Tag Archives: connect america fund

With Frontier in free fall, California needs a Plan B

Frontier stock chart 8aug2019

Frontier Communications’ strategy of upgrading fiber speeds for high income, urban customers, and letting poor, rural ones rely on slow, wireless broadband systems didn’t seem to make an impression on Wall Street. The company’s stock price lost nearly 25% of its already diminished value after the release of second quarter 2019 results on Tuesday.

Even before this latest crash, a study by the California Public Utilities Commission concluded that Frontier is sinking in California, and it’s time to start thinking about what happens next…

While Frontier’s priorities are in maintaining and growing its [legacy telephone] properties, the company’s financial resources have become so deteriorated as to threaten its ongoing ability to pursue these priorities going forward. Frontier’s common stock price has dropped by around 98% since its high in February 2015, and as of April 10, 2019 its market cap was at $261.2- million – notably, Frontier has invested more than that in California alone over the first 21 months of its ownership. The parent company’s earnings have been consistently negative since the second quarter of 2016. Its annual debt service payments are now consuming more than one- fifth of its total operating revenues, making prospects for raising additional debt or equity financing extremely challenging. It is now abundantly clear that Frontier’s decision to purchase Verizon California in 2015 was both ill-timed and ill-conceived…

The Commission should establish a process to proactively examine the alternatives that would be available to maintain adequate service to Frontier California customers in the event that the parent company no longer has the financial resources to provide safe and reliable services in California.

That warning was published last month, and relied on data that was current as of April 2019. At the end of that month, Frontier’s share price was $2.85, which was about 2% of its 2015 high of $125.70 (after factoring in a reverse split). Yesterday it closed in penny stock territory at 93¢, less than 1% of its peak value and less than a third of its April high.

Two million Californian homes look to Frontier for telephone and broadband service, and many of them have no other option, as the CPUC report notes. The time for being proactive is running out.

Frontier CEO confirms affluent, urban communities to get 1,000X better broadband than poor, rural ones

Frontier 2q2019 broadband results

On Tuesday, Frontier Communications’ CEO confirmed the findings of a California Public Utilities Commission study that concluded that Frontier (as well as AT&T) is “disinvesting in infrastructure overall”, and the disinvestment is “most pronounced in the more rural and low-income service areas”. The company released its financial results for the second quarter of this year on Tuesday, announcing a $5.3 billion loss for the three months and 71,000 fewer broadband subscribers.

Most of the lost accounts – 46,000 – were DSL customers, served, at least in California, via decaying copper networks Frontier acquired from Verizon. Much of that territory is rural, and falls under the federal Connect America Fund subsidy program. Frontier affirmed it is switching to low capacity fixed wireless broadband systems in CAF territories, which in theory will deliver the 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds (actually, 8 Mbps down/800 Kbps up, 80% of the time) that the program requires.

That’s in contrast to the 10 Gbps upgrades that Frontier announced it was making in high capacity, fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) systems formerly owned by Verizon, which are predominantly in more affluent urban and suburban communities. This thousand-fold disparity between Frontier’s rural and urban infrastructure is a deliberate strategy, according to the Seeking Alpha transcript of CEO Dan Murphy’s conference call with Wall Street analysts…

Our objective continues to be to optimize our business, leveraging our best assets for future growth, while managing the elements of our business in secular decline by executing on cost efficiency programs and selective capital investment.

“Best assets” = FTTH to people with money to spend; “elements…in secular decline” = copper systems where household incomes are low. Murphy was straightforward with the analysts, not just because that’s what they wanted to hear but also because there are criminal penalties for lying to Wall Street.

Unlike lying to the CPUC: when seeking approval to take over Verizon’s systems, it claimed it “is strategically focused solely on wireline telecommunications” and “all of Frontier’s capital and human resources are concentrated on wireline communications services”.

“Hunger games” duels for broadband subsidies proposed by FCC

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Hunger games

Broadband subsidies from the Federal Communications Commission are paid for out of the Universal Service Fund" (USF) which, in turn, gets its money from taxes on telephone bills. The FCC runs four programs that way: the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (formerly known as the Connect America Fund), the e-rate program that pays for broadband service to schools and libraries, the rural health care program, which does the same for hospitals, and the Lifeline program, which buys down service costs for low income households.

Altogether, $11.4 billion was collected for the four accounts last year. The FCC’s republican majority believes “capping the Fund overall will strike the appropriate balance between ensuring adequate funding…while minimising the financial burden on ratepayers”. The next step would be “prioritizing the funding among the four universal service programs and…evaluating the tradeoffs associated with these funding decisions”.

Right now, budgets and priorities for the four programs (and the taxes imposed) are set individually. Instead, the FCC wants to lump together all the broadband (and legacy telephone) subsidy programs, set a limit on the total funding and then direct the money according its own priorities. That would provoke mortal combat according to democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel who said it would “unleash[] a fight for support between connecting kids in schools and hooking up hospitals” and called the proposal “the universal service hunger games”.

The FCC is taking reply comments from interested parties about its proposal. On Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission went on record opposing it. Directly or indirectly, California backstops those programs with money from state taxpayers, and limiting or shifting federal dollars could raise costs here.

Another problem with USF that the CPUC points out is that it’s funded by taxes on old school voice service, but the money mostly goes towards broadband…

The FCC has explicitly declined to assess surcharges on broadband Internet access service even though almost all the USF programs subsidize only broadband services…The FCC should address this discrepancy by expanding the base of services to fund the USF, rather than continuing to rely inequitably on a shrinking number of ratepayers who purchase the assessed services that fund the USF.

On top of that, the FCC claims that broadband is an “information” service, rather than a “telecommunications” service. Continuing to subsidise it with taxes collected via telephone bills could become problematic.

Final reply comments are due on 26 August 2019.

FCC approves new broadband subsidy and data collection programs, but each ignores the other

by Steve Blum • , , ,

The Federal Communications Commission will be asking for comments on its plan to spend, at first, $16 billion and eventually $20 billion on rural broadband subsidies, with a minimum speed requirement of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. It’s also moving ahead with a new broadband availability data collection process, based on electronic map files, rather than spreadsheets. The two initiatives were approved at yesterday’s FCC meeting.

Both democratic commissioners – Jessica Roseworcel and Geoffrey Starks – objected to the republican majority’s blind acceptance of broadband availability data submitted by Internet service providers as a basis for deciding where subsidies should be spent.

Rosenworcel said in a statement that the new subsidy program relies on the same bad data as the old Connect America Fund program…

There’s something fundamentally wrong here. We do not start with maps. We do not start with data. In fact, take a look at the draft rulemaking before us and it barely mentions the fact that we have a separate proceeding we are voting on today involving maps.

In fact, this rulemaking rushes past that effort and simply proposes a successor to our existing Connected America Fund, distributing $16 billion dollars before any new data comes before this agency. Before any new maps are developed. I understand the impulse to move fast. I know that we should be working at warp speed to get modern communications to too many places that have waited too long for digital opportunity. So let’s do it. But let’s commit to doing it right.

This is putting the cart before the horse.

The new availability data collection process should eventually result in more accurate maps, but there’s no firm timeline for it to get underway. Rosenworcel’s objections are a good example of another big problem with it: collecting the data is one thing, but getting agencies to upgrade their systems and their analytical skills to effectively use it is a problem that’s yet to be solved.

FCC’s rural broadband subsidy reboot proposes faster speeds, but performance is still a question

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Paicines pole route

Broadband service at 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds “is not a luxury” reserved for people who live in cities and suburbs, according to a draft FCC notice that kicks off the process of rebooting federal broadband service subsidies for rural communities. In August, the FCC plans to vote on a draft notice of proposed rulemaking that would open the door to comments and proposals – from any interested party – regarding how to spend “at least” $20.4 billion earmarked for the “rural digital opportunity fund”.

It’s a reboot of the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF), which mostly gave money to monopoly model telcos, such as AT&T and Frontier Communications, to provide slower service – 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up – in California and in other states where they thought they could get a sufficient return on investment by providing upgraded rural broadband service. Subsidy rights for the remaining communities they skipped, for one reason or another, were auctioned off last year. The winners were the companies that promised the fastest service for the least subsidy dollars.

That’s a process that the FCC proposes to repeat. Broadband service subsidies would go to the lowest bidder in an eligible community, instead of automatically given to the incumbent telco. The definition of “eligible” would change, too…

Consumers’ demand for faster speeds has grown dramatically—and the market has largely been able to deliver. Speeds of 25/3 Mbps are widely available, and 25/3 Mbps is the Commission’s current benchmark for evaluating whether a fixed service is advanced-telecommunications capable. Thus, the item proposes a 25/3 Mbps service availability threshold as the basis for establishing eligible areas.

Providers would be able to bid at three speeds levels: 25/3 with a 150 monthly gigabyte cap, and 100 Mbps down/20 Mbps up and 1 gigabit down/500 Mbps up with a 2 terabyte cap. That’s similar to how last year’s CAF auction was organised, except that this time around 10/1 service would not be acceptable.

There are a couple of problems with the FCC’s proposal as it stands. The 25/3 minimum is inadequate – research done last year by the Central Coast Broadband Consortium and the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership identified 100/20 as the threshold for acceptable rural (and urban) service.

Another concern is performance. AT&T and Frontier claim to be meeting their build out requirements, but there’s a year to go before the final deadline and they’ve been evasive about details, so we won’t really know until then, at the soonest, if they’re telling the whole truth.

Last year’s auction winners in California were wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) that made very aggressive coverage and service level promises. Those, too, will have to be verified over the next few years to see if the FCC’s proposed “technology neutral” funding policy produces the desired results.

Don’t expect fast rural broadband from AT&T or Frontier, lobbyists tell CPUC

Ernestine

Judging from presentations made by AT&T and Frontier Communications lobbyists at a California Public Utilities Commission workshop on Monday, the companies have no plans for significant upgrades to rural broadband service, comparable to urban improvements, despite taxpayer subsidies. Which doesn’t bode well for a $2 trillion infrastructure spending deal announced yesterday in Washington, D.C.

Rural broadband infrastructure was one of the few specific items that came out of a meeting yesterday between president Donald Trump, house speaker Nancy Pelosi and senate democratic leader Chuck Schumer. But there’s good reason to wonder whether the $2 trillion promised for broadband infrastructure for “our great farmers and rural America”, as Trump’s press secretary put it, will be spent in a useful way.

On Monday, Ross Johnston and Charlie Born, staff lobbyists for AT&T and Frontier Communications respectively, talked about ongoing efforts to upgrade infrastructure using federal Connect America Fund (CAF–2) subsidies. While repeatedly ducking direct questions from commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves and others about what their employers are doing (as did lobbyists for Comcast and Charter Communications) they made it clear that the best they’ll commit to is the slow 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload (10/1) speeds required by the Federal Communications Commission. Which they won’t have to deliver consistently, according to FCC specs.

Johnston said AT&T is working to upgrade 141,000 rural Californian homes and businesses to 10/1 service by next year’s CAF–2 deadline, but more than half of those customers – 84,000 locations in 40 counties – will be stuck with low capacity fixed wireless links, instead of improved wireline connections. Born didn’t mention Frontier’s plans to do the same, but he likewise wouldn’t promise anything better than 10/1, even though he claimed the company is deploying advanced VDSL and fiber technology that should be capable of much faster speeds.

The CAF–2 program was designed by the FCC to funnel subsidies to incumbent telcos, at least to the extent that they were interested in taking the money. It is apparently the blueprint for a new $20 billion rural broadband program vaguely announced by FCC chair Ajit Pai during his moment in the oval office sun a couple of weeks ago. Although Pai embraced the higher 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up standard adopted by the federal agriculture department last year, it’s by no means certain that any new money would go towards service at even that level.

Pai promises $20 billion for rural broadband, but offers little hope for meaningful change

by Steve Blum • , , ,

It makes for good headlines for a slow Friday at the white house, but so far that’s about all that’s resulted from a $20 billion pledge to support rural broadband development. Federal Communications Commission chair Ajit Pai joined president Donald Trump to hype 5G plans and spectrum auctions, and tossed in a new rural broadband initiative at the end.

Sorta.

Pai’s “Rural Digital Opportunity Fund” is just the next reboot of the long standing Connect America Fund (CAF) subsidy program, that similarly poured billions of dollars into rural broadband projects, according to a story by Jon Brodkin in Ars Technica

The new program will be part of the Universal Service Fund (USF), and it will be similar to an existing USF program that began during the Obama administration. In 2015, the USF’s Connect America Fund (CAF) awarded $9 billion for rural broadband deployment—$1.5 billion annually for six years—in order to connect 3.6 million homes and businesses…

At $2 billion a year over ten years, the fund will provide more money each year over a longer period of time than the CAF program it would replace…

In an email to reporters, Pai’s office said the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will “provide up to gigabit-speed broadband in the parts of the country most in need of connectivity.”

Arguably, CAF caused many of the problems that Pai now says he wants to solve. The program was custom designed to funnel taxpayer money to big, incumbent telephone companies, who, in return, promised to deploy slow speed, low capacity service – 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds, often via bandwidth-limited fixed wireless systems – by the end of next year.

There’s no indication that the FCC’s telco-centric approach will change, or that subsidised rural broadband service will be significantly better than what’s been deployed in the past. There are tight restrictions on how USF money can be spent and who can get it. The game was rigged by telecoms companies a long time ago and the problem is only getting worse.

Promising “up to gigabit speed” service doesn’t really promise anything. Last year, Pai embraced the 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up standard adopted by the federal agriculture department, but even that is mired in the past – homes and businesses need access to speeds of 100 Mbps down/20 Mbps up just to keep up with current demand.

FCC embraces 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up standard for faster rural broadband

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The biggest, by far, broadband service and infrastructure program in the U.S. is the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund, which is handing out $3 billion$590 million in California – over the next decade. It’s been paying that money to Internet service providers – mostly incumbent telephone companies – who promise to provide a minimum service level of 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds.

That standard is about to be raised to 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds for some telephone companies because, an FCC draft decision says, “we recognise that access to 25/3 Mbps broadband service is not a luxury for urban areas, but a necessity for all”.

Just so.

It’s good news, and the republican majority on the FCC deserves credit for putting it on next month’s meeting agenda: approval is a virtual certainty. It’s a big step in the right direction, but it’s not mission accomplished yet.

In its draft, released just ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, the FCC proposes to offer additional money to telephone companies that fall under the “rate of return” rules, if they upgrade their broadband infrastructure to support the 25/3 standard. There are different scenarios for how they might qualify for the extra money, and doing so is largely optional – the FCC would still subsidise 10/1 service.

“Rate of return” telcos are those that are still regulated based on costs and a particular return on their investment. The two biggest telcos in California – AT&T and Frontier Communications – do not fall into that category. They operate under the newer and inappropriately named “price cap” rules that let them charge as much as they want for broadband service (there are limits on telephone service charges, but not so strict that it makes a significant difference). A third, mid-sized telco in the Sacramento area, Consolidated Communications, is similarly unregulated, as is CenturyLink, which serves a few dozen homes along the Oregon border in Modoc County.

Small, rural telephone companies are regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission under the “rate of return” rules, though, and the new FCC incentives would apply to them.

The FCC said its decision to begin raising the standard was “informed by our recent auction to award universal service support in eligible areas”. In that auction, ISPs submitted bids to provide a particular level of service in return for a particular subsidy, with higher speeds and better quality getting preferential treatment. According to the FCC, 99.7% of the homes and businesses getting subsidised service as a result will be able to get 25/3 speeds or better.

The FCC’s move matches an earlier decision by the federal agriculture department to raise the minimum standard for its rural broadband subsidy programs to 25/3.

We are not so lucky in California, though. AT&T, Frontier, Comcast, Charter Communications and other big telecom companies paid key lawmakers tens of thousands of dollars each, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in aggregate, this past legislative session. In return, lawmakers approved a $300 million broadband subsidy program, courtesy of Californian taxpayers, that lowered California’s minimum acceptable broadband speed to 6 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up.

California WISPs win $149 million in FCC broadband subsidy auction

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Internet service providers – most, if not all, wireless – will get $149 million in federal subsidies to serve 52,000 homes and businesses in California over the next 10 years. The Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund (CAF 2) auction ended this week. Bidders competed for money to provide broadband service in census blocks bypassed by the main CAF 2 subsidy round in 2015.

Although California didn’t proportionately have as many census blocks and locations on the table as some other states, it came out very well in the bidding, gaining 10% of the total money on offer. The FCC hasn’t released the list of census blocks auctioned off though – all we know so far is the name of the companies, the total dollar amount and the total number of subsidised locations, plus the range of technology and service levels options that the companies might have offered.

Three of the companies are wireless Internet service providers – Cal.net, Geolinks and Hankins Information Technology – and a fourth, Viasat, is a satellite broadband company. Frontier Communications also grabbed a little cash for a couple dozen locations, but it’s not clear what type of technology they’ll be using. They told the FCC that one of their options in California is to deliver Internet service via fixed wireless facilities, but exact details haven’t been posted yet.

Cal.net’s service area centers on Mother Lode counties, and Geolinks is based on the central coast. But that doesn’t mean that’s where the money is going – they could have submitted bids anywhere in California. Hankin is a relatively new and unknown company based in southern Santa Clara County.

Subsidised service levels haven’t been published, either. All three WISPs included “baseline” service – 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speeds – as an option. Cal.net also listed “minimum” – 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up – and “above baseline” – 100 Mbps down/20 Mbps up – as possibilities, and Geolinks put “above baseline” on its list too. Frontier filed in all four categories, including “gigabit” – 1 Gbps down/500 Mbps up. Viasat only ticked the “baseline” category, albeit with high latency.

The scorecard reads…

Cal.net, $51 million for 21,000 locations.
Geolinks (aka California Internet), $83 million for 11,000 locations.
Hankins Information Technology, $2 million for 1,000 locations.
Frontier Communications, $52,000 for 23 locations.
Viasat, $14 million for 19,000 locations.

FCC lowers rural speed standard to 8 Mbps down, 800 Kbps up

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Internet service providers who get Connect America Fund subsidies from the Federal Communications Commission have to use the money to deliver service at a minimum of 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps up load speeds, in most cases – effectively all cases in California so far. Last week, the FCC defined what that standard really means: subsidised carriers have to run quarterly speed tests that show they’re hitting 80% of the required speed, 80% of the time. As the FCC explains in its order

For example, if a carrier receives high-cost support for 10/1 Mbps service, 80 percent of the download speed measurements must be at or above 8 Mbps, while 80 percent of the upload speed measurements must be at or above 0.8 Mbps.

The required testing process is reasonably rigorous. ISPs can choose the method they use, but the tests have to be run during peak usage times – defined as 6pm to midnight – and measure speed and latency all the way from a customer’s home to (or through) an FCC server, and back. So subsidised ISPs – primarily AT&T and Frontier Communications in California – will be held responsible for their middle mile capacity as well as the final hop to subscribers. Customers have to be randomly selected, but AT&T and Frontier are only obligated to test 50 locations each, although it could end up being more, particularly for Frontier, because it does business in California under subsidiary companies.

It’s not unreasonable to expect a network that’s specced at 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps to deliver 8 Mbps down/800 Kbps up most of the time. But it’s also reasonable to expect a company that’s accepted taxpayer subsidies to deliver service at 10 Mbps/1 Mbps to build enough overhead into its system so it can meet its obligations, most of the time. Unfortunately for rural California, the FCC chose the latter.