FCC has money for rural broadband but isn’t sure where to spend it

Tribune Content Agency

WASHINGTON — Ever since Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, was first elected to the House in 2006, he has sought to ensure that Iowans and other rural Americans can access the internet.

But Loebsack, who is set to retire at the end of the 116th Congress, remains frustrated that the federal government still lacks accurate data showing where Americans can get a signal — and where they can’t.

“For years, it has been evident and clear to this committee, the stakeholders, and indeed, the Federal Communications Commission, that the maps have been bad,” Loebsack said at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on Sept. 17.

“All of you recognize that, all of you admit that,” Loebsack told the quintet of FCC commissioners testifying before the House panel. “And yet we still haven’t fixed the maps. It’s kind of like when they say, ‘Just wear the damn mask.’ Let’s just fix the damn maps, right?”

But how to best go about correcting the maps is disputed. And despite cooperation between Democrats and Republicans designed to force the FCC to fix them, sniping over who bears the responsibility for the persisting inaccuracies is a matter of partisan debate.

At the hearing, Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai blamed Congress, which he claimed has hamstrung the agency’s ability to fix the maps by withholding the necessary funding even though the agency approved a plan to fix the maps last year.

But Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel blamed Pai.

“We just haven’t made enough progress,” said Rosenworcel, who is viewed as occupying pole position for Pai’s job if former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, wins the November election. “We’ve put it off for another day. We keep on claiming that we need additional funds, that we need additional time. It’s just not good enough.”

Brendan Carr and Michael O’Rielly, Pai’s fellow Republican commissioners, acknowledged issues with the maps but defended efforts to correct them. Pai has relied on the maps to assert that his efforts to reduce regulations on internet service providers has helped reduce the number of unconnected Americans, even when that data has proven inaccurate because providers submitted faulty data.

Earlier this month, the FCC fined the New York-based service provider Barrier Communications Corp. nearly $164,000 for submitting erroneous data that claimed the company offered coverage to the entire populations of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia — roughly 20% of the U.S. population.

The erroneous data was included in a draft of the FCC’s 2019 broadband deployment report, which claimed that the number of unconnected Americans dropped about 25% from 26.1 million in 2016 to 19.4 million in 2017. After a nonprofit organization, Free Press, pointed out the error, Pai issued a revised estimate that showed the tally dropping 18 percent, to 21.3 million.

The agency’s plan to use the current maps to begin auctioning off $20 billion in rural broadband funding starting in late October has concerned lawmakers who want to ensure the money is spent wisely.

“Without proper maps, much of the money may be wasted, and consumers left unserved,” said Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J. “I just think we have to do better than this.”

In March, President Donald Trump signed bipartisan legislation that gave the FCC six months to change how it collects and verifies broadband data, including giving the public a way to challenge information submitted by service providers. But the six-month deadline passed on Monday.

“We are careening towards a disaster with waste, fraud and abuse here,” Rosenworcel said. “We’re giving out billions and billions of dollars a week before the election when we know our data is wrong.”

Carr and O’Rielly disputed Rosenworcel’s assessment. They said the maps set to be used in the Oct. 29 auction, which will sell off $16 billion of the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, are accurate. Carr said different maps, which will be used to auction off the remaining $4.4 billion later on, are flawed.

Pai said that delaying the October auction to correct maps that will not be used until a subsequent auction would be a disservice to Americans without internet access.

“Essentially, what that’s saying is unless we know every part of the country, we shouldn’t move ahead with broadband in places like Marietta, Georgia, unless we know that the suburbs in Murrysville, Pennsylvania, or McLean, Virgina, are partially served,” Pai said. “To me, people who we know are on the wrong side of the digital divide have waited long enough.”

Rosenworcel, pressed for a yes-or-no answer by Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, conceded that delaying the initial auction because of the flawed second-phase maps would not be in the public interest. But she maintained that fixing the maps should be a higher priority at the FCC.

“When Congress gave the agency (funding to fight the COVID-19 pandemic), we cleared the decks,” she said. “We had dozens of staff work to get out $200 million dollars in record time for telehealth. We need to treat this mapping task with the same speed and efficiency; we’re just not doing that right now.”


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