Technology and FCC Grants

This is the next in the series of blogs looking at the upcoming $20.4 billion FCC grant program. I ask the question of how the FCC should consider technology in the upcoming grant program.

Should Satellite Companies be Eligible? I think a more fundamental question is if the current generation of high-orbit satellites really deliver broadband. Over the last few years I’ve talked to hundreds of rural people about their broadband situation and I have never met anybody who liked satellite broadband – not one person. Most people I’ve talked to have tried it once and abandoned it as unworkable.

This goes back to the basic definition of broadband. The FCC defines broadband by download speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps. In their original order in 2015 the FCC discussed latency, but unfortunately never made latency part of the broadband definition. As a reminder, the standard definition of latency is that it’s a measure of the time it takes for a data packet to travel from its point of origin to the point of destination.

A few years ago, the FCC did a study of the various last mile technologies and measured the following ranges of performance of last-mile latency, measured in milliseconds: fiber (10-20 ms), coaxial cable (15-40 ms), and DSL (30-65 ms). Cellular latencies vary widely depending upon the exact generation of equipment at any given cell site, but 4G latency can be as high as 100 ms. In the same FCC test, satellite broadband was almost off the chart with latencies measured as high as 650 ms.

Latency makes a big difference in the perceived customer experience. Customers will rate a 25 Mbps connection on fiber as being much faster than a 25 Mbps connection on DSL due to the difference in latency. The question that should be asked for federal grants is if satellite broadband should be disqualified due to poor latency.

I was unhappy to see so much money given to the satellite providers in the recent CAF II reverse auction. Even ignoring the latency issue, I ask if the satellite companies deserve broadband subsidies. There is no place in rural America where folks don’t already know that satellite broadband is an option – most people have rejected the technology as an acceptable broadband connection. It was particularly troubling seeing satellite providers getting money in a reverse auction. Once a satellite is in orbit it’s costs are fixed and that means that the satellite providers will be happy to take any amount of federal subsidy – they can bid lower than any other grant applicant in a reverse auction. I have to question the wisdom of providing federal subsidies to companies that are already failing at marketing.

I don’t have enough information to know how to feel about the upcoming low-orbit satellites that are just now being tested and launched. Because of lower orbits they will have lower latency. However, the satellite companies still have a huge advantage in a reverse auction since they can bid lower than anybody else – a satellite company would be happy with only a few dollars per potential customer and has no bottom limit on the amount of grant they are willing to accept. If the new satellite companies can bid in the same manner as everybody else we could end up with the situation where these companies claim 100% of the new grant funds.

What About DSL? My nightmare scenario is that the FCC hands most or all of the $20.4 billion to the big telcos to upgrade rural DSL from 10/1 Mbps to 25/3 Mbps. This is certainly within the realm of possibility. Remember that the first CAF II program was originally going to be open to everybody but at the last minute was all given to the big telcos.

I find it troublesome that the big telcos have been quiet about the announced plans for this grant. The money will be spent in the big telco service areas and you’d think they be screaming about plans for federal money to overbuild them. Recall that the big telcos recently were able to derail the Re-Connect grants by inserting the rule that only 10% of the grant money could be used for customers who receive at least 10/1 Mbps broadband. This FCC clearly favors the big telcos over other ISPs and could easily hand all of this money to the big telcos and call it CAF III.

Even if they don’t do that, the question is if any federal grant money should be used to upgrade rural DSL. Rural copper is in dreadful condition due to the willful neglect of the big telcos who stopped doing maintenance on their networks decades ago. It’s frankly a wonder that the rural copper networks even function. It would be a travesty to reward the telcos by giving them billions of dollars to make upgrades that they should have routinely made by reinvesting customer revenues.

I think when the dust clears on CAF II we’re going to find out that the big telcos largely cheated with that money. We’re going to find that they only upgraded the low-hanging fruit and that many households in the coverage areas got no upgrades or minor upgrades that won’t achieve the 10/1 Mbps goals. I think we’ll also find that in many cases the telcos didn’t spend very much of the CAF II funds but just pocketed it as free revenue. I beg the FCC to not repeat the CAF II travesty – when the truth comes out about how the telcos used the funding, the CAF II program is going to grab headlines as a scandal. Please don’t provide any money to upgrade DSL.

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

 

The Impact of Satellite Broadband

Recently I’ve had several people ask me about the expected impact of low-orbit satellite broadband. While significant competition from satellites is probably a number of years away, there are several major initiatives like StarLink (Elon Musk), Project Kuiper (Amazon), and OneWeb that have announced plans to launch swarms of satellites to provide broadband.

At this early stage, it’s nearly impossible to know what impact these companies might have. We don’t know anything about their download and speed capacity, their pricing strategy, or their targeted market so it’s impossible to begin to predict their impact. We don’t even know how long it’s going to take to get these satellites in space since these three companies alone have plans to launch over 10,000 new satellites – a tall task when compared to the 1,100 satellites currently active in space.

Even without knowing any of these key facts, BroadbandNow recently grabbed headlines around the industry by predicting that low-orbit satellites will bring an annual savings of $30 billion for US broadband customers. Being a numbers guy, I never let this kind of headline pass without doing some quick math.

They explain their method of calculation on their web site. They are making several major assumptions about the satellite industry. First, they assume the satellite providers will compete on price and will compete in every market in the country. Since the vast majority of American live in metro areas, BroadbandNow is assuming the satellite providers will become a major competitor in every city. They also assume that the satellites will be able to connect to a huge number of customers in the US which will force other ISPs to lower prices.

Those assumptions would have to be true to support the $30 billion in projected annual consumer savings. That is an extraordinary number and works out to be a savings of almost $20 per month for every household in the US. If you spread the $30 billion over only those households that buy broadband today, that would be a savings of over $23 per month. If your further factor out the folks who live in large apartments and don’t get a choice of their ISP, the savings jumps to $27 per household per month. The only way to realize savings of that magnitude would be from a no-holds-barred broadband price war where the satellite providers are chewing into market penetrations everywhere.

I foresee a different future for the satellite industry. Let’s start with a few facts we know. While 10,000 satellites is an impressive number, that’s a worldwide number and there will be fewer than 1,000 satellites over the US. Most of the satellites are tiny – these are not the same as the huge satellites launched by HughesNet. Starlink has described their satellites as varying in size between a football and a small dorm refrigerator. At those small sizes these satellites are probably the electronic equivalent of the OLT cabinets used as neighborhood nodes in a FTTH network – each satellite will likely support some limited and defined number of customers. OneWeb recently told the FCC in a spectrum docket that they are envisioning needing one million radio links, meaning their US satellites would be able to serve one million households. Let’s say that all of the satellite providers together will serve 3 – 5 million homes in the US – that’s an impressive number, but it’s not going to drive other ISPs into a pricing panic.

I also guess that the satellite providers will not offer cheap prices – they don’t need to. In fact, I expect them to charge more than urban ISPs. The satellite providers will have one huge market advantage – the ability to bring broadband where there isn’t landline competition. The satellite providers can likely use all of their capacity selling only in rural America at a premium price.

We still have no real idea about the speeds that will be available with low-orbit satellite broadband. We can ignore Elon Musk who claims he’ll be offering gigabit speeds. The engineering specs show that a satellite can probably make a gigabit connection, but each satellite is an ISP hub and will have a limited bandwidth capacity. Like with any ISP network, the operator can use that capacity to make a few connections at a high bandwidth speed or many more connections at slower speeds. Engineering common sense would predict against using the limited satellite bandwidth to sell gigabit residential products.

That doesn’t mean the satellite providers won’t be lured by big bandwidth customers. They might make more money selling gigabit links at a premium price to small cell sites and ignoring the residential market completely. It’s a much easier business plan, with drastically lower operating costs to sell their capacity to a handful of big cellular companies instead of selling to millions of households. That is going to be a really tempting market alternative.

I could be wrong and maybe the satellite guys will find a way to sell many tens of millions of residential links and compete in every market, in which case they would have an impact on urban broadband prices. But unless the satellites have the capacity to sell to almost everybody, and unless they decide to compete on price, I still can’t see a way to ever see a $30 billion national savings. I instead see them making good margins by selling where there’s no competition.

One-Web Launches Broadband Satellites

Earlier this month OneWeb launched six test satellites intended for an eventual satellite fleet intended to provide broadband. The six satellites were launched from a Soyuz launch vehicle from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana.

OneWeb was started by Greg Wyler of Virginia in 2012, originally under the name of WorldVu. Since then the company has picked up heavy-hitter investors like Virgin, Airbus, SoftBank and Qualcomm. The company’s plan is to launch an initial constellation of 650 satellites that will blanket the earth, with ultimate deployment of 1,980 satellites. The plans are to deploy thirty of the sixty-five pound satellites with each launch. That means twenty-two successful launches are needed to deploy the first round.

Due to the low-earth orbits of the satellites, at about 745 miles above earth, the OneWeb satellites will avoid the huge latency that is inherent from current satellite broadband providers like HughesNet, which uses satellites orbiting at 22,000 miles above the earth. The OneWeb specifications filed with the FCC talks about having latency in the same range as cable TV networks in the 25-30 millisecond range. But where a few high-orbit satellites can see the whole earth, the big fleet of low-orbit satellites is needed just to be able in see everywhere.

The company is already behind schedule. The company had originally promised coverage across Alaska by the end of 2019. They are now talking about having customers demos sometime in 2020 with live broadband service in 2021. The timeline matter for a satellite company because the bandwidth license from the FCC requires that they launch 50% of their satellites within six years and all of them within nine years. Right now, OneWeb and also Elon Musk’s SpaceX have both fallen seriously behind the needed deployment timeline.

The company’s original goal was to bring low-latency satellite broadband to everybody in Alaska. While they are still talking about bringing broadband to those who don’t have it today, their new business plan is to sell directly to airlines and cruise ship lines and to sell wholesale to ISPs who will then market to the end user.

It will be interesting to see what kinds of speeds will really be delivered. The company talks today about a maximum speed of 500 Mbps. But I compare that number to the claim that 5G cellphones can work at 600 Mbps, as demonstrated last year by Sprint – it’s possible only in a perfect lab setting. The best analog to a satellite network is a wireless transmitter on a tower in a point-to-multipoint network. That transmitter is capable of making a relatively small number of big-bandwidth connections or many more low-bandwidth connections. The economic sweet spot will likely be to offer many connections at 50 – 100 Mbps rather than fewer connections at a higher speed.

It’s an interesting business model. The upfront cost of manufacturing and launching the satellites is high. It’s likely that a few launches will go awry and destroy satellites. But other than replacing satellites that go bad over time, the maintenance costs are low. The real issue will be the bandwidth that can be delivered. Speeds of 50 – 100 Mbps will be welcomed in the rural US for those with no better option. But like with all low-bandwidth technologies – adequate broadband that feels okay today will feel a lot slower in a decade as household bandwidth demand continues to grow. The best long-term market for the satellite providers will be those places on the planet that are not likely to have a landline alternative – which is why they first targeted rural Alaska.

Assuming that the low-earth satellites deliver as promised, they will become part of the broadband landscape in a few years. It’s going to be interesting to see how they play in the rural US and around the world.

Delays in Satellite Broadband

One of the big unknowns for rural broadband is if there will ever be a better satellite broadband option. The industry was surprised last year when Elon Musk announced that he planned to blanket the earth with over 4,000 satellites and operate as a worldwide ISP under the newly formed Starlink. These satellites would be launched by SpaceX, another Elon Musk company that that provides commercial rocket launches.

I’ve been following the financial news about the Elon Musk family of businesses, and about SpaceX and Starlink more specifically, since a successful launch of the business could provide another rural option for broadband.

There are several financial analysts predicting that Starlink is now largely on hold, due mostly to funding issues. They report that Starlink has stopped hiring the new employees needed to implement the business plan. Further, it appears that SpaceX needs up to $10 billion to fulfill its own business plan and that any money raised by the company is likely to go there first before Starlink is funded. At a minimum this probably means a major delay in satellite launches for Starlink.

These analysts warn that the SpaceX business plan is not yet solid. The commercial launch business is now seeing other major competitors. ULA, the existing major competitor to SpaceX has been stepping up their game. Boeing is behind Space Launch Systems, another newcomer to the field. Jeff Bezos of Amazon has started Blue Origin and has started construction on a spaceflight center in Florida. There is also a new competitor announced in Japan. The competition is going to drive down the cost of space launches and will also spread the launches among numerous parties, diluting any early advantage enjoyed by SpaceX.

SpaceX was counting on riding the coattails of other commercial launches to get the broadband satellites into space. The company is scheduled to complete 28 launches by the end of this year but is only scheduled so far for 18 launches in 2019. The company is also banking on making money from selling commercial space travel to rich tourists, but the analysts doubt that will be enough revenue to keep the company afloat.

Starlink had originally announced plans to have 40 million broadband subscribers generating $30 billion in annual revenues by 2025. That’s an average revenue per customer of $63 dollars per month. It now looks like the date for getting the company started will be significantly delayed. Starlink launched two test satellites earlier this year, but has not reported how they performed.

I’ve also wondered if Starlink would strongly pursue the residential broadband business in North America. While they will be a great alternative for rural America, they will be just another player in cities. Being an ISP makes a lot more sense in those parts of the world where the company could enjoy a near-monopoly.

In the US and Canada there is probably a lot more money to be made instead by serving the many proposed small cell sites if 5G turns out to be a relevant business plan. Starlink says they can deliver speeds of a gigabit or more to a given customer, but the math behind the bandwidth available at any given satellite means that would only be available to a relatively small number of customers rather than to the whole residential market. Speeds for residential broadband are likely to be at much lower speeds. However, gigabit satellite broadband could be the backhaul solution that 5G needs and might let it escape the bottleneck of needing fiber everywhere. I’ve never seen any discussion of such a partnership, but that’s probably because the satellite business is still somewhat theoretical and at a minimum, delayed from the original projected time line.

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.

Is the FCC Disguising the Rural Broadband Problem?

Buried within the FCC’s February Broadband Deployment Report are some tables that imply that over 95% of American homes can now get broadband at speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps. That is drastically higher than the report just a year earlier. The big change in the report is that the FCC is now counting fixed wireless and satellite broadband when compiling the numbers. This leads me to ask if the FCC is purposefully disguising the miserable condition of rural broadband?

I want to start with some examples from this FCC map that derives from the data supporting the FCC’s annual report. I started with some counties in Minnesota that I’m familiar with. The FCC database and map claims that Chippewa, Lyon, Mille Lacs and Pope Counties in Minnesota all have 100% coverage of 25/3 broadband. They also claim that Yellow Medicine County has 99.59% coverage of 25/3 Mbps broadband and the folks there must be wondering who is in that tiny percentage without broadband.

The facts on the ground tell a different story. In real life, the areas of these counties served by the incumbent telcos CenturyLink and Frontier have little or no broadband outside of towns. Within a short distance from each town and throughout the rural areas of the county there is no good broadband to speak of – certainly not anything that approaches 25/3 Mbps. I’d love to hear from others who look at this map to see if it tells the truth about where you live.

Let me start with the FCC’s decision to include satellite broadband in the numbers. When you go to the rural areas in these counties practically nobody buys satellite broadband. Many tried it years ago and using it is a miserable experience. There are a few satellite plans that offer speeds as fast as 25/3 Mbps. But satellite broadband today has terrible latency, as high as 900 milliseconds. Anything over 100 milliseconds makes it hard or impossible to do any real-time computing. That means on satellite broadband that you can’t stream video. You can’t have a Skype call. You can’t connect to a corporate WAN and work from home or connect to online classes. You will have problems staying on many web shopping sites. You can’t even make a VoIP call.

Satellite broadband also has stingy data caps that make it impossible to use as a home broadband connection. Most of the plans come with a monthly data caps of 10 GB to 20 GB, and unlike cellular plans where you can buy additional data, the satellite plans cut you off for the rest of the month when you hit your data cap. And even with all of these problems, it’s also expensive and is priced higher than landline broadband. Rural customers have voted with their pocketbooks that satellite broadband is not broadband that many people are willing to tolerate.

Fixed wireless is a more mixed bag. There are high-quality fixed wireless providers who are delivering speeds as fast as 100 Mbps. But as I’ve written about, most rural fixed broadband delivers speeds far below this and the more typical fixed wireless connection is somewhere between 2 Mbps and 6 Mbps.

There are a number of factors needed to make a quality fixed broadband connection. First, the technology must be only a few years old because older radios older were not capable of reaching the 25/3 speeds. Customers also need a clear line-of-sight back to the transmitter and must be within some reasonable distance from a tower. This means that there are usually s significant number of homes in wireless service areas that can’t get any coverage due to trees or being behind a hill. Finally, and probably most importantly, the wireless provider needs properly designed network and a solid backhaul data pipe. Many WISPs pack too many customers on a tower and dilute the broadband. Many wireless towers are fed by multi-hop wireless backhaul, meaning the tower doesn’t have enough raw bandwidth to deliver a vigorous customer product.

In the FCC’s defense, most of the data about fixed wireless that feeds the database and map is self-reported by the WISPs. I am personally a big fan of fixed wireless when it’s done right and I was a WISP customer for nine years. But there are a lot of WISPs who exaggerate in their marketing literature and tell customers they sell broadband up to 25/3 Mbps when their actual product might only be a tiny fraction of those speeds. I have no doubt that these WISPs also report those marketing speeds to the FCC, which leads to the errors in the maps.

The FCC should know better. In those counties listed above I would venture to say that there are practically no households who can get a 25/3 fixed wireless connection, but there are undoubtedly a few. I know people in these counties gave up on satellite broadband many years ago. My conclusion from the new FCC data is that this FCC has elected to disguise the facts by claiming that households have broadband when they don’t. This is how the FCC is letting themselves off the hook for trying to fix the rural broadband shortages that exist in most of rural America. We can’t fix a problem that we won’t even officially acknowledge, and this FCC, for some reason, is masking the truth.