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Time to Stop Talking About Unserved and Underserved

I work with communities all of the time that want to know if they are unserved or underserved by broadband. I've started to tell them to toss away those two terms, which is not a good way to think about broadband today.

The first time I remember the use of these two terms was as part of the 2009 grant program created by the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009. The language that created those grants included language from Congress that defined the two terms. In that grant program, unserved meant any home or business that has a broadband speed of less than 10/1 Mbps. Underserved was defined as homes having speeds above 10/1 Mbps but slower than 25/3 Mbps.

As far as I can tell, these terms have never been defined outside of broadband grant programs. However, the terms began to be widely used when talking about broadband availability. A decade ago, communities all wanted to know if they were unserved or underserved.

The terms began to show up in other grant programs after 2009. For example, the FCC's CAF II grant program in 2015 gave money to the largest telephone companies in the country and funded 'unserved' locations that had speeds less than 10/1 Mbps.

The same definition was used in the ReConnect grants created by Congress in 2018 and 2019. Those grants made money available to bring better broadband to areas that had to be at least 90% unserved, using the 10/1 Mbps definition.

The biggest FCC grant program of 2020 has scrapped the old definition of these terms. This $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) grant program is being made eligible to Census blocks that are "entirely unserved by voice and with broadband speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps". That seemingly has redefined unserved to now mean 25/3 Mbps or slower broadband — at least for purposes of this federal grant program.

There are also states that have defined the two terms differently. For example, the following is the official definition of broadband in Minnesota used when awarding broadband grants in the state:

An unserved area is an area of Minnesota in which households or businesses lack access to wire-line broadband service at speeds that meet the FCC threshold of 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload. An underserved area is an area of Minnesota in which households or businesses do receive service at or above the FCC threshold but lack access to wire-line broadband service at speeds 100 megabits per second download and 20 megabits per second upload.

It must also be noted that there are states that define slower speeds as unserved. I'm aware of a few state broadband programs that still use 4/1 Mbps or 6/1 Mbps as the definition of unserved.

The main reason to scrap these terms is that they convey the idea that 25/3 Mbps broadband ought to be an acceptable target speed for building new broadband. Urban America has moved far beyond the kinds of broadband speeds that are being discussed as acceptable for rural broadband. Cable companies now have minimum speeds that vary between 100 Mbps and 200 Mbps. Almost 18% of homes in the US now buy broadband provided over fiber. Cisco says the average achieved broadband speed in 2020 is in the range of 93 Mbps.

The time has come when we all need to refuse to talk about subsidizing broadband infrastructure that is obsolete before it's constructed. During the recent pandemic, we saw that homes need faster upload speeds to work or do schoolwork from home. We must refuse to accept new broadband construction that provides a 3 Mbps upload connection when something ten times faster than that would barely be acceptable.

Words have power, and the FCC still frames the national broadband discussions in terms of the ability to provide speeds of 25/3 Mbps. The FCC concentrated on 25/3 Mbps as the primary point of focus in its two recent FCC broadband reports to Congress. By sticking with discussions of 25/3 Mbps, the FCC is able to declare that a lot of the US has acceptable broadband. If the FCC used a more realistic definition of broadband, like the one used in Minnesota, then the many millions of homes that can't buy 100/20 Mbps broadband would be properly defined as being underserved.

In the last few months, the FCC decided to allow slow technologies into the $16.4 billion RDOF grant program. For example, they've opened the door to telcos to bid to provide rural DSL that will supposedly offer 25/3 Mbps speeds. This is after the complete failure in the CAF II program, where the big telcos largely failed to bring rural DSL speeds up to a paltry 10/1 Mbps.

It's time to kill the terms unserved and underserved, and it's time to stop defining connections of 10/1 Mbps or 25/3 Mbps as broadband. When urban residents can buy broadband with speeds of 100 Mbps or faster, a connection of 25/3 should not be referred to as broadband.

By Doug Dawson, President at CCG Consulting – Dawson has worked in the telecom industry since 1978 and has both a consulting and operational background. He and CCG specialize in helping clients launch new broadband markets, develop new products, and finance new ventures. Visit Page

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Comments

Standard Speed Scaled Up 10x per Decade By Phil Howard  –  Aug 13, 2020 5:54 pm PST

We need to have a single standard speed that goes up each year as at least a reference point for minimum speed of new service.  A requirement needs to exist for speeds above this to be clearly specified in both the actual speed and the minimum ratio relative to the standard.  That would mean a 320/40 service offering in 2022 must say that it is at most 2 times the speed of "Standard Speed" and not exploit the upload ratio in advertising.  Or do we need to abandon this kind of thing, totally?

2020 100/25
2021 125/32
2022 160/40
2023 200/50
2024 250/64
2025 320/80
2026 400/100
2027 500/125
2028 640/160
2029 800/200
2030 1000/250
2031 1250/320
2032 1600/400
2033 2000/500
2034 2500/640
2035 3200/800
2036 4000/1000
... and so on ... any objections?

Apartment Speeds Could be Seriously Lacking By Phil Howard  –  Aug 13, 2020 6:09 pm PST

I heard (read online) of a case where someone living in an apartment that attracted renters with "Free Broadband Internet".  They got ethernet and free use of an in-apartment Wifi router/access point.  The building was fed by 100/100.  The problem is that it is shared by 24 apartment units.  He was reporting how slow it is now, during the day, since late March, 2020.  Is he getting 4/4 now?  Sometimes he gets bursts up to 80/80, especially at night.  His landlord said he is allowed to get a private broadband service of his choosing that he pays for, including $50 install cost for the landlord to let the provider access the building commons.

It's not just speed By Larry Press  –  Aug 23, 2020 5:37 am PST

Granularity is also an issue. The FCC looks at census blocks and considers them served if one ISP can offer service to a single customer. That results in overcounting. Affordability/monopoly is another issue — only one wireline ISP serves my house.

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