Stirring the Pot: Understanding CAF 2

As originally posted in Blandin on Broadband

Nothing has confused rural community broadband policy discussion more lately than the FCC CAF2 funding program. $500 million dollars to rural Minnesota over the next six years is the good news; a minimum 10 Mb/1 Mb standard is the bad news. CenturyLink, Frontier, Windstream and Consolidated Communications (formerly HickoryTech in Mankato) will use these funds to extend DSL service deeper into their rural networks by extending fiber to the node. The ability to deliver high speed Internet via DSL is extremely distance sensitive, that is, that if you are within 3000 feet of where the fiber ends, you can get broadband that meets or exceeds the FCC 25 Mb/3 Mb standard. If you live 9,000 feet or just less than two miles from where the fiber ends, you will receive 10 Mb/1 Mb. Old, deteriorated copper will further reduce the carry capacity of the service. Emerging technologies that providers like to talk about – vectoring and G-Fast are only effective to supercharge that first 3000 feet and have no impact on the longer loop length customers.

At the recent broadband industry conference, there was conversation around using future DEED Office of Broadband funds in combination with the FCC CAF2 funds to gain better services throughout rural Minnesota. I have mixed feelings about that since loop lengths would have to universally shortened to 3000 feet to even reach the FCC standard of 25/3, but what about our new proposed state goal of 100 Mb/20 Mb by 2026? At what point does it make sense to stop upgrading old networks to build new virtually unlimited capacity Fiber to Home networks? We have all faced that choice with old cars. The decision to rely on an old car often leads to the same situation that many rural Minnesotans now find themselves – stranded on the side of the highway when you most need to get someplace in the worst possible weather.

In this discussion, I have already had incumbent providers cringe when these issues are discussed. Yet there is never a clear declaration of intent or shared plan to reach the state broadband goal of 100 Mb/20 Mb nor any data on what rural Minnesotans will receive in the next five years from CAF2 investment. The physics of broadband are pretty clear – 9,000 foot loop lengths yield 10/1; 3,000 loop lengths yield 25/3 or more. Geometry is also pretty clear; to go from 9,000 loop lengths to 3,000 loop lengths is a lot more expensive and still leaves no clear path to the 100 Mb broadband standard.

Let’s hope policy makers insist on an open and honest conversation on this critical topic.

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