Tag Archives: rural broadband

Lots of fiber in federal farm bill, and it’s not just hemp

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Hemp

A five year farm bill with billions of dollars set aside for improving broadband infrastructure in rural areas is heading for president Donald Trump’s desk. Negotiators from the federal senate and house of representatives cobbled together a compromise bill earlier this week, and the house gave it a final blessing yesterday. It keeps most of the pro-broadband development provisions in earlier drafts.

The bill also legalises hemp production – the roping, not the doping kind.

The conference report is more than 800 pages long, and until I get through it all in detail I’m not going to try to figure how much broadband money is actually in it. One provision sets aside $350 million a year for five years for just a couple of programs. And there are several more that deal with broadband, directly or indirectly.

What’s clear from a quick read, though, is that rural representatives aren’t buying the nonsense pushed by AT&T and other monopoly telcos (and swallowed hook, line and sinker by the Federal Communications Commission) that 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds are adequate. Although that’s the level that at least some of the new rural grants and loan programs will use to determine eligibility – i.e. if a community has that level of service, it wouldn’t be eligible for subsidies – any infrastructure built with that money will have to do better. The bill sets the minimum speeds for new service at 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up, and the agriculture department will have to look ahead and raise the bar as necessary to meet “projections of minimum acceptable standards of service for 5, 10, 15, 20, and 30 years into the future”.

That’s true even if it means a do-over in some places…

The [congressional negotiators] are acutely aware of the challenges created by the ever-increasing bandwidth needs of applications running over the Internet. These bandwidth needs mean that the expectation for “broadband-quality service” in urban, suburban, and rural communities increases over time. While protecting project areas provided assistance from a competing USDA-assisted project is essential for program integrity, such protections can result in a lack of further investment in rural broadband systems and rural residents receiving levels of service which degrade relative to expectations over time.

In establishing the broadband buildout speeds, the [congressional negotiators] intend the [federal agriculture secretary] establish requirements for applicants to build systems capable of providing higher quality broadband service as the term of assistance lengthens, to help to ensure that USDA-financed broadband systems are able to meet the connectivity needs of rural residents for the entirety of the length of time such system is protected from overbuilding under USDA’s broadband programs.

The bill allows spending on middle mile projects, which are particularly needed in rural areas where wholesale connections to major Internet hubs, like Silicon Valley, are at best prohibitively expensive but often unavailable at any price.

It’s welcome relief for rural Californians. The forward looking standards and the wholistic view of necessary broadband infrastructure is a stark contrast to the California legislature’s decision last year to lower the minimum acceptable broadband standard to 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up and tightly restrict middle mile funding. The millions of dollars – $1.3 million in the past legislative session alone – that AT&T, Comcast, Charter, Frontier and other incumbents have paid to California legislators produced results in Sacramento. They hand out even bigger bags of cash in Washington, D.C., but fortunately rural interests count for a lot more there.

Urban or rural, the need for broadband speed is the same for all in the Monterey Bay region

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

MBEP regional broadband speed survey results

To run a business, do homework and enjoy the benefits of our digital economy, broadband service that runs at 100 Mbps download/20 Mbps upload speeds is a necessity for everyone. That’s the conclusion of a year-long study by the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership (MBEP) and the Central Coast Broadband Consortium.

The report was presented last Friday at MBEP’s 2018 State of the Region event in Seaside. It was based on the work of the broadband leadership team recommended by participants at the 2017 conference and recruited by MBEP earlier this year. The team conducted a survey of residents and businesses in Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey counties.

The key finding is that broadband needs are the same whether people live or work in a well-served urban area or a poorly – or even unserved – rural community.

The result was unexpected. The study’s underlying hypothesis was that the region’s diverse economy and communities would have an equally diverse range of broadband needs. As it turned out, there was little difference in the responses from high tech, agricultural or home-based business sectors, or from consumers anywhere.

In retrospect, the findings made perfect sense: a rancher in Bitterwater uses the same cloud-based business tools as a game developer in Santa Cruz, their families watch the same video programs, and their kids do the same homework and take the same online tests.

Federal and state broadband standards do not meet that need. Broadband subsidy programs run by the federal government set 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps speeds up as a minimum, although providers who deliver significantly slower service in rural areas can still receive funding. California’s primary broadband subsidy program, the California Advanced Services Fund, considers speeds as low as 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up to be sufficient for urban and rural communities alike.

Businesses and households in the Monterey Bay region are also willing to pay for better service…

When asked about ideal download and upload speeds, 63% of business respondents stated they would like to have 100 Mbps or higher download and 61% stated they would like to have 25 Mbps or higher upload. 69% of these businesses said they would be willing to pay $70 or more per month.

50% of respondents in the consumer survey stated that they would like to have download speeds of 100 Mbps or more. 66% of consumers said they were willing to pay $40 to $99 a month for their ideal speeds.

The MBEP survey data was backed up by a separate broadband needs survey run by the County of Santa Cruz and quarterbacked by broadband leadership team member Zach Friend, who is a Santa Cruz County supervisor.

The question addressed at this year’s conference was how do we achieve the goal of making 100 Mbps down/20 Mbps up broadband service ubiquitous in the region? Participants, who represented local governments, Internet service providers, businesses and non-profit organisations, identified better access to capital, greater public-private cooperation and proactive local broadband development policies as the team’s 2019 objectives.

Achieving Ubiquitous Broadband Coverage in the Monterey Bay Region, Monterey Bay Economic Partnership and Central Coast Broadband Consortium, November 2018.

Monterey Bay Region Broadband Leadership Team

  • Ray Corpuz, City of Salinas
  • Peggy Dolgenos, Cruzio
  • John Freeman, City of San Juan Bautista
  • Zach Friend, County of Santa Cruz
  • Chris Frost, Cruzio
  • James Hackett, Cruzio
  • Matt Huffaker, City of Watsonville
  • Mary Ann Leffel, MCBC
  • Chip Lenno, CSUMB
  • Maureen McCarty, Assemblymember Mark Stone’s office
  • René Mendez, City of Gonzales
  • Andy Myrick, City of Salinas
  • Larry Samuels, CSUMB
  • Brad Smith, UCSC
  • Jim Warner, UCSC
  • Steve Blum, Tellus Venture Associates
  • Freny Cooper, Monterey Bay Economic Partnership
  • Kate Roberts, Monterey Bay Economic Partnership

AT&T rep says 5G is only for infill in rural California, and she’s probably telling the truth

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Salinas windmill cell site

AT&T doesn’t plan to deploy 5G networks in rural California. According to AT&T staff lobbyist Alice Perez, small cell sites will be used for “infill” purposes in rural communities, to supplement big macro sites.

Those infill small cells might even be limited to 4G capability, and not use 5G technology. Her comments came while she was dampening 5G expectations. Any kind of cell site can be small, and she was quite keen about 4G systems, such as AT&T’s planned public safety network – FirstNet – and “voice over LTE”, which AT&T still hopes will be a replacement for copper-based Plain Old Telephone Service in rural areas.

Perez spoke last Thursday at Valley Vision’s Capital Region Broadband Summit in Rancho Cordova. So did I, presenting an analysis of broadband infrastructure in Sacramento County.

For the record, 5G is not an “infill” technology. It certainly can be used for that purpose, like you can use a semi-truck to drive to the store to pick up a six pack. But 5G is about increasing broadband capacity many times over via densified networks and newer technology. And it’s about creating a platform that can support many different types of applications and system architectures on a single network, aka “network slicing”. Without a critical mass of 5G infrastructure, none of that is possible. All you’ll accomplish is to knock a couple of dead spots out of 4G coverage.

AT&T will deploy genuine 5G networks over time, but only in communities with a sufficient number of high potential customers. Perez underscored that reality when she listed the communities where AT&T is in the process of negotiating agreements to attach small cells, of whatever sort, to streetlight poles and other municipal property: all were comfortably within the Sacramento region’s urban/suburban core.

It should not be a surprise that AT&T has no intention of putting true 5G infrastructure in rural areas. As Perez pointed out, decisions about where to build are based on AT&T’s expected return on investment.

Concentrated 5G cellular networks, and the equally dense fiber deployments needed to support them, will only happen where customers are concentrated and the money to be had is equally dense.

Federal farm bills crank up broadband speed, options

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

It’s farm bill time again in Washington, D.C. Every five years or so, congress reauthorises and rewrites rural development and (urban and rural) food stamp programs. The U.S. house of representatives and the senate passed their own bills, and each has good news for broadband infrastructure development. So far.

The version passed by the house specifically allows the federal agriculture department’s Rural Utilities Service, which runs the major rural broadband infrastructure programs, to fund middle mile projects. Those would be tied to “the future ability to link”. In other words, forward looking middle mile projects can be funded.

The U.S. senate’s version of the farm bill (taking into account the published amendments – but take nothing for granted) changes the minimum speed standard that RUS uses. It would read…

The minimum acceptable level of broadband service for a rural area shall be at least—
(A) a 25-Mbps downstream transmission capacity; and
(B) a 1-Mbps upstream transmission capacity.

That language only applies to projects funded by RUS via loans or, less commonly, grants.

There’s also wiggle room. Current law, which would not be changed, says that the federal agriculture secretary “may adjust…the minimum acceptable level of broadband service” and “may consider establishing different transmission rates for fixed broadband service and mobile broadband service”. As a matter of practice though, the agriculture department has only raised the minimum, not lowered it. The 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up standard is already written into regulations issued by the department.

Even so, clear instructions from congress are very helpful in this case. It can be hoped that the Federal Communications Commission, which uses a minimum standard of 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds for its rural broadband subsidy program, will notice of it.

The California legislature, on the other hand, went in the opposite direction last year. After accepting bag loads of cash self serving arguments from lobbyists working for AT&T, Frontier Communications, Comcast, Charter Communications and other big, monopoly-model Internet service providers, lawmakers lowered California’s minimum broadband speed standard to 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up and effectively banned middle mile projects.

It’s a fair bet big telcos and cable companies will apply the same kind of pressure on federal lawmakers as the two versions of the farm bill are reconciled. Their Washington, D.C. lobbyists are already claiming the senate’s bill will block “overbuilds” (it does include language that tightens the eligibility verification process – the devil will be in the details).

Ag department honcho says rural communities need faster broadband

by Steve Blum • , , ,

The Forbes Ag Tech Summit opened in Salinas yesterday, for the fourth year in a row. The headline act was editor-in-chief Steve Forbes’ interview with Stephen Censky, the deputy secretary of the federal agriculture department.

Agricultural technology depends on broadband, Censky said, but access is a serious challenge in the rural areas where it will be deployed. Of the 24 million people in the U.S. who don’t have broadband available to them, 80% live in rural areas.

It’s an even bigger problem when service levels are considered. Censky reiterated the agriculture department’s position that the minimum needed – for all rural users, not just tech savvy growers – is 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds.

That level of service is often unavailable in rural communities, and even though the Federal Communications Commission agrees that 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up is the proper “baseline” speed for 2018, it reckons communities with 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up to be “served”. The California legislature sets the bar even lower at 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up.

Figuring out where to find it can be a problem. Censky pointed out that the broadband availability data collected by the Federal Communications Commission comes from the companies themselves, and there’s no easy way to confirm that it’s accurate, or to drill down to see who can and can’t get it.

“There might be a location or two that have broadband, but not whole counties”, Censky said. “For agriculture to succeed in this day and age…you do need reliable access to broadband…for all precision agriculture, you need broadband”.

Censky held out the hope of more federal dollars for broadband infrastructure development, saying there’s $1.4 billion in the agriculture department’s budget for broadband grants and loans. How much of that money is realistically available in California is an open question, though. He had high – and well deserved – praise for rural electric cooperatives, which are taking the lead in broadband deployment in many parts of the U.S. Unfortunately, utility co-ops are rare in California – there are only three.

FCC sets up rich exurb versus poor rural, urban debate over broadband subsidies

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Should low income areas be first in line for broadband subsidies? That’s a question that both the Federal Communications Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission are asking. The CPUC is considering giving priority for California Advanced Services Fund infrastructure grants to communities where median household income is at or below $49,200 a year.

The FCC floated that same idea last week. In the course of approving limits on allowable expenses for some subsidised rural broadband projects, it decided to take the next step and ask for public comment on possible approaches: giving eligible consumers a theoretical choice of providers through a voucher system, adding household income to the criteria for picking eligible areas, or even basing federal subsidies on a state’s ability to pay…

For example, should we target support not only to high-cost areas but low-income areas as well? Should we adopt means-testing within the high-cost program? Either approach could target support where it is needed most by focusing only on areas or consumers with lower household income. Should we award support for high-cost areas through a portable consumer subsidy or voucher? Would a voucher system increase the choices available to consumers? Should we target support to States with less ability to fund the deployment of broadband in rural areas? How should we identify States that are most in need of support, and how can we do so while avoiding perverse incentives? Are there other alternatives we should consider?

Two commissioners, who are usually on opposite sides of issues but sometimes find common ground, both support a means-tested approach to subsidies. Mignon Clyburn and Michael O’Rielly – democrat and republican, respectively – began pushing for it last year.

For them, the question boils down to whether taxes on phone service – specifically earmarked for rural broadband subsidies – paid by people living in low income, urban areas should go towards upgrading broadband service in high income exurbs or resort communities. The FCC is asking the public to offer suggested answers.

Trump outsources rural economic development to wireless broadband companies

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

U.S. president Donald Trump put privately funded wireless broadband at the top of his rural economic development agenda yesterday. In a speech to the American Farm Bureau Federation, Trump embraced recommendations made by a government task force he created to define rural economic development policy. The task force report labeled rural connectivity “essential” and “fundamental for economic development”, and leaned heavily on wireless solutions.

“The task force heard from farmers that broadband internet access is an issue of vital concern to their communities and businesses“, Trump said. “That is why today, in a few moments, I will take the first step to expand access to broadband Internet in rural America. I will sign two presidential orders to provide broader, faster—and better—internet coverage”.

Those orders direct the interior department to make some of its assets, presumably towers and wireless sites, available for broadband development purposes and generally tell federal agencies to speed up antenna installations on federal buildings.

The task force did not call for increased federal spending on broadband infrastructure. Instead, it recommended trimming back regulations, favoring wireless facilities over wireline construction, and trusting broadband service providers to get the job done…

Past efforts to connect rural America have resulted in the allocation of substantial amounts of federal funds for broadband deployment and, while such investments made important contributions, our country has not fully achieved the connectivity needed for success in the economy of today and tomorrow. Although capital investment is one aspect of bridging the divide, far too many government policies stifle network buildout. By streamlining the deployment process, allowing access to existing infrastructure, and reducing barriers to buildout, risk can be reduced and providers can be encouraged to expand networks throughout rural America.

As we modernize and reduce regulations, we should also consider the full range of means to connect rural communities, including satellite, fixed wireless, and cellular networks. These technologies can be less expensive to deploy than traditional wired networks and are rapidly improving in quality.

The focus on building wireless infrastructure with private capital –supplemented by existing federal subsidy programs, particularly the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund (CAF) – is consistent with past Trump administration positions. Its national security policy paper, released last month, similarly called out 5G infrastructure. Republicans at the FCC and in congress favor using the CAF model as a low cost, incumbent-centric method of upgrading rural broadband. And of course, FCC chair Ajit Pai generally wants to take a weed whacker to telecoms regulations.

CAF-subsidised wireless service, as deployed by AT&T and planned by Frontier Communications, will freeze rural broadband speeds at 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload for a generation or more. That service level is far below the 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up standard adopted by the U.S. agriculture department, and it’s nowhere near enough to deliver, as yesterday’s report calls for, "reliable and affordable high-speed internet connectivity [that] will transform rural America as a key catalyst for prosperity.

But Trump says it’s enough.

Report to the president of the United States from the task force on agriculture and rural prosperity, released 8 January 2018

Rural networks cost three times more, but are feasible says Telefonica R&D chief

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Higher costs, relative to the number of homes served, and lower income levels, compared to urban areas, is the fundamental business model problem that has to be solved in order to extend wireless broadband service into rural area. But it can be solved, even in some of the most extreme cases. David del Val, Telefonica’s head of research and development in Latin America, described the hurdles he’s encountered delivering Internet connectivity to remote regions, in a speech at last week’s inaugural Mobile World Congress Americas trade show in San Francisco.

The challenge, del Val said, is that connecting a person in a rural community to mobile service is three times more expensive than in urban areas.

Telefonica is installing cell sites in Brazil along the Amazon river, in the mountains of Chile and in other areas where customers are thin on the ground. Building middle mile backhaul facilities are a particular challenge, he said. Satellite is ubiquitous but the service comes with a high price tag. So does fiber. Microwave links are also expensive, particularly when the cost of maintaining them in very remote areas, such as the Amazon basin, is factored in. Even so, it’s a workable solution according to del Val.

Then cell sites have to be built. The cost of building access points in rural areas might be comparable to costs in cities, but population densities are lower, so more towers are needed to reach the same number of customers. Operating costs also increase the farther away you get from urban areas. Del Val said that it can sometimes take days for an engineer to get to a base station in the jungle when there’s a problem.

Some of the communities that del Val serves are poorer and far more remote than any you would find in California. The numbers here are different, but the equation is the same. If it can be solved in the jungles of Brazil, it can be solved here too.

Mobile competition brings big benefits to urban consumers

by Steve Blum • , ,

Not so bright in rural California

Competition works. Even in the telecoms business. Referencing an article in the Wall Street Journal, FierceWireless is reporting that the cost of mobile data has dropped 13% in the past year, and the reason is increasingly heated competition between the four major carriers, with reintroduction and aggressive marketing of unlimited data plans at the top of the list…

In a detailed article on the topic, the Wall Street Journal reported that the cost of wireless service plans fell 7% in March and an additional 1.7% in April. When comparing April data against the same month last year, the publication reported that wireless service prices have declined by almost 13%. The WSJ cited the Labor Department’s consumer price index for the numbers; the Consumer Price Indexes (CPI) program “produces monthly data on changes in the prices paid by urban consumers for a representative basket of goods and services,” according to the agency.

The effect was so great that the CPI went into negative territory for the first time in seven years. Mobile pricing wasn’t the only reason, but it accounted for about half the drop.

One significant caveat, though, is that the CPI is based on urban costs. The price of mobile data wouldn’t be different in rural areas, but its availability and the way it’s marketed is.

A quick look at the California Public Utilities Commission’s broadband availability map shows that while people living in urband and suburban communities enjoy the full benefit of four aggressively competing mobile broadband providers, those in rural areas do not. And while the same plans might be available everywhere, different needs push people in different areas toward different packages.

For example, plans designed to be used in homes as a wireline substitute of sorts are more popular in rural communities – the article did not look at whether prices for those particular packages are likewise experiencing the same, downward competitive pressure, but from what little I’ve seen it would appear not.

Competition matters.

Broadband service subsidies not popular in rural areas

by Steve Blum • , , ,

“Local governments should be able to build their own high-speed networks if the service in their area is too expensive or not good enough”, say 70% of people in the U.S.. According to a survey done by Pew Research, the concept of municipal broadband gets overwhelming bipartisan support: 74% of people identifying themselves as democrats and 67% as republicans agreed with that statement.

Care should be taken not to read too much into this ringing endorsement, though. People’s opinions changed radically when asked about spending government money on broadband service and whether it, in fact, costs too much or runs too slowly…

Fewer than half of Americans (44%) think the government should provide subsidies to help lower-income Americans pay for high-speed internet at home. A larger share (54%) says high-speed home internet service is affordable enough that nearly every household should be able to buy service on its own…

Americans have different levels of support for broadband subsidies based on political affiliation. Six-in-ten Democrats and independents who lean Democratic say the government should help lower-income Americans purchase high-speed internet service, but that figure falls to just 24% among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. These partisan differences stand in stark contrast to attitudes toward municipal broadband networks.

The divide is almost as stark between rural and urban residents. Half of people in urban areas think subsidising broadband service is okay and more than half think it’s not affordable for everyone. On the other hand, in rural areas, where broadband service tends to be slower and dearer than in cities, only 36% thought it should be subsidised and 63% think it’s fast and affordable enough for everyone.

Philosophically, Americans are comfortable with the idea of adding broadband to the list of services a city might or might not providing. In that respect, they seem to put it into the same bucket as water or electricity, which are delivered by both municipalities and private companies, depending on local circumstances and history. But the Pew study also indicates that it’s likely to be an uphill battle to convince them that their tax money should be spent on cheaper or faster Internet service. Particularly in communities most likely to lack it.