The FCC Plan for Better Rural Cellular Coverage

The FCC recently released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that restarts an initiative to improve rural cellular coverage. The proposed FCC funding is for $9 billion to create a 5G Fund to subsidize the construction of rural 5G cell sites. These funds would be paid out over multiple years from the Universal Service Fund.

I’ve been working around the country with rural counties, and the lack of cellular coverage is often on par as a local issue with the lack of broadband. Huge numbers of people don’t have cell coverage at their homes and don’t have the outdoor cell coverage that everybody else takes for granted.

The FCC first proposed this in 2020, but the initiative came to a sudden halt when it became obvious that the large cellular carriers had provided maps that substantially overstated where they have coverage. It might seem counterintuitive for the big cellular carriers to overstate coverage for a program that wants to pay to build cell towers, but smaller cellular carriers said the purpose of the overstatements was to lock them out of the FCC funding. The FCC largely agreed and killed plans for the program until it got better maps.

Cellular carriers must now participate in the twice-annual broadband mapping that is required for ISPs. The FCC must believe that the maps are now better.

The NPRM starts by asking if the original concept of using a reverse auction to award the funding is the best approach. This is a case where a reverse auction might make a lot of sense. A cellular carrier that asks for the least amount of funding for a given rural tower location would get the funding. I assume that most winners are going to welcome other wireless carriers to use the towers, so it might not be that important who wins each location.

The bidding is going to be more complicated than a simple subsidy per location. The FCC is asking if it should consider factors like the miles of roads and the number of homes and businesses around each proposed site. The FCC is also asking how they might aggregate bids for multiple cell sites in a region rather than having bids required for each cell site.

The NPRM also asks about several technical issues, such as if the 5G Fund should favor the deployment of open radio access network (O-RAN) technology.

The FCC is also asking if the availability of landline broadband should be considered. This makes a lot of sense because of the huge amount of money being spent on BEAD and other broadband grants that will mean a proliferation of rural fiber that can provide backhaul to newly constructed towers. This fund should not be used to construct fiber if it’s already built or is soon coming.

It will be interesting to see if the FCC opens the 5G Fund to local governments and not just to companies in the cellular or tower industries. I know several counties that have built towers hoping to expand broadband and cellular coverage, and there are many other county governments that see the lack of towers as vital to their economic success.

There is a tool that might help rural areas qualify for the funding. The FCC is gathering cellular speed tests to document where coverage is poor. The speed tests can only be done using the FCC’s speed test app. Unfortunately, this app requires a lot of speed tests in a given neighborhood before the FCC will even consider the results. Local governments should or motivated individuals should consider undertaking an effort to collect many speed tests with the app in the areas with the worst coverage.

Rural Cellular Coverage

When working in rural areas, I find invariably that any county that has poor rural broadband also has poor cellular coverage. If you plot a 2 or 3-mile circle around the existing cell towers in many counties, it becomes quickly obvious that cell coverage is non-existent in many places. The real cellular coverage in rural areas is drastically different than the national coverage maps that cellular carriers have been advertising for years.

The FCC announced a process to address this issue in October 2020 when it announced the creation of a 5G Fund for Rural America. This will be a $9 billion fund that comes from the Universal Service Fund and that will provide subsidies for wireless carriers to build and equip new rural cell towers. This fund would work through a reverse auction in the same manner as RDOF, with the only bidders in the auction being licensed cellular carriers. The first reverse auction will be for $8 billion, with the rest specifically set aside for tribal areas.

The FCC tried this a few years earlier and abandoned the process when it became obvious that the cellular coverage maps created by the big cellular companies had little to do with reality. As part of that effort the FCC required cellular carriers to submit maps of cellular coverage as a prelude to launching this fund. The smaller cellular companies all complained that the big cellular company maps were wrong and were aimed at locking them out of the reverse auction. The FCC agreed and canceled plans for the fund until the 2020 announcement.

I haven’t been following this issue closely enough at the FCC to understand why it’s taking so long to launch the endeavor, but I have to think that mapping is still a primary issue. Then FCC has now included cellular coverage in the same BDC mapping process used for broadband. When the new maps were released there were a lot of public complaints that the new FCC cellular maps still overstate rural coverage.

There is a map challenge process for the public to provide feedback to try to fix the cellular maps by taking speed tests from rural locations – but the process is cumbersome, and it’s likely that few people know about it or are providing the speed tests in the specified way. The speed tests must be logged through an FCC app.

There is no question that something like this funding is badly needed. It’s hard to justify building rural cell towers and installing radios at a tower will only see a handful of homes. Remote rural cell sites can’t possibly generate enough money to justify the cost of the radios and backhaul, let alone the towers. One of the issues that the FCC is going to have to face is that any subsidy for this issue might need to be permanent if the goal is to keep cell towers operating where few people live.

Poor cell coverage is devastating to an area. There are huge swaths of the country where folks can’t reach 911 by cellphone. We can’t get serious about smart agriculture without the bare minimum network to provide connectivity. No cell coverage makes it hard to do tasks that the rest of us take for granted.

One of the interesting things about the timing of this effort is how the rural cellular industry will benefit from the BEAD grants. There is no fiber near many of the best spots for rural towers, and the BEAD grants will fund the construction of a lot of fiber in rural areas that could be used to provide backhaul to new cell sites.

Interestingly, one of the things that was missed in creating the BEAD rules was any requirement for BEAD grant winners to provide fiber connectivity to rural cell towers at a fair price. That would have been a good opportunity for these different federal programs to mesh together for the benefit of both wireless and wireline rural broadband. One of the legitimate complaints made by cellular companies is that they are often quoted extremely high prices for broadband connectivity at cell towers – a lot of ISPs look at cell towers as a chance to make a lot of money.

Communities with poor cellular coverage need to keep an eye on this FCC program to make sure that some cellular carrier seeks the funding for building in their county. Just like with the BEAD grants, I have no idea of $9 billion is enough to get cellular coverage everywhere – but it is a good start.

Another RDOF Auction?

There was a recent interview in FierceTelecom with FCC Commissioner Brandon Carr that covered a number of topics, including the possibility of a second round of RDOF. Commissioner Carr suggested that improvements would need to be made to RDOF before making any future awards, such as more vetting of participants upfront or looking at weighting technologies differently.

The FCC is building up a large potential pool of broadband funding. The original RDOF was set at $20 billion, with $4.4 billion set aside for a second reverse auction, along with whatever was left over from the first auction. The participants in the first RDOF auction claimed only $9.2 billion of $16 billion, leaving $6.8 billion. When the FCC recently decided not to fund LTD Broadband and Starlink, the leftover funding grew by another $2 billion. Altogether that means over $11 billion left in funds that were intended for RDOF.

We also can’t forget that around the same time as the RDOF that the FCC had planned to fund a 5G fund to enhance rural cellular coverage. Due to poor mapping and poor data from the cellular carriers, that auction never occurred. That puts the pool of unused funding at the FCC at $20 billion, plus whatever new FCC money might have accrued during the pandemic. That’s a huge pool of money equal to half of the giant BEAD grants.

The biggest question that must be asked before considering another RDOF reverse auction is how the country will be covered by the BEAD grants. It would be massively disruptive for the FCC to try to inject more broadband funding until that grant process plays out.

Commissioner Carr said that some of the FCC’s funding could go to enhance rural cellular coverage. Interestingly, once BEAD grant projects are built, that’s going to cost a lot less than was originally estimated. A lot of the money in the proposed 5G fund would have been used to build fiber backhaul to reach rural cell sites. I think the BEAD last-mile networks will probably reach most of those places without additional funding. However, there is probably still a good case to be made to fund more rural cell towers.

But there are larger questions involved in having another reverse auction. The big problem with the RDOF reverse auction was not just that the FCC didn’t screen applicants first, as Carr and others have been suggesting. The fact is that a reverse auction is a dreadful mechanism for awarding broadband grant money. A reverse auction is always going to favor lower-cost technologies like fixed wireless over fiber – it’s almost impossible to weight different technologies for an auction in a neutral way. It doesn’t seem like a smart policy to give federal subsidies to technologies with a 10-year life versus funding infrastructure that might last a century.

Reverse auctions also take state and local governments out of the picture. The upcoming BEAD funding has stirred hundred of communities to get involved in the process of seeking faster broadband. I think it’s clear that communities care about which ISP will become the new monopoly broadband provider in rural areas. If the FCC has a strict screening process up front, then future RDOF funding will only go to ISPs blessed by the FCC – and that probably means the big ISPs. I would guess that the only folks possibly lobbying for a new round of RDOF are companies like Charter and the big telcos.

The mechanism of awarding grants by Census block created a disaster in numerous counties where RDOF was awarded in what is best described as swiss cheese serving areas. The helter-skelter nature of the RDOF coverage areas makes it harder for anybody else to put together a coherent business plan to serve the rest of the surrounding rural areas. In contrast, states have been doing broadband grants the right way by awarding money to coherent and contiguous serving areas that make sense for ISPs instead of the absolute mess created by the FCC.

A reverse auction also relies on having completely accurate broadband maps – and until the FCC makes ISPs report real speeds instead of marketing speeds, the maps are going to continue to be fantasy in a lot of places.

Finally, the reverse auction is a lazy technique that allows the FCC to hand out money without having to put in the hard effort to make sure that each award makes sense. Doing grants the right way requires people and processes that the FCC doesn’t have. But we now have a broadband office and staff in every state thanks to the BEAD funding. If the FCC is going to give out more rural broadband funding, it ought to run the money through the same state broadband offices that are handling the BEAD grants. These folks know local conditions and know the local ISPs. The FCC could set overall rules about how the funds can be used, but it should let the states pick grant winners based upon demonstrated need and a viable business plan.

Of course, the simplest solution of all would be for the FCC to cut the USF rate and stop collecting Universal Service Fund revenues from the public. The FCC does not have the staff or skills needed to do broadband grants the right way. Unfortunately, that might not stop the FCC from tackling something like another RDOF auction so it can claim credit for having solved the rural digital divide. If the FCC plans on another RDOF auction I hope Congress stops them from being foolhardy again.

Big ISPs Never Stop Trying

A bill has been introduced in the Minnesota legislature (Minnesota HF 3605) that looks to bypass the normal way of making State broadband grants. The bill is described as a line-extension funding mechanism that would provide funding to bring broadband to homes that have no broadband alternative.

I like the idea of ISPs being encouraged to extend their service areas. Cable companies for years have been faulted for not building the next half-mile or mile past where service stops at the edge of every city. The households outside of an existing cable network often have the least chance of finding any other broadband solution since the lousy FCC maps often identify them as having great broadband options when they have none. But I have a lot of problems with this particular bill as the way to reach such homes:

  • The bill doesn’t define what it means for a household to not have available broadband. For example, there are very few homes in Minnesota that are not in the range of a WISP.
  • The amount of possible compensation, at $25,000 per home is far too high. As Ann Treacy of the Blandin Foundation points out, the average state broadband grant in previous years has averaged $2,225 per household. Even the new federal grant programs that will provide up to 75% of the cost to build to remote locations will likely be providing less than $10,000 per customer in the highest cost places and far less in many others. The $25,000 cap sounds like a land grab by ISPs to snag $25,000 in funding while spending a few thousand to bring broadband. This is a waste of state money, and ISPs should only be reimbursed for some portion of what they spend.
  • I think I’m most bothered because this could be a way to fund cable company expansion in places they should have expanded with their own money. Many cable companies have ignored pleas from residents living outside of towns, even when the areas in question have a high enough housing density to meet the cable company’s supposed construction metrics. This bill should have a density test and should not be using grant money to reach households in areas that don’t need grants. Perhaps there also ought to be some kind of distance test, with this money unavailable near to towns.
  • The awards are to be made by a reverse auction, by individual address. I know that realistically that only the big companies will wade through the needed paperwork to chase funding in this complicated way. This is essentially a separate auction, by customer. ISPs with the staff to wade through the process can grab the full $25,000 per potential customer.
  • Households kick off the auction by signing up on a state portal. This bill creates a big burden on a state broadband office to verify that each address doesn’t already have a broadband option – and also that somebody else isn’t already scheduled to build in the area.
  • Two-thirds of the bill addresses easements, which seem completely unneeded. Homes and businesses must actively join the list of eligible households – and it seems highly unlikely that a home is going to ask to get better broadband and then refuse to agree to an ISP going onto the property. This seems more like a backdoor way for the cable companies to get into MDUs or housing developments that want to charge for easements. This bill is not the right way to deal with that access issue, and unsurprisingly, this bill is written 100% in favor of the ISPs.
  • This potentially could create a huge funding obligation for the state. Every home with broadband could enter the portal, and that would mean the end to normal state broadband grant programs – it means the state will have agreed to fund broadband to everywhere that needs it at $25,000 a pop – if the state passes this it better be ready to write some possibly huge checks. And that’s probably the second most troublesome issue with this idea. While described as a line extension bill, every home in the state without good broadband could join the portal. If this is really a line extension bill, then why not only make it eligible within some set distance from existing broadband networks?
  • I’ve read the bill several times, and it looks like it excludes electric cooperatives from participation – but legalese is sometimes hard to understand, so I’m not certain.

Again, I’m not against the idea of funding line extensions. But this bill was clearly written by the big ISPS who are going to use it to make a profit while expanding networks. The reverse auction is too slanted towards big ISP, too burdensome for the state, and could fund areas that don’t really deserve grant funding. Minnesota already has a grant program that can fund these same areas, and there is a huge pile of federal money coming to the state later this year. I’d say the big ISPs have done an end-around the normal grant process with this legislation so that they don’t have to play in the sandbox with everybody else. Unfortunately, the latest I hear, the legislation is moving forward.

Some Problems with the RDOF

The FCC recently published a set of proposed rules for conducting the $20.4 billion broadband grant program it has labeled as the Rural Digital Opportunity Zone (RDOF). While the FCC is to be applauded for redirecting the funding that formerly was used to support the CAF II program, there are still some problems I foresee in the grant program as proposed.

Reverse Auction. Many of my problems come because of the use of a reverse auction. I understand why politicians and policymakers like this idea. The general concept that those willing to take the least amount of subsidy get the funding somehow sounds fair, but a reverse auction is not going to result in the best use of these funds to bring permanent broadband solutions to rural America:

  • Favors Those Who Don’t Need the Money. We saw this in the CAF II reverse auction where satellite broadband won a significant amount of funding. This time around there’s a good chance that a large amount of grant money might go to Elon Musk’s Starlink and the other low orbit satellite providers. By definition, for satellite technology to work they have to cover everywhere – and so they are going to be launching the satellites anyway without subsidy. These companies can easily be the low bidders because getting anything out of the grant fund is still a great result for them. As we going to be happy of the result of the reverse auction results in billions of dollars handed to Elon Musk?
  • Favors Lowest Cost Technology. By definition, those planning to spend less per customer to bring broadband can take accept money from the grants and still be happy. This means the grants will favor solutions the big telcos again tweaking DSL over ancient copper if they choose to participate. This would allow AT&T and Verizon to grab a lot of money to support rural cellular upgrades. While the FCC is planning to weight the bidding to promote faster technologies like fiber, if the weighting isn’t done right, then the funding will automatically favor lower-cost yet slower technologies. Maybe that’s what the FCC wants – to bring some broadband solution to the largest number of people – but the best policy is to bring a permanent broadband solution to a smaller subset of areas.
  • Discriminates Against High Cost Areas. The areas that need broadband the most are where it costs the most to build any infrastructure. Areas like Appalachia and Alaska are high cost because of topology, and anybody applying for grants in these areas likely can’t afford to reduce the percentage of grant funding their receive. The entire concept of reverse auction, by definition, favors parts of the country with the lowest construction costs. Applicants in the wide-open plains of the Midwest have a built-in advantage.

The Sheer Size of the One-Time Award. The grant awards are likely to be about a year away. I wonder if there will be enough ISPs ready to bid in that short time frame? Bidders need to develop an engineering estimate and business plan of sufficient quality to also attract financing. If there are not enough ISPs able to be ready for the auction in that time frame, even more of the money is likely to flow to big companies like the satellite providers who would be glad to take the whole pot of funding. A better plan would have been to break this into several grant years and award some 10-year grants, some 9-year grants, and some 8-year grants.

No Real Penalties for Cheating. Companies don’t get penalized much for lying about the speeds they can deliver. We saw a few wireless providers in the CAF II reverse auction claim they can deliver 100 Mbps broadband to everybody. Unless somebody develops that technology in the next 2-3 years they are going to deliver something less, at least to a large percentage of their coverage area. If a company gets a bidding credit by making a false claim, they should lose all of their funding and have to repay the FCC. The proposed penalties are not much more than a slap on the wrist and encourage companies to claim faster speeds than they can deliver.

Likely Excludes Some Bidders. The rules still seem to exclude entities that can’t get Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) status – a regulatory designation required to get money from the Universal Service Fund – a status only available to entities that own the network, and which are also the retail ISP. This would preclude entities like the PUDs, the rural municipal electric companies in Washington that are required by law to operate open access networks. It also could preclude certain kinds of partnerships where the retail ISP is different than the network owner – an arrangement we’re seeing a lot in partnerships between telcos and electric cooperatives. Anybody willing to invest in rural broadband should be eligible to participate.

Should Satellite Broadband be Subsidized?

I don’t get surprised very often in this industry, but I must admit that I was surprised by the amount of money awarded for satellite broadband in the reverse auction for CAF II earlier this year. Viasat, Inc., which markets as Exede, was the fourth largest winner, collecting $122.5 million in the auction.

I understand how Viasat won – it’s largely a function of the way that reverse auctions work. In a reverse auction, each bidder lowers the amount of their bid in successive rounds until only one bidder is left in any competitive situation. The whole pool of bids is then adjusted to meet the available funds, which could mean an additional reduction of what winning bidders finally receive.

Satellite providers, by definition, have a huge unfair advantage over every other broadband technology. Viasat was already in the process of launching new satellites – and they would have launched them with or without the FCC grant money. Because of that, there is no grant level too low for them to accept out of the grant process – they would gladly accept getting only 1% of what they initially requested. A satellite company can simply outlast any other bidder in the auction.

This is particularly galling since Viasat delivers what the market has already deemed to be inferior broadband. The download speeds are fast enough to satisfy the reverse auction at speeds of at least 12 Mbps. The other current satellite provider HughesNet offer speeds of at least 25 Mbps. The two issues that customers have with satellite broadband is the latency and the data caps.

By definition, the latency for a satellite at a 23,000 orbit is at least 476 ms (milliseconds) just to account for the distance traveled to and from the earth. Actual latency is often above 600 ms. The rule of thumb is that real-time applications like VoIP, gaming, or holding a connection at a corporate LAN start having problems when latency is greater than 100-150 ms.

Exede no longer cuts customers dead for the month once they reach the data cap, but they instead reduce speeds when the network is busy for any customer over the cap. Customer reviews say this can be extremely slow during prime times. The monthly data caps are small and range from $49.99 monthly for a 10 GB data cap to $99.95 per month for a 150 GB data cap. To put those caps into perspective, OpenVault recently reported that the average landline broadband household used 273.5 GB per month of data in the first quarter of 2019.

Viasat has to be thrilled with the result of the reverse auction. They got $122.5 million for something they were already doing. The grant money isn’t bringing any new option to customers who were already free to buy these products before the auction. There is no better way to say it other than Viasat got free money due to a loophole in the grant process. I don’t think they should have been allowed into the auction since they aren’t bringing any broadband that is not already available.

The bigger future issue is if the new low-earth orbit satellite companies will qualify for the future FCC grants, such as the $20.4 billion grant program starting in 2021. The new grant programs are also likely to be reverse auctions. There is no doubt that Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk will gladly take government grant money, and there is no doubt that they can underbid any landline ISP in a reverse auction.

For now, we don’t know anything about the speeds that will be offered by the new satellites. We know that they claim that latency will be about the same as cable TV networks at about 25 ms. We don’t know about data plans and data caps, although Elon Musk has hinted at having unlimited data plans – we’ll have to wait to see what is actually offered.

It would be a tragedy for rural broadband if the new (and old) satellite companies were to win any substantial amount of the new grant money. To be fair, the new low-orbit satellite networks are expensive to launch, with price tags for each of the three providers estimated to be in the range of $10 billion. But these companies are using these satellites worldwide and will be launching them with or without help from an FCC subsidy. Rural customers are going to best be served in the long run by having somebody build a network in their neighborhood. It’s the icing on the cake if they are also able to buy satellite broadband.

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.