The FCC Muddles the RDOF Grants

Last week the FCC ‘clarified’ the RDOF rules in a way that left most of the industry feeling less sure about how the auction will work.  The FCC is now supposedly taking a technologically neutral position on the auction. That means that the FCC has reopened the door for low-earth orbit satellites. Strangely, Chairman Ajit Pai said that the rules would even allow DSL or fixed wireless providers to participate in the gigabit speed tier.

Technologically neutral may sound like a fair idea, but in this case it’s absurd. The idea that DSL or fixed wireless could deliver gigabit speeds is so far outside the realm of physics as to be laughable. It’s more likely that these changes are aimed at allowing the providers of satellite, DSL, and fixed wireless providers to enter the auction at speeds faster than they can deliver.

For example, by saying that DSL can enter the auction at a gigabit, it might go more unnoticed if telcos enter the auction at the 100./10 Mbps tier. There is zero chance for rural DSL to reach those speeds – the CAF II awards six years ago didn’t result in a lot of rural DSL that is delivering even 10/1 Mbps. It’s worth remember that the RDOF funding is going to some of the most remote Census blocks in the country where homes are likely many miles from a DSL hub and also not concentrated in pockets – two factors that account for why rural DSL often has speeds that are not a lot faster than dial-up.

Any decision to allow low orbit satellites into the auction has to be political. There are members of Congress now pushing for satellite broadband. In my State of North Carolina there is even a bill in the Senate (SB 1228) that would provide $2.5 million to satellite broadband as a preferred solution for rural broadband.

The politics behind low orbit satellite broadband is crazy because there is not yet any such technology that can deliver broadband to people. Elon Musk’s satellite company currently has 362 satellites in orbit. That may sound impressive, but a functional array of satellites is going to require thousands of satellites – the company’s filed plan with the FCC calls for 4,000 satellites as the first phase deployment.

I’ve seen a lot of speculation in the financial and space press that Starlink will have a lot of challenge in raising the money needed to finish the constellation of satellites. A lot of the companies that were going to invest are now reluctant due to COVID-19. The other current competitor to Starlink is OneWeb, which went bankrupt a few months ago and may never come out of receivership. Jeff Bezos has been rumored to be launching a satellite business but still has not launched a single satellite.

The danger of letting these various technologies into the RDOF process is that a lot of rural households might again get screwed by the FCC and not get broadband after a giant FCC grant. That’s what happened with CAF II where over $9 billion was handed to the big telcos and was effectively washed down the drain in terms of any lasting benefits to rural broadband.

It’s not hard to envision Elon Musk and Starlink winning a lot of money in the CAF II auction and then failing to complete the business plan. The company has an automatic advantage over any company they are bidding against since Starlink can bid lower than any other bidder and still be ahead of the game. It’s not an implausible scenario to foresee Starlink winning every contested Census block.

Allowing DSL and fixed wireless providers to overstate their technical capacity will be just as damaging. Does anybody think that if Frontier wins money in this auction that they will do much more than pocket it straight to the bottom line? Rural America is badly harmed if a carriers wins and the RDOF money and doesn’t deliver the technology that was promised – particularly if that grant winner unfairly beat out somebody that would have delivered a faster technology. One has to only look back at the awards made to Viasat in the CAF II reverse auction to see how absurd it is when inferior technologies are allowed in the auction.

Probably the worst thing about the RDOF rules is that somebody who doesn’t deliver doesn’t have to give back all of the grant money. Even should no customer ever be served or if no customer ever receives the promised speeds, the grant winner gets to keep a substantial percentage of the grant funding.

As usual, this FCC is hiding their real intentions under the technology neutral stance. This auction doesn’t need the FCC to be ‘technology neutral’, and technologies that don’t exist yet today like LEO satellites or technologies that can’t deliver the speed tiers should not be allowed into the auction. I’m already cringing at the vision of a lot of grant winners that have no business getting a government subsidy at a time when COVID-19 has magnified the need for better rural broadband.

Federal Subsidies for Satellite Broadband

In December, the FCC awarded $87 million from the CAF II Reverse auction held last summer for satellite broadband. The bulk of the satellite awards went to Viasat, which will supposedly use the money to bring broadband to 123,000 homes in seventeen states. The grant awards are meant to bring 25/3 Mbps broadband to areas that don’t have it today.

I have several problems with this award. First is that the satellite companies already cover these areas today and have been free to sell and market in these areas. The federal grant money doesn’t bring a new broadband alternative to anybody in rural America.

Second, the satellite companies aren’t required to connect any specific number of new customers as a result of the grant awards. They are largely free to just pocket the grants directly as profits. Even when they do connect a new customer, they don’t build any lasting broadband infrastructure, but only install an antenna at each new customer.

Third, rural residents don’t seem to want satellite broadband. In a large survey by the Census Bureau in 2017, 21% of people in the US described their neighborhood as rural (52% chose suburban and 27% said urban). In the quarter ending in June 2019, Viasat claimed 587,000 rural customers in the US, which represents only 2.2% of the 128 million households in the country.  If those customers are all in rural America, then the company has roughly a 10% market penetration.

CCG has been doing broadband surveys for twenty years and I don’t know that we’ve ever talked to a satellite customer who was happy with their broadband. In every survey, we seem to encounter more people who dropped satellite service than those that still have it. Customers complain that satellite costs too much – Viasat claimed in their most recent financial report that the average residential broadband bill is $84.26. Customers also hate the high latency, which can be 10 to 15 times higher than terrestrial broadband. The latency is due to the satellite which is parked almost 22,200 miles above earth – it takes a while for a round trip communication over that distance.

The primary complaints about satellite broadband are tiny monthly data caps. The company’s products that would satisfy the FCC grant speed requirements start with the Unlimited Silver 25 plan at $70 with speeds up to 25 Mbps with a monthly data cap of 60 gigabytes of data usage. The fastest plan is the Unlimited Platinum 100 plan for $150 with speeds up to 100 Mbps and a data cap if 150 gigabytes. Unlike cellular plans where a customer can buy more broadband, the Viasat plans throttle customers to speeds reported to be less than 1 Mbps once a customer reaches the data cap. To put those plans into perspective, OpenVault announced recently that the average US home uses 274 gigabytes of data per month. The average cord cutting home uses 520 gigabytes per month. The satellite broadband is impractical for anybody with school students in the home or for anybody that does even a modest amount of video streaming.

Viasat won the grant funding due to a loophole in the grant program. The program funding was available to anybody that offers broadband of at least 25 Mbps. The grant program intended to deliver a new broadband alternative to rural households – something that satellite broadband does not do. The funding was provided under a reverse auction, and the satellite companies likely placed bids for every eligible rural market – they would have been the default winner for any area that had no other bidder. Even where there was another bidder, a reverse auction goes to the lowest bidder and there is no amount that is too small for the satellite companies to accept. The satellite companies don’t have to make capital expenditures to satisfy the grants.

Giving money to satellite providers makes no sense as broadband policy. They don’t bring new broadband to anybody since the satellite plans are already available. The plans are expensive, have high latency and low monthly data caps.

The much larger RDOF grant program will award $16.4 billion in 2020 for rural broadband and the satellite companies must be ecstatic. If the FCC doesn’t find a way to keep the satellite companies out of this coming auction, the satellite companies could score a billion-dollar windfall. They can do so without offering any products that are not already available today.

To put these grants into perspective, the $87 million grant award is roughly the same size as the money that has been awarded over several years in the Minnesota Border-to-Border grant program. The Minnesota grants have helped funds dozens of projects, many of which built fiber in the state. There is no comparison between the benefits of the state grant program compared to the nearly total absence of benefit from handing federal money to the satellite companies.

Should Satellite Broadband be Subsidized?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winners of the CAF II Auction

The FCC CAF II reverse auction recently closed with an award of $1.488 billion to build broadband in rural America. This funding was awarded to 103 recipients that will collect the money over ten years. The funded projects must be 40% complete by the end of three years and 100% complete by the end of six years. The original money slated for the auction was almost $2 billion, but the reverse auction reduced the amount of awards and some census blocks got no bidders.

The FCC claims that 713,176 rural homes will be getting better broadband, but the real number of homes with a benefit from the auction is 513,000 since the auction funded Viasat to provide already-existing satellite broadband to 190,000 homes in the auction.

The FCC claims that 19% of the homes covered by the grants will be offered gigabit speeds, 53% will be offered speeds of at least 100 Mbps and 99.75% will be offered speeds of at least 25 Mbps. These statistics have me scratching my head. The 19% of the homes that will be offered gigabit speeds are obviously going to be getting fiber. I know a number of the winners who will be using the funds to help pay for fiber expansion. I can’t figure what technology accounts for the rest of the 53% of homes that supposedly will be able to get 100 Mbps speeds.

As I look through the filings I note that many of the fixed wireless providers claim that they can serve speeds over 100 Mbps. It’s true that fixed wireless can be used to deliver 100 Mbps speeds. To achieve that speed customers either need to be close to the tower or else a wireless carrier has to dedicate extra resources to that customer to achieve that speed – meaning less of that tower can be used to serve other customers. I’m not aware of any WISPs that offer ubiquitous 100 Mbps speeds, because to do so means serving a relatively small number of customers from a given tower. To be fair to the WISPs, their CAF II filings also say they will be offering slower speeds like 25 Mbps and 50 Mbps. The FCC exaggerated the results of the auction by claiming that any recipient capable of delivering 100 Mbps to a few customers will be delivering it to all customers – something that isn’t true. The fact is that not many of the households over the 19% getting fiber will ever buy 100 Mbps broadband. I know the FCC wants to get credit for improving rural broadband, but there is no reason to hype the results to be better than they are.

I also scratch my head wondering why Viasat was awarded $122 million in the auction. The company is the winner of funding for 190,595 households, or 26.7% of the households covered by the entire auction. Satellite broadband is every rural customer’s last choice for broadband. The latency is so poor on satellite broadband that it can’t be used for any real time applications like watching live video, making a Skype call, connecting to school networks to do homework or for connecting to a corporate WAN to work from home. Why does satellite broadband even qualify for the CAF II funding? Viasat had to fight to get into the auction and their entry was opposed by groups like the American Cable Association. The Viasat satellites are already available to all of the households in the awarded footprint, so this seems like a huge government giveaway that won’t bring any new broadband option to the 190,000 homes.

Overall the outcome of the auction was positive. Over 135,000 rural households will be getting fiber. Another 387,000 homes will be getting broadband of at least 25 Mbps, mostly using fixed wireless, with the remaining 190,000 homes getting the same satellite option they already have today.

It’s easy to compare this to the original CAF II program that gave billions to the big telcos and only required speeds of 10/1 Mbps. That original CAF II program was originally intended to be a reverse auction open to anybody, but at the last minute the FCC gave all of the money to the big telcos. One has to imagine there was a huge amount of lobbying done to achieve that giant giveaway.

Most of the areas covered by the first CAF II program had higher household density than this auction pool, and a reverse auction would have attracted a lot of ISPs willing to invest in faster technologies than the telcos. The results of this auction show that most of those millions of homes would have gotten broadband of at least 25 Mbps instead of the beefed-up DSL or cellular broadband they are getting through the big telcos.

The Flood of New Satellite Networks

I wrote a blog a few months ago about SpaceX, Elon Musk’s plan to launch a massive network starting with over 4,400 low-orbit satellites to blanket the world with better broadband. SpaceX has already launched the first few test satellites to test the technology. It seems like a huge logistical undertaking to get that many satellites into orbit and SpaceX is not the only company with plans for satellite broadband. Last year the FCC got applications for approval for almost 9,000 different new communications satellites. Some are geared to provide rural broadband like SpaceX, but others are pursuing IoT connectivity, private voice networks and the creation of space-based backhaul and relay networks.

The following companies are targeting the delivery of broadband:

Boeing. Boeing plans a network of 2,956 satellites that will concentrate on providing broadband to government and commercial customers worldwide. They intend to launch 1,396 satellites within the next six years. This would be the aerospace company’s first foray into being an ISP, but they have experience building communications satellites for over fifty years.

OneWeb. The company is headquartered in Arlington, Virginia and was founded by Greg Wyler. The company would be a direct competitor to SpaceX for rural and residential broadband and plans a network of over 700 satellites. They have arranged launches through Virgin Galactic, the company founded by Richard Branson. The company plans to launch its first satellite next year.

O3b. The company’s name stands for the ‘other 3 billion’ meaning those in the world with no access to broadband today. This company is also owned by Greg Wyler. They already operate a few satellites today that provide broadband to cruise ships and to third-world governments. Their plan is to launch 24 additional satellites in a circular equatorial orbit. Rather than launching a huge number of small satellites they plan an interconnected network of high-capacity satellites.

ViaSat. The company already provides rural broadband today and plans to add an additional 24 satellites at an altitude of about 4,000 miles. The company recently launched a new ViaSat-2 satellite this year to augment the existing broadband satellite service across the western hemisphere. The company is promising speeds of up to 100 Mbps. In addition to targeting rural broadband customers the satellite is targeting broadband delivery to cruise ships and airplanes.

Space Norway. The company wants to launch two satellites that specifically target broadband delivery to the Arctic region in Europe, Asia and Alaska.

The business plans of the following companies vary widely and shows the range of opportunities for space-based communications:

Kepler Communications. This Canadian company headquartered in Toronto is proposing a network of up to 140 tiny satellites the size of a football which will be used to provide private phone connectivity for shipping, transportation fleets and smart agriculture. Rather than providing broadband, the goal is to provide private cellphone networks to companies with widely dispersed fleets and locations.

Theia Holdings. The company is proposing a network of 112 satellites aimed at telemetry and data gathering for services such as weather monitoring, agricultural IoT, natural resource monitoring, general infrastructure monitoring and security systems. The network will consist almost entirely of machine to machine communication.

Telesat Canada. This Canadian company already operates satellites today that provide private voice communications networks for corporate and government customers. The company is launching two new satellites to supplement the 15 already in orbit and has plans for a network consisting of at least 117 satellites. The company’s largest targeted customer is the US Military.

LeoSat MA. The company is planning a worldwide satellite network that can speed a transmission around the globe about 1.5 times faster than terrestrial fiber networks. Their market will be large businesses and governments that need real-time communication around the globe for applications like stock exchanges, business communications, scientific applications and government communications.

Audacy Corp. The company want to provide the first satellite network aimed at providing communications between satellites and spacecraft. Today there is a bandwidth bottleneck between terrestrial earth stations and satellites and Audacy proposes to create a space-only broadband relay network to enable better communications between satellites, making them the first space-based backbone network.

Broadband Shorts – July 2017

Today I’m going to talk about a few topics that relate to broadband, but that are too short for a separate blog.

Popularity of Telehealth. The Health Industry Distributors Association conducted a follow-up survey of people who had met with a doctor via a broadband connection instead of a live office visit. The survey found that a majority of people were very satisfied with the telehealth visit and 54% said that they thought the experience was better than a live office visit.

Interestingly over half of the telehealth users were under 50 and they preferred telehealth because of the convenience. Many said that once they found their doctor would allow telehealth visits that they requested them whenever possible. Of course, many telehealth users live in rural areas where it can be a long drive to make a routine doctor office visit. The doctors involved in telehealth also like it for routine office visits. They do complain, however, that not enough insurance companies have caught up with the concept and that they often encounter reimbursement problems.

Explosion of Mobile Data Usage. Ericsson, the company that supplies a lot of electronics for the cellular industry, has warned cellular companies to prepare for an explosive growth in cellular data traffic over the next five years. They warn that within five years that the average cellphone user will grow from the average of today’s monthly usage of 5 gigabytes to a monthly usage of 26 gigabytes. They say the usage will be up to 6.9 gigabytes just by the end of this year – a 40% growth over last year.

They say that several factors will contribute to the strong growth. Obviously video usage drives a lot of the usage, but there is also huge annual growth from social media usage as those platforms incorporate more video. They also predict that by 2022, as we start to meld 5G cellular into the network, that users will feel more comfortable using data on their cellphones.

New Satellite Broadband. ViaSat just launched a new satellite that will allow for data speeds up to 200 Mbps. The satellite was recently launched and that has a throughput of 300 gigabits per second. The satellite is expected to be placed into service in early 2018 and will boost the company’s Excede broadband product.

The new satellite, dubbed ViaSat 2, will originally augment and eventually replace the company’s current ViaSat 1 satellite. The company currently serves 659,000 customers from the ViaSat 1 satellite plus a few it purchased from WildBlue in 2009. The new satellite will allow an expansion of the customer base.

The company expects that the majority of customers will continue to buy data products with speeds up to 25 Mbps, like those already offered by Excede. This tells me that the faster speeds, while available, are going to be expensive. This satellite will still be in a high earth orbit, which means the continued high latency that makes satellite service incompatible with any real-time applications. And there is no word if the larger capacity will allow the company to raise the stingy data caps that customers seem to universally hate.

Growth of Music Streaming. Nielsen released statistics that show that streaming audio is growing at an explosive rate and seems to have crossed the threshold to become the primary way that most people listen to music. Audio streams in 2017 are 62% higher than just a year ago. The industry has grown from an annual number of 113.5 billion steams to 184 billion in just one year.

Nielsen estimates that total listens to music from all media including albums and music downloads will be 235 billion this year, meaning that streaming video now accounts for 78% of all music listened to.

And this growth has made for some eye-popping numbers. For example, Drake’s release of More Life in March saw 385 million streams in the week after release. Those kinds of numbers swamp the number of people that would listen to a new artist under older media.