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.