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Senators Blast FCC’s Inaccurate Wireless Broadband Coverage Map

A bipartisan group of senators from some of America’s most rural and broadband-challenged states blasted the mapping skills of the Federal Communications Commission in a hearing Tuesday.

The senators were upset because the FCC’s Universal Service Fund will pay subsidies to extend wireless connectivity only in areas deemed to have inadequate or non-existent coverage. The FCC’s latest wireless coverage map is the determining factor whether communities get subsidies to expand service or not, and many in attendance at the Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet subcommittee hearing quickly called it worthless.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said the map’s “value is nil,” quickly followed by the Subcommittee chair Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) who added, “we might as well say it, Mr. Moran, that map is utterly worthless of giving us good information.”

“The simple answer is: it’s garbage in, garbage out,” said Steve Berry, CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association, which counts several small, rural cell phone companies as members.

This FCC map shows (in blue) areas identified as eligible to receive wireless subsidies to expand service where little or none exists today. (click map to expand)

The latest version of the map was heralded by the FCC as a significant improvement over the 2012 map used during the first round of funding. But critics like Berry claimed the map still relies entirely on carrier-provided data, much of it based on network capacity, and there is an incentive for existing wireless carriers to overestimate coverage because it assures funds won’t be given to potential competitors to strengthen their cellular networks.

The FCC claimed it gave carriers new benchmarks to meet in its latest map, including a request to only identify an area as covered if it achieves 80% certainty of coverage at 4G LTE speeds of 5 Mbps or more. To identify underserved zones, the FCC asked carriers not to identify areas that passed the first test as served if cell towers in that zone exceeded 30% of capacity. But Berry noted the FCC did not include a signal strength component, which means a carrier could report a significant area as getting adequate coverage based on the capacity of their network in a strong reception zone, even if customers nearby reported ‘no bars’ of signal strength or coverage that dropped completely once indoors.

Sen. Wicker

Senators from Kansas, New Hampshire and Mississippi were astonished to see maps that claimed virtually 100% of all three states were fully covered with mobile broadband service. The senators rejected that assertion.

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) has devoted a section on her website to collecting reports from New Hampshire residents getting poor cell phone reception, and she has been a frequent critic of the FCC’s coverage maps which she has repeatedly called inaccurate.

In northern Mississippi, wireless coverage is so poor the Mississippi Public Service Commission launched an initiative to collect real-world data about reception through its “Zap the Gap” initiative. But the FCC’s latest map suggests the problem is solved in the most signal-challenged areas in the northern part of the state, with the exception of small pockets in the Holly Springs National Forest, the Enid Lake area, areas east of Coffeeville, parts of Belmont, and areas east of Smithville.

The four major national wireless carriers suggest there is no problem with wireless coverage in Mississippi either. AT&T claims to reach 98% of the state, Verizon Wireless 96.43%, T-Mobile 66.36%, and Sprint 30.92%. Regional carrier C Spire claims 4G LTE coverage that falls somewhere between T-Mobile and AT&T in reach.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) told the subcommittee in his state, the FCC’s maps have little resemblance to reality, showing 4G LTE speeds in areas where no cellular reception exists at all.

“The FCC is wrong, they screwed up, we’re getting screwed because they screwed up, so how do we fix it?” Tester asked. “There has got to be a way to get the FCC’s attention on this issue. We’ve got to do better, folks, it’s not working.”

Mississippi’s program to report cellular coverage gaps.

Independent cell phone companies that specialize in serving areas the larger carriers ignore are hamstrung by the FCC and its maps, according to Mike Romano, senior vice president for policy for NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association — a trade group and lobbyist for smaller rural providers. Romano told the subcommittee if any cellular company reports coverage to even one household in a census block (which can cover a large geographic area in rural states), that entire block is ineligible for Connect America Fund subsidies.

The FCC, rural carriers complain, is relying on small wireless companies to serve as the map’s fact checkers and forces them to start a costly challenge procedure if they want to present evidence showing the map is wrong. Such proceedings are expensive and time-consuming, they argue. Even if successfully challenged, that does not win the companies a subsidy. It only opens the door to a competitive bidding process where challengers could face competing bids from larger companies that made no effort to challenge the map data.

A group of senators signed a joint letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai complaining about the accuracy issues surrounding the FCC’s wireless map:

Dear Chairman Pai:

We write this letter to express our serious concerns that the map released by the Federal Communications Commission last week showing presumptive eligible areas for Mobility Fund Phase II (MF II) support may not be an accurate depiction of areas in need of universal service support.  We understand that the map was developed based on a preliminary assessment from a one-time data collection effort that will be verified through a challenge process. However, we are concerned that the map misrepresents the existence of 4G LTE services in many areas.  As a result, the Commission’s proposed challenge process may not be robust enough to adequately address the shortcomings in the Commission’s assessment of geographic areas in need of support for this proceeding.

MF II is intended to provide $4.53 billion in support over 10 years to preserve and expand mobile coverage to rural areas. These resources will be made available to provide 4G LTE service where it is not economically viable today to deploy services through private sector means alone.  Having consistently traveled throughout rural areas in our states, it appears that there are significant gaps in mobile coverage beyond what is represented by the map’s initial presentation of “eligible areas.” To accurately target support to communities truly in need of broadband service, it is critical we collect standardized and accurate data.

For too long, millions of rural Americans have been living without consistent and reliable mobile broadband service.  Identifying rural areas as not eligible for support will exacerbate the digital divide, denying fundamental economic opportunities to these rural communities.  We strongly urge the Commission to accurately and consistently identify areas that do not have unsubsidized 4G LTE service and provide Congress with an update on final eligible areas before auctioning $4.53 billion of MF II support.

In addition to Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the letter was signed by Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Angus King (I-Maine), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee held a hearing on broadband infrastructure needs. The FCC’s wireless broadband coverage map was a main issue in contention. (Note, the hearing begins at the 30:00 mark.) (2:05:00)

Comcast Needed Help to Let Them Know Their Broadband Pipes Were Full

The country’s largest cable internet service provider needed help from an app developer in Portland, Ore. to let it know its broadband pipes were full and to do something about it.

Comcast customers were complaining about slow downloads from the Panic website and the company’s own workers were saying largely the same thing when attempting to remotely connect to the company’s servers from home.

Because Panic’s web servers have just a single connection to the internet via Cogent, it would be a simple matter to track down where the traffic bottleneck was occurring, assuming there was one. The company asked for volunteers to run a test transferring 20MB of data first from Panic’s server and then again from a control server hosted with Linode, a popular and well-respected hosting company.

The results were pretty stunning.

With speeds often around only 356.3kbps for Comcast customers connecting to Panic, something was definitely up. It also explained why employees had a rough time connecting to the company’s server as well — Panic’s workers are based in Portland, Ore., where Comcast is used by almost every employee.

The slowdowns were not related to the time of day and because the problem persisted for weeks, it wasn’t a temporary technical fault. Panic’s blog picks up the story about what is behind all this:


Major internet pipes, like Cogent, have peering agreements with network providers, like Comcast. These companies need each other — Cogent can’t exist if their network doesn’t go all the way to the end user, and Comcast can’t exist if they can’t send their customer’s data all over the world. One core tenet of peering is that it is “settlement-free” — neither party pays the other party to exchange their traffic. Instead, each party generates revenue from their customers. Cogent generates revenue from us. Comcast generates revenue from us at home. Everyone wins, right?

After a quick Google session, I learned that Cogent and Comcast have quite a storied history. This history started when Cogent started delivering a great deal of video content to Comcast customers… content from Netflix. and suddenly, the “peering pipe” that connects Cogent and Comcast filled up and slowed dramatically down.

Normally when these peering pipes “fill up”, more capacity is added between the two companies. But, if you believe Cogent’s side of the story, Comcast simply decided not to play ball — and refused to add any additional bandwidth unless Cogent paid them. In other words, Comcast didn’t like being paid nothing to deliver Netflix traffic, which competes with its own TV and streaming offerings. This Ars Technica article covers it well. (How did Netflix solve this problem in 2014? Netflix entered into a business agreement to pay Comcast directly. And suddenly, more peering bandwidth opened up between Comcast and Cogent, like magic.)

We felt certain history was repeating itself: the peering connection between Comcast and Cogent was once again saturated. Cogent said their hands were tied. What now?

In addition to giving the internet public policy community new evidence that peering fights leaving customers stuck in the middle might be heating up once again. It also suggests if Comcast was unaware of the problem, it does not reflect well on the cable company to wait weeks until a customer reports such a serious slowdown before fixing it.

The folks at Panic took a chance and reported the problem to Comcast, bypassing the usual customer support route in favor of a corporate contact who listed a direct email address on the company’s website. Comcast took the request seriously and eventually responded, “give us one to two weeks, and if you re-run your test I think you’ll be happy with the results.”

Indeed, the problem was fixed. The folks at Panic say according to Comcast, two primary changes were made:

  1. Comcast added more capacity for Cogent traffic. (As suspected, the pipe was full.)
  2. Cogent made some unspecified changes to their traffic engineering.

The folks at Panic and their users are happy that the problem is fixed, but some questions remain:

  1. Is Comcast intentionally throttling web traffic in an attempt to extract a more favorable peering agreement with Cogent?
  2. How could Comcast not know this particular connection was hopelessly over-capacity for several weeks, leaving customers to deal with heavily throttled traffic.

“While this story amazingly had a happy ending, I’m not looking forward to the next time we’re stuck in the middle of a peering dispute between two companies,” wrote Cabel. “It feels absolutely inevitable, all the more so now that net neutrality is gone. Here’s hoping the next time it happens, the responsible party is as responsive as Comcast was this time.”

Panic explains internet slowdowns resulting from peering disputes in this (3:30) video.

AT&T Announces High-Speed Wireless 5G for Atlanta, Dallas, and Waco, Tex.

AT&T is rolling out mobile 5G service for its wireless smartphone and tablet customers in a dozen U.S. cities by year’s end, starting in parts of Atlanta, Ga., and portions of Dallas and Waco, Tex.

“After significantly contributing to the first phase of 5G standards, conducting multi-city trials, and literally transforming our network for the future, we’re planning to be the first carrier to deliver standards-based mobile 5G – and do it much sooner than most people thought possible,” said Igal Elbaz, senior vice president, wireless network architecture and design. “Our mobile 5G firsts will put our customers in the middle of it all.”

AT&T’s mobile 5G will work differently from the fixed wireless home broadband service Verizon is launching this year using small small cell neighborhood antennas. But like Verizon, AT&T is taking a gradual, incremental approach to the next generation of wireless technology.

In 2017, AT&T announced what it calls “5G Evolution” service in almost two dozen cities, although this branding was derided as “fake 5G” in the tech press because, in reality, it is just an improvement of today’s widely deployed 4G LTE service. Similar technology is also in place at T-Mobile. In the fall of 2017, AT&T introduced 4G LTE-Licensed Assisted Access (LTE-LAA) technology in Indianapolis and parts of Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. This network lays the foundation to offer gigabit speed wireless service, and is especially useful in areas where AT&T’s spectrum holdings are tight.

AT&T’s initial 5G rollout will serve parts of:
A – Atlanta, Ga.
B – Waco, Tex.
C – Dallas, Tex.

AT&T is preparing its existing wireless network to permit gradual migration to the completed 5G wireless standard over both existing and new spectrum.

This year, AT&T plans to launch some 5G service using millimeter wave spectrum, which is very line-of-sight and offers a more limited service area. But the technology will support very fast wireless speeds and offer plenty of bandwidth. AT&T could deploy this technology initially in dense population areas and places like stadiums, malls, and convention centers.

“Ultimately, we expect to reach theoretical peak speeds of multiple gigabits per second on devices through mobile 5G,” AT&T wrote in a press release. “While speed is important, we also expect to see much lower latency rates. With higher speeds and lower latency rates, our mobile 5G network will eventually unlock a number of new, exciting experiences for our customers.”

If past precedent means anything, AT&T will likely only initially offer 5G service in selected parts of each city. It needn’t hurry, because equipment designed to work with the new spectrum isn’t expected to become widely available until 2019. A gradual transition will also please shareholders by keeping network upgrade costs predictable over the next 3-5 years.

AT&T isn’t expected to use 5G technology anytime soon as part of its taxpayer-funded, rural wireless broadband deployment. AT&T currently uses its 4G LTE technology to power its fixed wireless rural broadband service. AT&T claims this service was designed to assure download speeds of at least 10 Mbps, although customers using it report speeds are often lower, although sometimes higher. AT&T does not offer and network performance guarantees, stating, “service performance may be affected by your proximity to a cell site, the capacity of the cell site, the number of other users connected to the same cell site, the surrounding terrain, radio frequency interference, applicable network management practices, and the applications you use.” That will also be true of AT&T’s forthcoming 5G network.

New Law Would Tax ISPs and Websites Serving Kansas to Solve Rural Broadband Woes

Kansas House Bill 2563 would require content providers that sell products and services in Kansas to pay into the state’s rural broadband fund.

ISPs and any website that generates at least $500,000 in revenue from Kansas residents would be required to pay into a state fund to subsidize rural broadband, if a bill introduced by a Lawrence Republican becomes law.

Rep. Thomas Sloan’s House Bill 2563 — a bill requiring broadband and content providers to pay into the Kansas Universal Service Fund (KUSF), drew immediate fire from cable and telephone companies across the state, and Sprint Corp. told state officials the bill was illegal.

“Rural residents lack the same broadband opportunities as urban residents because of the high cost to serve low-population density areas,” Sloan said. “We have a classic case of rising customer expectations for capabilities delivered through a broadband communications system and a fiscally stressed telecommunications provider network’s ability to serve high-cost rural customers.”

As in many rural states, finding the funding to solve the rural broadband problem gets more difficult as those hardest to serve are also the most expensive to reach. Kansas currently spends about $40 million annually to reach homes and businesses that are still using dial-up or forced to invest in satellite internet service. Most KUSF money is given to incumbent rural telephone, wireless or cable providers to subsidize expansion, keeping costs in line with each company’s Return On Investment expectations.

But as demand for faster and more robust broadband accelerates, and as the definition of broadband itself has evolved, rural providers are increasingly challenged reaching both unserved customers and those now considered underserved because older technologies like DSL often do not meet the current FCC definition of broadband: 25/3 Mbps service.

Sloan said his bill is designed to address both problems by wiring unserved areas and improving access to reliable, high-speed internet service where only slower alternatives now exist. The bill would provide funding to more than 90 Kansas counties with a population density of less than 100 people per square mile (excepting the county seat). In an agricultural state like Kansas, that would directly inject cash for upgrades into large sections of the state. Sloan says his law would cover at least 40% of a provider’s wiring and upgrade costs.

Rep. Sloan

House Bill 2563 would fund a rural broadband project that:

  • is capable of minimum download speeds of 25 Mbps and minimum upload speeds of three megabits per second;
  • provides an average latency of less than 100 milliseconds to enable the use of real time communications; and
  • provides subscribers with a minimum monthly data allowance of 150 gigabytes per month.

“Poor connectivity to the internet undermines operation of businesses, filing of government documents, school research projects, viewing of entertainment and other day-to-day activities,” Sloan said.

ISPs would likely pass along the costs of the new broadband universal service fund charge to subscribers, which means urban Kansans will be contributing a portion of their monthly internet bill to benefit their rural neighbors.

Sloan’s bill would also take the unprecedented step of taxing internet content companies and for-profit websites that generate at least $500,000 in revenue attributable to Kansas customers and use the money for rural broadband expansion as well. Websites like Amazon.com, Netflix, and Hulu would certainly be liable, but so would thousands of other smaller website ventures, including porn websites and online publishers like newspapers.

Telecom industry lobbyists quickly descended on state lawmakers in Topeka to encourage them to kill Sloan’s bill:

  • Catherine Moyer, chief executive officer of Pioneer Communications in Ulysses, represents the interests of the State Independent Telephone Association for Kansas and the Kansas Rural Independent Telecommunications Coalition. She is strongly opposed to the bill because she claims it would weaken the current Kansas Universal Service Fund (KUSF) model that has given rural companies confidence and certainty their rural expansion investments will be backed with adequate state subsidies. Under Sloan’s bill, the disbursement formula and the areas entitled to receive state support would be expanded, potentially reducing funds that were payable to projects under the old KUSF subsidy system.
  • Patrick Fucik, national director of legislative affairs for Sprint Corp. in Overland Park, is concerned about broadening the universal service fund to tax content providers and other websites, claiming the state lacks the legal authority under federal law to impose such taxes.
  • John Idoux, a lobbyist with CenturyLink, which serves more than 100 Kansas communities with fewer than 1,000 residents, said the bill would likely make lawyers rich from the “prolonged” and inevitable legal challenges that will begin if the bill becomes law, “all while creating false hope of rural broadband availability.” Idoux also wants to make sure none of the KUSF money will be spent in areas already served by a fixed broadband provider (like CenturyLink). He does not want to see public money competing with private investment, even if it results in better service.

An audio-only hearing of the Committee on Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications of the Kansas State Legislature on HB2563, held Feb. 5, 2018. (35:53)

What New York Counties Will Get State-Subsidized Fiber Broadband from Verizon?

New York’s Broadband for All Program yesterday announced the third and final round of grant winners to expand rural internet access across the state.

Verizon Communications was the top grant recipient, winning a total of $106,642,787 in combined state, federal, and private dollars to expand internet access to 15,515 residential homes, businesses, and institutions primarily in the Capital Region, Central New York, and the North Country.

Stop the Cap! has learned these funds will be spent on fiber internet expansion, which could mean direct fiber to the home (FTTH) connections or a combination of fiber and existing copper telephone wiring (FTTN). To meet the state’s requirements, Verizon will likely have to use optical fiber as much as possible, although some advanced forms of DSL are capable of meeting minimum speed requirements.

But where exactly will Verizon start building out its network? The state’s grant program includes census block data on the exact areas where Verizon will commence upgrades or bring internet service for the first time.

By far the biggest winner of Verizon upgrades is New York’s North Country where over 1,000 Census Blocks will be wired for service.

Here is a general breakdown on where Verizon will begin working on rural broadband expansion:

Capital Region

  • 78 Census Blocks in Rensselaer County
  • 59 Census Blocks in Schenectady County
  • 132 Census Blocks in Washington County

Central New York Region

  • 196 Census Blocks in Cayuga County
  • 47 Census Blocks in Cortland County
  • 5 Census Blocks in Onondaga County

Mohawk Valley Region

  • 1 Census Block in Montgomery County

North Country Region

  • 686 Census Blocks in Clinton County
  • 203 Census Blocks in Jefferson County
  • 279 Census Blocks in St. Lawrence County

Southern Tier Region

  • 5 Census Blocks in Tompkins County

We are not well-schooled on mapping applications or integrating the data into a searchable tool or larger map (if you can, we’d love to hear from you). So for now, readers will have to search the database manually. Here are two ways to search:

Identify your Census Block ID and see if broadband improvements are coming to your area

  1. Visit this website and enter your street address.
  2. From the resulting list, click the  icon adjacent to the “Block” Geography Type, which will bring up a pop-up table containing additional information.
  3. Find the “Code” line which will show a long number like this: 1000000US300500197056002. If you Copy everything to the right of “US”, in this example 300500197056002, that represents your Census Block ID. Omit everything else (including the ‘US’).
  4. You can compare your Census Block ID number with the master list (click to download – .xlsx spreadsheet format) of New York’s third round census block winners. Just use the Search function and enter your Census Block ID number. If it matches with anything in that spreadsheet, your address is almost certainly to be serviced by Verizon (or another telecom company, as specified in the spreadsheet.)

To view coverage maps of winning Census Block IDs

  1. Download the master list (click to download – .xlsx spreadsheet format) of New York’s third round census block winners.
  2. Copy any Census Block ID listed, visit Melissa Data and paste the ID into the search box.
  3. A map of the Census Block will appear. Not all Census Blocks have homes or businesses within them and will appear undeveloped. In many cases, this means a grant winner is being given funds to develop their network to pass through one Census Block to reach other areas nearby where customers live and work.

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