Libraries in the Digital Age

LibraryToday’s blog was inspired by reading Libraries: Broadband Leaders of the 21st Century by Craig Settles, a well-known broadband advocate. As someone who hasn’t been to a library for many years his paper surprised me with the number of different ways that libraries are engaged in broadband today.

Probably the best known role of libraries is as a source of broadband for those who don’t have access anywhere else. Libraries today offer broadband at computers as well as WiFi for patrons to use on their own devices. A recent FCC report noted that in most cities anywhere from 15% to 25% of citizens don’t have broadband at home, and for many of them the library is a place they can get access to the web.  This access lets kids do homework, provides job training for those looking to change careers and gives access to government web sites that are increasingly moving input to social systems on-line.

But many libraries go a lot farther. For instance, there are libraries today that are lending mobile hot spots to enable people to have internet access outside the library for a few hours at a time. Many libraries are at the center of efforts to improve digital literacy and they have programs to train people in computer skills and to help them accomplish needed tasks on the web. Many library systems also have training programs in advanced computer skills like coding.

Libraries everywhere want larger faster broadband connections. In many communities the libraries get the same speeds of broadband that are available at homes. And while having a 100 Mbps connection sounds fast, when that much bandwidth is divvied up among a hundred patrons it slows to a crawl. And sadly, there are still a lot of libraries across the country that are served by only T1s or slow DSL connections.

The White House announced a goal in 2013 in the ConnectED initiative to get at least 100 Mbps connection to schools and libraries within five years, with the ultimate goal being gigabit bandwidth. And there has been a lot of progress, but the most recent FCC Broadband Progress Report says that 41% of schools and libraries still don’t have 100 Mbps connections.

Libraries can get assistance to build broadband facilities using the Schools and Libraries portion of the Universal Service Fund, and which is generally referred to as the E-rate program. This fund can be used to subsidize the monthly broadband bills, but can also be used for physical parts of the network like fiber to connect library branches or WiFi systems within a library.

Some communities have been able to really leverage E-rate funding by tying their schools and libraries together into an integrated network and by using libraries to meet educational goals of the schools. It’s generally easier to get funding for schools compared to libraries, but by networking them together you can bring some of that funding in to help improve the libraries and to make them an integral part of the education complex. This leverage can be expanded to be even stronger by linking networks to hospitals and leveraging funding available to improve broadband for healthcare.

Settles makes a case for allowing libraries to participate in the upcoming Lifeline program that will provide $10 monthly subsidies for broadband for qualifying low-income homes. Since libraries are the source of broadband for many low-income people an argument can be made that spending that subsidy at a library can benefit more people than spending it at one home. It’s an interesting concept and would take action by the FCC or USAC, the entity that administers the Universal Service Fund.

Since most cities are still far away from a time when there will be affordable broadband available to everybody, the libraries are likely to continue to be an important part of the broadband solution for most communities. It’s important for library administrators to understand the options available to them to maximize the funding they can get to provide public broadband. Papers like the one written by Settles are an important step in that process.

An Idea for Funding Rural Fiber

eyeballI’ve been working for a long time with rural broadband and it has become clear to me that there is no way on our current path that we can build fiber everywhere in the US. The borrowing capacity of all of the small telcos and coops is not nearly large enough to fund fiber everywhere. It’s often difficult to have a business case for rural fiber that you can get funded at a bank. It certainly doesn’t look like the federal government has any plans to fund fiber, and even if they did they would probably spend too much by imposing unreasonable rules that would drive up construction costs.

But there are other ways that we could fund fiber everywhere. For example, consider the utility model. Utilities are generally able to get funded because they are guaranteed a rate of return of perhaps something like 10% on their investment. It has been the guaranteed returns that have allowed rural telephone to borrow the money needed to operate.

If fiber networks had a guaranteed return there would be many commercial lenders and other investors willing to provide the money to build rural fiber networks. There is a huge amount of money available from pension funds, insurance companies, and other large pots of money that would be attracted to a steady 10% return.

There is no reason the utility model can’t be applied to rural fiber. The primary characteristic of a regulated utility is that it is a monopoly, or nearly a monopoly. In rural America today there is no real broadband competition. Rural areas are served by a combination of dial-up, satellite, cell phone data, very poor DSL or fixed wireless systems. There are many millions of households with no other options other than dial-up or satellite.

There are two keys to making this idea work – how to pay for it and how to monitor and regulate the earnings of these new broadband fiber monopolies. We already have a historical model of how to pay for this. Rural telephone companies for years were regulated in this manner and there was a combination of funding mechanisms used to fund rural telephony. Most obvious was local revenues collected from customers. I know of rural fiber networks today with 70% to 80% broadband penetration rates, so these networks would get a significant number of customers and local revenue.

Telephone companies have also pooled some of their revenues nationally in process called cost separations. Phone companies throw all of their interstate revenues into a pot and divvy up the money according to need. There is no reason that some of the broadband revenues couldn’t be pooled.

Finally, the telcos had direct subsidies from the Universal Service Fund to make up any shortfall. The biggest complaint about the Universal Service Fund is that it isn’t paid to companies on the same basis as other revenues, and thus it enriches some companies unfairly and doesn’t give enough to others. But if USF revenues were put into the same pool as other revenues then it would be allocated each year where the financial need warrants it.

The process of pooling revenues has always been a bit complicated in practice, but simple in concept. Each company in a pool calculates their costs according to a specific formula – in the case of telcos, using rules proscribed by the FCC. Then, some external pooling body examines those calculations and administers the collection and distribution of pooled monies. This whole process of administering a pool adds only a tiny fractional additional cost onto the process – and is necessary to make sure everybody plays fair and that there is no fraud.

The basic concept of pooled revenues and some kind of broadband USF could provide the economic basis for obtaining the funding needed to build rural broadband. I would expect that rural telcos and cooperatives would jump onto this idea immediately and build more rural fiber. And there is no reason that the large telcos wouldn’t at least consider this. But since they are driven by Wall Street earnings they might pass on regulated returns.

We know this process can work because it has been in place for decades for rural telephony. The only alternative to this that I can think of is for the federal government to hand out grants to build rural broadband. But I just don’t see that happening in today’s political environment. So rather than wait for the federal government to finally decide to hand out huge grants we ought to take the model we know and get going with it.

This concept would need a boost from the federal government to get going. It would probably require an act of Congress, but this is something that is probably easier to get enacted than a huge grant program. And it is a lot more attractive politically since it provides a way for private investment to fund rural broadband rather than the government. We have too try something because the rural areas are falling quickly onto the wrong sie of the digital divide, and that is not good for any of us.

A Better Way to Fund USF

USF-logoThe Universal Service Fund (USF) is shifting its focus dramatically and this leads me to ask if there ought to be a more equitable way to fund this effort.

Historically, the USF was established to help pay for providing telephone service in high cost and remote parts of the country. Largely, it worked and telephone networks were expanded to places that certainly never would have gotten service without these funds. Then, over the years, Congress and the FCC expanded the role of the USF and it was also used to provide telecom services to schools and libraries and to bring telecom and data services to rural health care providers. And as each of these new functions was added the size of the fund grew to over $8 billion.

But now there are big shake-ups in all of the traditional functions of the USF. Subsidies for rural telephony are being phased-out and instead these subsidies are going to be used to promote rural broadband. A significant number of billions of dollars are going to be given to companies over the next seven years that are willing to build rural broadband to places that don’t have it today. The money provided for schools and libraries has been refocused on getting gigabit connections to schools and libraries.

And so the fund is becoming very much focused on bringing better broadband to places that need it. But surprisingly, this is still being funded almost entirely by a surcharge on interstate and international telecommunications services. And there are some real problems with using interstate long distance as the base for collecting the fee.

First, the revenues used for long distance have dropped annually since the turn of the century. Long distance has gotten so cheap that it’s not something that is even noticed much by consumers any more, except perhaps in some rural communities that still charge a lot for long distance. Long distance has become such a commodity that it is often built into the base rate for telephone service. About the cheapest charge I’ve seen for this is where Charter is selling telephone lines with unlimited long distance in some of their markets for $15 per month.

The same thing has happened to interstate transport for special access service. It was routine just a decade ago to charge $4,000 – $6,000 per month for a DS3, which is about 45 Mbps of dedicated bandwidth. But today you can buy a gigabit of bandwidth for a fraction of that cost – and buy it from somebody who is not selling it as special access and who does not add a fee for USF to that charge.

As the amount spent on interstate long distance has continued to drop, the USF assessments have climbed as a percentage of the interstate revenues. I have a few clients who now have a USF assessment of over 17% of their interstate billings. Years ago this started as a rather small fee, but it is a noticeable item on customers’ bills, particularly on buyers of special access.

So if the new data-centric USF is going to work, we need to somehow expand the assessment base. Interstate telco revenues are going to continue to drop. There are only a few places that the assessment base can be expanded, but they are major sources of new revenue. First, cell phones get some USF assessment today, but not as large of a share as landlines. There is also the possibility of expanding USF to include intrastate long distance, but that gets into a messy jurisdictional fight.

The biggest way to spread out the USF fee and make it more reasonable and more sustainable is to assess it on broadband services. This is now easier to do since broadband is covered under Title II. But Congress has real heartburn against ‘taxing the Internet’ which I can’t understand. The original push to not tax the Internet came during the late 1990s as the new broadband services were growing. At that time the political wisdom was that you don’t tax a burgeoning industry and give it a chance to get on its feet.

But there is probably not a more mature industry in the country now than broadband. As far as home utilities, it now comes in third in penetration rates behind electricity and water. Adding a 50 cent per month tax on broadband would not cause any great economic burdens and would spread out the funding to the USF fund. Besides, who better to tax to get broadband to rural places and schools than all of the people who already have broadband?

Unfortunately it will take an act of Congress to change the way that the USF is funded. That is likely only to happen as part of a larger new Telecom Act, something that is overdue. But I can’t see any realistic way that this is going to happen with our split government. Republicans are likely to use a new telecom act to try to defund network neutrality and to cut back on the FCC’s powers in general. And as long as there is a democratic president a new act is not going to get signed. So I guess USF funding reform goes on hold with many other telecom issues that we ought to be addressing.

Regulatory Alert – FCC Triples Regulatory Fines

FCC_New_LogoYou should be aware that the FCC recently adopted a new policy that automatically triples fines for violations of payment rules to the Universal Service Fund, the Telecommunications Relay Service Fund, for local number portability  (LNP), for the North American Numbering Plan and for other federal regulatory fee programs.

The largest telecom organizations like USTelecom, CTIA, NCTA and CompTel have filed a joint petition asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reconsider a new policy. In this filing these companies say that the FCC should have opened a proceeding to investigate the matter rather than arbitrarily trebling penalties.

So be aware that this is even more of incentive to be a good citizen and take care in filing paperwork and paying fees to these various federal programs.

 

Who Will Go after the CAF II Funds?

USF-logoLast week the FCC announced the broadband guidelines that will be used to fund the Connect America Fund (CAF) Phase II filings that will be awarded in 2015. The FCC has set aside a little over $9 billion dollars of new CAF funding to be paid out of the next five to seven years. That’s five years for smaller recipients and up to seven years for some of the large telcos.

The new broadband goal is that any landline broadband connection built with these funds must be able to deliver at least 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. This increases the speed from the old threshold from 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. This is a really low threshold compared to the recent experimental grant program where the FCC only funded projects that delivered at least 25 Mbps download in unserved areas and 100 Mbps in underserved areas.

But setting the speed goal at only 10 Mbps download will enable rural telcos and cable companies to go after the funding if they are willing to use the funds to help to pay for extending their networks.

The telcos can use DSL to satisfy the CAF requirements, but in order to bring that DSL to rural areas they are going to have to expand fiber in their networks significantly. Current single-pair DSL technologies can deliver 10 Mbps to only about 7,000 feet of copper. That is not as the crow flies, but rather as the copper is wired. That provides  little more than a one mile circle around any given DSL distribution point (called a DSLAM).

Rural cable companies that already offer speeds of at least 10 Mbps only need to string more coaxial cable, or if they are going to new neighborhood may need additional fiber as well. However, some rural cable companies still use the first generation of DOCSIS equipment and they might need a significant upgrade of their network plus a replacement of cable modems in order to meet the new speed requirement.

Not unexpectedly, the large telcos are not happy with the increase from 4 Mbps to 10 Mbps. Many of them still deploy older  generation DSL equipment with maximum speeds between 1 Mbps to 6 Mbps. But to meet the CAF requirements they can use newer DSL for the new customers and don’t have to necessarily upgrade the older ones. It would be a bit ironic if the farms around rural towns end up with faster DSL than is available in the nearby towns.

We already know that AT&T and Verizon are trying hard to ditch their rural copper. Verizon already sold off most of their rural properties and wants to walk away from what they have left. AT&T has said that they want to walk away from “millions of lines of copper” by 2018 if the FCC will let them. Both companies want to replace landlines with wireless service, which costs more for a household and has severe data caps. So it is unlikely that these two companies are going to be seeking much CAF funding.

But there are a number of other large telcos who can’t walk away from copper because that is basically all they own. Companies like CenturyLink, Windstream and Frontier will be operating copper networks for many years to come. CenturyLink and Windstream are both expected to be major players in this second round of CAF funding.

Both Windstream and CenturyLink have complained about the new 10/1 Mbps requirement. I think this is because it is going to force them to do real upgrades to get the funding. In order to deliver that much bandwidth to rural areas they will have to move DSLAMs much further out into the field, and that is going to mean building fiber to connect to the DSLAM cabinets. And of course, typically the further away you get from a town, the fewer customers are on any given route to help pay for these new investments, especially the parts that the CAF isn’t going to fund.

One of the most interesting aspects of the new CAF fund is that that the subsidy can go to anybody who can bring the bandwidth. And so these large carriers must compete for the funds against players like electric cooperatives and wireless ISPs (WISPS). The funds are being awarded by a process called a reverse auction, because the company that asks for the least amount of support per customer in a given area will get the CAF funding. The only major requirement is that a CAF winner has to be able to deliver the required data speeds plus voice over the whole area to get the funding. They can’t just pick off pockets of customers like they might with a normal overbuild business plan.

The FCC is hoping that the CAF funding is going to bring broadband to at least several million more homes. But because of the reverse auction it’s really hard to predict how effective the funding will be. Further, if the bigger companies figure out that it’s not worth taking the funding, then much of the funding might go unclaimed. The old High Cost Fund was based upon providing service to rural places that had high costs by definition. If you built a network in one of the designated high cost places you got the subsidy to help keep it operating. But the reverse auction adds a lot of uncertainty to the process. It’s certainly possible that the large telcos might decide that the whole process is too risky to worry with and could send the FCC back to the drawing board.

Lifeline Accountability

USAC LogoUSAC, the group that administers the Universal Service Funds, has started testing a program that is designed to stop people from requesting multiple subsidies from the Lifeline program.

The lifeline program provides a discount of $9.95 from telephone bills for low-income consumers. A consumer is eligible for Lifeline if they a earn less than 135% of the federal poverty level or if somebody in the household participates in any of a number of assistance programs such as Medicaid, Food Stamps, Section 8 housing, low income home-energy assistance, Head Start and various tribal and state programs.

The way this works is that the telephone company providing the service gives the discount to the consumer and then collects the funds from USAC out of the Universal Service Fund.

A consumer can elect to get the discount from either a home telephone or a cellular phone account, but cannot collect from both. Apparently there is a lot of concern in Washington that people are collecting the discounts for both a landline and a cell phone, because the FCC has instructed USAC to put together a program to make certain that people don’t collect multiple benefits.

And so USAC is currently implementing the National Lifeline Accountability Database (NLAD). Carriers who participate in the lifeline program are required to input data about each lifeline customer including the last four digits of their social security number or their tribal ID and their date of birth. The carrier also has to provide the full address for each customer and this address will then be verified by USAC using the USPS database of valid addresses. Expect big problems in this area because rural addresses are often very erratic in the USPS databases.

As you might imagine, many carriers don’t ask for things like the date of birth when somebody gets telephone service, so they are now scrambling to get the needed information from their customers.

States are being added to the NLAD in groups. The first group of states now entering data includes Arkansas, Maryland, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Washington. Already some states have opted out of the NLAD database including Puerto Rico, Oregon, Texas, California and Vermont. Those states are going to have to come up with some version of this database of their own or else carriers in those states will lose Lifeline funding.

There is no fee to use the database, but use of it is mandatory if a carrier wants to collect from the Lifeline fund. The real cost is in the effort of each carrier to implement and keep this database current – another unfunded mandate.

I suppose that this process will turn up some cheaters and they will be asked to pare back to just one Lifeline subsidy. But one has to wonder how many customers might have been given the discount by multiple carriers without even knowing that this is not allowed? And one might suspect that there are somewhat shady carriers who are collecting the payments from the Lifeline fund without giving the discount to a customer, or possibly even having a customer. I would not be surprised to find some carriers collecting Lifeline for customers who died years ago.

I hope the FCC publishes the result of what they find through this database. As much as I hate waste and fraud, one has to wonder of the cost of implementing this kind of red-tape process is worth it compared to any savings that will be achieved through eliminating duplicate payments. These kind of processes end up becoming permanent new requirements for carriers and make it just that much harder to do business.

Another Idea for Rural Broadband

An rural area west of Route 41 and Lowell, Ind...

An rural area west of Route 41 and Lowell, Indiana. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Fiber-to-the-Home Council (FTTHC) asked the FCC to give consideration for a new way to fund rural broadband. Their proposal asks the FCC to make available unused portions of the Universal Service Fund to supply grants to build gigabit fiber networks. They would have this done under a competitive process, meaning that the networks that could do this the most efficiently would be at the top of the grant list.

It’s an intriguing idea. I have often talked in this blog about the state of broadband in rural America. Consider some of the following rural broadband issues:

  • About a year and a half ago the FCC estimated that there was still about 14 million rural households with no access to any kind of terrestrial broadband. There have been some projects in the last year that now serve some of these customers, but the number is still probably not much smaller.
  • In the FCC’s last three Broadband Progress Reports the agency said that incumbent carriers were not upgrading to the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband fast enough. Those speeds are currently 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. And the FCC has promised that every few years they will revisit that definition of broadband, and supposedly will increase it over time.
  • There is often a big difference between advertised speeds and actual speeds. Getting 4 Mbps download is barely enough bandwidth for a household to participate in today’s web, and if the actual speeds delivered are less than this then it’s hard to call the service broadband by today’s reality.
  • The availability of rural broadband depends upon where a customer lives. If they live in a large enough rural town then they might have broadband available from either the telco or the cable company, and even sometimes from both. But cable networks rarely extend much past the borders of these small towns and DSL rarely carriers more than a mile or two from the center of town. So there are many rural counties that have some broadband in the towns but practically none outside the towns.
  • Most urban areas now have cable modem service that is advertised at between 10 Mbps and 20 Mbps. And urban broadband keeps improving. Rural areas are permanently falling behind and the gap is going to widen over time. This has huge implications for the long-term economic viability of rural America.

Of course, there are some organizations that have opposed this idea, mostly those organizations funded by incumbent telcos and cable companies. This always has me scratching my head. For the most part the large telcos and cable companies have ignored rural America for one or even two decades. They have not poured new capital into these areas to bring them up to the needed speeds and they spend as little as possible to keep these areas operating. I contrast this to the small independent telcos who generally do an excellent job in rural America, but there are still large swaths of rural area that have been largely ignored. And even while ignoring these areas the large telcos want to protect their revenue streams.

I guess that is good business, but it is poor policy. In my mind broadband is basic infrastructure and homes and businesses need adequate broadband in order to take part in modern society. And this is just about to become much more important as we move into the Internet of things. It’s one thing to not provide enough broadband to a rural home so that they can watch streaming videos. But when we are having our healthcare monitored by the Internet then broadband becomes an essential component of every home’s life.

The rural broadband crisis is already here and the broadband gap is already unacceptable. The FTTHC’s proposal is creative and doesn’t ask for any additional government funds. They are asking that the FCC make an investment today in rural areas as a down-payment to help those areas stay viable as places for people to live in the future. I would assume that any awards of funds are also going to expect the rural communities to chip in a lot of matching funds, and so all that is being asked is to help these communities help themselves. I think it is an idea worthy of FCC consideration.

Doing Away With Regulations

Seal of the United States Federal Communicatio...

Seal of the United States Federal Communications Commission. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a process that most carriers probably don’t know about, any carrier can petition the FCC to get rid of or modify any regulation that it no longer thinks is necessary. This is an ongoing process and so the FCC issues a biennial report and every two years produces a summary of the requests that have been made as well as the FCC response to those requests. The latest biennial report DA-13-1708A1 was issued yesterday.

For the most part this is pretty dry regulatory stuff, but some of the changes that carriers request are significant and affects a lot of carriers. While many of the requests are to eliminate reports to the FCC, many requests are more substantial. In reading through this year’s report one will notice that Verizon appears more than any other carrier and one must imagine that they have somebody on staff dedicated to removing regulation.

Here are some of the issues investigated by the FCC in this latest report:

  • CenturyLink and Verizon advocate eliminating continuing property records (CPRs) contained in Part 32. These are detailed asset logs showing the cost, age and type of each asset in a company and must be updated each year for both additions and retirements. For even small LECs the cost of producing CPRs can be expensive.  The FCC has now eliminated the requirement for CPRs for price cap carriers but still require them for rate-of-return carriers.
  • Verizon asked that the Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) rules in Part 54 b modified so that an ETC is no longer required to serve customers in areas where the carrier gets no USF support, and also in areas where it is unprofitable to serve with landline but where customers have a competitive alternative. Verizon asks to get rid of its lifeline responsibilities in such areas, and effectively be able to walk away from serving customers. The FCC did not agree to removing these rules but instead wrapped the request into the Connect America Fund and the Lifeline and Link-up Reform and Modernization proceedings.
  • USTelecom asked the FCC to remove the requirement to notify the FCC when a carrier wants to replace legacy technology with an IP broadband technology covered by Part 63. For example, this would allow a carrier to stop offering copper services if they offer something else, such as what Verizon wants to do on Fire Island sue to hurricane damage. The FCC declined to accept this request.
  • USTelecom asked that ILECs not be required to have separate subsidiaries for offering in-region long distance as required by Part 64. The FCC concluded that this requirement no longer applied to ILECs subject to price caps. But the rules remain in effect for rate-of-return carriers.
  • Verizon asked the FCC to complete access reform by eliminating originating access charges as required by Part 69. The FCC noted that this was more properly addressed in the ongoing USF/ICC Transformation FNPRM.
  • NTCH asked that the FCC eliminate requirements to notify the FCC of temporary cell phone towers as required by Part 17. Temporary towers are often used during the process of relocating existing towers or when repairing towers after a disaster. The FCC responded by forebearing the existing rules for towers that would be in place for less than 60 days and that which met other conditions.
  • Verizon asked the FCC to eliminate the requirement that it notify the FCC within 120 minutes for major network outages per Part 4. Verizon noted that they have as many as 1,000 such outages every year. The FCC did not agree to the request.
  • The Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) asked that some of the rules concerning standards for hearing aids and volume controls for hard-of-hearing sets in Part 68 be eliminated due to new TIA standards. The FCC responded by issuing a Public Notice and asking if there should be a rulemaking for the issue.

As you can see by just this sample of the issues that were covered in this docket that the FCC is always being challenged by carriers to eliminate regulations. Any carrier can make such a request and there were dozens of such requests considered in this latest two-year cycle. Sort of like sausage-making, regulation is not always a pretty picture, but the FCC does eliminate regulatory requirements every year that it deems are no longer in the public benefit.

Faster Internet for Schools and Libraries

On July 23 the FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in WC Docket No 13-184 that asks questions about modernizing the E-rate program for schools and libraries. The E-rate program has been around for a few decades and has been used to bring broadband to schools and libraries.

But last month President Obama announced a ConnectED initiative that has the stated goal of bringing a minimum of 100 Mbps and a goal of 1 Gbps to 99% of students within five years. This NPRM is in response to that initiative.

A 2010 FCC survey showed that only 10% of schools had speeds of 100 Mbps or greater. 48% of schools had speeds less 10 Mbps. 39% of schools reported cost as the barrier to better speeds while 27% cited the cost of installation as a barrier. And the situation is worse in our libraries. In a 2011 survey by the American Library Association only 9% of libraries have speeds of 100 Mbps or faster while 25% still have speeds of 1.5 Mbps or less.

There is clearly a need for revised E-rate funding. In the most recent year there were requests for funding from schools of over $4.9 B from a fund that is at an annual cap of $2.25 B. The E-rate program is funded today as part of the Universal Service Fund that gets fund by a surcharge put on a wide variety of telecommunications end-user bills.

The FCC has laid forth new goals for the E-rate program and also suggested a number of specific changes. The new goals include 1) That schools and libraries have affordable access to broadband in order to meet the goals of ConnectED; 2) that the effectiveness of the E-rate funding is maximized, and 3) that the administration of the program is streamlined.

The FCC seeks comments on the specific speed requirements needed for schools and libraries. They offer the target established by the State Education Technology Directors Association (SETDA) which suggests that K-12 schools should have at least 100 Mbps per 1,000 students by 2015 and 1 Gbps for every 1,000 students by 2018. For libraries they offer the State Library of Kansas recommendation that all libraries should have 1 Gbps connectivity by 2020.

One of the issues that the NPRM looks at is how to get the bandwidth around the school once it’s delivered to the side of a school. This is a significant issue because today’s wiring technologies and wireless technologies have a steep drop-off in data speeds over even short distances. So the NPRM looks for comments on how to best get the bandwidth to classrooms.  The State E-Rate Coordinators Association (SECA) has suggested that this issue is of high enough importance that it ought to be at the top of the priority list for E-rate funding.

The NPRM asks questions about increasing the efficiencies of buying broadband. This includes consortium purchasing and other bulk buying opportunities. The larger school districts are able to negotiate better rates today than small school districts due to the fact that they serve a significant number of schools. There must be ways for neighboring districts to band together for efficiency (although local politics is often a barrier to this process).

The NPRM also asks what the funding should be used for. It suggests that funding be transitioned to support only broadband. The funding is currently used for a number of other purposes which were allowable under the old rules.  For example, in the most recent funding year there were requests for $260 M to subsidize telephone lines.

Finally, the NPRM looks at who is eligible for the E-rate program. Today the program pays for some portion of eligible costs based upon the percentage of student enrollment that is eligible for a free or reduced price lunch in a given school. The school gets a discount based upon that factor and must then match between 10% and 80% of the cost. The NPRM looks at alternate eligibility requirements including (1) revising the discount matrix to increase certain applicants’ matching requirements; (2) providing support on a district-wide basis; (3) revising the approach to supporting rural schools and libraries; (4) incorporating a per-student or per-building cap on funding into the discount matrix; (5) providing more equitable access to priority two funding; and (6) allocating funds to all eligible schools and libraries up front.

Comments in the NPRM are due to the FCC by September 16, 2013. CCG Consulting will probably be making some comments in the Docket, so if you have anything you want to say let me know and it can be included in our filing.

Is Wireless Really Better than Wires?

An rural area west of Route 41 and Lowell, Ind...

An rural area west of Route 41 and Lowell, Indiana. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is clear that the FCC prefers wireless as the broadband solution for rural areas. It seems like they badly want every rural household in the country to get some kind of broadband just so they can take this issue off their plate. Just about every bit of policy decided in the last few years has a bias towards wireless bias.

For instance, the historic Universal Service Fund which was used to promote rural telephony over copper has been transitioned into a new CAF fund that will instead promote high-speed data in rural areas. There are several aspects of the CAF that clearly will ensure that the funds will go mostly to wireless carriers. The bulk of the funding will eventually be distributed by a reverse auction. This is an auction where the broadband providers in a given area will be able to compete for the funding, and the one who bids for the lowest amount of subsidy per customer will receive the funds.

The first time I read the reverse auction rules my first thought was that this money is all going to wireless companies. The reverse auction rules strongly favor companies who can provide data over large areas. Any smaller company who wants to get CAF funds to help pay for a rural wired network can be undercut by the largest wireless companies. AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless are the two richest and most successful companies in the country. They pay many billions of dollars of dividends annually and they can afford to underbid any rural landline company for subsidy, simply because they do not need it. But of course, they will bid in the reverse auctions and take the subsidies because the rules allow them to.

There are also parts of the CAF that can be used to build new broadband infrastructure and these funds also favor wireless companies. The funds get distributed by complicated rules that have a bias to get broadband to customers at the lowest cost per subscriber. And of course, there is no cheaper way to cover a large rural footprint than with wireless. Wireless companies are also going to get a lot of this infrastructure funding.

Meanwhile, AT&T recently told the FCC that they were going to introduce a plan to drop the copper for ‘millions’ of rural subscribers. And if they are successful then their rural subscribers can expect to be told to get cell phones rather than landlines. And for voice telephony this might not be such a bad thing. But do we really want to relegate a large bunch of the US geography to only having cellular data?

Today there is clearly a broadband gap with some rural areas still stuck with dial-up Internet access. And so getting them some kind of faster data seems like a reasonable plan. The FCC has set the definition of broadband to be the capability of receiving 4 Mbps download. And it’s obvious that they set that limit with rural areas in mind.

And so over the next decade more and more of rural America will be getting cellular data that will meet, or come close to meeting the FCC’s definition of broadband. But meanwhile, the cities have already far surpassed those speeds. There are very few cities left where the average home can’t get speeds of between 10 Mbps and 20 Mbps. There are usually cheaper alternatives in the range of 5 Mbps to 7 Mbps, but the faster speeds are widely available. And many places have much faster speeds available.

The FCC itself has promoted the availability of gigabit bandwidth and companies are responding. Google is bringing this speed to Kansas City, Austin and Provo and AT&T has promised to match them in Austin. CenturyLink is bringing a gigabit to Omaha. And a number of smaller municipal and commercial providers have brought gigabit speeds to other towns and cities scattered across the country. And one can expect the gigabit movement to grow rapidly.

It’s universal knowledge that the household use of bandwidth has continued to grow and there is no end in sight for that growth. As networks can provide more data households find ways to use it. Video has been the recent reason for the explosion in data usage, and now we can see that the Internet of Things will probably be the next big bandwidth driver.

Have we really solved the rural bandwidth gap if people in those areas are going to have 4 Mbps data speeds while urban areas have a gigabit? Obviously the rural areas will continue to be left behind and they will fall further behind than today. Just a few years ago the rural areas had dial-up and the cities had maybe 5 Mbps. But a gap between a rural world at single digit megabit speeds with the cities at gigabit speeds is a much larger gap and the rural areas will not be able to share in the benefits that bandwidth will bring.

The only long-term solution is to build fiber to rural America. Obviously nobody is going to build fiber to single homes at the top of mountains or at the end of ten-mile dirt roads, but I have been working on business plans that show that fiber can make sense in the average rural county. But it is really hard to get rural fiber funding since such projects tend to jut pay for themselves and are not wildly profitable.

It’s possible that the FCC’s universal service plans will work and that a lot of the 19 million rural people without broadband will get some sort of rudimentary broadband. But meanwhile, the rest of the country will be getting faster and faster bandwidth. And so, before the FCC declares ‘mission accomplished’ I think we need to have more of a debate about the definition of broadband and what is acceptable. I hate to tell the FCC, but the rural broadband issue is not going to go away even after rural areas all have cellular data.