Higher broadband standards are a threat to legacy telephone companies, like AT&T and Frontier Communications, and to cable companies, like Charter and Comcast. But for different reasons.
When the Federal Communications Commission set the speed standard for advanced telecommunications services at 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload in 2015, legacy telcos pushed back because their copper line systems couldn’t come anywhere near it, except in affluent, “high potential” areas where the short return on investment is high. You might think cable companies would have been happy, since they easily exceed that benchmark, but that wasn’t the case. Cable’s political action platoons immediately attacked it because they – rightly – feared being slapped with the monopoly label if consumers only had one choice for broadband service deemed sufficient by the FCC.
So far, cable and telco lobbyists haven’t been able to convince the FCC to dumb down the 25/3 standard, although the commission’s new leadership is seriously considering it. Instead, they’re denigrating the standard at every opportunity by calling it “aspirational”, rather than practical, despite the fact that it’s been adopted as the minimum level for subsidised rural service by the federal agriculture department.
They’re pushing the aspirational argument in Sacramento, as they flex their financial muscles and push friendly legislators toward lowering California’s broadband standards as well.
Assembly bill 1665 would drop the minimum acceptable level of broadband service in California to 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds, and funnel infrastructure construction subsidies directly to legacy telephone and, in some cases, cable companies. Independent projects, of the sort that have brought truly advanced fiber service to rural communities, would be locked out.
Those defending the bill, including non-profits hoping to tap what little money might otherwise become available, have taken up the aspirational meme, using it derisively when anyone points to the irrationality of dropping California’s already low broadband standard, instead of raising it to the level consumers need, and buy when they can.
The fate of AB 1665 will be determined in the next two or three weeks, once lawmakers return from their summer vacation. Californians’ legitimate expectations – for broadband service and legislative performance – should not and cannot be dismissed as mere aspirations.
Somebody knows when to crank it up.
The minimum acceptable broadband speed in rural areas is now 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. At least according to the federal agriculture department.
The Rural Utilities Service (RUS) offers loans to broadband providers – cooperatives and small telephone companies frequently tap the program – for service upgrades in areas that meet the agency’s requirements. One of those requirements deals with the speed and availability of existing service – if a provider is expanding into new territory, then at least 15% of the homes in that area must be “unserved”, as defined by RUS.
Originally, the RUS threshold for acceptable service was 4 Mbps down/1 Mbps up. If that level of service wasn’t available, then an area qualified as “unserved”. It’s periodically revised that definition, and for its latest broadband loan window, RUS has raised the bar…
For the purposes of this [notice of funding availability], the agency is revising the definition of ‘‘Broadband Service’’, such that for applications submitted under this window, existing Broadband Service, the rate used to determine if an area is eligible for funding, shall mean the minimum rate- of-data transmission of twenty-five megabits downstream and three megabits upstream for both mobile and fixed service.
The new RUS rules also require any infrastructure that’s funded by its loans be capable of delivering service at those speeds…
With respect to the ‘‘Broadband Lending Speed’’, the rate at which applicants must propose to offer new broadband service is a minimum bandwidth of twenty-five megabits downstream and three megabits upstream for both mobile and fixed service to the customer.
It’s the same minimum that the Federal Communications Commission has set for advanced telecommunications services – high speed broadband, in other words. But ironically, while RUS raises its minimum, the FCC lowered its threshold for mobile broadband subsidies in rural areas to 5 Mbps down and no particular requirement on the upload side, and is considering dropping its advanced services benchmark to 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up for mobile, and perhaps all, service.
RUS has it right.
Some people only have mobile broadband service, so that must be all they need. That’s the core argument that the Federal Communications Commission poses in its inquiry – and request for public comment – on what is the proper definition of advanced broadband services.
Right now the standard is 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds. Sporadic spurts and bursts aside, mobile broadband service doesn’t come anywhere near that level. So the FCC is considering lowering the benchmark and declaring mobile service that runs at 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds is as capable of supporting advanced services as wireline broadband that hits the 25/3 mark.
That’s nonsense on the face of it, and it completely falls apart when real people in the real world are considered. FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn says the premise is false…
We seek comment on whether to deem an area as “served” if mobile or fixed service is available. I am extremely skeptical of this line of inquiry. Consumers who are mobile only often find themselves in such a position, not by choice but because they cannot afford a fixed connection. Today, mobile and fixed broadband are complements, not substitutes. They are very different in terms of both the nuts and bolts of how the networks operate, and how they are marketed to customers, including both from the perspective of speed and data usage. I have heard from too many consumers who can only afford a mobile connection, and even then they have to drop service in the middle of the month because they cannot afford to pay for more data.
Even the 25/3 standard is too low, Clyburn says, noting that it “would not even allow for a single stream of 1080p video conferencing, much less 4K video conferencing”.
That’s what advanced services are supposed to be about. There’s nothing advanced about reading email or watching low-quality video or sharing a photo. Standards for the future shouldn’t be based on what was possible 20 years ago.
The Federal Communications Commission is on a mission to slow down broadband in rural areas. Or at least protect incumbents who don’t invest in their networks in rural markets where competitive options are few to non-existent.
The latest move approved by commissioners sets a low bar for mobile broadband service. Similar to its Connect America Fund program that subsidises fixed, mostly wireline service in communities with sub-standard Internet service, the FCC administers the Mobility Fund for mobile carriers. In order for qualify for subsidies under the plan reaffirmed by the FCC earlier this month, existing mobile broadband speeds have to be below 5 Mbps download, with no standard at all set for upload performance.
That’s in contrast to the wireline subsidy program, which sets 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up as the minimum. Rural carriers wanted the FCC to use the same standard for mobile service, and in the process make more areas eligible for subsidies. But the FCC didn’t buy it, arguing that they have to establish service levels that are “reasonably comparable” to what’s available in urban areas and, contrary to what they advertise, the big mobile carriers say they don’t do all that well…
Although [the rural wireless carriers group] claims that the median download speed provided by nationwide carriers is approximately 12 Mbps, Verizon counters that, depending on demand, consumers in an urban market may see service slower than 5 Mbps. Furthermore, despite the fact that providers have used different standards and methodologies to report coverage…the nationwide carriers are all generally reporting minimum advertised download speeds of 5 Mbps for their 4G LTE network coverage.
Other national mobile carriers, including notably T-Mobile, made similar arguments. It’s funny how they try to sell customers on blazing fast performance, and then turn around and trash talk it when it’s time to protect their poorly served rural turf from subsidised competition.
The Trump administration’s FCC is also considering lowering the standard for advanced service from the current 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up level to 10 down/1 up, at least for mobile broadband, another move that would please big incumbent telcos and cable companies and help protect their monopoly business models.
Making much of the rural U.S. a competition-free safe zone for incumbents is the wrong thing for the FCC to do, and sanctioning lower broadband speeds at a time when demand is skyrocketing is the wrong direction to take.
The Federal Communications Commission is floating the idea of treating fixed and mobile broadband service as equivalents when it assesses whether or not people in the U.S. have access to “advanced telecommunications services. It’s an annual enquiry, and in 2015 it produced the useful benchmark of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds as the minimum threshold for any given broadband service to be reckoned as advanced.
For now, the FCC is just asking for public comments on the concept, although given the weight afforded to lobbyists for AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Charter and other major telecoms companies, don’t be surprised if comments from some members of the public are deemed, um, more equal than others.
The question posed by the FCC is whether fixed and mobile broadband are two different paths to the same, advanced telecommunications goals…
13 percent of Americans across all demographic groups are relying solely on smartphones for home internet access. Given that Americans use both fixed and mobile broadband technologies, we seek comment on whether we should evaluate the deployment of fixed and mobile broadband as separate and distinct ways to achieve advanced telecommunications capability. Taking into account the differences between the various services and the geographic, economic, and population diversity of our nation, we seek comment on focusing this…Inquiry on whether some form of advanced telecommunications capability, be it fixed or mobile, is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.
An inconvenient truth – also well explained by the FCC in last week’s notice – is that mobile broadband technology does not have the speed or the overall capacity to deliver data like wireline services can. But they also suggest a solution: lower the minimum standard for advanced services to 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload for mobile, while keeping the fixed benchmark at 25/3.
That is an irrational and dangerous path to follow. Speed matters, and setting a lower standard for mobile service would mislead and ultimately disappoint anyone who was conned into relying on it because the FCC stamped an advanced services label on it. And it would only encourage lobbyists for AT&T, Frontier Communications and other telcos that are milking the last dollars they can out of decaying rural copper networks to make the same argument for wireline service.
Lowering standards in order to please incumbents with deep pockets and a habit of being generous to their Beltway friends would be a supreme disservice to the U.S. public and a dereliction of the FCC’s duty.
It was bipartisanship, of a sort, when the U.S. senate confirmed Jessica Rosenworcel and Brendan Carr as FCC commissioners yesterday. Senate democrats wanted to score some points and republicans were in a mood to let them do it – never underestimate the motivational power of an imminent summer vacation.
It was the product of complicated – and completely typical – Beltway horse trading. The bottom line, though, is that the Federal Communications Commission is back up to its full strength of five members with three republicans and two democrats – the privilege of the majority goes to the party that has a president in the white house.
The deal that was reached means that democrat Rosenworcel is confirmed to a full five year term and republican Carr serves out the final year of former chairman Tom Wheeler’s term before getting a shot at five years of his own. Current chairman Ajit Pai, on the other hand, has to wait until senators come back in September before he gets the blessing for another full term on the commission.
Democrats get two perks. First, when Pai’s nomination comes up, it’ll be a full roll call vote, so democrats can properly bash him first. Carr and Rosenworcel, by comparison, slid through in a quick and painless batch vote with a pile of pending nominees for various other federal jobs. Second, when Carr comes around again next summer, he’ll be paired up with democratic commissioner Mignon Clyburn or whoever is nominated to replace her, should she not want, or get, a third term. That way, two-party symmetry can be maintained.
Having a full slate of commissioners probably won’t make much of a substantive difference. Carr’s policy outlook seems to be in line with Pai and Michael O’Rielly, his republican brothers, and whether it’s three to two or two to one, it’s still all the majority that’s needed. But Rosenworcel is an intellectual match for Pai, and has worked well with him in the past, sometimes on opposites sides and sometimes not. With her back on board, at least the debate will be improved.
A second bill aimed at freeing up more wireless spectrum for broadband service is floating in the U.S. senate. Tagged the Airwaves act, it would set deadlines for the Federal Communications Commission to auction off several bands and other federal agencies to give up ownership of several more. It would also set aside 10% of the auction proceeds for wireless broadband infrastructure in poorly served rural areas.
It was introduced earlier this week by a bipartisan pair of senators – Maggie Hassan (D – New Hampshire) and Cory Gardner (R – Colorado) – and immediately praised by wireless industry lobbyists and FCC commissioners alike. Presumably they’ve seen the full text, although it hasn’t been officially published yet. On the public safety side of the fence, the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council also seems to have seen it. According to a post on the group’s blog…
By Dec. 31, 2018, the FCC would have to complete an auction of the 3550-3650 megahertz band. By Dec. 31, 2019, it would have to auction the 28 GHz (27.5-28.35 GHz), 37 GHz (37-38.6 GHz), and 39 GHz (38.6-40 GHz) bands, for which the FCC adopted rules last summer (TR Daily, July 14, 2016).
By Dec. 31, 2020, the FCC would have to complete an auction of bands that the FCC generally decided in a further notice last summer to study for 5G use. They are the 24-25 GHz (24.25-24.45/25.05-25.25 GHz), 32 GHz (31.8-33.4 GHz), 42 GHz (42-42.5 GHz), 48 GHz (47.2-48.2 GHz), and 51 GHz (50.4-52.6 GHz) bands.
Within one year, the FCC would have to identify spectrum between 71.25 and 84 GHz for unlicensed use…
The bill also would require the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to submit a report to Congress by Dec. 31, 2020, on the relocation of federal operations between 1300-1350 MHz and 1780-1830 MHz.
The Airwaves act joins the Mobile Now act in the U.S. senate’s hopper. Introduced at the beginning of the year, it’s been languishing in the commerce, science and transportation committee, despite (or perhaps because) its author is John Thune (R – South Dakota), the chair of that committee.
Federal law does not require telephone companies to be treated differently from cable companies, when it comes to attaching cables to utility poles. That’s the ruling of a federal appeals court (h/t to Omar Masry at the City and County of San Francisco for the pointer). It rejected a challenge from electric utilities to a 2015 decision by the Federal Communications Commission that equalised the standard charge for utility pole access, and trimmed back an irrelevant distinction. The rate is now the same whether the full service telecommunications company doing the attaching is the descendant of a television service provider or an old school telco.
Before then, telcos paid higher rates, which meant more money for electric utilities that owned poles. But the FCC’s decision to classify broadband as a telecommunications service and put it in the same common carrier regulatory bucket as telephone service created a quandary. Since cable companies are also Internet service providers, could electric companies start charging them the higher rate, and maybe push up broadband access costs in the process?
There was another problem. Or maybe an opportunity, depending on your point of view. Some states, like California, have exercised an option allowed by federal law and set their own rates for utility pole attachments – they were already charging cable and telephone companies the same, lower rate. Which might have given them a competitive advantage over states that relied on the FCC rules.
The court said that the FCC had sufficient reason to make the change…
The FCC sought to eliminate the disparity between the Cable and Telecom Rates in order to avoid subjecting cable providers offering broadband service to the higher Telecom Rate, and to avoid rate disparity between states whose pole attachment rates are regulated by the FCC and those states that had elected to regulate pole attachment rates using the Cable Rate even for telecommunications providers…This approach represents a “reasonable policy” choice, and thus we defer to the FCC’s interpretation.
It’s a good solution, but it misses the central issue. Cable and telephone companies are in the same business: selling television, telephone and broadband service, and buying up content companies to fill the pipeline. There’s no rational reason anymore to treat them differently.
Municipal broadband dodged a bullet when a U.S. appeals court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission can’t tell states that they have to allow cities to build networks and offer service. It seemed like a good idea to many muni advocates at the time (although not me, I’ll immodestly point out) because of all the warm and fuzzy love that the Obama administration was bestowing on the concept.
Had that preemption withstood court challenges, muni broadband would be at the mercy of the current FCC majority, which includes Michael O’Rielly, who recently offered his thoughts to a group of state legislators. After warming up with some rants about socialism and the collapse of the Venezuelan economy, he riffed on muni broadband systems…
What I am unwilling to do and will never support is allowing government-sponsored networks to use their unfair advantages to offer broadband services. Doing so would be the quickest way to destroy the private broadband market and reassure creation of a market monopoly position by these networks. In addition, in instances where they have been attempted, the success rate is highly suspect. Clearly, building and operating a broadband network is the opposite of easy.
The fact that some states in our nation have enacted protections prior to allowing localities to pursue government-sponsored networks should be celebrated, not criticized or attacked. Upon close examination, the protections are, in fact, quite reasonable. They tend to include requirements that potential networks conduct a right-of-first refusal process to see if the private sector is capable and interested in offering service, perform referendums of the local people to determine whether there is a desire to put taxpayer monies at risk, limit the use of cross-subsidies and government advantages to rights-of-way, and present business plans before becoming operational. Far from being radical, these are common sense requirements.
Fortunately, the FCC’s abortive preemption of muni broadband ended up reaffirming state authority over what cities and counties do, including whether or not they can build and operate networks. The flip side of the argument – that maybe the FCC has the power to ban, rather than require, muni broadband – hasn’t been tested. So don’t rest easy. But be glad the courts didn’t agree that the FCC has unmistakably clear authority over what cities can and can’t do with broadband.
The California Public Utilities Commission made the Monday deadline for commenting on the Trump administration’s move to scrap common carrier rules for broadband service. The filing more or less followed along with a rough draft approved by commissioners last week, and argues that reversing course would strengthen incumbent monopolies…
[Broadband service] providers must receive nondiscriminatory access to utility support structures, including poles and conduits, at just and reasonable rates, terms and conditions. Last year, the CPUC conducted a comprehensive review of the California telecommunications market, and analyzed the state of competition in various state sub-markets. The CPUC found that competitive bottlenecks and barriers to entry in the telecommunications network limit new network entrants and may raise prices for some telecommunications services above efficiently competitive levels. One particular bottleneck is access to utility poles, where the CPUC found that its safety mandate intersects, and must be reconciled with, its goal of a competitive market.
The CPUC comments also extoll other benefits of broadband’s common carrier status, including…
Which is all good as far as it goes. But the CPUC comments miss the fundamental reason broadband should be treated as a common carrier service: because it is.
The lack of competitive alternatives, as the CPUC correctly emphasises, is key. That’s only one of the elements in the mix, though.
The monopoly control wielded by what are effectively content companies with a telecoms sideline combined with the technical ability to analyse and shape user traffic in real time is unprecedented. Yet it would be instantly recognisable to the medieval jurists who conceived the principles of common carrier doctrine. Second order benefits are a fine thing, but broadband’s common carrier status is a first order necessity.