As a cautionary tale to any city that provides broadband, incumbent internet service providers (ISPs) are always going to push back on city initiatives. In 2021, the city of Tucson (AZ) launched a free wireless network to bring broadband to students in homes without broadband. Tucson recognized the need for the network when it got requests for over 7,000 wireless access points from students during the pandemic. The city then decided that the best long-term solution to the large numbers of unserved students was to create a private network using CBRS spectrum.
Many rural residents and businesses are furious that they can’t get fiber broadband even though there is fiber close to their home or business. They can’t understand why the uncaring company that owns the fiber can’t make the tiny investment needed to connect them to fiber that’s already tantalizingly close to them. The fiber that runs close to the home and business is likely middle-mile fiber. These middle-mile routes are often seen as too valuable by telecom companies to serve last-mile customers.
Several large telecom companies have announced big plans to expand fiber coverage, and I assume that also means heavily participating in the infrastructure law's $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) grant program that is aimed primarily at bringing better broadband to rural areas. It’s likely that companies want to benefit from the huge upcoming federal grants. The easiest way for them to take advantage of the federal grant is to plan to overlash fiber onto existing telco copper where the companies are already the incumbent.
I assume that most people know the famous line from Field of Dreams where the disembodied voice promises, “Build it, and he will come.” For twenty years, I’ve been advising broadband clients against taking that advice. It doesn’t make any sense to invest a lot of money into building a broadband network without first having done enough market research to know that people will buy your services. Now, I want to talk about a similar-sounding idea – build it, and they will fill it. This is a shorthand way to describe the unbelievable growth in broadband demand.
There is no such thing as a 25/3 Mbps broadband connection, or a 100/20 Mbps broadband connection, or even a symmetrical gigabit broadband connection on fiber. For a long list of reasons, the broadband speeds that make it to customers vary widely by the day, the hour, and the minute. And yet, we’ve developed an entire regulatory system built around the concept that broadband connections can be neatly categorized by speed. What do regulators mean when they set a speed definition of 25/3 Mbps?
There is one quiet provision of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that slipped under the radar. Congress is requiring that the Federal Communications Commission revamp broadband labels that describe the broadband product to customers, similar to the labels for food. The Act gives the FCC one year to create regulations to require the display of a broadband label similar to the ones created by the FCC in 2016. Internet service providers (ISPs) are going to hate this. It requires full disclosure of prices, including any special or gimmick pricing that will expire.
There is currently a policy debate circulating asking who should pay to fund the Federal Communications Commission’s Universal Service Fund. For decades the USF has collected fees from telephone carriers providing landline and cellular phones – and these fees have been passed on to consumers. As landline telephone usage has continued to fall, the fees charged to customers have increased. To fix this, there have been calls to spread fees more widely.
Christopher Ali, a professor at the University of Virginia, says in his upcoming book Farm Fresh Broadband that technology neutrality is one of the biggest policy failures of our time. Technology neutrality is a code word for allowing all internet service providers (ISPs) and technologies to be eligible for grant funding. It has been argued, mostly by ISPs that use slower technologies, that the Federal Communications Commission should not be in the game of picking winners and losers.
Research indicates that people living in rural areas struggle to obtain broadband connections mainly because of the low density of housing. Fewer people living in a community, especially over large swaths of land, translates into higher costs to build and maintain the most common broadband technologies. This white paper on the rural broadband industry was researched and written by Doug Dawson, President of CCG Consulting, a telecommunications consulting firm that works with rural communities and providers.
Recently, Deb Socia posted a brilliant suggestion online: “[Internet service providers] need to identify the floor instead of the potential ceiling. Instead of ‘up to’ speeds, how about we say ‘at least’”. ISPs must report the slowest speed they are likely to deliver. I want to be fair to ISPs and I suggest they report both the minimum “at least” speed and the maximum “up to” speed. Those two numbers will tell the right story to the public because together they provide the range of speeds being delivered in a given Census.