Wireless Internet service provider LTD Broadband is in line to receive around $8,000 in government funding to provide 1 Gbit/s Internet services in the areas immediately surrounding Apple's massive $5 billion headquarters in Cupertino, California.
That award helps to highlight a number of issues, including most pressingly the continued difficulties policymakers face in mapping out exactly where broadband is needed – and where it is not.
"RDOF funds will go to serve areas adjacent to the brand-new Apple Campus in Cupertino," complained the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) to the FCC in a recent filing. "Far from 'unserved,' the Apple Campus is one of the most connected places in the entire world."
According to maps provided by the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC), which oversees telecom issues in the state, the FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) allocated around $8,000 to LTD Broadband to construct 1 Gbit/s Internet services in areas surrounding Apple's HQ. Apple opened its new, circular, four-story headquarters, dubbed the "spaceship," in 2017.
The FCC's RDOF program provides government money to build broadband services in areas immediately outside Apple's circular HQ in Cupertino, California.
"These areas do not correspond to unserved or low-income communities. Instead, they are immediately south of the main headquarters and include the 1000-seat Steve Jobs Theater. And for good measure, the Ookla data unsurprisingly confirms that the entire area currently has access to fixed and mobile speeds far above 25/3Mbit/s," CCA wrote.
An LTD representative did not respond to questions from Light Reading about the situation. The company said it is the nation's fourth largest wireless Internet service provider (WISP).
LTD was the top winner of the FCC's RDOF Phase 1 auction last year, walking away with a total of $1.3 billion in promised federal payments to build Internet services across 13 states. The FCC's RDOF program is a reverse auction where companies and entities that submit the lowest bid for covering a particular area win – however, then they're on the hook to cover that area with broadband services.
Since the auction, the FCC has been reviewing the "long form" RDOF applications from companies like LTD to see if they will be able to follow through on their commitments. The agency has moved forward with some of those applications, according to reports, but not ones from companies like LTD.
LTD is one of several major RDOF winners that has faced withering criticism that it will not be able to meet its RDOF obligations. "There is no indication that LTD [Broadband] has the technical, engineering, financial, operational, management, staff or other resources to meet RDOF build-out and service obligations," wrote the Minnesota Telecom Alliance and the Iowa Communications Alliance in a recent joint filing to the FCC.
LTD, for its part, has fought back against such criticism, arguing that it will be able to meet its RDOF obligations primarily with fiber connections.
But the concerns surrounding the credibility of RDOF winners like LTD is dwarfed by the concerns surrounding the maps used for the RDOF process.
Mapping broadband needs
"CCA conducted an analysis comparing publicly available data to phase I RDOF areas that were supposedly 'completely unserved,'" the trade association, which mainly represents smaller wireless network operators, wrote to the FCC. "Our findings revealed that RDOF is poised to inadvertently direct funding to hundreds of thousands of locations that are already served, including wealthy, urban areas that have some of the most robust connectivity in the country. Our collective goal of truly closing the digital divide will be hampered if we distribute scarce universal service funding to places that do not need support like Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, downtown Chicago, or tech centers like the MIT campus and Apple headquarters."
To be clear, this is not a new issue. Policymakers have been complaining of the quality of the FCC's broadband maps for years. That's because most of the agency's mapping data is provided by network operators themselves – and a number of studies have found that operators' mapping data is often misleading or wildly inaccurate. In response to the situation, Congress recently passed legislation requiring the FCC to improve its broadband maps; acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has been working to address that legislative requirement with a mapping task force that is expected to provide some initial results later this year.
Finally, the broadband mapping problem has only grown in importance this year following bipartisan support for billions of dollars in government funding to expand broadband availability in the US – money above and beyond last year's RDOF. Policymakers and others argue such once-in-a-lifetime spending needs to be guided by accurate broadband maps.
"For a long time, the FCC has had this really stale methodology for collecting this information. We've assumed that if there's a single subscriber in a census block, then service is available throughout. And that just systematically overstates service. So if you're in a rural area where census blocks can be large, and there's service available in the main street in the town, that doesn't mean it's available up in the hills. And so we've got to really abandon that methodology," Rosenworcel told NPR recently. "We've been asking carriers to use that method when they file with us and we have got to figure out a better way forward. So I think that there's blame in more than just one quarter here. I think we have to change the way we're asking for data."
— Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano