Friday, February 18, 2011

The National Broadband Map: For $200M, Why Can't They Get It Right?

The National Broadband Map should be called "The National Airport Map." The government clearly put in a lot more work identifying airports than broadband service providers and accurate broadband speeds. 

Last summer, I got really angry about the Iowa Broadband Map because it was pretty inaccurate by my observations. However, the mapping tools were actually kind of cool and easy to use, and highly detailed when you zoomed in close. I had really low expectations for the National Broadband Map that is costing this country over $200 million. By contrast, the proposed Mobility Fund is planning to spend $100-300 million to build extensive wireless broadband infrastructure. This is a really, really expensive map.

It is also strange, hard to use, and inaccurate. I like the Iowa map because they at least use different colors for different broadband technologies, but the National map just uses one color which kind of defeats the whole purpose if you care about finding a wireless vs. wired connection. With the Iowa map, you could layer the different broadband technologies and see where they overlap and where gaps exist, but this map just looks like a blue blob when you layer the technologies. Not to brag, but I am an extremely good map reader, so I feel sorry for the less map-inclined individuals who are trying to figure this thing out. It takes a long time to load the data (even though it says my connection is 3-6 Mbps), and the whole application is just clumsy and frustrating. For $200 million, I would expect this map to pay my bills and give me compliments, but it doesn't do anything special.

Second, the data is wrong. I'm not saying it is wrong everywhere, but it is wrong for a large chunk of land in Iowa, covering 7 small communities. Walnut Telephone Company is not listed as a service provider in Walnut, Iowa, or in 5 of the 7 communities that it provides broadband service. Interestingly, a rural provider from a town about 25 miles away from Walnut is listed as the primary broadband provider in Walnut, which is completely wrong. This company has invested significant amounts of money in FTTH, which is not recognized by this map at all. In fact, there is basically no FTTH at all in the whole country which I find highly suspicious--I know it is not the dominant technology, but there has to be more than what is shown on the map. It would also be nice for the map to identify FTTH networks under development, but I realize this is a lot to ask for with $200 M. I plan to spend more time on this map and see what other inaccuracies that I can find, but if anyone knows of any more I would like to hear about it.

Third, I have concluded that Verizon Wireless is in cahoots with the broadband map makers. Verizon somehow has 3-6 Mbps service everywhere. Many people do not understand that coverage and service are not the same, and if these maps are supposed to help people make decisions about broadband service providers then some people may be sorely disappointed when their "3-6 Mbps" Verizon service can barely get one bar of mobile voice service in a rural area.

Finally, and most entertaining, the National Broadband Map should really be called the National Airport Map. I think someone got confused when they were developing the map, because there was clearly a lot more effort put into naming nonexistent airports than finding out actual broadband speeds and getting the right service providers assigned to the right zip codes. The map does not list the names of towns or counties, but rather the names of airports until you zoom in really far on a specific location. Why would they list the names of airports that probably consist of a garage, a crop duster and a driveway in a field, but not the names of towns? Why would someone literally spend time finding these unused airports but not get the broadband data correct? So many questions... So few answers.

I tried to copy some screen grabs of the map to post here, but of course that wasn't possible. Please take a few minutes to explore the map here: If the broadband data (service provider, speeds, coverage geography, etc.) in your area is inaccurate, contact the FCC or NTIA. There is a link to leave feedback on the main page of the map. If you found inaccurate data for your service area, I would like to hear about it as well! 

Happy mapping!
Cassandra Heyne 

Update: I tried to leave feedback but when I submitted my comments, they were either deleted or rejected somehow. Thanks, FCC and NTIA! I'm so happy that my feedback is important to you! So important that I can't even submit it!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Crazy Week for The Telecom Industry: NTCA vs. Blair Levin, Net Neutrality Challenged, World Mobile Congress, and More!

Wow, another big week for the telecom industry! So many exciting things have happened, adding to an already pretty exciting month. There was a nearly hostile showdown the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association (NTCA) annual meeting with Blair Levin; exciting smart phones and tablets were revealed at the World Mobile Congress in Barcelona, Spain; the Republicans dished out some harsh criticism about the Net Neutrality Rules, and the competition between Google and Apple heated up over published content distribution (also Apple is being targeted for antitrust violations—oh how fun!). What else? Well, the NBP national broadband maps are finally online, and I have already found one glaring error for Iowa within the first 10 seconds of looking at it (not surprising, considering the mess that some of the statewide maps have been). Wisconsin gave back its broadband stimulus grants, and there was some drama in Minnesota over the CenturyLink-Qwest merger. With all these exciting events, it should not come as a shock that I still haven’t finished reading that USF NPRM to do a proper analysis, although I have gotten a pretty good start and covered most of the main points. Oh, there was also a Federal-State Joint Board Universal Service Workshop today which I hope to watch sometime soon, maybe this weekend if this wonderful faux-spring weather goes away. Other news… a computer beat some really smart humans at Jeopardy which has a lot of people wondering if AI technology really is a force to be reckoned with. Along these lines, I just finished reading The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr, which has lead me to vow to read more entire books and articles and not to rely so much on Google to answer every single question that pops into my mind every day. A little hard research never killed anyone, and I certainly have the skills and determination to look further than the first page of search results to really learn about something. I would love to provide some details on all of these interesting events from the week, but The Shallows taught me that most people do not pay attention to long articles online anyway, so I will try to be brief with highlighting a few of my favorite things from the telecom industry this week.

Blair Levin vs. NTCA: My inside source at the NTCA annual meeting in Dallas informed me early Monday morning that the Blair Levin (National Broadband Plan author and enemy of rural telecom providers) would be engaging in a debate with some rural telecom managers (my “inside source” is my dad, Bruce Heyne, President and GM of Walnut Communications). He said that the audience was instructed not to yell or ask questions, and there was a stage divider installed to separate the rural guys from their nemesis, Mr. Levin. These precautions were apparently necessary as the debate became fairly hostile. I really wished I would have been there! I have been following the Blair Levin vs. Rural Telecom for awhile now, and it never ceases to amaze me how Mr. Levin will boldly walk into the proverbial lion’s den and taunt the lions repeatedly. A few months ago, he insulted rural telecom providers in the Des Moines Register (Iowa has the most rural telecom providers of any state), and now he goes into one of the biggest events in the rural telecom industry with guns blazing. Anyway, Levin debated Delbert Wilson of Hill Country Telephone Cooperative (TX) and Randy Houdek of Venture Communications Cooperative (SD) on some pretty heavy issues. The rural participants argued that the National Broadband Plan implications will be harmful to consumers and the rural industry, and the plan is a great source of uncertainty, “with Houdek noting that if Levin’s assumptions [in the NBP] are wrong, there is a risk an entire infrastructure will be destroyed” (NTCA). Levin is a big advocate of the dreaded 4/1 Mbps speed limit for USF support, which was thankfully attacked by the rural participants. Additionally, there have been many accusations lately about abusive and wasteful use of USF support, where rural telecom providers allegedly receive thousands of dollars per month, per line in some cases. For some reason, I feel like many FCC staff members who are unfamiliar with the rural telecom industry honestly believe that all rural telecom providers do this. This point was argued in the debate, with the rural telco managers explaining that most rural providers see more like a couple hundred dollars per year per line. This is a fact that needs to be echoed until the FCC realizes that not all rural telecom providers are wasting money on "frivolous" things like FTTH that costs the government $2,000 per month for one customer (FTTH is certainly not frivolous). Apparently, Levin argued that rural telecom providers need to look at other business opportunities to remain sustainable, and on this point I completely agree—but this is a topic that I will explore in more detail on another day. Click here to read more about this heated debate on the NTCA website.

GOP Challenges Net Neutrality Rules: I’ve been very pleased to see how many valid and reasonable arguments have popped up lately with regards to those onerous and utterly pointless Net Neutrality Rules.  We are definitely headed for a lengthy battle to get these rules reversed, and Republicans are gearing up to for a fight to the death. I personally don’t think they will be dead and buried until we have a Republican president and FCC majority, but I will be watching every move until then. Anyway, House Republicans attacked the Rules “as unnecessary and overly burdensome on industry,” in a hearing on Wednesday, Feb. 16. Although rural telecom providers might not face the scrutiny that companies like Comcast and Verizon will face under these rules, everyone is going to have to deal with hassles like compliance forms and all of the other fun stuff that costs precious time and money to prevent getting slapped with some sort of vague Net Neutrality violation. The Net Neutrality Rules address a problem that does not exist, and their entire logic is based on “what if” scenarios and not solid truths. I do not think that the FCC has the authority to regulate something as great and far-reaching as the Internet, and hopefully Congress and the Courts will make this conclusion as well. The Republicans are trying to derail the rules through “various legislative avenues,” such as cutting the FCC’s funding for implementing the rules and overturning the rules under the Congressional Review Act (Wall Street Journal). Good luck GOP! I am rooting for you guys and I really hope that your efforts are fruitful and that you choose your strategic maneuvers wisely because Obama and Genachowski will not back down easily. Click here for an article in the Wall Street Journal about Wednesday’s hearing.

Wisconsin Gives Back Broadband Stimulus Money: I found this story to be really entertaining, but also a huge cautionary warning for the FCC as the government moves towards implementing new mechanisms to distribute federal funding for broadband (i.e. the unproven reverse auctions). Basically, there were too many strings attached to the government funding for broadband and the state of Wisconsin did not want to burden taxpayers with a $23 million liability if the hefty requirements were not met to the government’s liking. According to a FierceTelecom article, “this is simply not an acceptable risk,” for the state of Wisconsin, even if the money would have been very important for improving broadband infrastructure in rural areas and for schools, hospitals, and emergency responders. Apparently, the government stipulated a 20 year network commitment in exchange for the $23 million, but the state of Wisconsin does not even own the network infrastructure that would benefit—AT&T owns it! I think it was pretty noble for Wisconsin to give back that money—a less admirable recipient could have just kept it and then burdened taxpayers or customers with the negative consequences of failing to meet requirements. I really hope that the government considers this little incident when they are writing the rules for future monetary distributions for broadband—in the Mobility Fund and the new USF system especially. Too many requirements will scare away potential participants—such as rural telecom providers—who may be the perfect company to receive funding for broadband expansion. I know that this is a reason why some rural telecom providers did not bother participating in the BTOP and BIP programs. I am already really worried about low participation by rural providers in future reverse auctions, and including a ton of overwhelming requirements is definitely not the way to increase participation by small businesses. Click here for an article from FierceTelecom about Wisconsin returning broadband stimulus funds. 

It has definitely been an exciting week!! Stay tuned for my upcoming analysis of the USF NPRM. I am going to be doing my Master's Thesis on USF reform (exact topic is still not determined), so I definitely need to read every page of this document in the near future. 

Cassandra Heyne

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Big Money for (Rural) Mobile Broadband? Good Luck Getting $18B!

This has truly been an exciting week in the rural telecom industry, although not all of the excitement has been good. For one, the USF reform NPRM has been released, but this hefty document is almost 300 pages long. And now, I have read that President Obama is calling for $18 billion in federal funds to be used for bringing mobile broadband connections to 98% of the United States. Like the proposed USF reforms, I can see both good and bad in this far-fetched dream of ubiquitous mobile broadband. I am happy to see that the government clearly realizes that the puny $100-300 million from the "Mobility Fund" will be completely insufficient to implement mobile broadband in all unserved rural areas, and some seriously big-time money will need to come from somewhere else besides Sprint and Verizon's surrendered USF support. I am also happy to see that the administration is pushing for broadcasters to release their death grip on some valuable spectrum that could certainly go towards achieving significant rural mobile broadband deployment goals. However... Good luck with that! I predict that the broadcasters will delay surrendering their spectrum for as long as possible, and it will be a struggle until the bitter end. I have long advocated that under-utilized broadcast spectrum be put to more modern and practical use, so I hope this finally comes to fruition.

According to the articles I have read today, the $18 billion proposal is already being met with criticism in the government and telecom industry. Not only is Congress trying very hard to cut spending, but there are questions about how effective the last round of federal spending for broadband service has been. According to the Wall Street Journal, only around $400 million of the approximately $7 billion in federal broadband loans/grants from the 2009 BTOP program has been used so far (although it all spoken for), with some broadband networks not expected to be deployed for several more years. I definitely expect the BTOP loans to come under harsh scrutiny by Congress before one additional penny is allocated to further broadband network advancement--mobile or otherwise.

What alarmed me the most about the President's proposal is: "about $5 billion currently being used for rural phone subsidies would be re-purposed to build cell towers and backhaul networks to towns without mobile broadband services" (Washington Post). Was the President informed by anyone that the FCC is hell-bent on capping USF spending? Does he know that the current annual total USF spending is less than $10 billion? Does he realize that this request is more than the entire High Cost fund? I'm utterly perplexed by this proposal. It seems like they are hoping that this $5 billion will be a one-time investment, which is even more troubling. In addition to the scary thought of the Obama Administration wanting to yank away all rural phone subsidies, this seems like a case of the government intervening with the free market and attempting to pick a winner of broadband technology, to the detriment of other viable and (some may say) superior broadband technologies like FTTH and DSL.

Finally, you all know how I feel about reverse auctions, or "incentive auctions" as the government likes to call them (reminder: I hate them), and I see they are mentioned again as part of this proposal. I strongly urge the government to wait and see how reverse auctions go with the Mobility Fund (I've pretty much surrendered to the fact that they are probably going to happen, as the FCC seems to think they are the best thing since sliced bread). If by chance this plan is approved, it would be devastating to see that much money go to waste in an auction mechanism that is not tried and true. It would also be devastating if none of that massive amount of money was distributed to rural wireless providers, especially if rural telecom providers are going to lose their safety nets in order to fund mobile broadband expansion. I hope that rural telecom providers are disturbed by the idea of forcibly surrendering USF support only for it go to to a wireless competitor, and I encourage all rural providers to make sure that their appropriate government representatives are aware of this situation.

I will be interested to see how this proposal plays out. Fortunately, I doubt it has much hope at least not in the near future, especially with all the pressure on the government to cut spending, the pressure on the FCC to reduce USF growth, and the uncertain success of the previous round of federal loans for broadband expansion. I would love to be able to enjoy 3G or 4G mobile broadband service when I am on the farm in Walnut, Iowa, but ultimately if there is no business case to invest in mobile infrastructure in deeply rural areas it will be very difficult to convince Congress to appropriate such a tremendous amount of money to this goal--especially if there is a viable broadband alternative like DSL or FTTH already in place (and hopefully deployed by a rural provider)!

Hopefully I will be able to motivate myself to read through the USF NPRM over the weekend, I will definitely have more to say about that soon!

You can read about the President's proposal in the Wall Street JournalThe Washington Post, and FierceWireless

Cassandra Heyne

Monday, February 7, 2011

FCC Chairman Genachowski Kicks off USF Reform Week at ITIF

OK, so I don't think "USF Reform Week" is a real thing, but I thought it sounded nice and it is definitely appropriate. There will certainly be considerable buzz across the country all week as the FCC reveals a proposal for comprehensive reform of USF and ICC at tomorrow's Open Meeting. This morning, Chairman Genachowski spoke to a small group and the press at an event hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF). He provided a preview of what is to come in the much anticipated USF reform proposal that will finally be unveiled tomorrow. This reform effort is particularly interesting because telecom sectors are extremely divided over how far the FCC should go to change the current USF and ICC systems. Much like the controversial Net Neutrality issue, some argue that the status quo is perfectly fine and that any upheaval of the status quo will have devastating effects, and others argue for a complete and swift overhaul of these allegedly antiquated and unsustainable systems. Where do I fall on this spectrum? Well, I definitely think that USF should be supporting broadband and other forward-looking 21st century services (mobile, text messaging, etc.), but I don't think voice service should be left behind in the dust either. I definitely do not think rate-of-return should be eliminated, and I think that the FCC is making rural phone companies look like greedy, wasteful, traffic-pumping enemies of government funding. This perception is completely unsubstantiated and very unfortunate for the rural phone companies who truly work hard to bring modern telecommunications services to even the most remote customer--the customer that would most likely be ignored by the big companies. It is a commonly known fact that small rural companies go to much greater extents to deliver high-speed broadband to all of their customers than the big companies, so why are they made to look like they are wasting precious USF money and accused of being more driven to lose customers than to serve customers with state-of-the-art service offerings?

Genachowski reiterated some of the commonly known facts about the troubling state of broadband deployment in the U.S.-- 24 million Americans don't have broadband access, 1/3 of the population doesn't use the Internet, and the U.S. ranks pathetically low in the international rankings. Apparently, the US ranks 40th out of 40 countries on improvement of innovation competitiveness according to an ITIF study. According to Genachowski, "moving forward slowly is moving backwards." I completely agree with him on this point, and I think it is extremely troubling that the US continues to slip lower and lower on international broadband rankings (see my post below on broadband speeds for more on this topic). In order to recover from the economic crisis, the US must improve broadband deployment and adoption, and rural areas are the primary target for this improvement effort. There is so much wonderful potential hidden in rural areas for economic recovery, investment, growth and job opportunity; but an extensive broadband infrastructure is absolutely required if the rural potential is to be tapped.

USF--the High Cost Fund in particular--has been thrust in the spotlight as being plagued with inefficiency, "broken," unsustainable, lacking clear oversight, promoting "perverse incentives," and in dire need of clear goals. I personally believe that all of these negative descriptions are better suited for, say, E-Rate, but apparently Genachowski is happy with E-Rate right now. So the focus is on the High Cost Fund, and particularly on rural carriers, because the impending "Rural-Rural Divide" is a national problem. Apparently it rewards companies for losing customers, but this seems like a business strategy for sure failure for any company no matter how much government money is involved. The current ICC system was also described with a gloomy cloud of words like unstable, unpredictable, constant litigation, and discouraging investment in IP infrastructure. Basically, Genachowski argued that the current USF and ICC mechanisms are designed "for a world that no longer exists."

So what is the FCC proposing? Genachowski was scant on actual details--we will have to wait for tomorrow to learn more--but the good news is that USF will probably not be abruptly yanked away in the middle of the night with no notice. However, change is definitely coming whether we like it or not. The FCC is hoping to modernize the systems to support broadband deployment and adoption, increase fiscal responsibility and accountability, and implement more market-driven and incentive-based mechanisms for distributing support (the dreaded reverse auctions). The NPRM will include short and long term goals for reducing waste and disputes with ICC, addressing VoIP issues, establishing a path for transitioning to the Connect America Fund, and keeping USF costs in check. There will most likely be strong pushes to eliminate support for the antiquated traditional voice telephone network, as well as per-minute based ICC payments.

I will wait until tomorrow when I hear from the other Commissioners to dig deeper into how these reforms will impact rural providers, but for now I will say that changes are coming and the rural providers best be prepared. Hopefully tomorrow's decision will reduce some of the ongoing uncertainty that has hindered rural telecom investment over the last year--sometimes it is better to have bad news than no news at all for long periods of time. Genachowski did call for all stakeholders to work with the FCC on proposals and solutions, and I cannot stress how important it is for rural telecom providers to speak up through their attorneys and state/regional/national advocacy groups about how the FCC's USF and ICC proposals will affect them in the short and long term. I am eagerly hoping to hear more tomorrow about two issues-- the future (or lack thereof) of Rate-of-Return and that awful 4/1 Mbps broadband speed target.

If you want to read a transcript of Genachowski's presentation, it is available here.
Cassandra Heyne