complicated. You must be willing to meet or beat the 10/1 data speeds. In addition to data you must provide voice service. You must be willing to serve every customer in a census block where you are getting the CAF funding, not just the ones that are easy to reach. And you must become an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) and for areas where you get CAF you become the carrier of last resort.

Competitors will win the ability to do this through what is being called a reverse auction. If more than one carrier files for a given census block, then the one willing to take the least amount of funding will be awarded the CAF funding. But it’s not an auction where you repeatedly bid against each other. Instead you submit a bid once and the low one wins.

Like any federal money this money then comes with a lot of strings. First, you don’t get the money in a lump sum up front to help pay for the construction. Instead you will collect it spread over the five years. Second, like any federal money there will be a mountain of paperwork both before and after taking the money and your project is going to get audited multiple times. There also might be requirements for such things as doing environmental impact studies or complying with prevailing wage laws. These details have not yet been announced.

Going after CAF funds is not going to be an easy choice for most companies. When you look at rural census blocks they generally include a decent percentage of residences that are remote and hard to reach. By taking the funding you will be agreeing to become the carrier of last resort for all of the farms and rural homes in a given census block. That alone is a scary obligation, so before you go after the funds you ought to determine exactly what your state expects these days out of a carrier of last resort. Do you have to build to anybody who builds a new home in your areas regardless of the cost, or are there limits on who you must serve?