Where’s the CAF II Success?

If you’ve read this blog you know I’ve been a big critic of the FCC’s CAF II program that gave over $10 billion in federal subsidies to the biggest telcos to improve rural broadband. My complaint is that the program set the embarrassingly low goal of improving rural broadband to speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps. My complaint is that this money could have done a huge amount of good had it been put up to reverse auction as was done with the leftover customers from this program last year – many ISPs would have used this funding to help to build rural fiber. Instead, the telcos are using the money mostly to upgrade DSL.

While I think the program was ill-conceived and was a giveaway to the big telco lobbyists, I am at least glad that it is improving rural broadband. For a household with no broadband, a 10 Mbps product might provide basic access to broadband services for the first time. We are now into the fifth year of the six-year program, so we ought to be seeing the results of these upgrades. USTelecom just published a blog saying that deployments are ahead of schedule and that CAF II is a quiet success.

The telcos have told the FCC they are largely on track – by the end of 2018 they should have upgraded broadband for at least 60% of the required households. AT&T and Windstream report that they have made at least 60% of the needed upgrades everywhere. Frontier says they are on track in 27 of the 29 states needing upgrades. CenturyLink says they are on track in only 23 of 33 states that are getting CAF II upgrades. According to USTelecom, over 2.1 million households should now be seeing faster speeds.

It’s also worth noting that the CAF II program should improve broadband for many more households that are not covered directly by the program. For example, when upgrading DSL for a CAF II area that surrounds a town, those living in the town should also see better broadband. The secondary benefit of the CAF program is that rural towns should be seeing speeds increasing from 6 Mbps or slower to as fast as 25 Mbps. By now many more millions of households should be seeing faster broadband due to CAF II.

What I find puzzling is that I would expect to see an upward burst of broadband customers for the big telcos because of CAF II. But the numbers aren’t showing that. There were four telcos that accepted more than $1 billion from the program, as follows, and three of them lost broadband customers in 2018:

Funding Households Per Household 2018 Broadband Customers
CenturyLink $3.09 B 1,190,016 $2,593 (262,000)
AT&T $2.96 B 1,265,036 $2,342 (18,000)
Frontier $1.7 B 659,587 $2,578 (203,000)
Windstream $1.07 B 413,345 $2,595 8,400
Total CAF II $10.05 B 4,075,840 $2,467

Windstream is the only telco of the four that gained customers last year. Windstream’s footprint is probably the most rural of the four telcos. We know that every telco is losing the battle for customers in towns where cable companies are increasing speeds on coaxial networks. Windstream seems to be offsetting those losses, and I can conjecture it’s because they have been selling more rural broadband.

AT&T is in a category all by itself. It’s impossible to know how AT&T is faring with CAF II. They are largely implementing CAF II using their cellular network (with the goal of tearing down rural copper). The company has also been deploying fiber past millions of homes and business in urban areas. They are clearly losing the residential broadband battle in urban markets to companies like Comcast and Charter. However, I can tell you anecdotally that AT&T hasn’t given up on urban copper. They have knocked on my door in Asheville, NC at least three times in the last year trying to sell DSL. I have to assume that they are also marketing broadband improvements in rural areas.

CenturyLink and Frontier are clearly bleeding broadband customers and each lost over 200,000 customers just in the last year. I have to wonder how hard these companies are marketing improved rural broadband. Both companies work in urban and suburban markets but also in numerous county seats situated in rural counties. Like every telco they are losing DSL customers in these markets to the cable company competitors.

Just like I have anecdotal evidence that AT&T is still pushing copper I hear stories that say the opposite for CenturyLink and Frontier. I worked in a few rural counties last year where the CAF II upgrades were reported as complete. And yet the communities seemed unaware of the improvements. Local politicians who bear the brunt of complaints from households that want better broadband weren’t aware of any upgrades – which tells me their rural constituents weren’t aware of upgrades.

I honestly don’t know what this all means. I really expected to find more positive evidence of the impact of CAF II. From what I know of rural America, households ought to leap at the opportunity to buy 10/1 Mbps DSL if they’ve had no broadband in the past. Are the upgrades being done but not being followed up with a marketing and public awareness campaign? Are actual upgraded speed not meeting the 10/1 Mbps goal? Are the upgrades really being made as reported to the FCC? We’re perhaps a year and a half away from the completion of CAF II, so I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

Windstream Turns Focus to Wireless

Windstream CEO Tony Thomas recently told investors that the company plans to stress wireless technology over copper going into the future. The company has been using point-to-point wireless to serve large businesses for several years. The company has more recently been using fixed point-to-multipoint wireless technology to satisfy some of it’s CAF II build-out requirements.

Thomas says that the fixed wireless technology blows away what could be provided over the old copper plant with DSL. In places with flat and open terrain like Iowa and Nebraska the company is seeing rural residential broadband speeds as fast as 100 Mbps with wireless – far faster than can be obtained with DSL.

Thomas also said that the company is also interested in fixed 5G deployments, similar to what Verizon is now starting to deploy – putting 5G transmitters on poles to serve nearby homes. He says the company is interested in the technology in places where they are ‘fiber rich’. While Windstream serves a lot of extremely rural locations, there also serve a significant number of towns and small cities in their incumbent service areas that might be good candidates for 5G.

The emphasis on wireless deployments puts Windstream on the same trajectory as AT&T. AT&T has made it clear numerous times to the FCC that they company would like to tear down rural copper wherever it can to serve customers with wireless. AT&T’s approach differs in that AT&T will be using its licensed cellular spectrum and 4G LTE in rural markets while Windstream would use unlicensed spectrum like various WISPs.

This leads me to wonder if Windstream will join the list of big telcos that will largely ignore its existing copper plant moving into the future. Verizon has done it’s best to sell rural copper to Frontier and seems to be largely ignoring its remaining copper plant – it’s the only big telcos that didn’t even bother to chase the CAF II money that could have been used to upgrade rural copper.

The new CenturyLink CEO made it clear that the company has no desire to make any additional investments that will earn ‘infrastructure returns’, meaning investing in last mile networks, both copper and fiber. You can’t say that Frontier doesn’t want to continue to support copper, but the company is clearly cash-stressed and is widely reported to be ignoring needed upgrades and repairs to rural copper networks.

The transition from copper to wireless is always scary for a rural area. It’s great that Windstream can now deliver speeds up to 100 Mbps to some customers. However, the reality of wireless networks are that there are always some customers who are out of reach of the transmitters. These customers may have physical impediments such as being in a valley or behind a hill and out of line-of-sight from towers. Or customers might just live to far away from a tower since all of the wireless technologies only work for some fixed distance from a tower, depending upon the specific spectrum being used.

It makes no sense for a rural telco to operate two networks, and one has to wonder what happens to the customers that can’t get the wireless service when the day comes when the copper network gets torn down. This has certainly been one of the concerns at the FCC when considering AT&T’s requests to tear down copper. The current FCC has relaxed the hurdles needed to tear down copper and so this situation is bound to arise. In the past the telcos had carrier of last-resort obligations for anybody living in the service area. Will they be required to somehow get wireless signal to those customers that fall between the cracks? I doubt that anybody will force them to do so. It’s not far-fetched to imagine customers living within a regulated telcos service area who can’t get telephone or broadband service from the telco.

Customers in these areas also have to be concerned with the future. We have wide experience that the current wireless technologies don’t last very long. We’ve seen electronics wear out and become functionally obsolete within seven years. Will Windstream and the other telcos chasing the wireless technology path dedicate enough capital to constantly replace electronics? We’ll have to wait for that answer – but experience says that they will cut corners to save money.

I also have to wonder what happens to the many parts of the Windstream service areas that are too hilly or too wooded for the wireless technology. As the company becomes wireless-oriented will they ignore the parts of the company stuck with copper? I just recently visited some rural counties that are heavily wooded, and which were told by local Windstream staff that the upgrades they’ve already seen on copper (which did not seem to make much difference) were the last upgrades they might ever see. If Windstream joins the other list of big telcos that will ignore rural copper, then these networks will die a natural death from neglect. The copper networks of all of the big telcos are already old and it won’t take much neglect to push these networks into the final death spiral.

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.

Telcos and Taxes

windstreamWindstream recently got approval from the IRS to restructure their company and spin off their copper and fiber networks as a REIT. This stands for Real Estate Investment Trust, a form of investment that has been around since 1960. REITs were created by Congress as a way to bundle together income producing real estate in such a way as to create a marketable security.

By IRS rules, REITs must invest 75% of the value of their company in real estate assets, cash and cash equivalents and government securities. What the IRS has done with this ruling is to declare that copper and fiber networks are real estate. This seems like an odd ruling since common sense would tell you that copper and fiber are not real estate in the traditional sense.

The whole purpose for Windstream to do this is to avoid taxes. They estimate that being treated as a REIT will save them about $100 million per year in income taxes. Wall Street immediately boosted Windstream’s stock and also boosted the stock of other telcos on the assumption that they will all follow suit. The stocks of telcos, CLECs and cable companies rose on the news.

The number of REITs has grown significantly in recent decades. In 1971 there were only 34 REITs and by June of this year they have grown to 210. The classification of Windstream as a REIT is not without precedent since American Tower and all of its cellphone tower assets were classified as a REIT a few years ago. The IRS had recently clarified that the definition of real estate for purposes of REITs to include land, permanent structures and structural components. One can only assume that the IRS believes that wire networks are structural components.

Large corporate tax avoidance has been in the news lately with a number of corporations undertaking ‘inversion’ to become classified as foreign corporations to avoid paying US income taxes. In the last few weeks the Walgreens drugstore chain had announced that they were going to undergo inversion but then changed their mind after they got a lot of public pressure. Congress has been looking to close the inversion loophole.

And now, all of a sudden it is the telcos that are going to be avoiding taxes. I must say that this dismays me personally. For several decades I have tried to do my best to buy local and to buy American whenever I can. In my mind, an American company that refuses to pay its fair share of income taxes might as well be a foreign company and I try to vote with my pocketbook and boycott such companies whenever I can.

I’ve always felt that American corporations ought to pay their full share of income taxes just like the rest of us. The corporations that are taking advantage of these tax loopholes all became successful due to being in the US. It’s our American laws and the American business environment that helped these companies get started and thrive. It feels un-American when a corporation suddenly turns their back on all of us to save from paying their fair share of taxes. Obviously corporations are in the business of maximizing their return to shareholders, but at the same time I think corporations have a moral obligation to be good citizens and do their fair share to support the country that supports them.

I understand that there are multinational corporations that do business all over the world. It’s not entirely clear where a company like Apple ought to pay taxes since they manufacture their phones overseas and sell many of them overseas. But there is no ambiguity with a company like Windstream. All of their poles and copper and fiber are sitting in the United States and deriving revenues that are all from the United States.

I understand that Windstream has not taken the inversion option and declared themselves to be a foreign corporation. But they might as well have done so since they instead are taking advantage of a very questionable loophole that has the same effect as being a foreign corporation. The percentage of federal tax revenues that the federal government receives from corporations has dropped precipitously over time from a high of nearly 40% during the 1940s and projected to be only 13.5% for 2015.

I say shame on Windstream. This might be good for their shareholders as witnessed by the boost in their stock price after the announcement. But in the long run this is bad for the country and bad for all of us. If Walgreens had decided to take the inversion and declare themselves to be a foreign corporation I was prepared to move my pharmacy business to CVS. I’ve always voted with my pocketbook and I wish more people would do so. But it’s going to be hard to vote with your pocketbook if all of the major telcos declare themselves as REITs. Unfortunately the vast majority of us don’t have any options for telecom services other than these giant companies.