Doug Dawson

Using AM Radio Towers

One existing resource that is often overlooked in designing wireless networks is AM radio towers. For the most part, companies deploying fixed wireless and microwave antenna have avoided these towers. The conventional wisdom has been to avoid the AM towers as being too hot in power and frequency to use for other purposes. But the AM towers don’t have to be a wasted asset. There are two methods that can be used to install other radios on AM towers that often get overlooked by cellular companies and wireless broadband providers.

Restricting FCC Mapping Data

The Federal Communications Commission rejected dozens of requests from broadband providers to keep confidential the method that the providers use to identify broadband coverage areas. This was prompted by the FCC requiring each provider to explain to the agency how it determined broadband coverage areas in the latest round of gathering data for the FCC broadband maps.

Regulating Hidden Fees

Big telecommunication companies (telcos) and almost every large cable company use what the industry calls "hidden fees." These fees are not mentioned when advertising for a service but are put onto customer bills. There is a class action lawsuit in California that shows why broadband providers are not worried about using hidden fees. In times past, when the big companies were regulated, they might have been ordered to make a 100% refund of a fee that regulators decided was questionable.

Economy-of-Scale for Broadband Providers

I’ve worked with a number of small communities that want to explore the idea of having a community-owned broadband provider. My advice to small communities is the same as with all clients – economy-of-scale really matters for providers. Economy-of-scale is the economic term for describing how businesses get more efficient as they get larger. A large percentage of the costs of operating a broadband provider is fixed or nearly fixed. Any fixed cost acts in the same manner as the general manager’s salary.

Defaulting on the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund

Starry has defaulted on all of its $269 million of Rural Digital Opportunity funding (RDOF). There have been other defaults of RDOF, but no others of this magnitude. Starry is not required to disclose why it’s defaulting. Though, in the many articles about the RDOF default, there was a lot of speculation that the company doesn’t have the needed funding to complete the required builds. Starry reported 77,400 customers at the end of the second quarter of 2022 – gaining 14,300 customers in the quarter. The company claimed that it now passes 5.7 million potential customers.

Rural America is Losing Patience

Local broadband advocates and politicians tell me that folks with little or no broadband are hounding them about when they are going to see a broadband solution. A large part of the frustration is that folks have heard that broadband is coming to rural America, but they aren’t seeing any local progress or improvement. A big part of the reason for this frustration is that folks aren’t being given realistic timeframes for when they might see a solution.

Please Don’t Force Low Rates

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) conducted an annual broadband survey in 2021. The survey asked folks who didn’t have home broadband what they would be willing to pay, with the question, “At what monthly price, if any, would your household buy home Internet service?” The purpose of the survey was to understand the kind of price points that might be needed to get broadband to more of these households. Three-quarters of respondents said they would only get broadband if it was free. I find this result to be troubling for several reasons:

The Demand for Middle-Mile Fiber

The deadline for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)'s middle-mile grant program just closed, and the NTIA said that it received 235 applications totaling $5.5 billion in grant requests for a $1 billion grant program. I was surprised when the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) legislation allocated only $1 billion to middle-mile fiber. That works out to only $20 million per state. It will be interesting to see how the NTIA spreads the funding.

Broadband Satellite Issues

One of the most interesting aspects of serving broadband from low-orbit satellites is that it brings issues related to space into the broadband discussion. There are two recent events that highlight our new focus on low-earth orbit satellites. The first is a piece of legislation introduced by Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), John Hickenlooper (D-CO), Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), and Roger Wicker (R-MS). The legislation is called the Orbital Sustainability (ORBITS) Act.

Starlink and the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund

In August 2022, the Federal Communications Commission denied the SpaceX (Starlink) bid to receive $885 million over ten years through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). The FCC went on to say in the order that there were several technical reasons for the Starlink rejection. Starlink appealed the FCC ruling. Current federal grant rules don’t allow federal subsidies to be given to any area that is slated to get another federal broadband subsidy. This has meant that the RDOF areas have been off-limits to other federal grants since the end of 2020.