5G For Rural America?

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai recently addressed the NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association membership and said that he saw a bright future for 5G in rural America. He sees 5G as a fixed-wireless deployment that fits in well with the fiber deployment already made by NTCA members.

The members of NTCA are rural telcos and many of these companies have upgraded their networks to fiber-to-the-home. Some of these telcos tackled building fiber a decade or more ago and many more are building fiber today using money from the ACAM program – part of the Universal Service Fund.

Chairman Pai was talking to companies that largely have been able to deploy fiber, and since Pai is basically the national spokesman for 5G it makes sense that he would try to make a connection between 5G and rural fiber. However, I’ve thought through every business model for marrying 5G and rural fiber and none of them make sense to me.

Consider the use of millimeter wave spectrum in rural America. I can’t picture a viable business case for deploying millimeter wave spectrum where a telco has already deployed fiber drops to every home. No telco would spend money to create wireless drops where they have already paid for fiber drops. One of the biggest benefits from building fiber is that it simplifies operations for a telco – mixing two technologies across the same geographic footprint would add unneeded operational complications that nobody would tackle on purpose.

The other business plan I’ve heard suggested is to sell wholesale 5G connections to other carriers as a new source of income. I also can’t imagine that happening. Rural telcos are going to fight hard to keep out any competitor that wants to use 5G to compete with their existing broadband customers. I can’t imagine a rural telco agreeing to provide fiber connections to 5G transmitters that would sit outside homes and compete with their existing broadband customers, and a telco that lets in a 5G competitor would be committing economic suicide. Rural business plans are precarious, by definition, and most rural markets don’t generate enough profits to justify two competitors.

What about using 5G in a competitive venture where a rural telco is building fiber outside of their territory? There may come a day when wireless loops have a lower lifecycle cost than fiber loops. But for now, it’s hard to think that a wireless 5G connection with electronics that need to be replaced at least once a decade can really compete over the long-haul with a fiber drop that might last 50 or 75 years. If that math flips we’ll all be building wireless drops – but that’s not going to happen soon. It’s probably going to take tens of millions of installations of millimeter wave drops until telcos trust 5G as a substitute for fiber.

Chairman Pai also mentioned mid-range spectrum in his speech, specifically the upcoming auction for 3.5 GHz spectrum. How might mid-range spectrum create a rural 5G play that works with existing fiber? It might be a moot question since few rural telcos are going to have access to licensed spectrum.

But assuming that telcos could find mid-range licensed spectrum, how would that benefit from their fiber? As with millimeter wave spectrum, a telco is not going to deploy this technology to cover the same areas where they already have fiber connections to homes. The future use of mid-range spectrum will be the same as it is today – to provide wireless broadband to customers that don’t live close to fiber. The radios will be placed on towers, the taller the better. These towers will then make connections to homes using dishes that can communicate with the tower.

Many of the telcos in the NTCA are already deploying this fixed wireless technology today outside of their fiber footprint. This technology benefits from having towers fed by fiber, but this rarely the same fiber that a telco is using to serve customers. In most cases this business plan requires extending fiber outside of the existing service footprint – and Chairman Pai said specifically that he saw advantage for 5G from existing fiber.

Further, it’s a stretch to label mid-range spectrum point-to-multipoint radio systems as 5G. From what numerous engineers have told me, 5G is not going to make big improvements over the way that fixed wireless operates today. 5G will add flexibility for the operator to fine-tune the wireless connection to any given customer, but the 5G technology won’t inherently increase the speed of the wireless broadband connection.

I just can’t find any business plan that is going to deliver 5G in rural America that takes advantage of the fiber that the small telcos have already built. I would love to hear from readers who might see a possibility that I have missed. I’ve thought about this a lot and I struggle to find the benefits for 5G in rural markets that Chairman Pai has in mind. 5G clearly needs a fiber-rich environment – but companies who have already built rural fiber-to-the-home are not going to embrace a second overlay technology or openly allow competitors onto their networks.

The Reality of Rural Broadband

I recently saw the results of several rural surveys that probably tell the best story about the state of rural broadband. The two areas being studied are far apart geographically, but they are similar in many ways. The areas are both rural and are not near to a metropolitan area. The areas have some modest manufacturing and some modest amount of tourism, but neither in a big way. Both areas included some small towns, and a few of these towns have cable TV. And in both places, the customers in the rural area have poor broadband choices. These are not small isolated pockets of people, and the two surveys cover nearly 20,000 homes.

If you listen to FCC rhetoric it’s easy to think that rural broadband is improving – but in areas like these you can’t see it. These areas have both were supposed to get some upgrades from CAF II – but from what the locals tell me there have been zero improvements so far. The CAF program still has a few years to go, so perhaps there will be some modest improvement in rural DSL.

For now, the broadband situation in these areas is miserable. There are homes with DSL with speeds of a few Mbps at best, with some of the worst speeds hovering at dial-up speeds. One respondent to a survey reported that it took 8 hours to download a copy of Microsoft Office online.

The other broadband choices are also meager. Some people use satellite broadband but complain about the latency and about the small data caps. These areas both have a smattering of fixed wireless broadband – but this is not the modern fixed wireless you see today in the open plains states that delivers 25 Mbps or faster broadband. Both of the areas in the surveys are heavily wooded with hilly terrain, and fixed wireless customers report seeing speeds of 1-2 Mbps. There are a number of homes using their cell phones in lieu of home broadband – an expensive alternative if there are school kids or if any video is watched. There were customers who reported using public hotspots in nearby small towns. And there were a number of households, included many with school kids who have given up and who have no broadband – because nothing they’ve tried has worked.

As would be expected in rural areas, slow speeds are not the only problem. Even homes that report data speeds that should support streaming video complain that streaming doesn’t work. This indicates networks with problems and it’s likely the networks have high latency, are full of jitter, or are over-subscribed and have a lot of packet loss. People don’t really judge the quality of their broadband connection by the speed they get on a speed test, but instead by the ability to do normally expected activities on the Internet.

Many of these homes can’t do things that the rest of us take for granted. Many report the inability to stream video – even a single stream. This is perhaps the biggest fallacy in the way the FCC measures broadband, because they expect that a house getting a speed like 5 Mbps ought to be able to do most needed tasks. In real life the quality of many rural connections are so poor that they won’t stream video. Many people in these areas also complained that their Internet often froze and they had to constantly reboot – something that can kill large downloads or kill online sessions for school or work.

One of the biggest complaints in these areas was that their network only supported one device at a time, meaning that members of the family have to take turns using the Internet. I picture a family with a few school kids and can see how miserable that must be.

The surveys produced a long list of other ways that poor broadband was hurting households. Number one was the inability of people to work at home. Many people said they could work at home more often if they had broadband. A few respondents want to start home businesses but are unable to because of the poor broadband. Another common complaint was the inability for kids to do schoolwork, or for adults to pursue college degrees on line.

The problems many people reported were even more fundamental than these issues. For instance, there were households saying that they could not maintain a good enough connection to bank online or pay their bills online. There were respondents who say they can’t shop online. Many households complained that they couldn’t offload cellular data at home to WiFi, driving up their cellular bills. A number of homes would like to cut the cord to save money but can’t stream Netflix as an alternative to cable.

When you look the raw data behind these kinds of surveys you quickly see the real issues with lack of broadband. In today’s society, not having home broadband literally takes a home out of the mainstream of society. It’s one thing to look at the national statistics and be told that the number of homes without broadband is shrinking. But it’s an entirely different story when you see what that means for the millions of homes that still don’t have adequate broadband. My guess is that some of the areas covered by these surveys show as underserved on the FCC maps – when in fact, their broadband is so poor that they are clearly unserved, ignored and forgotten.

Another Spectrum Battle

Back in July the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking comments for opening up spectrum from 3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz, known as the C-Band. As is happening with every block of usable spectrum, there is a growing tug-of-war between using this spectrum for 5G or using it for rural broadband.

This C-Band spectrum has traditionally been used to transit signals from satellites back to earth stations. Today it’s in use by every cable company that receives cable TV signals at a ‘big-dish’ satellite farm. The spectrum had much wider use in the past when it was used to deliver signal directly to customers using the giant 7 – 10 foot dishes you used to see in rural backyards.

This spectrum is valuable for either cellular data or for point-to-multipoint rural radio broadband systems. The spectrum sits in the middle between the 2.4 GHz and the 5.8 GHz used today for delivering most rural broadband. The spectrum is particularly attractive because of the size of the block, at 500 megahertz.

When the FCC released the NPRM, the four big satellite companies – Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat and Telesat – created the C-Band Alliance. They’ve suggested that some of their current use of this spectrum could be moved elsewhere. But where it’s not easy to move the spectrum, the group volunteered to be the clearing house to coordinate the use of C-Band for other purposes so that it won’t interfere with satellite use. The Alliance suggests that this might require curtailing full use of the spectrum near some satellite farms, but largely they think the spectrum can be freed for full use in most places. Their offer is seen as a way to convince the FCC to not force satellite companies completely out of the spectrum block.

I note that we are nearing a day when the need for the big satellite earth stations to receive TV might become obsolete. For example, we see AT&T delivering TV signal nationwide on fiber using only two headends and satellite farms. If all TV stations and all satellite farm locations were connected by fiber these signals could be delivered terrestrially. I also note this is not the spectrum used by DirecTV and Dish networks to connect to subscribers – they use the K-band at 12-18 GHz.

A group calling itself the Broadband Access Coalition (BAC) is asking the FCC to set aside the upper 300 megahertz from the band for use for rural broadband. This group is comprised of advocates for rural wireless broadband, including Baicells Technologies, Cambium Networks, Rise Broadband, Public Knowledge, the Open Technology Institute at New America, and others. The BAC proposal asks for frequency sharing that would allow for the spectrum to be used for both 5G and also for rural broadband using smart radios and databases to coordinate use.

Both the satellite providers and the 5G companies oppose the BAC idea. The satellite providers argue that it’s too complicated to share bandwidth and they fear interference with satellite farms. The 5G companies want the whole band of spectrum and tout the advantages this will bring to 5G. They’d also like to see the spectrum go to auction and dangle the prospect for the FCC to collect $20 billion or more from an auction.

The FCC has it within their power to accommodate rural broadband as they deal with this block of spectrum. However, recent history with other spectrum bands shows the FCC to have a major bias towards the promise of 5G and towards raising money through auctions – which allocates frequency to a handful of the biggest names in the industry.

The BAC proposal is to set aside part of the spectrum for rural broadband while leaving the whole spectrum available to 5G on a shared and coordinated basis. We know that in real life the big majority of all ‘5G spectrum’ is not going to be deployed in rural America. The 5G providers legitimately need a huge amount of spectrum in urban areas if they are to accomplish everything they’ve touted for 5G. But in rural areas most bands of spectrum will sit idle because the spectrum owners won’t have an economic use for deploying in areas of low density.

The BAC proposal is an interesting mechanism that would free up C-Band in areas where there is no other use of the spectrum while still fully accommodating 5G where it’s deployed. That’s the kind of creating thinking we need to see implemented.

The FCC keeps publicly saying that one of its primary goals is to improve rural broadband – as I wrote in a blog last week, that’s part of their primary stated goals for the next five years. This spectrum could be of huge value for point-to-multipoint rural radio systems and would be another way to boost rural broadband speeds. The FCC has it within their power to use the C-Band spectrum for both 5G and for rural broadband – both uses can be accommodated. My bet, sadly, is that this will be another giveaway to the big cellular companies.

Getting Militant for Broadband

My job takes me to many rural counties where huge geographic areas don’t have broadband. I’ve seen a big change over the last two years in the expectations of rural residents who are now demanding that somebody find them a broadband solution. There have been a number of rural residents calling for better broadband for a decade, but recently I’ve seen the cries for broadband grow into strident demands. As the title of this blog suggests, people are getting militant for broadband (but not carrying guns in doing so!)

The perceived need for broadband has changed a lot since the turn of this new century. In 2000 only 43% of homes had a broadband connection – and in those days that meant they had a connection that was faster than dial-up. In 2000 DSL was king and a lot of homes had upgraded to speeds of 1 Mbps. There have always been homes that require broadband, and I’m a good example since I work from home, and when I moved fifteen years ago my offer on a new house was contingent on the home having broadband installed before closing. My real estate agent at the time said that was the first time she’d ever heard about broadband related to home ownership.

As I’ve cited many times, the need for broadband has continued to grow steadily and has been doubling every three years. By 2010 the number of homes with broadband grew to 71%, and by then the cable companies were beginning to dominate the market. By then DSL speeds had gotten better, with the average speeds at about 6 Mbps, but with some lucky customers seeing speeds of around 15 Mbps. But as DOCSIS 3.0 was implemented in cable networks we started seeing speeds up to 100 Mbps available on cable systems. It was a good time to be a cable company, because their rapid revenue growth was fueled almost entirely by adding broadband customers.

Broadband in urban areas has continued to improve. We’re now seeing Comcast, Charter, Cox and other cable company upgrade to DOCSIS 3.1 and offer speeds of up to 1 Gbps. DSL that can deliver 50 Mbps over two bonded copper lines is becoming old technology. Even urban cellular speeds are becoming decent with average speeds of 12 – 15 Mbps.

But during all of these upgrades to urban broadband, huge swaths of rural America is still stuck at 2000 or earlier. Some rural homes have had access to slow DSL of 1 – 2 Mbps at most. Rural cellular speeds are typically half of urban speeds and are incredibly expensive as a home broadband solution. Satellite broadband has been available the whole time, but the high prices, gigantic latency and stingy data caps have made most homes swear off satellite broadband.

Rural homes look with envy at their urban counterparts. They know urban homes who have seen half a dozen major speed upgrades over twenty years while they still have the same lousy choices of twenty years ago. Some rural homes are seeing an upgrade to DSL due to the CAF II program of speeds of perhaps 10 Mbps. While that will be a relief to a home that has had no broadband – it doesn’t let a home use broadband in the same way as the rest of the country.

To make matters feel worse, rural customers without broadband see some parts of rural America get fiber broadband being built by independent telephone companies, electric cooperatives or municipalities. It’s hard for them to understand why there is funding that can make fiber work in some places, but not where they live. The most strident rural residents these days are those who live in a county where other rural customers have fiber and they are being told they are likely to never see it.

This disparity between rural haves and have nots is all due to FCC policy. The FCC decided to make funds available to rural telcos to upgrade to better broadband, but at the same time copped out and handed billions to the giant telcos to instead upgrade to 10 Mbps DSL or wireless. To make matters worse, it’s becoming clear that AT&T and Verizon are intent in eventually tearing down rural copper, which will leave homes with poor cellular coverage without any connection to the outside world.

The FCC laments that they cannot possibly afford to fund fiber everywhere. But they missed a huge opportunity to bring fiber to millions when they caved to lobbyists and gave the CAF II funding to the big telcos. Recall that these funds were originally going to be awarded by a reverse auction and that numerous companies had plans to ask for the funding to build rural fiber.

It’s no wonder that rural areas are furious and desperate for better broadband. Their kids are at a big disadvantage to those living in towns with broadband. Farmers without broadband are competing with those using agricultural IoT. Realtors report that they are having a hard time selling homes with no broadband access. People without broadband can’t work from home. And rural America is being left behind from taking part in American culture without access to the huge amount of content now available on the web.

Buying a Home with No Broadband

A few weeks ago attended a public meeting at one of my clients and I met a guy there who recently purchased a house in the area that has no broadband. He was told by both customer service at bth the cable company and the local telco that broadband was available – but when he showed up they would not serve him.

It seems like everywhere I travel today I hear this or similar stories and it makes me realize the gigantic value difference between homes with and without broadband. This particular guy works from home and is now scratching his head looking for a solution. He’s not unique and most families with school kids and even most families without look at broadband today as a necessity. Buying a house without broadband is starting to feel a lot like buying a house without electricity or running water – it’s not a home that most people would willingly buy.

Unfortunately, people like this guy, who are not familiar with rural broadband are often told there is broadband when there isn’t. People who move from urban areas often have no clue about the atrocious state of broadband in rural America. They can’t imagine a world where there isn’t even DSL and where folks have to somehow get by on cellular data or satellite data to have connection to the outside world.

I purchased several homes over the last few decades and I’ve always made proof of broadband a contingency in my purchase offer. I then contacted the ISPs and placed an order to be sure that the broadband was real. Sadly, like the guy in this story, one often gets the wrong answer from a call to customer service and I’ve always gone a step further and placed an order. Even that is not always a great solution – when I moved to Florida I was in the house for over a month before Comcast finally connected my home – even though there was a Comcast pedestal at the end of my driveway!

I’ve spoken to a number of rural real estate agents over the last few years and they say almost universally that home broadband is now at or near to the top of homebuyer’s wish these days. They are often surprised by homebuyers who don’t understand the lack of rural broadband. They all have stories about buyers who quickly abandon searches in all parts of a county that don’t have broadband.

There have been numerous studies done that show that a home with broadband is worth more than one without. But I don’t buy the results of those studies any more. We are now at an overall 84% national penetration for broadband and a huge majority of people don’t want a home without broadband. Those studies show an increase of a few thousand dollars in value for home without broadband – but what is value of broadband if you are unable to find a buyer for a home that doesn’t have it? That’s the story that real estate agents tell me today – the inability to sell rural homes without broadband.

One of the interesting things about rural broadband is that the people in rural areas know exactly where the broadband line stops. They know the home closest to them with cable service, they know where DSL becomes too slow to be relevant, and they know where cell phones lose their bars for broadband connectivity. Many rural customers are irate because many of them live just past the broadband dividing line. I hear it all of the time, “The home two houses away has cable TV”, “I’m within a quarter of a mile of good DSL”, “The people on the other side of that hill have a good WISP”, “I can walk to the fiber”.

I remember when I was house-hunting here in Asheville. I live a mile from center city and I can look out my window and see homes with no broadband. My wife had assembled a list of homes to check out and I recall saying a lot, “This area has no broadband, turn the car around”. It is often surprising how close you can be to a town and have no broadband. I think this area is not untypical of a rural county seat where broadband extends only sporadically past the city limits. Folks who don’t know how to look at the wires on poles often don’t realize how broadband often ends at, or just past the city boundary.

This issue is going to get more severe over the next decade and I predict that we’ll start seeing people walk away from rural homes due to lack of willing buyers. I keep expecting to see a lawsuit from a homebuyer who sues a realtor for not telling them the truth about lack of broadband. Such a suit will inevitably bring another piece of paper into home disclosures – a broadband disclosure – which most people care more about than termites and the dozen other things we check off before buying a home.

The Big Telco Problem

A few weeks ago I made the observation in a blog that we don’t really have a rural broadband problem – we instead have a rural big telco problem. As I work around the country helping communities that are looking for broadband solutions it finally struck me that the telcos in almost all of these areas are the big companies – AT&T, CenturyLink, Verizon, Frontier, Windstream, etc.

I don’t see these same problems in areas served by smaller telephone companies. These smaller telcos have either upgraded networks to deliver faster broadband or have plans to do so over the next few years. I know of numerous rural telcos that are currently building fiber to rural areas, and those networks are going to serve those areas for many decades to come. There are undoubtably a few small telcos that are not making the needed upgrades, but for the most part the smaller telcos are doing the right thing – they are reinvesting into the rural areas and making the upgrades needed for the future.

The large telcos have done just the opposite. Most of them have been ignoring rural America for decades. They yanked customer service centers from smaller communities many years ago. They drastically cut back on rural technical staffs and it often takes weeks for customers to get repairs. They stopped investing in rural networks and have not upgraded electronics or networks for decades.

There is currently a burst of activity in these rural areas for those big telcos that accepted the billions of dollars of CAF II funding. This funding requires them to upgrade rural broadband to a measly and inadequate broadband speed of at least 10/1 Mbps. However, the rules in the CAF program are weak and there are no repercussions for not meeting the goals and I’ve always expected they will spend the FCC’s money until it’s gone, and then stop the upgrades. This means while some rural customers will get speeds even a little faster than 10 Mbps that there are likely to be many customers who will so no upgrades. I don’t expect the big telcos to spend a dime of their own in rural America once the CAF II upgrades are finished.

While I call this a big telco problem I might just as easily have called it a regulator problem. The FCC and the various state commissions largely deregulated telephone service, and the FCC recently washed their hands of broadband regulation. The big telcos have been milking big profits out of the rural copper networks for decades and have not reinvested any of those profits back into the networks. That’s how big companies act if regulators don’t require them to spend some of their profits on service and upgrades.

By contrast the smaller telcos were not required to upgrade networks, but they have done so anyway. The small companies got a big boost recently from the ACAM program – a different FCC plan that encourages building forward-looking broadband networks. Many of these companies had already upgraded to fiber before the FCC money was available. These smaller telcos are part of the rural community and feel an obligation to do the right thing – and the right thing is to find a way to bring broadband that rural customers need.

Regulators have let us down by not forcing the big telcos to act responsibly. The big telcos now want to walk away from rural copper that they claim is obsolete and in bad shape. But that copper would be in much better shape had these telcos done routine maintenance for the last thirty years. We built a great nationwide copper network due to the simple regulatory principle of universal service. Regulators at both the state and local level believed that the role of government was to ensure that everybody got access to the communications networks that ties us together as a nation. They know that universal service was good for people, but also good for the economy and good for the country as a whole. It’s something that very few other countries did and set America apart from the rest of the world.

I worked at Southwestern Bell pre-divestiture and it was a source of company pride that the company served every customer to the best of our ability. But along came competition and any sense of obligation to the public went out the door and the big telcos instead concentrated on satisfying Wall Street’s demand for ever-higher profits. There have been big benefits from this competition that are hard to deny, but what was missed in the transition to a competitive telecom world was that competition was never going to benefit rural America in the same way it benefits urban areas. We should have foreseen this and kept the universal service policy in place for rural America.

I get angry when I hear politicians and regulators say that municipalities shouldn’t be in the broadband business because the commercial sector will take care of our broadband needs. That is obviously not true and one only has to look at the big telco networks ten miles outside any urban area to see how the big telcos have abandoned customers in higher cost areas.

The big telcos are still milking big profits out of rural America and are still not reinvesting any of their own capital there. I don’t know if there is a way to put the genie back into the bottle and reintroduce regulation for rural America. If we don’t then we are only a few years away from having third-world telecom networks in rural America that will be a major drag on our society and economy.

The White House Broadband Plan

The White House used a forum at the American Farm Bureau Federation to announce new policies affecting rural broadband. Unfortunately, similar to the policies of the last administration the announced plans seem to offer no useful remedies for the lack of rural broadband infrastructure.

The President’s new recommendations were captured in two executive orders:

  • The biggest thrust of the new policies is to make it easier to place cell towers on federal lands. The President said, “Those towers are gonna go up and you’re gonna have great broadband,”. But finding places to site rural cell towers has never been a real problem. There is not much cost difference between putting a tower for free on federal land versus finding a site on private land in rural America. The biggest issue with placing new rural cell towers is getting broadband backhaul to the tower. It’s hard to think that there will be more than a handful of instances where this new policy will make a difference.
  • The second executive order was aimed at streamlining and expediting requests for placement of broadband facilities on federal lands. Except for finding better routes for long-haul fiber this new policy also doesn’t seem to have much real-life market value, particularly for the needed last mile connections.

These new policies add to a few policies issued in October by the administration’s Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity. That report made a few recommendations that included having multiple government agencies concentrate on expanding e-connectivity (a new phrase used to describe higher bandwidth), attracting private capital investment through “free-market policies, laws and structures”, and reducing barriers to rural infrastructure deployment (which the new executive orders apparently address).

To be clear, I am not particularly criticizing this administration for these announcements because they are similar to the proposals of the past administrations. President Obama had announced rural broadband policies that included:

  • A dig once policy for any construction done on federal highways. The goal was to get conduit into the ground over time along Interstate highways. But the directive came with no additional funding and to the best of my knowledge has never been implemented;
  • The last administration also announced its intention to make it easier to place broadband infrastructure on federal lands in nearly the same language as the current executive orders. But one of the biggest characteristics of federal land is that it’s extremely rural and for the most part is not close to a lot of rural homes. The big issue with building rural broadband infrastructure is the cost of construction, and making it slightly easier to site facilities barely makes a dent in the total cost of building rural infrastructure

What was not put on the table by this and the last administration is any meaningful funding for rural broadband – the one thing the federal government could do that might make a real difference. There was talk at the beginning of this administration of creating some sort of grant program aimed at paying for part of the cost of rural broadband. From the beginning all of the administration’s infrastructure plans involved using seed money from federal grants to attract significant commercial investment. The President’s speech at the AFBF mentioned hopes for the administration to still find infrastructure for “roadways, railways and waterways”, but there was no longer any mention of broadband.

Presidential policies aimed at dig once policies or easier siting for rural cell towers aren’t going to have any practical impact on new rural broadband deployment. I’ve never really understood politics and I guess the temptation to sound like you are doing something to solve an issue is too tempting. But today’s announcements bring nothing new to the table. And in fact, by making it sound like the government is doing something about rural broadband it probably does more harm than good by holding out hope for those with no broadband without any solutions.

The Worst Broadband in America

I recently read an article by Clare Malone from fivethirtyeight titled, “The Worst Internet in America.” The article discussed Saguache County, Colorado, which was identified by researchers at the University of Iowa and Arizona State University as having the lowest broadband penetration in the US. Only 5.6% of households there have broadband that meets the FCC definition of 25 Mbps down / 3 Mbps up. It’s an article worth reading and highlights the problems caused by lack of broadband.

As you might imagine it’s a rural farming community. Slow broadband has historically been offered by CenturyLink and Fairpoint, the two incumbent telcos serving the county. Like much of rural America the county now has a WISP offering fixed-wireless broadband. Ralph Abrams, the former mayor of Crestone, CO founded the WISP in 2011 as a reaction to the poor DSL service in the county.

My main takeaway from the article is that this same article could be written about almost any pocket of rural customers in the country. We are a nation of broadband haves and have-nots. In most of rural America there is a clear line that defines who has broadband. If a county is lucky enough to have a cable TV company in some of its towns there is always a place at the edge of the town where the coaxial cables stops. The dividing line with DSL is always a little fuzzier, but there is always some distance from town where the DSL is too slow to be of any use – and that’s not generally more than a mile or two from a town.

People that live outside the broadband boundary have three options – satellite broadband, cellular broadband or no broadband. I have never met anybody that was satisfied with satellite broadband. Some of the services today deliver speeds as fast as 17 Mbps. But the satellite plans are expensive and have two major drawbacks. First are small monthly data caps that average in the range of 10 gigabytes of downloaded data. Unlike cellphone plans where you pay more for extra data, most satellite plans kick you off for the rest of the month when you hit your cap. And satellites have dreadful latency that is as much as twenty times higher than on fiber. Latency is a measure of the time delay for a data packet to reach a customer. High latency means that real-time applications don’t work. With a high-latency connection you can’t make a phone call over the Internet. You can’t watch live-streaming video. You can’t connect to services that require real-time connections like online classes. You can’t hold a connection to a corporate server to work at home.

And cellular data is no better. Rural customers use their cellphones as hot spots. Since cellular data speeds decrease with distance from a cell tower, rural customers are likely to get poor speeds with their cellphones if they can find any broadband connection at all. And unlike satellite broadband the cellular companies will let you buy unlimited extra gigabytes of data – at a high price. I think US cellular data is probably the most expensive data in the developed world priced at $8 – $10 per gigabyte. I have talked to numerous rural households that pay $500 or more a month for cellphone data in order for their kids to do homework.

Rural customers are all highly aware of the hot spots in their region and it’s not unusual to see cars gathered around a library, restaurant or other place that offers public WiFi. Folks drive school kids into town regularly to sit in the car and do homework. People trying to work at home must drive to a hotspot to send or retrieve big data files.

The article asks the same question that I asked a few months ago – is broadband an American right? People have very strong opinions about this idea because of all the political overtones. But one has to only look back to our past to see other times when the US government thought that providing utilities in rural America was good for the country as a whole. There were major government programs to help push electricity into rural America, including cheap long-term loans for places that created local cooperatives to get this done. The same thing happened with rural telephone service and most of rural America got connected to the voice network.

And I ask myself why this is any different. We found ways to string poles and wires to farms for both electricity and telephone service. When you look at the cost of that effort adjusted for inflation it’s hard to think that it was any cheaper to do this back then than it is today to string fiber. As a country we found a way to get electricity and telephone everywhere for the simple reason that we knew it made the whole country better when we didn’t leave parts of the economy behind. I have no idea if there was debate a century ago asking if electricity to farms was a right. But it seems like it was obvious to the country that it was a necessity.

ATSC 3.0 – More Spectrum for Broadband?

This past February the FCC approved the voluntary adoption of the new over-the-air standard for ATSC 3.0. for television stations. There will be around twenty different standards included within the final protocol that will define such things as better video and audio compression, picture improvement using high dynamic range (HDR), a wider range of colors, the ability to use immersive sound, better closed captioning, an advanced emergency alert system, better security through watermarking and fingerprinting, and the ability to integrate IP delivery.

The most interesting new feature of the new standard is that it allows programmers to tailor their TV transmission signal in numerous ways. The one that is of the most interest to the telecom world is that the standard will allow a TV broadcaster to compress the existing TV transmission into a tiny slice of the spectrum which would free up about 25 Mbps of wireless bandwidth per TV channel.

A TV station could use that extra frequency themselves or could sell it to others. Broadcasters could use the extra bandwidth in a number of ways. For example, it’s enough bandwidth to transmit their signal in 4K. Stations could also transmit their signal directly to cellphones and other mobile devices. TV stations could instead the extra bandwidth to enhance their transmissions by the addition of immersive sound and virtual reality. They could also use the extra bandwidth to transmit additional digital channels inside one slice of spectrum.

But my guess is that a lot of TV stations are going to lease the spectrum to others. This is some of the most desirable spectrum available. The VHF bands range from 30 MHz to 300 MHz and the UHF bands from 300 MHz to 3 GHz. The spectrum has the desirable characteristics of being able to travel for long distances and of penetrating easily into buildings – two characteristics that benefit TV or broadband.

The first broadcasters that have announced plans to implement ATSC 3.0 are Sinclair and Nexstar. Together they own stations in 97 markets, including 43 markets where both companies have stations. The two companies are also driving a consortium of broadcasters that includes Univision and Northwest Broadcasting. This spectrum consortium has the goal of being able to provide a nationwide bandwidth footprint, which they think is essential for maximizing the economic value of leasing the spectrum. But getting nationwide coverage is going to require adding a lot more TV stations to the consortium, which could be a big challenge.

All this new bandwidth is going to be attractive to wireless broadband providers. One has to think that the big cellular companies will be interested in the bandwidth. This also might be an opportunity for the new cellular players like Comcast and Charter to increase their spectrum footprint. But it could be used in other ways. For instance, this could be used by some new provider to communicate with vehicles or to monitor and interface with IoT devices.

The spectrum could provide a lot of additional bandwidth for rural broadband. It’s likely that in metropolitan areas that the extra bandwidth is going to get gobbled up to satisfy one or more of the uses listed above. But in rural areas this spectrum could be used to power point-to-multipoint radios and could add a huge amount of bandwidth to that effort. The channels are easily bonded together and it’s not hard to picture wireless broadband of a few hundred Mbps.

But this may never come to pass. Unlike WiFi, which is free, or 3.65 GHz, which can be cheaply licensed, this spectrum is likely to be costly. And one of the major benefits of the spectrum – the ability to travel for long distances – is also a detriment for many rural markets. Whoever is using this spectrum in urban areas is going to worry about interference from rural uses of the spectrum.

Of course, there are other long-term possibilities. As companies are able to upgrade to the new standard they will have essentially have reduced their need for spectrum. Since the TV stations were originally given this spectrum to transmit TV signals I can’t think of any reason that they should automatically be allowed to keep and financially benefit from the freed spectrum. They don’t really ‘own’ the spectrum – it was provided to them originally by the FCC to launch television technology. There are no other blocks or spectrum I can think of that are granted in perpetuity.

TV station owners like Sinclair and Nexstar are watering at the mouth over the huge potential windfall that has come their way. I hope, though that the FCC will eventually see this differently. One of the functions of the FCC is to equitably allocate spectrum to best meet the needs of all users of spectrum. If the TV stations keep the spectrum then the FCC will have ceded their spectrum management authority and it will be TV stations that determine the future spectrum winners and losers. That can’t be in the best interests of the country.

Municipal Broadband

One of the fights that I expect to see resurface this year is on the topic of whether local governments should be allowed to build fiber networks and become ISPs. The last FCC tackled this issue in a small way when they granted petitions by Chattanooga, TN and Wilson, NC to expand their broadband networks beyond their electric service territories and municipal boundaries. That ruling got reversed by a US district court and was not appealed by the FCC. But the ruling was of limited scope anyway and only addressed those two cities and didn’t set any precedent for other communities.

There are a lot of moving parts on this topic and it’s hard to know where this might go with the current FCC. This FCC is obviously pro-big ISP and companies like Comcast and AT&T have been staunch opponents of municipal broadband. But by the same token, this administration seems to lean towards states’ rights – and up until now municipal broadband has been regulated on a state-by-state basis.

Interestingly, at the local level municipal broadband has broad bipartisan support. In most communities almost all local politicians of both major parties support local broadband efforts. In my experience in working around the country, the only local political opponents of municipal broadband I have seen are those who are strong opponents of government spending money for anything but essential services. Generally local, state and even federal politicians support local broadband efforts in the communities they serve. I think the broad bipartisan appeal is due to politicians recognizing the strong public support for broadband and that almost every household wants broadband these days.

But there are 22 states with some restrictions on municipal broadband. These range from hurdles that can be overcome, like a referendum, up through states that have a total prohibition on municipal broadband. There has been a continual effort by ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) – funded by large corporations – to pass new state restrictions on broadband. But most recent efforts to increase prohibition of local broadband have been rebuffed, because few politicians want to go on the record against broadband. But I would not be surprised to see the big ISPs try to press their current advantage at the FCC and try to pass new national restrictions.

Today I see the municipal world dividing into two separate constituencies – urban and rural. Very few big cities have any desire to become an ISP. But they have legitimate concerns that urban broadband isn’t benefiting everybody. For example, San Francisco and some other cities are unhappy that apartment residents don’t have the same broadband opportunities and options as single family homes. And a lot of cities are still unhappy that after all of these years there is no solution for the digital divide. The FCC said last year that there are still around six million people in pockets of urban areas that don’t have access to broadband that meets the 25 Mbps download standard. But while these issues are viewed as a major problem in urban areas, I don’t see much appetite for big city governments tackling the cost of building broadband networks, which is particularly expensive in cities.

Rural America is a totally different story. We have come to the point where communities without good broadband really suffer. Broadband is not just about Netflix but is necessary to take part in the modern world. Local governments are finding that nobody wants to buy homes without broadband if there is a nearby community with broadband. Worse, communities are seeing businesses move away or bypass them when considering new locations. Lack of broadband puts school kids at a definite disadvantage and there are still a lot of households that drive kids daily to public hotspots just to do homework. And lack of broadband takes away all the opportunities for working at home – probably the biggest area of job growth in rural America.

I see small communities – even down to really small sizes like townships with 700 residents – trying to find ways to build a broadband network. I’ve read a few hundred RFPs from rural communities over the last few years, and probably not more than 5% want to become an ISP. But they will do so if they can’t find a commercial company willing to do it. Rural communities largely favor of public-private partnerships. More and more of them are willing to kick money into a building a network if an ISP will invest in their community and operate a broadband network.

I believe that within a decade we are going to start seeing broadband ‘deserts’ where communities without broadband start withering – just as happened in the past to communities that didn’t get electricity, or that were bypassed by railroads or interstate highways. It’s hard to think that a community today can keep their kids at home without broadband – and this is starting to scare local governments.

I just hope that the FCC doesn’t wade into this battle on the side of the big ISPs. Those big companies are not spending money in rural America – or if they are, it’s only when handed to them by the federal government. And even then they are just putting band-aids on rural broadband rather than building fast new networks. I have a feeling that many of the states that have restrictions on rural broadband are going to start having second thoughts about those restrictions when they realize that broadband is at or near the top of concerns of most of rural America.

There are companies building great rural broadband networks. The small telcos are almost all expanding their service areas to build broadband networks. And many of them are working with or partnering with local governments. But all of these small companies collectively can only solve a relatively small percentage of the rural broadband gap – together they do not have the capacity to borrow anything close to the billions needed to build broadband everywhere. Many rural electric cooperatives are now looking hard at the issue, and they could satisfy another slice of the rural market. But that’s still going to leave millions of rural residents with no broadband on their horizon. And I predict these folks are going to become a vocal constituency that politicians will be unable to ignore.