The White House Broadband Plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White Houses Identifies 5G as Key Infrastructure

The White House recently released the National Security Strategy paper that lists 5G as one of the key infrastructure goals for the country. The specific language from the paper is:

Federal, state, and local governments will work together with private industry to improve our airports, seaports and waterways, roads and railways, transit systems, and telecommunications. The United States will use our strategic advantage as a leading natural gas producer to transform transportation and manufacturing. We will improve America’s digital infrastructure by deploying a secure 5G Internet capability nationwide. These improvements will increase national competitiveness, benefit the environment, and improve our quality of life.

This is a policy paper and there is no way to tell if anything contained in the report will turn into an actual proposed government program, such as infrastructure grants. But it’s worth noting that this is very different from the language used during the early days of the administration that talked about expanding broadband coverage and that hinted at a $40 billion grant program to expand rural broadband infrastructure. The industry took that to mean some sort of expansion of the FCC’s CAF programs aimed at building fiber and other broadband infrastructure.

It seems that during this last year that the administration has been persuaded by the wireless companies to embrace 5G as the future of broadband. It’s probably not a coincidence that all of the wireless carriers met with the administration in recent months and that all of them refer to 5G as a strategic priority for the country.

In the long run 5G might become the preferred broadband solution, but it’s far too early to tell. We need to see 5G actually working in a number of different environments to understand the strengths, weaknesses and deployment cost of the technology. We already understand that 5G is going to require a significant investment in fiber and very little of the country is fiber-rich enough to support 5G infrastructure.

The priority for the wireless carriers is to make it easier to deploy small cell sites. They are currently supporting numerous state legislative efforts that preempt rights of communities and that force low-cost cell site connections with little or no paperwork or approval process by pole owners. While it takes some reading between the lines, one has to suppose that the administration will be supporting FCC efforts to make this the rule nationwide. However, the FCC is somewhat limited in the ability to force pole attachment rules on states and it will take new legislation from Congress to change the parts of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that gave states the rights to set their own pole attachment rules.

Listing 5G as an infrastructure priority also makes me think that there will be federal funding available to help fund 5G networks if Congress can get their act together enough to pass an infrastructure plan. For now, only the giant companies are considering 5G deployments, but with federal grant money perhaps smaller entities could consider building the fiber needed to bring 5G to smaller and more rural communities.

But all of this ignores the fact that 5G might never be a cost-effective solution for rural America. The physics of the millimeter wave spectrum used for 5G is going to require getting fiber close to customers, and in rural America that means spending nearly the same amount to build a rural 5G network as it would cost to build a rural FTTP network. Unless the government just hands out the money to build such networks it’s hard to think that any of the big ISPs will ever be interested in serving rural markets.

I’m trying to envision what a 5G infrastructure plan would fund. The most likely scenario in my mind would be grants given to the large ISPs to expand 5G to suburbia where the cost per subscriber to expand 5G is probably reasonable. Such an effort would be interesting in that it would bring a second major ISP to compete against the near-monopoly of the cable companies. But this does not feel like the sort of investment that ought to be made with federal dollars.

It’s hard though to see the feds funding the fiber needed to build a rural 5G network. And it’s hard to see the big ISPs wanting to support the operational costs to support such a rural network – AT&T and Verizon are both bailing as fast as they can today from serving rural America.

The language in the policy paper means nothing unless the federal government creates some sort of funded infrastructure plan and calling 5G a priority is just rhetoric without the funding to back it up. But one thing is clear from the language in this policy paper – the administration has bought into the rhetoric from the wireless providers.

Broadband and Schools

Satellite Internet dish attached to a...

English: Satellite Internet dish attached to a building in rural America (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Earlier this month President Obama announced an initiative to get 1 Gbps or at least 100 Mbps broadband to 99% of schools within five years. The new plan is being referred to as ConnectEd and the citation takes you to a posting on the White House web site that outlines the program.

The program will have several components. The one that will be most familiar to the readers of this blog is that the program will provide improved connectivity through the E-Rate program that is part of the current Universal Service Fund. The E-Rate program for years has been providing subsidies to bring broadband to schools and libraries in the poorest communities. One has to imagine that the FCC is going to expand that program to include money to build fiber in rural communities. It’s not clear yet how it will work, but the administration has said that the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) will take a lead in moving the program forward.

The second component of the plan will provide more training for teachers to be proficient in the technology that broadband will bring to the schools. This will be done with funding through Title II and Title VI programs through the Department of Education.

I don’t think there is anybody who can fault the goal of this plan which is to make sure that kids have access to broadband at school. Certainly students at schools that do not have broadband access will fall behind everyone else.

But for rural areas this is not enough. Over the last few years there has been a number of ‘middle-mile’ fiber networks built as part of the BTOP program using money from the 2009 Stimulus program that built rural fiber. The middle-mile projects built fiber through rural areas and also connect to ‘anchor institutions’ in those areas, meaning schools, universities, libraries and government buildings.

But in far too many cases those are the only places that got broadband out of the billions of dollars that were spent to build fiber. This is not a blanket indictment of the BTOP program because in some cases that fiber has been an incentive for carriers to build last mile fiber or wireless networks to serve rural customers. But I am also aware of many examples of BTOP fiber networks that bring fiber through a rural town, connect a school and a City Hall and nobody else.

And in many of those communities the existing broadband is poor or non-existent. It is very typical to have some sort of broadband in the towns in rural counties – generally DSL supplied by the phone company or cable modems supplied by a cable company. But in most cases the broadband in these towns is far slower than what is routinely available in big cities. But one generally only has to go a mile or two outside of these rural towns and the broadband stops. There are hundreds of counties that have this situation.

And in a lot of these areas without landline broadband there is also inadequate wireless broadband. Fiber is needed to provide broadband to cell towers if we want to use them to provide 3G or 4G data. Most rural cell towers were built along highways to serve cars and are not built where people live. And so in many rural areas there is no effective broadband.

And so it leads me to ask if there is not some way to help the communities around the schools while we bring broadband to the schools. 100 Mbps or 1 Gbps to a school is a great thing and I applaud this effort. But are we really helping rural students if once they leave school they don’t have enough broadband to do homework?

The original BTOP program that built fiber through rural communities did not go far enough. We need some way in this country to now build the rest of the fiber network and connect everybody. I would be a lot more excited about this announcement if it said that we were going to bring fiber to 99% of rural homes in five years.

I work with a lot of rural communities trying to get funding to build fiber and it is tough. These projects suffer from having a large infrastructure cost per household due to the sparse population in rural areas. These projects have a hard time getting funded through traditional funding sources like municipal bonds. If the federal government really wants to help rural areas get fiber they should be looking at ways that would help get rural fiber projects funded.

I don’t think it’s necessary for the federal government to step in and hand out the money to build rural fiber. That would probably just give us more BTOP programs and networks. But there are concrete steps the federal government could take that would make it easier to get this done. Rural communities are willing to pay for fiber themselves, but that desire is meaningless if nobody will lend them the money. So the best way to help rural America get broadband is to make it easier for rural communities to do it themselves. That is going to mean something like loan guarantees or lower interest rates for these projects.

The federal government already operates a ‘bank’ to provide rural broadband at the Rural Utility Service (RUS) that is part of the Department of Agriculture. But that money is so hard to obtain by rural governments that it might as well not exist. It would be easy to make the RUS into a functional program – it just takes the will to make it work.

In the last year we have had two big announcements at the federal level about broadband. One was to promote gigabit cities and now we will have broadband to 99% of schools. I am still waiting for the announcement that matters – to bring broadband to people.