Study finds the FCC Could Waste Up to $1B Due to Bad Map Data

Government Technology reports

It’s common knowledge that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has utilized misleading map data to measure broadband coverage and award funds, but critics don’t always cite how much taxpayer money is wasted as a result.

A Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) white paper released yesterday estimates the FCC could “improperly send” anywhere from $115 million to $1 billion to “wealthy, densely populated census blocks that have one or more service providers offering high-speed broadband.”

The money comes from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which was awarded to areas in an initial phase last year based on Form 477 data, a widely criticized set of information.

It looks like the CCA was funding the same things I was finding when I dug into the maps and found that the Viking Practice Facility was listed as unserved. I don’t think there are many people that would argue the concerns with mapping – the question is will they do something about it before they invest!

Charter waves a red flag on RDOF results based on map inaccuracies

Fierce Telecom reports

Charter Communications filed a waiver request on May 11 with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) related to its award in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction.

Charter, like all RDOF auction winners, promised to bring broadband to unserved areas. But the company has been auditing the census block grants (CBGs) where it was awarded funds, and it’s found that several of these areas already have broadband or will soon be receiving it.

Bidding under the name of CCO Holdings, Charter was awarded $1.22 billion in the RDOF Phase 1 auction, which concluded in December 2020. Charter won 5,366 CBGs, representing about 1 million homes and small businesses across 24 states for which it’s promised to deliver fiber broadband services.

Similar to something I posted about last week when we dug into Minnesota maps and they showed similar inaccuracies in MN RDOF award areas

Through RDOF LTD Broadband was deemed eligible to receive $1.32 billion in the US, including $312 million in Minnesota to build FTTH to unserved locations. There is some controversy about that decision – but this post isn’t about LTD, it’s about the maps.

Looking at maps where LTD is eligible to received funding, there are some surprises. For example the Vikings Practice Facility shows up as eligible, as does Henry Sibley High School, lots of locations along the highway and spots in commercial portions of suburban Twin Cities – just feet away from areas that were served. And then there are areas where locations seem to be on or under the highway.

Literally billions of taxpayer dollars are being spent on the RDOF; $16 billion in phase one and $4 billion in phase two. The program duration is 10 years, which means anomalies and discrepancies not caught now make take 10 years to emerge, which may leave some communities unserved for 10 more years. Already some communities in RDOF areas are disqualified for other funding to secure better broadband. There are worse things than changing your mind at the alter – especially when the partnerships impact so many people. Maybe it’s time to reassess what’s on the table.

Can I spend American Recovery Plan funding on Digital Inclusion and computers? Yes you can!

The other day I outlines some of the specifics in the American Recovery Plan that looked at broadband deployment; today I want to share notes from NDIA’s (National Digital Inclusion Alliance) take on how other parts of the plan can support for digital use and inclusion…

$350 billion is allocated in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) to state, local, territorial, and Tribal governments for the purpose of ‘laying the foundation for a strong and equitable recovery.’ Within ARPA, three funds may be used to support digital inclusion or broadband deployment activities: Sec. 602, the Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund, Sec. 603the Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Fund and Sec. 604, The Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund (CCPF). 602 and 603 are usually discussed together and guidance is provided in an Interim Final Rule. Guidance for Sec. 604 is forthcoming and expected to be similar to the 602 and 603 guidance.

More info on Sec. 602, the Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund and Sec. 603the Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Fund

On page 33 of the Sec 602 and 603 Interim Final Rule, “Assistance to Households’ is defined as the following:

“Assistance to households or populations facing negative economic impacts due to COVID-19 is also an eligible use. This includes: food assistance; rent, mortgage, or utility assistance; counseling and legal aid to prevent eviction or homelessness; cash assistance (discussed below); emergency assistance for burials, home repairs, weatherization, or other needs; internet access or digital literacy assistance; or job training to address negative economic or public health impacts experienced due to a worker’s occupation or level of training. As discussed above, in considering whether a potential use is eligible under this category, a recipient must consider whether, and the extent to which, the household has experienced a negative economic impact from the pandemic.”

The Interim Final Rule notes that for the ‘Assistance to households’ category, when applicants are “considering whether a potential use is eligible under this category, a recipient must consider whether, and the extent to which, the household has experienced a negative economic impact from the pandemic.” But the Interim Final Review goes on to say, “In assessing whether a household or population experienced economic harm as a result of the pandemic, a recipient may presume that a household or population that experienced unemployment or increased food or housing insecurity or is low- or moderate-income experienced negative economic impacts resulting from the pandemic.”

We interpret “internet access or digital literacy assistance” to include:

      • Covering the cost of a household’s broadband service, including through bulk purchases

      • Outreach for low-cost and subsidized broadband service

      • Digital literacy training

      • Digital navigation

      • Purchasing devices for households

      • Broadband infrastructure

 

More info on Sec. 604. The Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund (CCPF)

Sec. 604. The Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund (CCPF) is a separate, $10 billion fund which “allows for investment in high-quality broadband as well as other connectivity infrastructure, devices, and equipment.” The Treasury Department will begin to accept applications for review in the summer of 2021 and will issue guidance soon. Eligible applicants are required to submit a plan describing how they intend to use the funds and how they will be consistent with the Treasury guidance.

State, local, territorial, and Tribal governments do not have to submit plans for how they intend to use the funds for Sec. 602 or Sec. 603. They can now request the funding allocated to them based on the funding formulas from the Treasury. As the funds were intentionally structured to be flexible in use, we anticipate each local and state government to apply their funds differently to meet their community’s needs.

It’s really good news and hopefully sets the stage for recognizing that people need more than the wires to make use of broadband!

Doug Dawson asks FCC to track aspiration and actual broadband speeds

Doug Dawson has a great idea that would change how we look at broadband maps. In short, ask the ISPs to provide the range of speeds a customer can expect rather than report the best that anyone is going to see. He writes…

 An ISP that may be delivering 3 Mbps download will continue to be able to report broadband speeds of 25/3 Mbps as long as that is marketed to the public. This practice of allowing marketing speeds that are far faster than actual speeds has resulted in a massive overstatement of broadband availability. This is the number one reason why the FCC badly undercounts the number of homes that can’t get broadband. The FCC literally encourages ISPs to overstate the broadband product being delivered.

In my Twitter feed for this blog, Deb posted a brilliant suggestion, “ISPs need to identify the floor instead of the potential ceiling. Instead of ‘up to’ speeds, how about we say ‘at least’”.

There are reasons that different customers get different speeds…

It’s a real challenge for an ISPs using any of these technologies to pick a representative speed to advertise to customers – but customers want to know a speed number. DSL may be able to deliver 25/3 Mbps for a home that’s within a quarter-mile of a rural DSLAM. But a customer eight miles away might be lucky to see 1 Mbps. A WISP might be able to deliver 100 Mbps download speeds within the first mile from a tower, but the WISP might be willing to sell to a home that’s 10 miles away and deliver 3 Mbps for the same price. The same is true for the fixed cellular data plans recently being pushed by A&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile. Customers who live close to a cell tower might see 50 Mbps broadband, but customers further away are going to see a tiny fraction of that number.

We need a way to track both ends, the best and worst case scenario…

I suggest they report both the minimum “at least” speed and the maximum “up to” speed. Those two numbers will tell the right story to the public because together they provide the range of speeds being delivered in a given Census. With the FCC’s new portal for customer input, the public could weigh in on the “at least” speeds. If a customer is receiving speeds slower than the “at least” speeds, then, after investigation, the ISP would be required to lower that number in its reporting.

This dual reporting will also allow quality ISPs to distinguish themselves from ISPs that cut corners. If a WISP only sells service to customers within 5 or 6 miles of a transmitter, then the difference between its “at least” speeds and its “up to” speeds would be small. But if another WISP is willing to sell a crappy broadband product a dozen miles from the transmitter, there would be a big difference between its two numbers. If this is reported honestly, the public will be able to distinguish between these two WISPs.

This dual reporting of speeds would also highlight the great technologies – a fiber network is going to have a gigabit “at least” and “up to” speed.

FCC reports: Emergency Broadband Benefit Program start date is May 12

The FCC reports that the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program start date is May 12, 2021 and shares a link to the Emergency Broadband Benefit program website

Today, FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced the start date of the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. As of May 12, 2021, eligible households will be able to enroll in the Program to receive a monthly discount off the cost of broadband service from an approved provider.  Eligible households can enroll through an approved provider or by visiting https://getemergencybroadband.org.

 

Between now and the start date, the FCC encourages partners and participating providers to conduct outreach efforts so that every eligible household knows about the program and how to sign up. The Commission will be providing a variety of materials for partners to use in their efforts to increase awareness about the program. During this time, the FCC and its program administrator, USAC, will continue to ensure that appropriate privacy and security safeguards are in place. The FCC also urges providers to continue to test their own systems for the program launch.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program will provide eligible households with discounts of up to $50 a month for broadband service, and up to $75 a month if the household is on Tribal lands.  It also will provide a one-time discount of up to $100 on a computer or tablet for eligible households.

Under the law, the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program is open to households that participate in an existing low-income or pandemic relief program offered by a broadband provider; Lifeline subscribers, including those that are on Medicaid or accept SNAP benefits; households with kids receiving free and reduced-price lunch or school breakfast; Pell grant recipients; and those who have lost jobs and seen their income reduced in the last year.

For more information about the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, please visit: https://www.fcc.gov/broadbandbenefit

EVENT April 27: Emergency Broadband Benefit Webinar for Consumers and Outreach Partners

From the FCC

On Tuesday, April 27 starting at 3:00 p.m. EDT, the FCC will host a public webinar to provide information on the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB). The EBB is a temporary program that provides a discount of up to $50 per month ($75 on Tribal lands) off a qualifying households’ internet bill. For eligible households there is the potential for a discount of up to $100 towards the purchase of a tablet, laptop or desktop computer from a participating provider so long as the eligible purchaser contributes more than $10 and less than $50 toward the purchase price.

Date – Tuesday, April 27
3 p.m. EDT
Watch Live – fcc.gov/live

The webinar will provide consumers and outreach partners with an overview of the EBB program, eligibility information, and enrollment procedures. During the event, the FCC will provide an overview of the outreach tool kit materials that have been developed for partners and the public to use to create awareness about the temporary program.

Registration is not required for the webinar.

During, or in advance of this event, questions can be emailed to broadbandbenefit@fcc.gov.

Open captioning will be provided for this event. Other reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities are available upon request. Requests for such accommodations should be submitted via e-mail to fcc504@fcc.gov or by calling the Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau at (202) 418-0530 (voice). Such requests should include a detailed description of the accommodation needed. In addition, please include a way for the FCC to contact the requester if more information is needed to fill the request.  Last minute requests will be accepted but may not be possible to accommodate.

For additional information about the webinar, please contact Deandrea Wilson at deandrea.wilson@fcc.gov.

 

The FCC asks you to take their Speed Test

From the FCC

As part of the Commission’s Broadband Data Collection effort to collect comprehensive data on broadband availability across the United States, the FCC is encouraging the public to download the FCC’s Speed Test app, which is currently used to collect speed test data as part of the FCC’s Measuring Broadband America program.  The app provides a way for consumers to test the performance of their mobile and in-home broadband networks.  In addition to showing network performance test results to the user, the app provides the test results to the FCC while protecting the privacy and confidentiality of program volunteers.

“To close the gap between digital haves and have nots, we are working to build a comprehensive, user-friendly dataset on broadband availability.  Expanding the base of consumers who use the FCC Speed Test app will enable us to provide improved coverage information to the public and add to the measurement tools we’re developing to show where broadband is truly available throughout the United States,” said Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel.

The network coverage and performance information gathered from the Speed Test data will help to inform the FCC’s efforts to collect more accurate and granular broadband deployment data. The app will also be used in the future for consumers to challenge provider-submitted maps when the Broadband Data Collection systems become available.  More information about the app is available on the FCC website.  The FCC Speed Test App is available in the Google Play Store for Android devices, and in the Apple App Store for iOS devices.

US poised to award $100B to SpaceX Starlink – will it help rural residents?

Telecompetitor reports…

The analysts estimate SpaceX’s total addressable U.S. market at full deployment at between 300,000 to 800,000 households, or less than 1% of the market.

It’s a particularly noteworthy number, considering that SpaceX is poised to receive nearly $900 million from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) to cover some of the costs of bringing broadband to unserved rural areas. And considering that the total number of locations for which SpaceX was the winning RDOF bidder is 642,000.

Why do they have doubts?

MoffettNathanson’s estimate of SpaceX’s addressable market is based on several assumptions, which according to the researchers, are conservative. These include:

  • Although Starlink currently has about 1400 satellites deployed, the analysis is based on the nearly 12,000 satellites that the company expects to launch, approximately one third of which will cover the U.S.
  • Based on satellite inclines of 53 degrees, researchers estimate that only about 3% of Starlink’s satellites will be visible to U.S. customers at any given time.
  • According to SpaceX FCC filings, each satellite will have a capacity of 17-23 Gbps, but future developments could expand that. Therefore, the researchers assumed a doubling or tripling of per-satellite capacity.
  • The average broadband user consumes data at a constant rate of 2.2-2.7 Mbps during peak consumption hours, leading to researchers’ assumption that 4 Mbps of bandwidth per user would be needed to provide good quality of service today. The researchers forecast that requirement to increase to 10-18 Mbps per user in the next five years

One last factor…

SpaceX is charging customers $499 for a rooftop antenna, which according to news reports, cost the company $2,400, which suggests that the company is subsidizing each installation by nearly $2,000.

It seems like that $499 installation fee could increase at any time, which would make satellite much less affordable to deploy for the household. The authors also remind us that Starlink is in line to get $100 billion from the US government through an RDOF award.

Is MN a broadband winner or loser? A look at Federal Funding RDOF and CAF

Telecompetitor reports on the RDOF ranking by state. Turns out Minnesota ranks highly for funding per rural resident…

The states with the most funding per rural resident, in descending order, were California ($830), West Virginia ($530), Arkansas ($377), Minnesota ($328), Massachusetts ($327), Mississippi ($313), Pennsylvania ($254), Wisconsin ($248), Illinois ($205) and Michigan ($201).

You’d think that would make Minnesotans feel like winners but it doesn’t because there is great concern over what that money is going to buy and when. The biggest concern is about LTD, undeniably a big winner with an opportunity to bid for almost $312 million project to build FTTH (fiber to the home) to 102,005 homes. This is especially surprising because they are a small company that always has focused on fixed wireless not fiber.

I’ve written a lot about this – so a quick rundown:

This story may sound familiar. It reads an awful lot like what I posted about CAF II awards in 2015

If I’ve learned nothing else from the TV show Toddlers in Tiaras, I learned that sometimes you don’t want to win the first crown. Winning the first crown is better than winning nothing, but it usually puts you out of the running for Best in Show. Getting access at speeds of 10/1 is better than what the communities receiving CAF 2 funding have now. And any improvement is an improvement. BUT those speeds are slower than the Minnesota speed goals of 10/5 (The MN Broadband Task Force is looking to update those speeds.) and they seem even slower when you compare them to rural areas that have Gig access, such as Grand RapidsRed WingLac qui Parle CountyNew PragueRogersMelrose and others.

Five years later, CAF II winners CenturyLink (Lumen) and Frontier report that they “may not have met” CAF II deployment deadlines for 2020. Here’s what I said when that announcement was made in January…

The frustration is that this leaves many people without broadband – again. The goal is to build to 25/3 (even lower in some areas) and they haven’t done that. To put that in perspective, it does not get them closer to the MN State speed goal of 100/20 by 2026. In Minnesota we are used to the State MN border to border broadband grant rules where project must build networks that are scalable to 100/100. That is not the case with these networks and getting to 25/3 does not mean getting to 100/20 will be easier.

Also there is the concern for customers that the promise or threat of building has kept competitors out of their market. The promise of a CAF II network has made it more difficult for the communities to get funding from other sources. CAF II funding focused on the providers only – communities didn’t not sign up or on to the program.

Einstein said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Frustration is watching from the sideline as decision makers make the same decision again and again, especially when you are the community that suffers the consequence.

FCC Creates Consumer FAQ for Emergency Broadband Benefit

Yesterday the FCC updated their site with more info on the Emergency Broadband Benefit. Here are the questions…

When can I sign up for the Emergency Broadband Benefit?

The program has been authorized by the FCC, but the start date has not yet been established.  The FCC is working to make the benefit available as quickly as possible, and you should be able to sign up by the end of April, 2021.  Please check our website, www.fcc.gov/broadbandbenefit, regularly for the latest information.

Do I receive the funds directly each month?

No, the Emergency Broadband Benefit provides a monthly discount on broadband service of up to $50 per eligible household (or up to $75 per eligible household on Tribal lands).  The participating broadband service provider will receive the funds directly from the Emergency Broadband Benefit program.

Which broadband providers are participating in the Emergency Broadband Benefit?

Various broadband providers, including those offering landline and wireless broadband, will be participating in the Emergency Broadband Benefit.  Depending on where you live, you may have a choice of providers.  Check with the broadband providers in your area to learn about their plans for program participation and eligible service offerings.  You can also use the Companies Near Me tool found here.

sort byWhat is the enhanced benefit amount for residents of Tribal Lands?

Eligible households on Tribal lands can receive a total monthly discount of up to $75.  You can find out more about which areas are eligible Tribal lands by visiting this site: www.lifelinesupport.org/additional-support-for-tribal-land.

Easy on ramp to understanding Emergency Broadband Benefit? Chris Mitchell’s Connect This! Video

Someone suggested I watch the Institute for Local Self Reliance Connect This! video on Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), a $3.2 billion program designed to get families connected to available service that they otherwise might not be able to afford. Chris Mitchell is the host and he has three guests: Travis Carter (USI Fiber) Angela Siefer (National Digital Inclusion Alliance) and Olivia Wein (National Consumer Law Center).

These are three people who deal with different parts of the EBB and together they give a well rounded view. It’s a genius approach because they go in depth but not into the weeds. They want to share with each other information that practical and useful because that’s what each of them need to do. This isn’t academic to them, it’s their work. They are all going off the cuff, which make it easy to listen to and again keeps anyone from going into the weeds. They are asking each other real world questions.

Being honest, I thought I’d listen to a few minutes, then when I run into Chris at the grocery store I could say something – but I never turned it off.

Better broadband maps – the FCC is looking at changes

The FCC is looking to make their broadband maps better. GCN reports on the steps they are taking…

“The Commission will not only collect more data; it will collect better data,” Kiddoo said in a task force presentation. Minimum service speeds, maximum buffer sizes for fixed service along with infrastructure and drive-test data will give the FCC accurate broadband data, she said. Additionally, the commission will refine the data over time through crowdsourcing, audits and verification and enforcement actions.

“With these new data and tools, the Commission will produce vastly more granular and accurate broadband deployment maps, which in turn will allow the Commission to target Universal Service Funding more precisely and produce better data for Commission reports and analyses,” Kiddoo said.

The FCC has already brought on an expert data architect and design firm to work with the commission’s own data and IT teams to design the internal databases, systems and public-facing portals to support advanced broadband data collection and the resulting availability maps, FCC acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel wrote in a March 16 blog.

The commission has also issued a request for information for the creation of the broadband serviceable location fabric — a common dataset of all U.S. locations where fixed broadband internet access service can be installed — that will form the foundation for the location- or address-based reporting.

This complex, data-driven evaluation of broadband access involves building new systems, processes and supporting materials, and it will not happen overnight.

Meanwhile, the FCC is asking consumers to share their broadband experience by filling out a form on the FCC’s site. The simple form asks for basic contact information along with a three-to-five sentence description of connection problems and what could be done to solve them.

MN Telecom Alliance asks FCC to deny LTD’s long-form RDOF application

I have written about concerns with the LTD winning options for federal funding through RDOF. Looks like MN Telecom Alliance is taking steps to formalize those concerns. Telecompetitor reports

Two state associations representing broadband providers have asked the FCC to deny the long-form application filed by LTD Broadband in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) program. LTD Broadband had the largest amount of RDOF winning bids in the program and stands to gain $1.3 billion for broadband deployments in 15 states if its long-form application is approved.

In a joint filing with the FCC, the Minnesota Telecom Alliance and the Iowa Communications Alliance argue that “there is no indication that LTD has the technical, engineering, financial, operational, management, staff, or other resources to meet RDOF build-out and service obligations.”

They get into some details…

Arguments made by the Minnesota and Iowa associations in their filing about LTD Broadband RDOF concerns:

  • LTD won funding in five states in the Connect America Fund (CAF II) auction but was fined $3,563 for defaulting on bids in one census block in Nebraska and another in Nevada. The FCC rejected LTD’s argument that it had been unable to obtain designation as an eligible telecommunications carrier in those states – a requirement for obtaining funding.
  • The company has been criticized by the Minnesota Department of Commerce for failure to comply with its obligations to advertise Lifeline service to eligible customers.
  • The Better Business Bureau gives LTD’s Minnesota operations a failing rating based on the length of time it has been operating and because the company failed to respond to a complaint filed against the business and currently has 14 complaints filed against it.
  • The associations estimate that the LTD Broadband RDOF build-out will cost the company between $5,000 to $8,000 per location, yielding estimated 15-state construction costs of $2.6 billion to $4.2 billion. Noting that the company does not likely have the required funding on hand, the petitioners argue that the FCC should “place a substantial and stringent burden of proof on LTD to demonstrate reasonable, workable and detailed technical plans for constructing and operating its RDOF broadband networks . . . and to show that it has clear and certain access to the financial resources necessary to meet the realistic and detailed costs of such technical plans.”

The filing reminds the FCC that 160 members of Congress sent a letter to the commission urging the commission to thoroughly vet winning RDOF bidders.

OPPORTUNITY: Share your broadband story with the FCC!

Here is your opportunity from the FCC

Getting Connected to Broadband

In today’s world, it is critical that families and businesses across the country have access to broadband. As work, education, healthcare, and many other activities have moved online, broadband is no longer nice to have. It’s need to have for everyone.

In order to better determine where high speed internet services are currently unavailable, we need precise, accurate, and up-to-date broadband mapping data.

The FCC’s Broadband Data Task Force is developing the necessary tools to gather this information. This is a complex, data-driven effort that will involve building new systems, process, and supporting materials.

These new tools will enable the FCC to create maps that display fixed broadband availability for individual locations and mobile broadband availability with more accuracy. The program will also provide a way for consumers, as well as Tribal, state, and local governments, to challenge and improve the accuracy of the maps by sharing data with the FCC. More accurate maps will enable broadband funding programs to target support for broadband services to the areas most in need.

Share Your Broadband Experience

The Commission is working hard to develop these new tools as quickly as possible. In the meantime, consumers can share their broadband experiences with the Broadband Data Task Force using this sort by form.

Your experience with the availability and quality of broadband services at your location will help to inform the FCC’s efforts to close the digital divide. We may also send you additional information by email in the future as we develop tools for consumers to share data with the FCC. You can also follow our efforts to improve the accuracy of these maps at www.fcc.gov/BroadbandData

US Senate Committee meeting raises questions on speeds, needs and long term wins

RFDTV recently covered a Senate Commerce Committee that included a broadband update that seemed to cover two tricky topics, federal funding and speed goals. They used Dakota County as an example. The Committee heard from Justin Forde, the Senior Director of Government Relations at Midco who wanted to make sure that policy remained technology neutral and was concerned because other providers had received federal funding after they did for the same community. Apparently countering, Dr. Christopher Ali from the University of Virginia, seems to offer that some technologies will not meet the needs of farmers and that’s why we need to look at supply and demand. RFDTV reports

According to Forde, “A lot of farmers do not want a fiber line to the farm, they want connectivity to the entire farm. In fact, we have a farmer that has two farms, 75 miles apart. He can use fixed wireless and get connections to both of those for less than $100 dollars. The cost of running fiber to those wouldn’t be economical for us or for the federal government to serve both of those farms.”

Using a recent example from Minnesota, he explained how better agency coordination is needed to ensure federal dollars are spent wisely and where they are needed most.

“We’ve been awarded CAF 2 funding to reach areas of Dakota County in Minnesota and are fully on track for our deployment schedule, but recently we learned two other providers have been awarded CARES Act funding to serve the same areas,” Forde states. “That’s three providers awarded federal funds to serve the exact same area.”

Lawmakers also spent a significant amount of time on the question of what level of connectivity is needed.

Dr. Christopher Ali from the University of Virginia says that precision ag needs access to symmetrical 100×100 speeds.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in rural Minnesota talking to precision agriculture companies and providers; they are uploading terabytes of data and doing an incredible amount of soil analysis oftentimes in realtime, if possible if the technology is there… They need that ultra-fast symmetric upload speeds to enable them to make real-time decisions about planting,” Dr. Ali explains.

However, Forde pushed back saying that increasing the standard from 25/3 MBS to 100/100 would only reclassify some areas as unserved.

“The farms, hundreds of them in the vast agriculture area could also get over 100/20 service out in those farms surely from Midco,” Forde adds. “All of those areas, if the speed changes, would now become eligible for federal funding.”

Farmers don’t want fiber?

There’s a lot to unpack here. First the allegations that famers don’t want fiber seems strange. They certainly want fiber to the tower and I suspect they would be happy to get fiber to the farm but that costs may be a factor in their decision. One way or another they will be creating a wireless network built off a wired connection because they are doing precision agriculture, which generally means connecting lots of moving pieces. (Think of the super charged version of your kids’ various devices connecting to your home network.) And just like we’re all learning we want to best connection we can get to support those home devices, farmers feel the same.

To change or not to change broadband definitions or goals that is the question.

Dr. Ali offers that precision ag needs access to symmetrical 100/100 speeds. And according to the article, Forde pushed back saying that increasing the standard from 25/3 MBS to 100/100 would only reclassify some areas as unserved. The federal definition of broadband right now is 25/3 (25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up). The Minnesota state goals are 25/3 by 2022 and 100/20 by 2026 – but the MN Broadband Task Force is investigating whether that should be increased.

I’ve heard this reasoning in previous discussions in the Task Force meetings and other places. So again I think it’s worth unpacking. On the front lines, a user is more concerned with “do I have enough broadband” than whether they are considered served, underserved or unserved. Can I get through a telehealth visit while feeding the pigs or does my broadband drop or slow down? Can I do a zoom call while my kids are taking classes online?

Providers and policymakers care about whether someone is served/underserved/unserved because that determines where the funding goes and that helps color the maps that show how successful we are in getting everyone broadband. A mismatch in the definitions may help policymakers declare an early success – but it will be short-lived because constituents who can’t get their work done with slower (25/3) speeds will still be calling them to complain. And if it turns out that taxpayer money has been spent on broadband solutions that do not scale to higher speeds, constituents will be angry and policymakers may feel duped. The only ones who benefit from a lower speed goal are the providers who get the funding to build to lower speeds.

I’m trying to think of an analogy – the best I can do is I go to buy a dress for my daughter, she needs a size 4 and they only have a size 2. But the salesperson convinces me that this size 2 will work, because it’s sleeveless or short or (worse) made of stretchy material. Oh and I can get it on sale. So I buy the dress. My kid is excited. Big win for the mom. Until she tries it on. It simply doesn’t fit. Maybe she can cut it into a top or a skirt – she can be partially served – but at the end of the day, she can’t go to the prom in it.

Unfortunately broadband is a lot more expensive than a prom dress. We all want a win – aiming for what we need will help us reach a longer lasting win.