FCC under fire from senators over rural broadband funding limitations

The Federal Communications Commission’s latest plan to expand high-speed internet access across the country has come under criticism by members of Congress who fear over $20 billion in funding might not make it to the communities that need it most.

On Tuesday, two dozen senators — Republicans and Democrats — wrote to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai denouncing the agency’s new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, or RDOF. This new program would establish a $20.4 billion fund to bring high-speed broadband access to rural homes and businesses that are currently going without. According to the senators, however, that money won’t be made available to communities that have already been awarded funding through the US Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect program or other broadband development or subsidy programs run by the states themselves.

“This decision by the FCC sets a dangerous and counterproductive precedent that discourages states from investing in rural communities,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said.

“This order could be devastating to rural New Yorkers and rural communities around the country,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

The FCC did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Verge. But at a Senate Appropriations hearing Tuesday, Pai said, “If a state has said to a broadband provider, ‘here’s funding to provide 25 megabit per second service,’ I do not want the FCC coming over the top and double-funding that company, or finding another company to do the exact same thing.”

Still, the senators fear that the limitations that the FCC has rolled out for RDOF could send a “discouraging message” to states that are considering establishing their own broadband programs. “Your agency should be incentivizing states to take action,” the senators said in the letter.

The first RDOF auction will take place this October and “will target over six million homes and businesses in census blocks that are entirely unserved” by high-speed broadband. At Tuesday’s hearing, Democratic commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks voiced concern over the accuracy of the agency’s broadband maps that have been criticized for years by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Currently, the FCC maps out communities without meaningful access to high-speed broadband across the country with the data it receives from the carriers. That data, that providers often exaggerate, has created wildly inaccurate maps and sparked Congress to introduce bipartisan measures to fix them.

At Tuesday’s hearing, the Democratic commissioners suggested that the maps should be fixed before the RDOF auctions move forward. “We need maps before money and data before deployment,” Rosenworcel said. “We’re doing it in what looks a lot more like a broadband publicity stunt than true policy.”

Republican commissioners like Pai and Brendan Carr agreed that the maps need updating, but claim that they have enough data identifying wholly unserved communities to proceed with RDOF in those areas before the maps are fixed.

“There are millions of locations we know for a fact are unserved based on any map that you consult,” Pai responded. “Waiting to serve those areas, until we solve the maps in completely different areas, is irresponsible.”

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