#RuralIsCool Volume 1, Issue 3/January 3, 2019

NTCA Members Drive Higher Internet Speeds, Adoption in Rural America

The nation’s independent broadband providers are driving the deployment of higher internet speeds and greater adoption of broadband services in rural communities, even in the face of persistent challenges, according to a new report from NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association.

The “NTCA 2018 Broadband/Internet Availability Survey Report” shows that:

  • More than 70% of survey respondents’ customers have access to 25 Mbps or higher speeds.
  • Nearly 40% of respondents’ customers purchase broadband at 25 Mbps or higher speeds.
  • Almost 16% of respondents’ customers subscribe to services with speeds of at least 100 Mbps.
  • Nearly 30% of survey respondents’ customers still lack access to 25 Mbps broadband service.
  • NTCA members provide broadband service to nearly all anchor institutions in their communities.
  • Nearly all respondents cited programming costs as a barrier in providing video service, and those costs are a factor among providers considering discontinuing video service.

“Clearly NTCA members have made great strides in driving both deployment of scalable networks and stimulating adoption of broadband services in their communities,” said NTCA Chief Executive Officer Shirley Bloomfield. “In doing so, they have made significant contributions to the safety, health and well-being of their customers. Although much work remains to be done to advance and sustain broadband in rural America, NTCA members have yet again proven themselves to be leaders in rural broadband and trusted, committed providers for their communities.”

NTCA Encourages Treating In-Kind Contributions as Franchise Fees

In reply comments submitted December 14, 2018, to the FCC, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association encouraged the commission to adopt its tentative conclusion that cable-related in-kind contributions are to be included in the 5% cap on franchise fees.

In an earlier further notice of proposed rulemaking, the commission had tentatively concluded that cable-related in-kind contributions required by a franchise agreement should be treated as franchise fees. Those fees are limited by the Communications Act to 5% of a cable provider’s annual gross revenues.

“As the commission tentatively concluded and NCTA … commented, the Communications Act dictates that ‘any tax, fee, or assessment of any kind’ required as part of a cable franchise agreement is subject to the 5% cap on franchise fees, unless the fee or other condition imposed in the franchising agreement is among those specifically excluded by the Act,” the association said.

Commenters that opposed including in-kind contributions in the 5% cap had argued that it would result in the elimination of public access channels, but the association countered that the Communications Act “not only requires cable operators to ‘support the use of public, educational and governmental [‘PEG’] access facilities,’ but also eliminates the cost of doing so from the five percent cap on franchise fees. Consequently, even if cable providers were inclined to eliminate PEG facilities or channels, the Communications Act prohibits them from doing so.”

The association also asserted that “requiring cable operators to plant trees or to contribute thousands of dollars toward a particular public relations campaign does nothing to further cable services, much less PEG channel services.” These costs, in addition to pole attachment fees, as well as the high, and rapidly escalating, cost of programming, result in a heavy imbalance when compared to other video providers who are not subject to such fees or at the same levels. The association pointed out that this imbalance has already resulted in a number of cable operators discontinuing service, thereby eliminating PEG channels and an important revenue source from communities.

NTCA Addresses WISPA Concerns on Voice Service

In a December 17, 2018, letter to the FCC, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association responded to concerns expressed by the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) in response to an earlier submission by NTCA about the Connect America Fund Phase II auction.

NTCA first explained that WISPA “merely misunderstands” the issues NTCA raised in its earlier letter regarding the classification of “voice telephony service,” so the association clarified that its only points in the prior letter with respect to the classification of that service were:

  • The commission itself has indicated that the supported telecommunications service for purposes of Section 254 of the Act is “voice telephony service,” and a reviewing court has upheld this designation of the supported service.
  • A provider should not be able to “declare summarily in a passing line of an ETC designation petition that its voice telephony service is a ‘telecommunications service’ and then have it deemed so. … Regardless of technology, the reviewing agency must find that the supported ‘voice telephony service’ is in fact a telecommunications service.”
  • At least once recently, a court has determined that interconnected VoIP is not a telecommunications service, and the commission filed a brief in that proceeding advising the court that it has to date affirmatively declined to classify it as such.

Next, as to WISPA’s challenge to NTCA’s request that technical information with respect to winning bids in the Connect America Fund Phase II auction be subject to stakeholder review pursuant to protective order, NTCA said “WISPA’s procedural arguments at once overstate and misstate … the scope of NTCA’s request.” NTCA explained that it is neither seeking reconsideration of prior orders governing that review, nor seeking to expose confidential information for public review.

NTCA further said, however, that a contemplated review of technical information is in the public interest considering the hundreds of millions of dollars in universal support awarded to providers that pledged to deliver services in “vast rural coverage areas at speeds rarely (if never before) commercially realized via specific technologies.”

NTCA Discusses Performance Measurement Obligations With FCC

During a December 20, 2018, meeting with officials from the FCC, representatives from NTCA again discussed the need for performance-measurement obligations to recognize the characteristics of small, rural providers that must administer such tests.

The association said that because USF recipients subject to the testing obligations “should be accorded both the opportunity to select from a variety of testing technologies and a reasonable period of time thereafter within which to implement them,” the effective date of implementation “should be deferred until a reasonable selection of solutions is available and has been market-tested sufficiently, taking into account also the work required to deploy such solutions in the required locations.”

Also, to the extent those solutions may include (i) modems and routers with “built-in” testing capabilities, (ii) “white boxes,” and (iii) software-based solutions, a “reasonable selection” would include multiple choices from each category, the association said, adding discussion of the network segments that should be subject to performance measurement obligations.

NTCA Joins Coalition Seeking Rejection of Sprint/T-Mobile Merger

NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association joined with consumer organizations, labor unions and other concerned companies under the banner of the 4Competition Coalition to oppose the Sprint/T-Mobile merger as currently proposed.

In a December 13, 2018, announcement, the coalition said, “This merger as currently proposed runs afoul of our nation’s antitrust laws and gives the combined company both the incentive and ability to raise prices and block new players from entering the market. Given the clear reduction in competition, false promises made by Sprint and T-Mobile, and tens of thousands in potential job losses, there is no way to solve the anticompetitive harms this deal would cause.”

Specifically, the group said the merger would: result in higher prices, foreclose competition, lead to job losses, harm rural consumers and fail to boost the rollout of nationwide 5G.

“The vague and false promises offered by the applicants in support of the merger do not come close to addressing the obvious harms,” the alliance said.

Notes in the News for January 3, 2019

The FCC on December 12 adopted its first “Communications Marketplace Report,” as required by RAY BAUM’S Act of 2018.

Due to a continued partial lapse in federal government funding, the FCC will suspend most operations mid-day on January 3.

The Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau has released its initial findings regarding the 2018 nationwide tests of wireless emergency alerts and the emergency alert system.

The North American Numbering Council will next meet Tuesday, February 5, 2019.

The Wireline Competition Bureau (WCB) is currently seeking comment on proposed changes to the 2019 FCC Form 499-A and 499-Q. Comments are due by January 20. 

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has named six members to the board of directors of the Universal Service Administrative Co. Their term began January 1.

Pai also recently responded to a letter from Sens. Dan Sullivan (R–Alaska) and Lisa Murkowski (R–Alaska) that expressed support of the Rural Health Care program.

The FCC on December 12 released Form 477 data on broadband deployment as of December 31, 2017.

The National Exchange Carrier Association, Inc. (NECA) has submitted the annual average schedule company high-cost loop support (HCLS) formula modifications for review by the FCC. 

The FCC is seeking public comment on its 2018 biennial review of telecommunications regulations. Comments are due by January 17, and reply comments are due by February 19.

The FCC on December 17 announced it would further extend its separations freeze for up to six years, through December 31, 2024.

NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association recently met with representatives from the FCC Consumer and Government Affairs Bureau to discuss calling number identification services.

The WCB has updated its list of carriers that meet eligibility criteria for Tribal operating expense relief.  

NTCA congratulated both Brendan Carr and Geoffrey Starks, who were confirmed as commissioners at the FCC.

The SECURE Technology Act (H.R. 7327), a package of cybersecurity bills, was signed into law by President Donald Trump on December 21, 2018. Included within the package are two bills expanding the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) vulnerability remediation program, and a supply chain security measure initially sponsored by now-former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D–Mo.) and Sen. James P. Lankford (R–Okla.), which will establish a Federal Acquisition Security Council that would give DHS, the Department of Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence authority to exclude or remove certain IT products from federal government networks.

The 116th Congress, with about 100 new members, was sworn in January 3.