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Microsoft Looking at Broadband and Agriculture

This past summer Microsoft announced a strategic alliance with the giant farm cooperative Land O’Lakes. The company is one of the country’s largest farmer-owned cooperatives and is a huge dairy producer and controls over 150 million acres of cropland.

The partnership intends to explore ways that Microsoft can leverage technology to improve farm production. Land O’Lakes has created a portfolio of software tools for members and Microsoft will work to unify the software in its Azure cloud platform. The hope is that a large and standardized agricultural software platform will be the best way to bring technology improvements to individual farmers in the cooperative.

One example of this initiative is a tool for dealing with early mitigation of plant stress. Crops are most susceptible to problems at the beginning of the growing cycle, and the software platform will help farmers to survey their fields with sensors and to take actions to optimize growth conditions. The software will suggest optimum fertilizer applications that will lower the amount of fertilizer used by applying the right kind of fertilizer only where needed. Over time the goal is to identify the right seed varieties for each farm to maximize output.

The biggest challenge in the Microsoft initiative is something that readers of this blog are well aware of – many farms have inadequate broadband. Rather than be stopped by lack of broadband, the partnership will be exploring solutions that work for well-connected farms as well as for those with poor broadband.

An example of a solution for areas with poor broadband is the Digital Dairy solution. This will use edge computing located at the farm that will be powerful enough to process data without having to send the data to the cloud. This initiative starts with tracking herd health with innovative practices that will tailor the feed to each cow to maximize health and milk production. Microsoft also will be concentrating on the supply chain to find strategies to make sure that milk doesn’t go bad during storage and transit. The ultimate goal is to provide traceability so that stores in the supply chain, and ultimately consumers will be able to know the source, quality, and freshness of dairy products.

One of the most exciting parts of the partnership is to use software tools to help with sustainability. This means studying the local soil to develop strategies to improve soil conditions since healthier soil ultimately means better crops and healthier food. One important component of sustainability is developing strategies for carbon sequestration, which is the process of permanently storing excess carbon in the soil. That’s good for the planet but also good for the soil.

Microsoft will also be working to bring better broadband to some of the Land O’Lakes farms. For several years, the company has been engaged with rural ISPs in its Airband program to use white space spectrum to bring better broadband to rural areas. That program got a huge shot in the arm a few months ago when the FCC finally agreed to free up more rural white space spectrum – something for which Microsoft has been lobbying for almost a decade.

This initiative is emblematic of the new approach that Microsoft is taking in the market. Rather than only developing generic software products, the company wants to work with individual industries to develop new and improved software tools specific for each industry. There is probably no better place for Microsoft to start than our farms.

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  • Posted in The Industry
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The FCC Drops the Ball on RDOF

My Twitter feed is full of self-congratulations from FCC and other federal officials about the success of the recently completed RDOF grant. But I look at the results and I just see another big FCC failure. I see a grant where billions of federal dollars were misallocated due to another giant gaffe by the FCC.

How did the FCC fail? They allowed fixed wireless technology to bid as a gigabit technology. This means the FCC believes that fixed wireless technology is the functional equivalent of fiber. This is such an easily disprovable concept that it would be laughable if the FCC hadn’t just awarded billions of dollars to an imaginary gigabit wireless technology.

I don’t dislike fixed wireless technology, and in fact, I spent most of a decade as a customer of a WISP that did a great job bringing broadband to a place that otherwise would have had no broadband. Fixed wireless is a decent technology. When serving large areas there are many places today where it’s routinely being used today to deliver 50 Mbps to 75 Mbps broadband. In unique cases where a customer is near to a tower, I’ve seen speeds approaching 150 Mbps and I wouldn’t be surprised if WISPs can point out customers getting 200 Mbps. But as nice as that is, that’s not gigabit speeds and fixed wireless is not a gigabit technology, nor is it a functional equivalent to fiber.

This technology can be deployed in two ways – in a point-to-point configuration or as point-to-multipoint. Point-to-point wireless shoots bandwidth from a transmitter on a tower to reach a single endpoint. This is the technology used to beam backhaul between towers or is used in urban areas to reach between high-rise buildings. This is the technology that we’ve always referred to in the industry as microwave backhaul. This technology can deliver gigabit speeds, but is not a practical technology to use for residential broadband because there is only room for a small number of transmitters on any given tower or rooftop.

The technology used to provide WISP broadband is point-to-multipoint technology. A single antenna on a tower can connect to multiple customers. This technology is aim at delivering modest broadband to lots of customers. It can’t be used to deliver giant bandwidth to more than a few customers – and it’s not really designed to deliver gigabit download, and certainly not a symmetrical gigabit.

By allowing WISPS to claim gigabit capabilities, the FCC cheated huge numbers of people out of getting fiber. There were numerous electric cooperatives, small telcos, CLECs, fiber overbuilders, and public/private partnerships in the auction hoping to bring fiber to entire rural counties. In looking at the footprints won due to this fiction, I’m guessing the FCC’s decision to allow fixed wireless to falsely bid as gigabit technology killed fiber construction to at least a few hundred rural counties.

Six of the top ten winners of the auction will be deploying wireless technology and together account for over $3.2 billion – more than a third of the entire auction award. That list includes four wireless companies along with Windstream and Frontier.

Interestingly, WISPs that didn’t exaggerate the capability of the technology got clobbered in this grant. For example, Midcontinent won grant money in the CAF II reverse auction bidding fixed wireless as capable of 100 Mbps. They did the same in this auction and got steamrolled by the WISPs that won by bidding with the identical technology but falsely claiming gigabit capability.

I’m sure the people that get the networks built from this auction will be glad to get better broadband. But a few million of them could have instead gotten fiber that would have future-proofed them for the rest of the century. And sadly, some of the people in these grant areas won’t get broadband because they’re located in a hollow or behind a hill, out of reach of the wireless towers.

I don’t understand why the FCC couldn’t get this right. The FCC could have talked to any one of a hundred telecom engineers I know who would have laughed at the idea that fixed wireless can deliver gigabit speeds across big tracts of extremely rural America. A huge portion of this auction was based upon this lie, and that never bodes well for the long run.

There is an easy fix for this going forward. If the FCC is going to let WISPs exaggerate the technical ability to deliver gigabit speeds, then fiber providers should be allowed to bid in a 10-gigabit tier. That’s something that any fiber winner could easily guarantee, and which wouldn’t be a false claim. I also hope for severe penalties, up to having to return all of the grant money, for any grant winners in this auction that claimed gigabit speeds but then deliver 50 Mbps networks.

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  • Posted in Regulation – What is it Good For?
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My Wish List for a New FCC

A change of administration will bring a change at the FCC as the majority swings from Republican to Democratic. I’ve always maintained a regulatory wish list, and the following are my hopes for what we’ll see out of the new FCC. Note that these aren’t predictions – just my own hopes.

Keep the Politics Out. This was added to the blog as it went to press. There is talk of a new Congress refusing to seat a new Chairman and a fifth commissioner in an attempt to thwart any attempt to re-regulate broadband. That would be a disaster for the industry (as it would be for any other regulatory agency). A partisan FCC with no voting majority is going to accomplish very little and will deadlock on most issues.

Kill the Seventh Year of CAF II. The CAF II program that handed over $10 billion to the big telcos to upgrade rural America to 10/1 Mbps broadband was a total bust. To rub salt into the wounds for the failed program, the current FCC just awarded the big telcos an additional $2.5 billion in a seventh year of subsidy – a payment for which the ISPs have no expected performance obligations. It’s just free money. I hope a new FCC kills that funding and uses that money to support new rural broadband.

Adopt a Realistic Definition of Broadband. It’s unbelievable that the current FCC is sticking to 25/3 Mbps as the definition of broadband. The FCC proudly claims in the 2020 report to Congress that 85% of homes in the country can buy broadband of at least 250/25 Mbps (a claim I think is overstated). If the FCC thinks that claim is true, then how can they think that the remaining 15% of homes deserve only one-tenth of the broadband speeds available to everybody else?

Fix the Damned Maps. The FCC has dallied for a few years to pull the trigger for new mapping, always with some excuse. They need to make this happen and make it happen right. The current FCC plans still don’t penalize ISPs for reporting marketing speeds instead of actual speeds. Unless that problem is fixed, any new mapping will be just as dreadful as existing mapping. And please, don’t hand out any more giant grants based upon badly flawed maps.

Stop Funding Slow Broadband Technologies. It’s mind-boggling that the current RDOF grants allow technologies as slow as 25/3 Mbps to claim grant funds – for a program that allows six years to implement the funded solution. That means that not only does the FCC pretend that 25/3 Mbps is adequate broadband today, but they are willing to saddle parts of rural America with those speeds for the next decade.

Bring Back Broadband Regulation. This FCC gutted broadband regulation. It probably raises eyebrows to see me ask for the return of regulation, but the FCC can’t currently even scold big ISPs for abusing customers. It’s highly unlikely that any FCC would go so far as to implement rate regulation, but one of the most important industries in the country needs a cop at the top to protect citizens against monopoly abuses.

Drop the 5G Rhetoric. The FCC has no business pushing 5G as the solution to everything broadband. The FCC is an independent agency. While the administration and Congress have every right to climb aboard the 5G bus, the FCC is supposed to be a neutral regulator and has no business supporting 5G over other technologies. The cellular companies behind 5G are extremely well-funded and we should let 5G play out as the market sees fit.

Don’t Sponsor a New National Broadband Plan. That’s what the government does when it wants to kick an issue down the road. We don’t need another panel of experts telling us what is wrong with rural broadband.

Say No to a Big ISP Once in a While. The current FCC seems to have decided every issue in favor of the biggest ISPs. I understand that AT&T, Comcast, Charter, and Verizon serve 73% of the broadband and cable customers and most of the cellular customers in the country. The current FCC approved everything on the big ISP’s regulatory wish lists. The role of a regulator is to strike a balance between the companies it regulates and the public – we need to get back to a balance between those two interests.

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  • Posted in Regulation – What is it Good For?
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Understanding Oversubscription

It’s common to hear that oversubscription is the cause of slow broadband – but what does that mean? Oversubscription comes into play in any network when the aggregate subscribed customer demand is greater than the available bandwidth.

The easiest way to understand the concept is with an example. Consider a passive optical fiber network where up to 32 homes share the same neighborhood fiber. In the most common GPON technology, the customers on one of these neighborhood nodes (called a PON) share a total of 2.4 gigabits of download data.

If an ISP sells a 100 Mbps download connection to 20 customers on a PON, then in aggregate, those customers could use as much as 2 gigabits of data, meaning there is still unsold capacity – meaning that each customer is guaranteed the full 100 Mbps connection inside the PON. However, if an ISP sells a gigabit connection to 20 customers, then there are 20 gigabits of potential customer usage that have been pledged over the same 2.4-gigabit physical path. The ISP has sold more than 8 times more capacity to customers than is physically available, and this particular PON has an oversubscription ratio of 8.

When people first hear about oversubscription, they are often aghast – they think an ISP has done something shady and is selling people more bandwidth than can be delivered. But in reality, an oversubscription ratio recognizes how people use bandwidth. It’s highly likely in the example of selling gigabit connections that customers will always have access to their bandwidth.

ISPs understand how customers use bandwidth and they can take advantage of the real behavior of customers in deciding oversubscription ratios. In this example, it’s highly unlikely that any residential customer ever uses a full gigabit of bandwidth – because there is almost no place on the web that where a residential customer can connect at that speed.

But more importantly, a home subscribing to a gigabit connection mostly doesn’t use most of the bandwidth they’ve purchased. A home isn’t using much bandwidth when people are asleep or away from home. The residents of a gigabit home might spend the evening watching a few simultaneous videos and barely use any bandwidth. The ISP is banking on the normal behavior of its customers in determining a safe oversubscription ratio. ISPs have come to learn that households buying gigabit connections often don’t use any more bandwidth than homes buying 100 Mbps connections – they just complete web transactions faster.

Even should bandwidth in this example PON ever get too busy, the issue is likely temporary. For example, if a few doctors lived in this neighborhood and were downloading big MRI files at the same time, the neighborhood might temporarily cross the 2.4-gigabit available bandwidth limit. Since transactions happen quickly for a gigabit customer, such an event would not likely last very long, and even when it was occurring most residents in the PON wouldn’t see a perceptible difference.

It is possible to badly oversubscribe a neighborhood. Anybody who uses a cable company for broadband can remember back a decade when broadband slowed to a crawl when homes started watching Netflix in the evening. The cable company networks were not designed for steady video streaming and were oversubscribing bandwidth by factors of 200 to one or higher. It became routine for the bandwidth demand for a neighborhood to significantly surpass network capacity, and the whole neighborhood experienced a slowdown. Since then, the cable companies have largely eliminated the problem by decreasing the number of households in a node.

As an aside, ISPs know they have to treat business neighborhoods differently. Businesses might engage in steady large bandwidth uses like connecting to multiple branches, using software platforms in the cloud, using cloud-based VoIP, etc. An oversubscription ratio that works in a residential neighborhood is likely to be far too high in some business neighborhoods.

To make the issue even more confusing, the sharing of bandwidth at the neighborhood level is only one place in a network where oversubscription comes into play. Any other place inside the ISP network where customer data is aggregated and combined will face the same oversubscription issue. The industry uses the term chokepoint to describe a place in a network where bandwidth can become a constraint. There is a minimum of three chokepoints in every ISP network, and there can be many more. Bandwidth can be choked in the neighborhood as described above, can be choked in the primary network routers that direct traffic, or can be choked on the path between the ISP and the Internet. If any chokepoint in an ISP network gets over-busy, then the ISP has oversubscribed the portion of the network feeding into the chokepoint.

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  • Posted in Technology
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Are There any Cable Companies Left?

Are there any companies left that we can still call cable companies? Everything in the business press still refers to Comcast and Charter as cable companies and AT&T and Verizon as telephone companies. It’s getting harder to justify using these traditional labels and maybe the time is finally here to just start calling them all ISPs.

After all, these four companies collectively have 80 million broadband customers, meaning these four ISPs now have around 73% of all broadband customers in the country. They also have about 73% of all traditional cable customers, at 58 million, but that number has been tumbling and is down from 64 million just a year ago. It was only a few years ago where the broadband and cable TV markets crossed and broadband became the predominant product for these companies – but since then, the gap is growing quickly between the two product lines.

FierceVideo published an article in September that interviewed the CEOs of Comcast, Charter, and AT&T that asked each their views on the future of cable TV. Their responses are not surprising in an industry where traditional cable subscribers are shrinking quickly.

Brian Roberts of Comcast said he is “indifferent” for having customers on traditional cable TV or in Comcast’s Flex product that is free and ad-supported. And that doesn’t even count in the 14 million people who are now watching Comcast’s online Peacock service. Comcast sees all video products as important in making Comcast’s broadband customers stickier. AT&T’s John Stankey said something similar. He says he values the traditional cable TV product, but that the company is betting on the online offerings like AT&T TV and HBO Max. Charter is the only large company still on the traditional track, and the company added cable customers in the second quarter of this year. But Charter CEO Tom Rutledge foresees growth coming to an end since the company feels obligated to pass video content rate increases on to cable customers.

Both Comcast and Charter have made up some of the loss in cable customers by launching a successful cellular product. At the end of the third quarter this year, Comcast had 2.6 million cellular customers and Charter had grown to 2 million. Both companies will be working to increase the profit margins of the cellular product by shifting traffic from resold cellular to company-owned small cell sites. Both companies have a built-in advantage in that they already own fiber deep into neighborhoods, so both should be able to deploy cellular small cells without having to lease transport. I find it interesting that these two traditional cable companies seem to be doing a better job of bunding in cellular service than was ever done by AT&T and Verizon – those two companies never seemed to find a way to do that.

In my writing about the industry, I have lately been referring to these big companies as ISPs or incumbents because the terms cable company and telephone company seems to have lost relevance. It’s becoming hard to distinguish between Comcast and AT&T in markets where AT&T is competing against Comcast using gigabit fiber.

I’m at a loss to explain why the industry continues to call Comcast a cable company. The percentage of revenue that comes from cable TV is dropping quickly, and the share of margin from cable is dropping even faster. The amount of money that AT&T makes from traditional telephone service is so small that it’s a challenge to even find the word telephone in the company’s financial report. But I guess old habits are hard to break. We instantly know who is being referred to when somebody says “large cable companies” or “large telcos”. But I’m still looking forward to a time when these monikers are so rare that we’ll have to explain what they mean to children.

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  • Posted in The Industry
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Broadband Growth Continues During the Pandemic

Leichtman Research Group recently released the broadband customer statistics for the end of the third quarter of 2020 for the largest cable and telephone companies. Leichtman compiles most of these numbers from the statistics provided to stockholders other than for Cox, which is estimated. Leichtman says this group of companies represents 96% of all US landline broadband customers.

The second quarter shows big growth in broadband customers with over one and a half million new broadband subscribers customers added by the big ISPs. The following are the statistics for the first and second quarters of 2020.

9/30/20 3Q Change % Change 2Q 20 Adds
Comcast 30,062,000 633,000 2.2% 323,000
Charter 28,633,000 537,000 1.9% 850.000
AT&T 15,375,000 174,000 1.1% (114,000)
Verizon 7,069,000 110,000 1.6% (23,000)
Cox 5,330,000 50,000 0.9% 50,000
CenturyLink 4,563,000 (75,000) -1.6% (29,000)
Altice 4,363,500 26,000 0.6% 70,400
Frontier 3,119,000 (23,000) -0.7% (41,000)
Mediacom 1,425,000 29,000 2.1% 47,000
Windstream 1,102,300 12,900 1.2% 22,100
Cable ONE 865,000 27,000 3.2% 45,000
WOW! 808,900 3,300 0.4% 8,000
Consolidated 792,211 1,008 0.1% 5,078
TDS 487,700 8,200 1.7% 19,500
Atlantic Broadband 492,212 13,523 2.8% 6,000
Cincinnati Bell 434,500 2,500 0.6% 4,500
104,922,323 1,529,431 1.5% 1,243,578
Total Cable 71,979,612 1,318,823 1.9% 1,399,400
Total Telco 32,942,711 210,608 0.6% (115,822)

Going purely by the numbers, the cable companies collectively added 1.3 million customers in the third quarter – 80,000 less than the second quarter. The telcos made a huge turnaround and adding 210,000 customers in the quarter after having lost 116,000 customers just a quarter earlier.

There are still a few factors that probably make 2020 subscriber numbers a little soft. For example, most of the big ISPs are still not disconnecting customers for non-payment. At some future date that back billing is going to come due, and one might expect that due to widespread unemployment that there will be a significant downside adjustment. Some of the ISPs have also been providing free or low-cost broadband to students working from home – something that will also eventually end. One piece of evidence that subscriber numbers are soft is that the third quarter also saw 1,500,000 homes disconnect traditional cable TV, largely to save money.

Probably the most important thing demonstrated by the growth numbers is the huge and growing demand for broadband during the pandemic – even if the numbers are masking homes that might not be able to afford broadband post-pandemic. We continue to find evidence that broadband has become a necessity for homes.

There is another industry trend that is not reflected in these numbers. OpenVault reported recently that at the end of the third quarter that 5.6% of homes were now subscribed to a gigabit broadband product. That means that just in the third quarter that 875,000 homes upgraded to gigabit. Similar upgrading can be seen for subscribers to bandwidth tiers between 200 Mbps and gigabit speeds. People are clearly finding existing broadband products to be inadequate and are upgrading to faster products.

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  • Posted in The Industry
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A Look at the Big Guys

You can’t put the telecom sector into perspective without looking at the performance of the biggest players in the industry. The pandemic has been an interesting year for both big ISPs and telecom vendors. Smaller ISPs should care about big ISP performance for many reasons. For many smaller companies, the big companies are the competition and strength or weakness of the big providers can foretell stiffened competition or increased opportunity. The big ISPs also drive the overall industry and impact the availability of everything from fiber, electronics, and available construction crews.

Comcast. The company’s financial results are interesting. Revenues for the whole corporation for 3Q 2020 dropped 4.8% compared to a year earlier, EBITDA dropped 11.3%, and net income dropped 37.2%. The big drops are due to the entertainment parts of the company and Comcast did well in the telecom space. The company added 323,000 new broadband customers in the third quarter but lost 478,000 cable customers. Telecom EBITDA grew by 10.5%, demonstrating the big difference in margin between broadband and cable customers.

AT&T. Revenues dropped 5.2% compared to the third quarter of 2019. AT&T did a good job of managing expenses and margins dropped from 22.2% to 19.4%. The company added over 1 million net new wireless customers. AT&T reported something that we need to remember about the whole ISP industry this year – it added 357,000 customers to fiber, but only 28,000 are paying customers. AT&T, like other ISPs provided some free connections for students and also is not disconnecting customers for non-pay. The company lost over 800,000 video customers, mostly at DirecTV, but is seeing good growth with AT&T TV and HBO.

Charter. The company weathered COVID better than most other telecom companies. Revenues were up 5.1% compared to a year earlier. This was driven by an increase of 850,000 broadband customers and an increase of 94,000 cable customers. Not all of the broadband customers are paying and the company claims 537,000 net gains in paying customers. Charter also added 363,000 cellular customers during the quarter.

Verizon. Revenues are down 4.1% compared to a year earlier. Overall earnings were down 4.3%. The company added over 400,000 wireless customers. The company added 144,000 net customers to FiOS fiber, the biggest quarterly gain since 2014. Unlike Comcast and AT&T, the company didn’t have a non-telecom business pulling down the bottom line.

Telco Vendors. There were mixed results for worldwide telco vendors. Capital spending by the big telcos dropped, resulting in overall lower revenue for many vendors. However, Huawei and ZTE revenues were up 26%, driven by the Chinese governments spending for 5G. All other vendors collectively saw a 1% drop in revenues for the quarter. Fujitsu revenues were up 12% for the quarter, representing continued big growth for fiber backhaul. Ericsson was up 9%, driven by 5G electronics. Intel was up 4%, driven largely by sales of smartphone chips. But other vendors weren’t so lucky. Corning revenues were down 4%. Cisco sales were down 6%, and CommScope sales were down 11%. Samsung was down almost 15%.

Upcoming Trends. Analysts predict some of the following trends for the big players in the industry:

  • Fiber buildout to small cells should pick up again in 2021 to pre-pandemic levels.
  • Sales of operating software will grow faster than sales of hardware.
  • Most big telcos are likely to reduce staff in 2021.
  • Overall capital spending is likely to grow around 4%, bringing the industry back to pre-pandemic levels.
  • Telcos will pause to investigate before stepping into open RAN.
  • While there will be continued spending on 5G infrastructure, there is no expectation of net revenue increases due to 5G technology.

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  • Posted in Current News
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Continued Bans Against Municipal Competition

There are still states around that don’t let municipalities participate in finding broadband solutions. In a world where it’s now clear that broadband is vital to homes, it’s hard to understand how such bans make any sense. I’m going to write today about my state of North Carolina as an example of how continued bans are harming the citizens of the state.

This is a state where the telecom lobby has been historically generous with state lawmakers and has been able to pass desired legislation for decades. The municipal ban in North Carolina was passed a decade ago when lawmakers reacted to a citywide fiber network constructed by the City of Wilson. The big ISPs at the time – Time Warner Cable (now part of Charter), AT&T, and CenturyLink argued that municipal competition was unfair and that the private sector should be allowed to take care of the broadband needs of communities.

The pandemic has highlighted the fallacy of the big ISP argument. In the ten years since the law passed, the state has seen some improvements in broadband. When Google Fiber popped up in the Research Triangle, both AT&T and Time Warner reacted quickly and a few lucky households can buy gigabit broadband today from three providers. There are a few telephone cooperatives in the state that have built fiber in rural areas, including one that is extending into some neighboring counties. A few WISPs have built wireless broadband to pockets of rural customers. Charter upgraded a few years ago to DOCSIS 3.1 and cable broadband in the cities is decent – although upload speeds now look to be inadequate to handle the pandemic.

But the households that had no broadband, or poor broadband a decade ago when the municipal ban was passed still had no broadband when the pandemic sent students and adults home to work. AT&T has gone so far as to announce on October 1 that it will no longer install new DSL customers – so it’s ceding the towns and cities in the states to become monopoly markets controlled by cable companies. CenturyLink got billions of federal dollars to improve rural broadband to at least 10/1 Mbps, but nobody in North Carolina can find where these upgrades have been made.

The big ISPs are lobbying against a bogeyman that doesn’t exist. Municipal competition has been allowed in a lot of the country for twenty years and there are still only around 200 communities that have built fiber – most of them small and most of them already having a municipal electric utility.

Communities only look for broadband solutions when prompted to do so by their citizens. A big percentage of rural communities are now exploring better broadband because their citizens are screaming loudly about the inability to participate in normal daily life without good broadband. At the local level, broadband is a non-partisan issue and you won’t find many local politicians in rural areas who are not strong proponents of solving the broadband gaps.

But unfortunately, at the state level, politics as usual still controls the municipal ban on broadband. Almost annually in North Carolina, proponents for better broadband take a shot at overturning the municipal broadband ban. But year after year the lobbyists kill such efforts. In the last legislative session the story I heard is that AT&T lobbyists were able to change the wording of the proposed new law to the point of neutering it. This is the same AT&T that publicly announced a year ago that it was finished building residential fiber and that this year decided to bow out of the business of providing broadband using DSL on copper wires. This is a big ISP that is not spending any money to help North Carolina households but that still is still spending on lobbyists to kill any law that even hints at broadband competition.

The AT&T tactic used to kill a pro-broadband law earlier this year demonstrates the newest big ISP tactic. Lobbyists get language inserted into proposed bills that kills them – but the language is always subtle, and to a layperson never sounds bad. This gives cover to state politicians that can tell their rural constituents that they are pro-broadband while still voting against pro-broadband laws.

What’s ironic about the municipal broadband ban is that there are only a few communities that are willing to become an ISP. The vast majority of communities that spend money looking for a broadband solution are trying to lure a new ISP to serve their community. But of course, the big ISPs don’t want that any more than they want municipal competition.

The pandemic may have changed the calculus of the legislative process enough to overturn the bans against municipal broadband. Rural residents are now up-in-arms about lack of broadband and are letting politicians know their unhappiness. But since the legislative process is done behind closed doors, it’s sadly likely that the lobbyists of the big ISPs will continue to hold enough sway to keep killing competition.

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Why I am Thankful for 2020

Every year I write a blog at Thanksgiving talking about the things in our industry for which I am thankful. Most years it’s not hard to do this because there are always a lot of great things happening in the broadband industry. But 2020 has been hard on the broadband industry just like it’s been hard on all of us. I had to reach a little deeper this year to make a list. Please feel free to comment on this blog with things you are thankful for this year.

Response to the Pandemic. To me, the big story of the year is the way that local officials and local ISPs quickly responded to the pandemic. It was a shock sending kids home to do schoolwork who didn’t have computers or home broadband connections. I’ve talked to dozens of school districts that scrambled and found hot spots and computers so that within a short time kids had some options.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t always easy. For instance, there are a lot of rural places with poor cellular coverage where sending home a wireless hotspot wasn’t a viable solution. Communities and ISPs found ways to install public hot spots at schools, parked school buses, restaurants, fire stations – any place where people could park cars and where ISPs could get a broadband signal. I’m thankful for the thousands of people who mobilized quickly to make this happen.

Rural Broadband Problems Got Noticed. Politicians at every level heard from angry constituents who will no longer tolerate the sad state of rural broadband. All of a sudden, almost every politician is talking about solving the rural broadband problem. We’ll have to see how this translates into action when the pandemic is over, but there is no mistake that rural residents were finally heard loud and clear.

Rural Spectrum. Probably the brightest broadband news this year is that the FCC released a ton of new spectrum that can be used for rural broadband. Broadband purists want everybody in America to have fiber, but until we figure out how to pay for that, today’s wireless technology can deliver 50 Mbps to 100 Mbps broadband in rural areas and is a badly-needed solution. The new spectrum gives WISPs a chance to step up their game.

Better WiFi on the Way. The industry released the WiFi 6 standard and the FCC approved 6 GHz spectrum for WiFi use. These two innovations are going to revolutionize WiFi. A lot of the problems that homes cite with broadband performance can be blamed on our currently overloaded WiFi spectrum bands. Within a few years, most of these problems should melt away with new WiFi gear.

A New FCC Coming. While this FCC did some positive things, they have gone too far in the direction of catering to the big ISPs at the expense of the public good. The ideal FCC balances the needs of the industry and the needs of the public. I expect a new FCC is going to swing the regulatory pendulum away from a carrier emphasis back closer to where the FCC ought to be.

Cybersecurity Getting Better. Early news reports say there was no apparent tampering of voting machines in the recent elections. That’s great news and is a reminder that cybersecurity has quietly gotten a lot better at protecting computer networks. There hasn’t been a big hack of corporate or government networks announced for a while. The biggest threats to computer networks continue to come from disgruntled employees or employees that inadvertently let bad actors into networks.

Growth of Video Conferencing. I don’t know how others feel, but I like video conferencing. I find it refreshing to see who I’m talking to. As a lifetime road warrior, I really like not getting on an airplane to make a presentation. We’ve learned this year that people can communicate well from a distance. I don’t know about the rest of the world, but I won’t be flying across the country without a very good reason when the pandemic is finally over – and for that I’m thankful.

It’s Almost 2021. Perhaps the best thing about 2020 is that it’s almost over and we’ll soon get a new year, and hopefully a reset. May 2021 be better for you all.

Broadband for All