Tag Archives: NTIA

FCC doesn’t swallow broadband map spam, but still does an availability victory dance

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Carmen miranda 625

The Federal Communications Commission re-did its annual analysis of broadband availability in the U.S., after a broadband advocacy group and Microsoft separately called bullshit on the first version. But it’s not backing away from its claim that “significant progress has been made in closing the digital divide in America”.

Free Press is the broadband advocacy group that spotted a truckload of map spam when the FCC pushed out a press release in February, claiming broadband “is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis”. That claim was based on availability data submitted by Internet service providers, including one – BarrierFree – that smeared gigabit service claims over 100% of the census blocks in eight states.

Those reports were apparently removed – the latest press release only said that “a company submitted drastically overstated deployment data” – and that did change the numbers. But it didn’t change the FCC chair Ajit Pai’s conclusion that “we are closing the digital divide”, based on analysis that apparently shows an increase of nearly five million households with access to the federal agriculture department’s benchmark broadband speed standard of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. That’s also the minimum that the FCC says is needed for access to what it says are “advanced services” and everyone else calls plain, old service.

There is still reason to doubt this new conclusion. The FCC’s data submission specifications inherently result in over reporting: if one customer in a census block can get a broadband connection at, say, 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up, then the entire census block is flagged as having access to that level of service. The reality, though, is often dramatically different, as Microsoft demonstrated with actual usage data it collects.

The FCC hasn’t addressed that problem yet. It’s probably too much to expect anything other than mindless boosterism from this FCC’s publicity machine. But we might get a clearer picture when the full report is finally approved by commissioners and released publicly.

Microsoft’s usage data shows FCC overstates broadband availability

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Microsoft oregon analysis 5dec2018

Microsoft is the latest organisation to tell the Federal Communications Commission that its broadband availability data is wrong. Earlier this month, an Internet advocacy group uncovered an egregious outbreak of map spam that skewed the FCC’s broadband analysis in several states, leading to a premature declaration of deployment victory (h/t to Wendy Davis at Digital News Daily for digging out the story). Last week, Microsoft presented its own analysis at the FCC, based on Internet usage data it collected itself, and came to the same conclusion…

The Commission’s broadband availability data, which underpins FCC Form 477 and the Commission’s annual Section 706 report, appears to overstate the extent to which broadband is actually available throughout the nation. For example, in some areas the Commission’s broadband availability data suggests that Internet Service Providers (“ISP”) have reported significant broadband availability (25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up) while Microsoft’s usage data indicates that only a small percentage of consumers actually access the Internet at broadband speeds in those areas.

Microsoft originally provided its data to the FCC in December, but it didn’t seem sink in. For example, the FCC claims that 91% of Oregonians can get broadband service a minimum of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds. That’s the standard for usable broadband service adopted by both the FCC and the federal agriculture department. But Microsoft, which can see how fast its customers’ connection are, says the real figure is 60%.

Nationally, the discrepancy is even bigger. The FCC did its victory dance based on data that seemed to show that only 25 million people in the U.S. lacked access to that minimum broadband service level. Microsoft’s analysis indicates that 163 million U.S. residents “do not use the Internet at broadband speeds”. Availability and actual usage are two different metrics, but those differences cannot, by themselves, account for the 138 million person gap. Service providers might claim to offer a particular level of service in a given census block, but that doesn’t mean they’re offering it to everyone who lives there or that everyone can afford it.

FCC’s broadband victory proclamation looks like regurgitated spam

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Spam

A wireless Internet service provider dumped a big load of map spam on the Federal Communications Commission last year, which appears to have fooled it into thinking that its “reforms” have brilliantly resulted in broadband “being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis” in the U.S. It’s a problem we have in California, as well.

In a letter to the FCC, the broadband advocacy group Free Press pointed to widely unbelievable – impossible – coverage claims made by BarrierFree, an east coat wireless Internet service provider…

BarrierFree claimed to offer FTTH service with downstream speeds of 940 Mbps to 100 percent of the geographic area and 100 percent of the population of New York State, and also to 100 percent of those seven other states. BarrierFree’s over-reporting in this manner not only produces wildly overinflated deployment claims for itself and these eight states: it also has a substantial impact on the putative change in deployment at the national level. Indeed, BarrierFree is claiming to be the only ISP offering service in 15 percent of all Census blocks that were listed as unserved in the June 2017 Form 477 data.

The coverage and service data submitted by BarrierFree go beyond the inflated claims routinely made by WISPs. It said it offered near-gigabit fiber to the home service to everyone in those eight states, along with its implausible wireless product.

Although BarrierFree’s false reporting is unusual in its scope, it’s a common and chronic problem with the FCC’s broadband data collection system. And it’s not limited to WISPs. In California, companies that resell capacity on other companies’ lines say they’re providing service in tens of thousands of census blocks, when in reality they, at best, have agreements that might let them offer service if anyone asks for it and the underlying carriers have lines of sufficient quality available – not a sure bet by a long shot.

The FCC should have reviewed BarrierFree’s data before accepting it, let alone doing a victory dance based on it. It’s gullability such as this that’s led to bipartisan calls for better broadband data collection and mapping, even to the extent of getting a call out in the Trump administration’s latest budget proposal.

Federal agencies begin to sing the same broadband policy music, according to NTIA report

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Mormon tabernacle choir

There’s more coherency and cooperation amongst federal broadband development planning and programs, according to a report just released by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Once you get past the love letter penned to president Donald Trump by a couple of his cabinet secretaries, it’s a good overview of how at least some parts of the federal bureaucracy are trying to coordinate broadband policy.

The need for better execution is clear. The report notes the gap between urban and rural broadband availability – 2% of urban residents lack access to fixed service at a minimum speed of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. The divide is even wider when, um, overly optimistic fixed wireless availability claims are factored out.

Most of the agency initiatives mentioned in the report already exist, and focus on streamlining processes for things like getting permits to build fiber routes through federal lands or renting space on federally owned towers. That’s all useful, and it’s good to know that, little by little, federal agencies are making it easier to get some work done.

But money talks. No new broadband funding was announced, but the report does highlight the federal agriculture department’s new ReConnect program, which will direct $600 million into rural projects. It also offers clues to other sources of broadband money in the federal bureaucracy…

Other Agencies have also made broadband an allowable expense within their current funding streams. Funding for broadband infrastructure may be supported by block and formula grants provided through programs managed by HUD and the DOE. The Economic Development Administration (EDA), Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), and DRA have identified broadband as an eligible expense and a priority for economic development. These funding streams are critical. They can catalyze private investment and ensure that services are sustained and upgraded over time.

The report also recommends closer cooperation between the agriculture department and the Federal Communications Commission, suggesting that the USDA’s infrastructure construction grants and the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF) operating subsidies could complement each other.

Perhaps, but it would require a major change in the way the FCC decides who gets CAF money. Right now, incumbent telephone companies get first dibs on nearly all the money, and what’s left over is auctioned off. USDA, on the other hand, opens up infrastructure grant application windows at irregular intervals. Redesigning the programs would almost certainly require congressional approval.

One agency is conspicuously absent from the action items. Although the report mentions the federal transportation department, it doesn’t sketch out a role for it, and there’s no mention of dig once requirements for federal highway projects.

It’s small ball, but at least U.S. congress is playing the broadband game

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Two broadband-related bills were passed by the U.S. house of representatives last week. Both focus on the federal broadband bureaucracy rather than infrastructure deployment or service upgrades, but at least there’s the hope that something will come of it.

House resolution 4881 was carried by representative Bob Latta (R – Ohio). It aims to promote “precision agriculture”, which seems to be just another way of saying “ag tech”. But it’s really about bringing modern broadband service to unserved rural areas. Sorta. It sets up a series of study groups, first within the federal bureaucracy, then including people from various aspects of the agriculture and telecoms industries. They’re charged with figuring out…

  1. The status of fixed and mobile broadband Internet access service coverage of agricultural land;
  2. The projected future connectivity needs of agricultural operations, farmers, and ranchers; and
  3. The steps being taken to accurately measure the availability of broadband Internet access service on agricultural land and the limitations of current, as of the date of the report, measurement processes.

HR 3994, by Paul Tonko (D – New York), would set up an Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth inside the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. It would be responsible for doing pretty much the same thing: figuring out where broadband gaps are, and how to encourage other federal agencies to plug them.

It’s hard to get excited about either bill. At best, we can expect to see a lot of meetings over the next two or three year, capped by what I’m sure will be earnest reports. But there are a couple of encouraging things.

First, it’s good that federal lawmakers can move something, anything at all. And even better that broadband bills are moving ahead on a bipartisan basis – both passed by wide margins.

Second, there seems to be agreement that broadband responsibilities aren’t limited to the Federal Communications Commission, which is a regulator and not a developer, and the federal agriculture department’s Rural Utilities Service, which is stuck in a 1930s electric cooperative business model.

Another reason not to get excited is that neither bill is law yet. The U.S. senate has to act, which is usually not the way the bet, and the president has to sign it, which means all bets are off.

Federal broadband funding guide is mostly old news

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

A new booklet published by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration outlining ways to finance broadband projects contains no surprises. It’s a summary of federal programs that fund, or might fund, broadband infrastructure and it’s useful as a reference. But there’s no new money on the table, and many of the programs listed are either restricted in scope – Appalachia or tribal areas, for example – or are narrowly focused on specific users, such as libraries or public housing residents.

The list is also heavily weighted toward rural areas, which are served by federal programs that tend to ignore California. The best opportunities for urban infrastructure support comes from either the Economic Development Administration (EDA) or a few indirect money sources, such as the E-rate program for schools and libraries, which provide operating subsidies that might be spent with new service providers. As far as EDA is concerned, though, it’s good news that there’s a clear statement that broadband is moving up the priority list…

EDA’s mission is to lead the federal economic development agenda by promoting innovation and competitiveness, preparing American regions for growth and success in the worldwide economy. Given that broadband is an important ingredient in economic development strategies, EDA funding may be used to support broadband infrastructure projects under EDA’s Public Works and Economic Adjustment Assistance competitive grant programs, within certain parameters.

One troubling aspect is that the list of broadband-friendly federal programs in the booklet is shorter than the report published by the white house a couple of weeks ago. For example, it doesn’t list the agriculture department’s rural community facility program that was highlighted in that report and accounted for about a quarter of the $10 billion that the white house claimed was available for broadband infrastructure projects.

The booklet is a nice resource for beginners, but if you’re already actively involved in trying to develop broadband infrastructure, it’s not nearly as helpful as you probably want.

Map spam paints false picture of U.S. broadband service

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The national broadband map has been updated and it now includes coverage claims submitted by service providers as of the end of 2012. The map is supposed to a guide for federal and state policy makers as they try to manage, regulate, subsidise and, overall, encourage the development of broadband infrastructure and service. But unless you dig deep into the raw numbers and ignore the consumer (and politician) friendly interface, all it does is prove, once again, that garbage in, garbage out is a universal law.

Taken at face value, the map shows that remote mountain valleys and desert basins aside, there are relatively few areas in the country where broadband service of at least 768 Kbps download is not available. And the vast majority of the population can get download speeds of 6 Mbps or better, which is the Californian standard for acceptable broadband service.

Map on the right shows areas where wireline providers claim to provide download speeds of 6 Mbps or better. Map on the left shows the same claims made by wireless providers

A quick comparison of technologies pinpoints the problem: wireless service providers claim to provide high rates of speed over vast distances, without regard for terrain, capacity or user’s equipment, effectively spamming the national map with availability data that is, at best, aspirational and, frequently, fictional.

Some wireless providers are better than others, but technically defensible claims are washed out by the aggressive advertising of less capable or ethical WISPs.

There are bright spots. The map offers a dramatic look at the difference between advertising claims and speeds actually measured by the FCC, at least to the extent those measurements have been made. There are also tools you can use to sort the data by technology and make comparisons. The data itself is collected by states. Here in California we have better tools for analysis.

It’s possible to sift the raw data, as I did for the East Bay Broadband Consortium, and establish a reasonably sound basis for decision making. But taking the national map at face value does little except reinforce the incumbents’ mantra that all’s well and give policy makers a false sense of a job well done.

The broadband stimulus pool is nearly dry

by Steve Blum • , , , , , , , ,

BTOP might have $442 million in the kitty, although almost certainly not. Or $257 million or $15 million or zilch. For BIP, I can’t even estimate what’s left, but my best guess is that money is already gone.

First, I want to give credit where credit is due. Fred Dyste, via his Digital West blog, has been the gold standard for tracking BTOP (Broadband Technology Opportunities Program) and BIP (Broadband Initiatives Program) stimulus grant applications and awards. He’s been delivering invaluable tracking and analysis of who’s asking for money and who’s getting it. Most of the numbers I’m using were provided by Fred.

Yesterday, about $482 million in BTOP grants were announced for several states, along with about $518 million in BIP grants and loans. On Friday, Hawaii received $35.9 million in BTOP grants. Adding those numbers to Fred’s tabulations for the first round of BTOP/BIP grants and his running total to 28 August 2010, the total for infrastructure, public computer center (PCC) and sustainable broadband adoption (SBA) BTOP awards is $3,791 million and $3,516 million for BIP awards (allowing for the cancellation of a $19 million BIP award).

The stimulus program originally gave $4,700 million to BTOP and $2,500 million to BIP. On that measure, the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) has given out an extra $1 billion. They can do that because they are giving out grants and loans, which are accounted for differently, and they have some separate funding for the loan program. Do they have any more money to give out? Maybe.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is only making grants and they don’t have deep pockets of their own to dip into. In fact, Congress has already pulled back $302 million from the program to spend on other things, leaving only $4,398 million. The math looks like this:

CategoryGrants Made
Infrastructure$3,506 million
Public computer center$127 million
Sustainable broadband adoption$159 million
Mapping allocation$350 million
Total$4,141 millon

So in theory, that leaves $271 million to spend on non-mapping BTOP projects. Fred has tracked $179 million in mapping grants, so maybe there’s another $171 million available, bringing the total to $442 million. But I doubt it. NTIA is saving a big chunk of the mapping work for itself, and there’s no reason to think they’ll let go of that money.

In fact, NTIA might be keeping a bit more for itself. Originally, NTIA said that only $2,600 million was available for infrastructure, PCC and SBA grants in the second round, and they’ve given out $2,585 million. On that basis, there’s only $15 million left, without even counting the $302 million Congress clawed back.

The original stimulus bill set aside $200 million for PCC grants and $250 million for SBA grants. However, in cutting money, Congress didn’t specify how to spread the cuts around. If you figure things, like Fred does, on a pro rata basis, that means subtracting $47 and $29 million from the PCC and SBA categories respectively, so those programs are tapped out. But NTIA has considerable discretion when it comes to running BTOP, so maybe not. If there is any remaining money, it could go anywhere.

Getting back to business with broadband investment

The federal stimulus program overshadowed private sector funding for new broadband infrastructure for more than a year. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) threatened to wash out broadband venture opportunities with billions of dollars of grants and loans. Some projects will absorb federal money instead of private risk capital. Most won’t and the surviving opportunities will become evident over the next few months.

demand study
Price points, service benchmarks and likelihood
to buy are key data for revenue projections
Local agencies and economic development organizations still have the job of attracting that investment. Instead of telling tales of dire need, they’ll be back to the business of encouraging business by documenting unmet demand and offering the right incentives to tip decisions in their direction. I’ll have more to say about sweetening the pot later. The first job is to refocus on demand.

Need and demand are two very different things. Need is a general concept, and leans heavily on qualitative judgments. It’s a useful basis for public policy discussions, and marketers can use it to target services and products. Raw need, though, is not very helpful in making a core business case.

Demand is a precisely defined, quantitative, microeconomic metric. It’s usually the one big missing piece when service providers, and their investors, are evaluating a network build outside of their existing footprint.

Demographics, geography and existing infrastructure are important too, but the first two are freely available and most people who are active in the broadband investment space have a good enough idea of what’s already out there. The state broadband mapping projects funded by the federal stimulus program are likely to be game changers, and that makes it even better.

A good demand study, with estimates of take rates over a range of services and price points, leads to supportable revenue projections. When it comes to attracting an investor, a statistically valid and methodologically sound revenue projection is gold. It’s a lot easier to persuade someone to invest in a project that promises revenue. Investors aren’t interested in much else.

Going forward, public broadband funding will follow private capital. The two big remaining pots of public money belong to state universal service programs such as the California Advanced Services Fund and RUS, both of which require substantial private sector co-investment, sustainable business plans that are well documented and, where RUS is concerned, the ability to take on considerable debt.

Need motivates local governments and organizations to compete for private broadband investment. They’ll win when they can put demand on the table.

The stimulus was fun while it lasted, now back to work

It’s time to look past the stimulus program, and re-adjust community broadband planning assumptions. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) and the Rural Utilities Service’s (RUS) Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP) encouraged local groups to roll themselves up into regional alliances and propose magnificent projects that would meet any conceivable need and serve every user imaginable.

It made sense, because that’s where the money was. NTIA and RUS made some dreams real in the first round last year, and are on track to fulfill a few more fantasies in the second round. But even though BTOP is reopening for what amounts to a stunted, public-safety focused third round, the good times are over and we have to return to the old normal.

It’s a world where the free money is mostly gone. Once the BTOP money is spent, NTIA goes back to being a small agency running small programs. In rural areas, RUS and state programs, like the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), will provide grants and loans to organizations with a qualifying track record and, in some cases, enough cash to fund half or more of proposed projects themselves.

first round BIP funding funnel
 Adelstein and RUS general
 field representative Harry Hutson showed
 CETF conference attendees in Redding
 how the first round BIP money went
 down the spout
RUS won’t fund projects that compete with their existing loan portfolio, however. Speaking to the California Emerging Technologies Fund’s third annual Rural Connections workshop in Redding this week, RUS administrator Jonathan Adelstein made it clear that the agency will give priority to organizations that it already funds, and won’t subsidize competing projects.

CASF expects it will continue to fund new broadband projects in California, but only in areas where AT&T, Verizon and the cable companies fail to upgrade infrastructure. A few arguable urban pockets aside, it’s the remote rural regions that have a shot.

Elsewhere, community broadband advocates will have to go back to the basics. Tried and true economic development strategies, like public-private partnerships, tax breaks and other incentives, and old fashioned salesmanship, will be effective. But only where public agencies and community advocates can present a focused and well documented business case and be flexible enough to accept that private capital comes with its own priorities.

The old normal is a world where subscriber metrics, return on investment and anchor tenants trump grand visions, sad stories and political grease. Painstaking determination and hard work count again, though. That’s a world worth calling home.