Welcome to Signals and Bits, a podcast where Bernie Arnason, Editor-in-Chief of Telecompetitor, breaks down some of the most important news coming out of the broadband industry. We’ll keep it short and to the point. Let’s dive in.
Hello friends, and welcome to the latest edition of Signals and Bits. I’m Bernie Arnason, and I’m at my office here in DC preparing for a busy next few weeks. Between conferences and business meetings, I’ll be on the road for three of the next four weeks so busy times indeed, but let’s dive in. An interesting development happened today. The Treasury Department awarded its first funds from the 10 billion Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund, which is yet another broadband funding program now making the rounds. To keep things short, I’ll just refer to it as the Capital Projects Fund or CPF.
It has a very interesting, some might argue controversial, requirement but I’ll get to that in a minute. This program was funded through the 1.9 trillion dollar, that’s trillion with a T, American Rescue Plan Act or ARPA as we call it. That was signed into law in March 2021. Now, ARPA was a bit of a broadband funding bonanza. This was right in the height of the coronavirus or right on the tail end of it, probably. It included billions of dollars for many different programs, including the $7 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund which helped schools and libraries extend broadband access to students and patrons. If you’re a bit cynical, you might say these billion dollar funding programs are being handed out like candy.
Now, much of the attention in the broadband industry today is focused on the recently announced $43 billion NTIA BEAD Program, something I covered in a previous edition, but $10 billion from the Capital Projects Fund isn’t anything to sneeze at either. That’s almost a quarter of the total BEAD project, here we are 15 months after the bill was signed and the first dollars from this Capital Projects Fund were announced today. Close to 583 million will be distributed. Now, like BEAD, CPF is being distributed from the federal government to the states and territories who, in turn, fund projects and partners in their respective territories.
Now, the guidelines say capital project funds must invest in capital assets designed to directly enable work, education, and health monitoring. That initial $583 million is being divided by Louisiana, New Hampshire, Virginia, and West Virginia, with Virginia receiving the most funding at 220 million and New Hampshire receiving the least at 50 million. This first round of funding aims to bring broadband to over 200,000 locations across these four states. Now, before I speak on the controversial aspect of the CPF, let me digress for a minute.
News out of China last week is they don’t particularly like SpaceX’s Starlink service all that much. Starlink is the broadband via Low-Earth Orbit Satellite Service with their famous founder, Elon Musk, running the show. I have to say, China, get in line because lots of folks have an issue with Starlink, but China appears to be taking this dislike to quite another level. A state sponsored research agency published a research report arguing that the Chinese military needs to actively develop a plan, if it doesn’t have one already, to destroy Starlink. Apparently, some folks in China don’t like the idea of a US based company having that much sway over global communications and point to how Starlink is supposedly assisting Ukraine in its war with Russia.
Now, destroying Starlink wouldn’t be that easy to do though. Starlink currently has 2,500 satellites orbiting earth to provide that broadband service, but that’s just the beginning. The end goal for Starlink is to have 40,000 of those birds flying around the earth. Now, destroying 40,000 of anything would be tough, but destroying 40,000 flying satellites? Well that, as they say, is off the charts. I mean, I don’t even think Captain Kirk could come up with that plan.
Maybe China could recruit Darth Vader for the job, but wait, too late for that… Back to the Capital Projects Fund. Here’s where the controversy comes in. CPF rules a mandate that service providers who gain funding through the program must offer at least 100 megabits per second symmetrical service or better unless it is impractical because of geography, topography or excessive cost. If it is deemed impractical, then it must deliver 100 meg down and at least 20 meg up, but here’s the kicker. It must still be scalable to a 100 megabit symmetrical. Now, that’s a bit of a broad loophole and I wonder who determines what’s practical and what’s impractical.
Clearly, the rules are written to favor fiber broadband technology, although DOCSIS 4.0, the next generation of DOCSIS technology that cable companies use, will eventually meet this requirement. Perhaps it meets that scalable two requirement today and therefore cable companies might qualify for this fund, but fixed wireless providers, I think you might be coming up a little short in this program. The argument is fiber is the best technology and is future proof so if you’re going to do capital investment you might as well invest in the best technology available but as we know, with everything, life is all about perspective and if you’re a fixed wireless provider you may have a little different perspective on that issue.
Now, of all the broadband funding programs out there today, and there are quite a few, CPF I believe is the only one with this strict requirement. Another controversial, although less controversial CPF requirement is that any ISP that gains funding must also participate in the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Plan which provides a $30 subsidy for the cost of broadband service to eligible low-income households. A little over $500 million down and nine and a half billion to go, so if you’re an ISP and you can do fiber you might want to check in with your state broadband office. They’re going to have just a little bit of candy to hand out.
Now, speaking of food, I’m recording this on a Tuesday and this next observation reminds me of a taco Tuesday. Have you heard about the latest Taco Bell restaurant? Now, I’m not a huge fan of Taco Bell but this is really interesting, It’s not even really a restaurant, it’s more like a Taco Bell factory that recently opened in Minneapolis. This thing features four drive through lanes. It’s more like a bank than a fast food joint. It caters to the on the go generation. You supposedly can pull up to a designated parking spot, use a mobile app to order and pay for your food, and go to the designated mobile app drive through lane and get that food within an average of two minutes, and then off you go to trash up your ride with Taco Bell wrappings.
The whole experience is touchless. Food is delivered by a modern day dumb waiter coming from a second floor taco factory. It could be humanless too. Although there is a single traditional order taking drive through lane but, even with that, you only talk to and see someone on a video monitor. If you’re looking to make a friend at Taco Bell, this story ain’t for you, buddy. There’s also a designated lane for food app delivery services like DoorDash and Uber Eats. This is really sign of the times, folks, I mean for today, but I imagine someday soon you won’t even need this. You’ll have drone delivery of food to your moving car. You won’t even have to stop. Just open the sun roof and whala, tacos galore.
Some broadband quick hits from the past couple of weeks. Two new statewide regional fiber networks were born, with Diamond State Networks formed by several electric cooperatives in Arkansas, and Hoosier Net formed by mostly Telcos but not exclusively Telcos in Indiana. Fiber over builders, MetroNet and Vexus Fiber, completed their merger, which collectively they will serve 250 markets across 16 states and growing. The Government Accountability Office, the so-called watchdog for Congress, issued a report saying it has identified over 100 broadband support programs now in play through the federal government and it’s calling for much better coordination among all of them.
T-Mobile launched voice over 5g in limited markets and only with one Samsung smartphone, but it is a start and the carrier will continue to roll it out to other markets over time. Most 5g carriers still use their 4g network for the voice component of the service so the move to voice over 5g is notable. Cox Communications is jumping on the public private partnership bandwagon announcing projects in Arizona and Virginia, with more to come. Bright Speed, company that you may not have heard of but will be hearing more about, will start building fiber in its North Carolina markets with a goal to reach 300,000 locations by the end of the year. Bright Speed will take over what used to be essentially Century Link’s ILEC areas, which Lumen recently sold off for more than $7 billion. Starlink says it now has 400,000 subscribers globally on its satellite broadband network.
Well, folks, that’s a wrap for this edition of Signals and Bits. Thanks so much for listening and I’d love to hear your feedback, good or bad. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Look for new episodes every couple of weeks or so and use it to get caught up with the most important developments in broadband. Plus, my snarky observations on a bunch of other stuff too. Thanks again and, as always, check us out at telecompetitor.com. Take care, everyone.