A Roadmap to Better Broadband Grants

I’ve been thinking about the effectiveness of federal broadband grant programs. We’ve had three recent major sets of federal grant awards – the stimulus grants of 2007, the first CAF II grants in 2015 and the recently awarded CAF II reverse auctions. We also have an upcoming e-Connectivity grant program for $600 million. I think there are lessons to be learned from studying the difference in the results between these grants. These lessons apply to State grant programs as well as any new federal programs.

Don’t Reward Slow Broadband Speeds. Probably the most bone-headed decision made by the FCC in my memory was handing out billions in CAF II to upgrade rural copper to 10/1 Mbps. This wasn’t considered decent broadband at the time of this decision and yet these upgrades continue to be funded today. The FCC could still take back the remaining CAF II money and redirect these funds to a reverse auction, which we just saw produced much faster speeds in areas with far less density than the CAF II footprint.

Keep Politics Out of It. The CAF II decision to give all of the funding to the big telcos was purely political and resulted in a huge waste of money that could have created many real broadband solutions. The FCC is supposed to be an independent agency, and it’s shameful that lobbyists were able to kill the reverse auction originally planned for CAF II. We are seeing politics back on the table with the e-Connectivity grants where Congress created a feel-good grant program, but then saddled it with a restriction that no more than 10% of homes in a study area can have existing 10/1 Mbps speeds. The reason for this provision was not even hidden, with the big telcos saying they didn’t want federal grant money to be used to compete against them.

Don’t Fund Inadequate Technologies. AT&T is using LTE cellular broadband to satisfy CAF II. This technology will never provide adequate broadband. In the recent reverse auction we saw money going to high-altitude satellite companies. Regardless of speeds that can be delivered with these satellites, the latency is so poor that it limits the ability to use the broadband for important activities like working at home or taking on-line classes.

Don’t Stress Anchor Institutions over People. The stimulus grants required middle mile providers to pop off of highways to build expensive last mile fiber to a handful of anchor institutions – schools, libraries, etc. While these anchor institutions need good broadband, so do the neighborhoods around them. This requirement added a lot of cost to the middle-mile projects as well as made it harder for anybody else to build a last mile network since the biggest bandwidth users in a community already have fiber.

Build to Industry Practices. The stimulus grants required that fiber builders conduct expensive environmental studies and historic preservation studies. That was the first time I ever saw those requirements in my forty years in the industry. Since telecom infrastructure is built almost entirely in existing public right-of-way these restrictions added a lot of cost but zero value to the projects.

Penalize Companies that Cheat. There needs to be repercussions for companies that cheat on grant applications to win the funding. The biggest area of cheating is claiming speeds that the technology can’t deliver. The FCC follows up grants with a decent speed-test program, but the worst repercussion in failing these tests is to not get funding going forward. A carrier that badly fails the speed tests should have to return the original grant funding. I’m also hearing rumors that the many rural households covered by CAF II will not get the promised upgrades – and if so, the big telcos should be forced to return a proportionate amount of that funding for homes that don’t get the promised upgrades.

Michael O’Rielly’s Vision of Broadband Expansion

FCC_New_LogoA whole lot of the telecom industry is anxiously watching the news to see if there will be a federal program to expand rural broadband. We’ve already had new FCC Chairman Pai come out in favor of closing the digital divide and bringing broadband to everyone. And there are those in Congress pushing for money to expand rural broadband.

Last week FCC member Michael O’Rielly entered the fray with a blog post about funding rural broadband expansion. There are things in that blog I heartily agree with, and others that I disagree with (as you might expect).

O’Rielly warns that the government should not shovel money at a rural solution in such a way as to drastically overspend to get a solution. I completely agree and I wrote a series of blogs last year (1, 2, 3, and 4) that make the same point. The government wasted a lot of money when handing out stimulus grants in the past and I’d hate to see them make the same mistakes again. There is a long list of things that were done poorly in that grant program, but a lot of this was because it was cobbled together quickly. Hopefully, if we give out new federal money to help deploy broadband we can take the time to get it right.

O’Rielly suggests that any rural broadband expansion program be handled through the Universal Service Fund. No matter which part of government tackles this there will be a need to staff up to implement a major broadband expansion program. But I agree it makes more sense to hand this to an existing program rather than to hand it to somebody like the NTIA again.

He stated one thing that has me scratching my head. He stated that he has heard of ‘countless’ examples of where stimulus middle-mile fiber routes hurt commercial providers. I have hundreds of clients, most of them commercial ISPs, and I have never once heard anyone complain about this. Many of my clients instead are enjoying lower-cost rural transport on the BTOP networks. These complaints have to be coming from AT&T and Verizon who don’t like lower-cost alternatives to their massively overpriced special access. Special access transport is one of the biggest killers of rural business plans.

It’s clear that O’Rielly has a bias towards having commercial solutions for broadband rather than government ones. I don’t know anybody that disagrees with that concept. But by now it’s pretty obvious that the big commercial ISPs are never going to invest in rural America and it’s disingenuous to keep pretending that if government funds rural broadband that it will somehow harm them. The big ISPs have been working hard to withdraw from rural America and the providers that are left – the independent telcos, cooperatives, and rural governments – are the ones we should trust to deploy the broadband we know is needed.

I take major exception to his contention that “ultra-fast residential service is a novelty and good for marketing, but the tiny percentage of people using it cannot drive our policy decisions.” This statement has two glaring omissions. First, there are many households that need fast speeds today for home-based businesses, education, and reasons beyond just watching videos or playing games. When 10% of homes in the US don’t have broadband those homes are excluded from participating in the benefits of the digital economy. It’s hard to put a dollar value on what that is costing our economy – but it’s huge.

But second – and more importantly – this ignores the inevitable increase in demand over time. US households have been doubling their need for speed and the amount of total download every three years since 1980 – and there is no sign that growth in demand is over. This means any network that is just adequate today is going to feel obsolete within a decade – and this also means you don’t make policy for today’s demands, but for demands that we already know will be here in another decade. This is why there has to continue to be a focus on fiber first. As much as O’Rielly might hate some of the worst practices of the stimulus grants, his FCC approved the disastrous giveaway of billions to the big telcos to expand rural DSL in the CAF II program. We can’t take that path again.

Finally, O’Rielly says that the government should not be picking broadband winners and losers. That sounds like a great political sentiment, but if the government is going to supply funding to promote rural broadband that money has to go to somebody – and by definition that is picking winners. But O’Rielly does temper this statement by saying that funding shouldn’t just go to the ‘well-connected’. I hope he really means that and gets behind a plan that doesn’t just hand federal broadband funding to AT&T, Verizon and CenturyLink.

Is there a Right to Broadband?

canada_flag-1920x1080The CRTC in Canada (their version of the FCC) just took a step that is bound to reopen a discussion of best definition of broadband – they defined broadband to now be 50 Mbps down and 10 Mbps up. But they went even further and said that broadband is now a ‘basic telecommunications service’, meaning that everybody in the country ought to have access to broadband. In today and tomorrow’s blog I will look at the two issues raised by the CRTC – if there should be a right to broadband, and the role of governments in defining broadband.

Has broadband grown to become a ‘right’? I put the word in quotes because even I don’t think that is what the CRTC did. What they did was declare that the government of Canada officially blesses the idea that their citizens ought to have access to broadband. Over time that decree should prompt other parts of the Canadian government to help make that happen.

But even the CRTC does not think that every home in the country should be wired with fiber. I’ve traveled north of the arctic circle and there are plenty of remote places there that are not connected to the electric grid. And there are remote homes on top of mountains and deep in the woods where homeowners have purposefully withdrawn from civilization. The CRTC is not guaranteeing broadband to such places.

But the CRTC has made a strong statement to recognize the importance of broadband. This is not without precedent. During the last century the US government made similar statements about the right of Americans to electricity. The government then went on to create programs that would help to realize that right. This meant the formation of the Rural Utility Service to provide funding to create rural electric grids, and it mean the creation of government-sponsored electric generation such as with the Tennessee Valley Authority.

These government programs worked well and the vast majority of US homes were connected to the electric grid within a few decades. The investments made in these programs paid back the US government many times over by bringing numerous communities into the modern world. The electrification of America was probably the most profitable undertaking ever undertaken by the US government.

The action taken by the CRTC will be an empty gesture unless it pushes the Canadian government to take the steps needed to get broadband everywhere. The latest statistics show that nearly 20% of homes there, mostly rural, don’t have access to landline broadband. That’s an even larger percentage of homes than in the US and probably reflects the vast rural stretches in central and northern Canada.

The US government has not made the same kind of firm statement like the one just issued by the CRTC, but we’ve clearly taken official steps to promote broadband. There were billions poured into building middle-mile fiber in rural America with the stimulus grants. And the $19 billion CAF II fund is promoting broadband for areas that have none – although it’s still puzzling to understand the bandaid approach of that program that is pouring money into building infrastructure that doesn’t even meet the FCC’s definition of broadband. But the official goal of CAF II program is that US homes deserve broadband.

The CRTC statement is more pointed because it was paired with a new and higher definition of broadband at 50/10 Mbps. The only technologies that can meet those speeds are cable company HFC networks and fiber – and nobody is building new cable networks. The CRTC has really taken a position that rural Canada ought to have fiber.

It will be interesting to see over the next few years how the rest of the Canadian government responds to this gesture. Without funding this could be nothing more than a lofty goal. But this could also be viewed as a government imperative – much like happened in the US with electricity. And that can drive funding and initiatives that will bring broadband to all of Canada – and is something we here in the US ought to be watching and emulating.

The New Telecom Infrastructure Plan

eyeballI’ve been reading everything I can find about the next administration’s plans for investing in infrastructure. It looks like the heart of any plan is going to be tax incentives to lure private money to invest. It’s likely that telecom infrastructure will fall under the broader infrastructure plan unless Congress gets involved and pushes for direct government investment in broadband. There are rural members of Congress from both parties asking for a rural broadband funding plan separate from other infrastructure spending, but it’s too early to know if that has any legs.

So, how might tax incentives benefit the construction of more broadband networks? One benefit of such a plan is that it might attract back a lot of the money that US corporations have been hoarding overseas to avoid US taxes. If the tax credits are good enough, corporations like Apple might pull some of that money back into the country – and such money would have to be invested in infrastructure. Tax credits also ought to make it more lucrative for pension funds, insurance companies, and wealthy investors to invest in infrastructure.

But there is one feature of private investment that is not going to change due to tax credits – private investors are still going to want decent returns on any investment. That means that the private money is a lot more likely to chase infrastructure projects with guaranteed decent returns like water systems, toll bridges or electric grids. And it means that new private money is not likely to pursue infrastructure that has no return or a low return such as freeway overpasses, public transit or city streets.

Investing in fiber infrastructure lies in between these two extremes along with other infrastructure like toll roads. These kinds of infrastructure have the potential to make a decent return, but are not guaranteed to do so. And worse, infrastructure like fiber networks and toll roads can lose money for an investor.

It is the perceived risk that has kept private money from investing in fiber today. Investment in fiber in the last few years has come from several sources. First is from telcos that can mortgage their existing equity to finance fiber. This ranges from numerous small independent telephone companies up through CenturyLink and AT&T. There is also some municipal bond money being used to build fiber – and bonds are viable since they are generally supported by tax revenues in case of poor performance of the fiber asset. But there has only been a little more than a hundred projects financed with bonds over the last decade, and most of them are in relatively small towns. There has been some private money invested in fiber, such as has been done by Google, but that has also been relatively small on a nationwide scale.

It is no sure thing that a tax credit will be sufficient to lure private money to invest in fiber. A tax credit cannot reduce the risk or offset the possibility that the investor could lose their investment if the project doesn’t perform. A tax credit does not change underlying fundamentals of an investment – it instead adds icing on the cake for projects that already look relatively safe.

We have some history with tax credits and telecom. For example, there was an investment tax credit program for investing in telecom networks in the 1960s. The purpose for that particular program was to promote construction to stimulate job growth. Since that was long before competitive telephony, the credits went entirely to the incumbent telephone companies. But the ugly truth is that these tax credits did not induce much new investment. Instead, telephone companies took the credits for network expansions they were already planning to build.

My best guess is that new tax credits are not going to do much better for fiber this time. Companies that are already investing in fiber networks like CenturyLink will likely gain great benefits from claiming tax credits for their already-planned expansions. It is possible that tax credits might even induce somebody like CenturyLink to accelerate construction to take advantage of the tax credits, but it’s unlikely to lure them to build somewhere they weren’t already planning to build.

But tax credits are not likely to lure other big ISPs like Verizon or AT&T to build new fiber. Those companies already have sizable annual capital budgets and they will probably work hard to classify as much of that infrastructure as possible to qualify for the tax credits. But they are unlikely to build fiber to any homes or businesses that weren’t going to get fiber anyway.

And tax credits are unlikely to change the ability of smaller fiber builders to raise money. By definition, competitive overbuilding is a risky business from the perspective of an investor. Private investors like safety, and that means avoiding companies that don’t have a strong balance sheet. This means that private money is rarely available to small ISPs. Finally, I don’t see tax credits changing the financial picture for very many rural fiber projects. The vast majority of fiber projects that aren’t easy to finance today are not going to be made significantly more viable with tax credits.

I may be proven wrong, but I’ve spent the last decade working to finance fiber projects. And I can’t see tax credits changing the underlying risks of investing in fiber to the point where it will attract huge amounts of new money. There will be some new money attracted to fiber investments – but only for projects that have a relatively safe return such as fiber to cell towers or undersea cables. It’s already difficult to attract bank and investor money to last-mile fiber and I just don’t see tax credits fundamentally changing that.

An Effective Federal Broadband Program, Part 2

CCG LogoI wrote a blog last week that talked about the things the feds ought to avoid if they design a huge program to build rural broadband. The industry has been buzzing with the possibility that large amounts of federal money might become available for this purpose. But it’s not good enough just to avoid pitfalls. If we really want an effective plan to construct and operate rural broadband there are some positive steps that need to be taken. This series of blogs looks at how to best design a federal broadband construction program to bring broadband to areas that currently don’t have it.

Build for the Future. It would be a huge mistake if a rural broadband expansion builds only to meet today’s definition of broadband. Cisco recently said that the average home today needs about 24 Mbps to meet their needs, which is nearly identical to the FCC’s current definition of broadband. Historically we have seen broadband speeds for customers double about every three years. But Cisco’s latest broadband report suggests this might have slowed down to about every four years. Cisco predicts by 2020 that households will need almost 50 Mbps. Look out a decade from now and the math says that households will need over 140 Mbps.

It would be totally irresponsible to spend billions of federal dollars to build infrastructure that will be inadequate by the time it’s installed. The current CAF II program is a travesty because it is spending billions on DSL and cellular data to achieve 10/1 Mbps speeds and won’t even be completed until 2021. CAF II is not building broadband infrastructure – it’s spending gold-plated federal money to build a lead solution for rural broadband. It’s not going to be very long before all of the rural people getting CAF II networks will be screaming again for something better.

This means a federal broadband program should not be used to fund cellular wireless, point-to-point fixed wireless or DSL. Those technologies all have a place in the marketplace today, but they can’t come close to meeting tomorrow’s needs, so let’s not toss away billions of tax dollars on the wrong technologies.

Use Federal Loan Guarantees. A federal broadband program does not have to rely only on matching grants. The federal government has several loan guarantee programs that can be expanded to bring banks into the funding process. Banks love loan guarantees because they greatly reduce the risk of projects by having the federal government act as the backstop for bad loans. If the review process is done well and funding is only given to companies with a good chance of success, then there should be few loan defaults and the loan guarantee program would cost the federal government very little.

Don’t Forget the Small Towns. It’s easy when looking to fund a rural broadband solution to concentrate only on areas that are categorized as either unserved or underserved. But business plans to serve only the neediest customers are hard to make work. Rural business plans work best if they can also incorporate the small towns and county seats.

The stimulus grants ignored these towns because they are considered to have adequate broadband. That is shortsighted because small towns do not have networks that are up to snuff with urban networks. For example, they may have cable modems, but these little towns are unlikely to get upgraded to the next generation of cable electronics for a long time, if ever. If we want to have successful business plans then the funding needs to also cover the small towns in the middle of the unserved areas to help the service providers achieve an economy of scale.

Don’t Try to Serve Every Home. Any broadband program ought to have the goal of reaching the most homes as possible with the funding available. This means that there should not be rules that require that every customer within a Census block get broadband. Rural Census blocks can be large and can cover diverse topology. A census block might have most customers along a river valley with a few high up nearby mountains, or on the other side of a lake or river. In my experience when designing rural networks the hardest-to-reach 10% of the customers can easily represent 40% of the cost to build. If we want to stretch federal dollars we need flexible rules that allow for realistic business plans. There comes a point where the guy who built on the top of a mountain shouldn’t get broadband, just like it’s hard for him to get electricity or city water or other utilities. What matters more is stretching federal dollars smartly to serve as many homes as possible.

An Effective Federal Broadband Program, Part 1

eyeballThere are a lot of rumors flying around the industry that there is going to be a big nationwide federal program to fund rural broadband infrastructure. So I’ve been thinking about what such a program might look like. We have the experience a few years back of a few billion dollars being handed out for broadband by the stimulus plan. It’s vital to learn from past mistakes, and so today I look at lessons learned from earlier federal grant programs.

This is the first in a series of blogs that will look a how a federal broadband program could be done to get the most bang for the federal buck. We might only get one chance at this as a country, so I hope we can do this right.

So, in starting with lessons learned from the past, here are a few things that a nationwide federal broadband build-out should avoid:

Don’t Impose Unnecessary Restrictions. There were three rules associated with the stimulus grants that added a lot of cost and delay to projects. A federal project could get a lot more bang for its buck by eliminating the following:

  • Environmental Impact Studies. Telecom networks are built almost entirely in existing rights-of-ways within a few feet of paves roads. So there is no reason to impose a time-eating study to prove that a fiber cable won’t bother endangered plants or animals unless the fiber is being built outside of the existing rights-of-ways.
  • Historical Preservation Rules. Having to check that fiber is not going to somehow disturb historic sites is also silly unless the fiber is being built across open fields. There should be no requirement to do archeological studies for work done in the narrow shoulders of existing highways that have been dug up in the past.
  • Prevailing Wages. I saw projects where requiring prevailing wages added 20% to the cost of the whole project. Prevailing wages sounds like a good idea, but in practice what happens is that large city wages structures are imposed on construction companies that have been building in rural areas for decades. Making these companies pay much higher wages to employees who have worked for them for years is great for employees, but is a terrible waste of the federal dollars.

Don’t Overwhelm the Industry. A federal broadband buildout could be a magnitude larger than the stimulus program and even that program overwhelmed the industry. There are only a finite (and small) number of consultants, engineers and construction companies available in the market and if the government tries to build a lot of infrastructure in a hurry, then a lot of projects are going to be designed and built by companies with no experience.

The stimulus program also showed that it’s not hard to overwhelm the companies that make broadband products. The stimulus program caused a shortage of fiber and prices spiked. There was also a shortage of some kinds of common fiber electronics that delayed projects. It’s hard to imagine what would happen if we tried to build a lot faster than the stimulus program.

Don’t Give Money to Start-ups. The stimulus program gave a lot of money to start-up businesses and a number of these networks have not done well. There was unfortunately a lot of fiber built to nowhere with stimulus funds that even today is barely carrying any traffic. Existing carriers already have the underlying talents and systems in place that are needed to be a successful telecom company. It does not good to get the fiber built to people’s homes unless the company doing so is poised to be a long-term successful ISP.

Hire Experienced People to Review Applications. There was no existing pool of experienced people to review the stimulus grant applications, and so the agencies involved scurried to try to find bodies. I’ve written about this before, but to see if the process was as bad as I feared I encouraged a guy who did my landscaping to apply to be a reviewer. He had done some computer coding years earlier but otherwise had zero experience with telecom. To both of our astonishment he was offered a position as a grant reviewer. If there are a lot of grant funds available there will be a ton of unworthy and faulty applications and it takes seasoned industry veterans to be able to distinguish the good ones from the bad ones.

Take Only Real Matching Funds. The stimulus grants required a significant amount of matching for the federal grant dollars. Unfortunately not all of the matching was with cash and they accepted ‘in-kind’ matching. In-kind matchings were supposed to be an asset that had significant and quantifiable benefits to the project. I reviewed a number of successful grant applications and saw that many of them had made outlandish claims of in-kind matchings that the feds accepted. As an example, I saw one grant that claimed a huge dollar benefit for already having existing rights-of-ways on state highways. The fact is that these same rights-of-ways are available to anybody who meets the qualifications. But the in-kind matching meant that the applicant didn’t need to have any actual matching cash to get the grant.

Get the Industry to Design the Grant Forms. I’ve been doing telephone accounting since the 70’s and the stimulus grants asked for expenses and capital expenditures in a format that baffled me at times. Most telecom companies keep similar books and it’s not hard to ask for financial information in a way that everybody understands.

Getting Access to Federally Funded Fiber

Fiber CableWhen billions of the stimulus dollars were spent for telecom, a lot of the money went to projects that built middle-mile fiber. This is fiber that basically runs between towns and from county to county through rural areas. The stimulus money required the builder of these fiber networks to connect the handful of nearby anchor institution – schools, libraries and city halls – but the grant recipients weren’t required to connect anybody else.

One of the requirement of those grants was that any middle-mile fiber built with assistance from federal dollars must be made available at low costs to anybody that wants to use that fiber to serve the last mile. And that is a great policy because the ultimate goal for federal broadband dollars ought to be to solve the rural digital divide where rural homes have no access to broadband.

But before you can serve homes in rural areas there has to be a backbone fiber – a connection from a rural area to affordably connect to the Internet. There are still huge swaths of the country where getting that connection is prohibitively expensive, if it is available at all.

The FCC’s hope was that building these middle-mile fibers would lure other service providers to build the last mile. There has not been nearly as much such construction as was hoped for, but there is some. As an example, a fiber project in Cook County, Minnesota is connected to Minneapolis through a federally-funded middle mile fiber. Before that fiber was built there didn’t seem to be an affordable way to connect that remote county to the Internet. Around the country there are numerous communities that have taken advantage of this opportunity for cheap transport.

And now the FCC has decided to spend even more billions of federal money on fiber with the CAF II funds. This money is being given to ten large telcos, most noticeably CenturyLink, Frontier and AT&T. These companies will be receiving $9 billion to help pay for expanding broadband to rural areas that don’t have it today.

In my opinion this program is mostly a huge boondoogle in that the telcos only have to build broadband connections that reach 10 Mbps download speeds. In today’s world that is not broadband, and it certainly isn’t going to feel like broadband by the end of the six year time frame the companies have to make these expansions.

The only way these telcos are going to be able to affordably meet the CAF II goals is by expanding DSL into the rural areas. And to expand DSL they are going to have to build rural fiber routes to support the new DSL. Even if half of this money goes toward DSL electronics, that leaves a lot of federal dollars being spent for rural fiber. Even without considering the telco matching funds, this much money has to be funding more than 200,000 miles of new fiber, almost entirely in rural areas.

It perplexes me why the FCC didn’t impose the same requirements on this new federally-funded fiber as they did the middle-mile fiber built by stimulus funds. Why isn’t this new CAF II fiber being made available at a reasonable price to anybody that can then use it to bring real broadband to the rural areas? This might be the only way to salvage something with long-term value out of this huge waste of federal dollars.

Certainly the large telcos can’t claim any special exemption from such a rule because the many smaller telcos that built middle mile fiber with stimulus funding accepted the last-mile rules as a condition for taking that funding. The large telcos are going to use this free money to do a virtually worthless upgrade to DSL, and people in these rural areas deserve a chance to use these federally-funded facilities to get rural fiber.

This would require nothing more than a policy decision by the FCC. All federally-funded fiber ought to be made available to solve rural broadband. That was true for the stimulus funds. It ought to be made so for fiber built along Interstate highways. And it certainly should apply to the large telcos that are seeing a bump in their stock prices right now due to the ‘revenue’ they are receiving from the CAF II funds.

Big Government and Broadband

Capitol_domeOne of the platforms of Hillary Clinton’s campaign is to create a 5-year $275 billion infrastructure plan that would, among other things, foster faster broadband for rural America. The plan would also pay for crumbling roads and bridges and other infrastructure. I’ve seen estimates that as a country we have a several trillion dollar infrastructure deficit, and so this plan would be the proverbial drop in the bucket towards bringing our infrastructure back to where it needs to be. But it’s a start and is better than doing nothing.

This plan leads me to speculate on the role that big government might be able to play in solving our broadband needs. What might the US government do with billions of dollars aimed at improving broadband?

We’ve seen two previous big federal broadband programs and the results have not been very good. First was the billions that were part of the broadband stimulus package. This money was used mostly to create middle mile fiber – that is fiber that stretches between communities. Some of that fiber has been used to get better broadband to the last mile, but the vast majority of that investment has not benefitted a whole lot of people other than the cellular companies who use that fiber to get cheaper access to cell towers.

The stimulus money also put a lot of emphasis on getting fiber to ‘anchor institutions’ which it defined as schools, libraries, city halls, and other government institutions. So we ended up with rural fiber networks that serve only a handful of these anchor institutions, but not to the neighborhoods surrounding these locations. As I’ve written many times, bringing fiber only to anchor institutions is actually a disincentive to get fiber everywhere because it removes these large bandwidth customers from being potential customers of locally built fiber networks.

To give the federal government a little credit, the stimulus money popped onto the scene with no notice and there was no plan in place or even people in place to review the various grant proposals. There were some last mile networks financed from the stimulus money and I’m sure those communities are thrilled to have been the lucky few that benefitted from the many billions in spending.

More recently we have seen the FCC throw billions of dollars at the large telcos with the CAF II funding. They have given Frontier, AT&T, and CenturyLink billions of dollars to improve rural DSL broadband to 10 Mbps. And gave them six years to get it done. This is such a bad idea on so many levels that you’ll have to go and read my other rants on this. But this is mostly the equivalent of pouring money onto the ground and it going to bring no real broadband to anybody. This is a classic case of a government boondoggle that spends a lot of money and accomplishes almost nothing useful.

So what might the feds do if they were to give out more billions? One thing they will probably do is to overspend on broadband like was done with the stimulus money. Those grants included rules that inflated the cost of building fiber. The companies taking the money had to do expensive environmental and historical studies, something that makes no sense for fiber that is placed into pre-existing road rights-of-ways. And they required the contractors building the networks to use prevailing wages, which mostly meant paying large city wages for projects that could have normally been done in rural areas for a lot less. Altogether these extra requirements probably added 15% – 20% to the cost of the projects.

What is scary is that in order to shovel the money out the door quickly the federal government might either give the money to the incumbents as corporate welfare or else end up backing projects like more middle mile that largely build fiber to nowhere.

The most cost effective way to use federal money would be to give it to local groups in some sort of matching arrangement. This would stretch the federal money the farthest and would also enable communities to find the best local broadband solution. Some communities might tackle this directly using bond money for the match, while many others would seek out public/private partnerships with local carriers. And the small telcos and coops around the country could use this money to extend their fiber networks – many of them have already showed us how to bring fiber to remote places.

I have no idea if there will even be another big pile of federal money aimed at broadband – it’s a long way from a campaign platform to reality. But if this does happen I hope that this time they have a better plan that would use the money to build last mile fiber to rural communities – the only permanent solution to closing the rural broadband gap. I hope they take the time to listen to the industry and this time that they do it right – or at least better.

Getting Access to Existing Fiber

Fiber CableFrontier, the incumbent in West Virginia that bought the property from Verizon, is fighting publicly with Citynet, the biggest competitive telco in the state, about whether they should have to share dark fiber.

Dark fiber is just what it sounds like – fiber that has not been lit with electronics. Most fibers that have been built have extra pairs that are not used. Every fiber provider needs some extra pairs for future use in case some of the existing lit pairs go bad or get damaged too badly to repair. And some other pairs are often reserved for future construction and expansion needs. But any pairs above some reasonable safety margin for future maintenance and growth are fiber pairs that are likely never going to be used.

The FCC has wrangled with dark fiber in the past. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 included language that required the largest telcos to lease dark fiber to competitors. The FCC implemented this a few years later and for a while other carriers were able to lease dark fiber between telephone exchanges. But the Bell companies attacked these rules continuously and got them so watered down that it became nearly impossible to put together a network this way. But it is still possible to lease dark fiber using those rules if somebody is determined enough to fight through a horrid ordering process from a phone company that is determined not to lease the dark fiber.

The stimulus grant rules also required that any long-haul fibers built with free federal money must provide for inexpensive access to competitors willing to build the last mile. I don’t know the specific facts of the Citynet dispute, but I would guess that the stimulus fiber is part of what they are fighting over.

The stimulus grants in West Virginia are about the oddest and most corrupt of all of the stimulus grants that were awarded. The stimulus grant went originally to the State of West Virginia to build a fiber line that would connect most counties with a fiber backbone. There were similar fiber programs in other states. But in West Virginia, halfway through construction, the network was just ‘given’ to Verizon, who was the phone company at the time. The grant was controversial thereafter. For instance, the project was reduced from 915 miles to 675 miles, yet the grant was not reduced from the original $42 million. This means the final grant cost a whopping $57,800 per mile compared to similar stimulus grants that cost $30,000 per mile.

According to the federal rules that built the fiber, Citynet and any other competitor is supposed to get very cheap access to that fiber if they want to use it for last mile projects. If they don’t get reasonable access those grants allowed for the right to appeal to the FCC or the NTIA. However, the stimulus grants were not specific about whether this was to be dark fiber or bandwidth on lit fiber.

But this fight raises a more interesting question. Almost every long-haul fiber that has been built contains a lot of extra pairs of fiber. As I just noted in another recent blog, most rural counties already are home to half a dozen or more fiber networks that almost all contain empty and un-used fiber.

We have a rural bandwidth problem in the country due to the fact that it’s relatively expensive to build fiber in rural places. Perhaps if the FCC really wants to solve the rural bandwidth shortage they ought to take a look at all of the dark fiber that is already sitting idle in rural places.

It would be really nice if the FCC could force any incumbent – be that a cable company, telco, school system, state government, etc.– that has dark fibers in rural counties to be forced to lease it to others for a fair price. This is something that could be made to only apply to those places where there is a lot of households that don’t have access to FCC-defined broadband.

We don’t actually have a fiber shortage in a lot of places – what we have instead is a whole lot of fiber that has been built on public rights-of-way that is not being used and that is not being made available to those who could use it. It’s easy to point the finger at companies like Frontier, but a lot of the idle fiber sitting in rural places has been built by government entities like a school district or a Department of Transportation, that is not willing to share it with others. That sort of gross waste of a precious resource is shameful and there ought to be a solution that would make truly idle fiber available to those who would use it to bring broadband to households that need it.