Tag Archives: rdof

FCC revises subsidy rules, won’t zonk California because of our low broadband standards

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Monty hall

The Federal Communications Commission approved a small do-over to the rules for its new broadband subsidy program, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). Instead of blocking subsidies to any area where state broadband dollars are being spent, it will only do so where the money is paying for service at a minimum of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds.

That’s good new for California. Our primary broadband subsidy program – the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) – deems communities with broadband at the achingly slow rate of 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up as adequately served, and only requires grant recipients who build infrastructure with state money to hit the barely better speed of 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up.

As originally written, the FCC’s decision could have been read as writing off CASF-funded communities with those speeds. Democratic commissioner Geoffrey Starks certainly thought so, and called out the problem before the FCC voted last month. But FCC rules allow the text of a decision to be tweaked even after it’s approved. In his final comments, Starks said the FCC republican majority had a change of heart…

I received notice that the Report and Order we had voted had been revised by the Chairman in response to the concerns I raised…the post-adoption revision approved by the majority was changed to read:

In addition, we will exclude those census blocks which have been identified as having been awarded funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Program, or awarded funding through other similar federal or state broadband subsidy programs to provide 25/3 Mbps or better service. This is consistent with our overarching goal of ensuring that finite universal service support is awarded in an efficient and cost- effective manner and does not go toward overbuilding areas that already have service.

The FCC will vote again later this month on the tentative date of 22 October 2020 to begin a reverse auction to distribute the initial $16 billion of RDOF subsidies, even earlier than originally planned. That’s not so wonderful for California. The president of the California Public Utilities Commission, Marybel Batjer, requested a delay to give California time to get its broadband subsidy act together. The FCC doesn’t plan to wait.

FCC documents:
FCC report and order, Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, published 7 February 2020
FCC public notice, Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, published 7 February 2020

FCC commissioner statements, 7 February 2020:
Geoffrey Starks
Ajit Pai
Jessica Rosenworcel
Michael O’Rielly
Brendan Carr

California gets a zonk from the FCC’s new broadband subsidy program

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Zonk

The final language of the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to launch a new broadband subsidy program could cause headaches in California. The FCC approved the new $20 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) program last week, apparently with eligibility rule changes to the draft version published earlier in January.

In remarks prepared for the meeting, commission Geoffrey Starks flagged new language that would exclude places that are getting broadband subsidies from other sources…

I cannot support provisions of the Order that penalize the many states that have made their own investments in rural broadband deployment. The version of the Order now before us excludes from RDOF any area that the Commission “know[s] to be awarded funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Program or other similar federal or state broadband subsidy programs, or those subject to enforceable broadband deployment obligations.”

The good news, if you want to call it that, is that California doesn’t have any conflicts with the USDA’s ReConnect program so far, because none of that money has been awarded here. But California does have “state broadband subsidies” and “enforceable broadband deployment obligations”.

Assuming those restrictions are in the published version of the decision – FCC procedures allow some changes even after a vote – the precise language will be important. Particularly for rural communities where an Internet service provider received money from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) to build low-speed infrastructure.

For example, the California Public Utilities Commission awarded several CASF grants to Frontier Communications to upgrade a few ageing DSL systems, so it could offer service at a minimum of 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds. That’s painfully slower than the FCC’s new eligibility standard of 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up, and decades behind the subsidised service levels – up to a gigabit – that the FCC is incentivising. Frontier also has some vague and equally atrocious “broadband deployment obligations” that date back to its purchase of Verizon’s wireline telephone systems in California.

We’ll have to wait for the official version of the decision, before we know whether the FCC gave monopoly model incumbents the means to block broadband upgrades in rural California.

$16 billion in broadband subsidies up for auction in November

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The Federal Communications Commission will begin the process of handing out $16 billion in broadband service subsidies in November, with another $4.4 billion coming sometime later. Commissioners approved the new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) program at their meeting in Washington, D.C. yesterday. They set the minimum standard for acceptable broadband service at 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds: any census block that completely lacks access to service at that speed level will eligible for subsidies in November. Subsidies for partially eligible census blocks will follow in phase 2 of the program, on a schedule yet to be determined.

The final text of that decision hasn’t been released, nor have the written comments of commissioners. The three republican commissioners gave unqualified support to the plan, but the two democrats, Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks, objected to some of the details. According to a post by Joan Engebretson on the Telecompetitor blog, they wanted a higher standard…

Rosenworcel and Starks argued that the commission should have been more ambitious in establishing the speed tiers. Noting that 200 kbps was considered broadband 10 years ago, Rosenworcel argued that the 25/3 Mbps minimum will look equally outdated 10 years from now and said the minimum target should have been 100 Mbps.

There were some other changes made to the draft decision that was released three weeks ago, but we’ll have to wait for the final version to be published before we know what those are. Judging from published reports, there’s no indication that the commission bowed to pressure from AT&T, Frontier and other telcos to dumb down faster speed tiers, that would be eligible for extra points in the reverse auction that’ll be used to distribute the money in November. On the other hand, there’s no firm information that they didn’t.

Likewise, no mention was made of a request from the California Public Utilities Commission to delay the November auction – which certainly wasn’t granted – and to work more closely with states, such as California, that have broadband subsidy programs of their own.

Investment analysts say AT&T, Frontier, others padded bottom line with FCC broadband subsidies

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to vote today on a new ten year, $20 billion broadband subsidy program called the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) that will mostly benefit rural communities. The proposal on the table would set the U.S. minimum broadband standard at 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds. That’s a lot better than California’s pathetic standard of 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up, and a significant improvement over the 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up minimum that the FCC established for the Connect America Fund II program (CAF II), which RDOF will replace.

According to a story in FierceTelecom that cites research by MoffettNathanson, it appears that major telcos pocketed some of the CAF II subsidies they received over the six years of the program, which began in 2015 and ends this year. CenturyLink was the big winner with more than $3 billion total, but AT&T and Frontier Communications weren’t far behind…

Other top beneficiaries of CAF II awards include AT&T, which has received $428 million per year [$2.6 billion total] since 2015; Frontier, which has received $332 million per year [$2.0 billion] during the same time frame; and Windstream, which has received $175 million per year. In exchange for the free government money, the recipients agreed to deploy broadband service with at least 10 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream to specific rural locations. MoffettNathanson reports that the CAF II money that the incumbents received was typically more than the cost of the network builds, so the telcos ended up with extra money to pad their bottom lines.

Based on availability reports and statements by the companies, it appears that AT&T and Frontier minimised capital investment and, consequently, minimised service levels – they were required to upgrade their systems to the point that 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up speeds were possible, but the de facto service standard they had to meet was only 8 Mbps down/800 Kbps up.

RDOF represents a second chance for the FCC to get broadband subsidies right. This time around, the plan is to conduct reverse auctions, and not simply award money to incumbent, monopoly model telcos on the basis of an arcane formula. We’ll have some idea later today what the FCC did with the draft decision that was circulated three weeks ago, and we’ll probably see the final version in the next few days.

CPUC asks for more time to adapt to FCC broadband subsidy program, but doesn’t say how

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Paicines pole route

The FCC is heading toward a vote on Thursday that would raise its eligibility and minimum service standards for broadband subsidies to 25 down/3 Mbps up and award $20 billion in broadband subsidies as quickly as possible, perhaps in a single reverse auction in November. That’s welcome progress and a great thing for states that either have rational broadband policies or have no interest in broadband policy at all.

But not so great for California, which has irrational broadband subsidy policies.

Higher speed standards and a rapid timeline mean the opportunities for projects that combine money from its new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) with California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) subsidies are minimal.

In a letter to the FCC last week, CPUC president Marybel Batjer asked the FCC to move more slowly, or at least be more flexible…

Over the past month, CPUC staff have had ex parte meetings with FCC staff and commissioners’ offices to explore the possibility of a federal-state partnership in the planned [RDOF] reverse auction. Based on new information gathered during those meetings, it appears unlikely California would have sufficient time to make necessary changes to existing statutes and program rules to achieve this goal.

Batjer didn’t suggest, let alone commit to, asking the California legislature to raise the abysmally slow CASF speed standards. Instead, she asks for “a set-aside or partnership”, similar to “special privileges afforded to New York and Alaska”. A separate FCC filing made by CPUC staff suggests delaying the RDOF auction until the middle of 2021.

CASF is California’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program. It does not match up well with FCC or federal agriculture department programs. The biggest roadblock is the 6 Mbps download/1 Mbps upload speed minimum that California lawmakers set in 2017 when they accepted large payments self-serving arguments from AT&T, Comcast and other monopoly model incumbents, and lowered California’s broadband subsidy eligibility standard (and set the minimum acceptable service level for subsidised infrastructure at 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up).

Keep broadband slow so we can ditch copper, AT&T, Frontier tell FCC

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The Federal Communications Commission heading toward a vote later this month on the structure of the new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which is the reboot of the Connect America Fund (CAF) broadband subsidy program designed for rural communities (although urban and suburban areas sometimes qualify, too). In their eternal quest for more public money and less public service, AT&T and Frontier Communications, among others, are urging the FCC to lower speed standards for subsidised broadband, so they can rip out ageing copper lines and replace them with limited capacity wireless systems.

The good news is that there doesn’t seem to be much push back on the FCC’s plan to raise the broadband service floor to 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds, from the CAF program’s slow 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up level. What has Frontier, AT&T and their Washington, D.C. lobbying front in an uproar is the preference the FCC proposes to give to higher levels of service. As with their successful legislative pocket stuffing intense lobbying effort in California, which resulted in an even lower standard for rural broadband, they’re particularly upset with higher upload speeds.

According to a letter filed with the FCC by Frontier on behalf of its colleagues (h/t to Jon Brodkin at Ars Technica for the pointer), giving extra weight, and subsequently money, for service at 100 Mbps down/20 Mbps up, is a bad idea because, hey, rural people don’t need that kind of juice…

When considering network build-out using fixed wireless technologies, an upload target of 20 Mbps likely drives significant additional deployment costs – up to two to three times as high – compared to a 10 Mbps upload target. At the same time, a 20 Mbps upload target provides little to no additional benefits to the end user customer as all key upload use cases, including HD streaming, video conferencing, and gaming can similarly be accomplished with 10 Mbps.

AT&T’s own comments push a similar line – who needs all that speed, anyway?

Urban and suburban customers do. At least cable companies are putting their money behind that proposition. But cable companies shy away from rural communities where cash flows aren’t at white water levels. Rural customers think they need that level of service too – research done by the Central Coast Broadband Consortium and the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership (which I helped with) demonstrate that.

The FCC should listen to them, and not to monopoly model telcos intent on fencing off rural Californians.