Dear Rural Utilities Service: How to Prove a Negative, or Why the National Broadband Maps stink and what to do about it (Part 1)

The Rural Utilities Service is seeking comment on several aspects of its new rural broadband pilot program. The most significant of the questions relates to where public funds may be spent. Congress has determined that the funds be used only in areas unserved by broadband, where unserved is defined in the first year as areas where 90% of the households lack 10/1 Mbps service. Prioritizing spending to areas most in need is good policy, and if the government published a list of such areas, the RUS could direct applicants to that list. Alas, no such list, no such data, no such maps exist. In the words of Senator Tester, “The maps stink,” by which he means that the National Broadband Maps overstate service coverage and are generally unreliable. The reasons are manifold, and as I have described those reasons in other posts, I will not do so again.

If the RUS relies on the National Broadband Maps, excluding all areas where either federal money is already being spent or an ISP claims 10/1 Mbps service, there are only about a quarter million households in the country that lack broadband and would qualify for the RUS program.  The data strains credulity.

It is left to the RUS and potential applicants to develop the methods that determine which areas lack 10/1 Mbps service availability to at least 90% of the households. To prove a negative. In this post, and in the coming days and weeks, I will outline several potential approaches, utilizing federal rules and standards, which the RUS could adopt and thereby provide applicants with a roadmap. Since Congress has directed the RUS to coordinate its broadband activities with the FCC, I will focus in this post on applying FCC rules and protocols to the RUS broadband program.

First, the FCC does not rely solely on the National Broadband Map when it spends the public’s money on broadband networks, and neither should the RUS. The FCC has long used its own testing program, Measuring Broadband America (MBA). Earlier this year, the FCC adopted a testing protocol to ensure that the public’s funds are spent on actual, consistent, measurable speeds. The National Broadband Map and the underlying 477 data, by contrast, do not purport to reflect actual, consistent, measurable speeds, but self-reported advertised speeds. The relevant question in Form 477 asks for the maximum advertisedspeed. The FCC’s testing protocols are one way to demonstrate the actualspeed of broadband.

Having spent years analyzing the 477 data and MBA data, I can say with some confidence that where 10/1 Mbps is the maximum advertised speed in an area, testing will show that the service would not meet the FCC’s testing protocol for 10/1 Mbps under the Connect America Fund. That may sound contradictory, but the data mean different things. To put it plainly, when the 477 data says 10/1 Mbps is the maximum speed, it generally means that the actual, consistent, measurable speed is less than 10/1 Mbps.

This distinction is the whole enchilada. Maximum advertised speed is typically a ceiling; the FCC’s testing protocols ensure a floor. Congress offered no judgment on ceilings versus floors in the broadband appropriation. Given the attention recently paid by Congress to the inadequacy of the National Broadband Map, it is unlikely that Congress wants RUS to use broadband speeds that are theoretical, sporadic, and untested. It would be appropriate for the RUS to adopt actual speeds, rather than advertised speeds, as the standard for determining served or unserved.

Second, the FCC does not use speed in isolation as a measure of broadband, and neither should the RUS. Simply put, speed alone is not broadband. 10/1 Mbps with only 10 GB per month capacity is not broadband. The average household use of broadband has grown one hundred-fold over the past decade to 200 GB usage per month. 10/1 Mbps with latency of 750 milliseconds is not broadband. Voice, and other key applications of broadband networks, require low latency networks. 10/1 Mbps priced at $100 per month is not broadband. Rural households are generally more impoverished than the national average and setting the price of an essential service out of reach effectively means it is not available.

Speed, capacity, latency and affordability are all components to the FCC’s requirements for spending public funds on broadband networks. In the recently concluded Connect America Fund auction, the baseline tier for bidding included 25/3 Mbps speed, 160 GB per month capacity, 100 milliseconds or less latency, and a price point that is no greater than the average price for such service in urban areas. The optimal tier in the auction (for which there was no bidding penalty) was 1 Gbps, 2 TB, 100 milliseconds, and the average urban price. Similarly, the RUS should indicate that an area is unserved if the internet access services available fail any of those components. “Unserved” means that the service is not comparable to service available in urban and suburban areas at comparable prices.

The RUS could adopt a definition of “unserved” that includes all four components. For example, served requires 10/1 Mbps or faster speeds, 160 GB or greater monthly capacity, 100 milliseconds or better latency, and priced at $55 per month or less.

Third, the FCC’s statutory mandate is universal service, intended to make service available to every rural household and small business, and the RUS programs should adopt universal service as its goal. In some cases, the FCC’s Connect America Fund program obligation reach just 95% of the households, but that is still markedly different than service as displayed in the National Broadband Maps. The maps display a census block as served by a particular speed if an ISP reports availability to even a single location in that census block. When the underlying technology is distance sensitive, as is the case particularly with copper- and spectrum-based services, the mapping significantly overstates availability. For example, if one household is 2,000 feet from a telephone company central office or DSLAM, the household might receive 10/1 Mbps speeds. But a household in the same census block served by that same central office or DSLAM that is 10,000 feet away assuredly will not. The maps will treat both households as served.

Treating partially served census blocks as if they are fully served will result in an underinvestment in rural America. Or, to put it another way, it is of little value to you if your neighbor has broadband and you do not. The appropriate geographic area is the home, but data isn’t collected on such a granular basis. This is a difficult and meaningful informational problem. When the state of New York designed its broadband program, it surveyed ISPs about partially served census blocks, and found 25-50% additional unserved households. However, no such data exists on a national basis.

One way to address the problem of partially served blocks is use of a safe harbor assumption. For example, treat them all as if they are 50% served, and 50% unserved for purposes of a funding application. Sometimes the simple approaches are the best. The RUS could establish that, upon evidence that a block is at least partially unserved, an applicant could use the safe harbor assumption of unserved households in that census block. For more granular evidence, the RUS could adopt a sliding scale safe harbor between 10% and 90% of the households in a census block.

The Rural Utilities Service has asked for comments to these and other questions by September 10, 2018. I am offering my thoughts at this time in the hopes that the rural electric cooperative community will offer solutions to these thorny problems. In the coming days, I’ll describe several of my ideas on how to measure actual speeds and determine the parameters of partially served blocks. I’d encourage anyone to contact me directly with other solutions.