Monday, October 05, 2020

FCC's broadband maps, long known to be flawed but still in use, could lead to even more waste of taxpayers' money

Though it has been known for years that the Federal Communications Commission relies on faulty data maps to see which rural areas need more broadband funding, the maps haven't been updated. In March, President Trump signed bipartisan legislation ordering the FCC to change how it collects and verifies broadband data, but it missed the Sept. 21 deadline, Dean DeChiaro reports for Roll Call.

"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," DeChiaro reports.

The main problems are that major telecommunications companies have an incentive to overstate their rural reach. They also have the lobbying muscle to bend major projects their way, but when they get funding tend to save money by installing slower, cheaper DSL service instead of fiber-optic cable, according to research from the Purdue Center for Regional Development.

The faulty maps work in Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's favor, since they falsely show that "his efforts to reduce regulations on internet service providers has helped reduce the number of unconnected Americans," DeChiaro reports. At a House committee hearing Sept. 17, 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."

Fellow Republican commissioners Brendan Carr and Michael O'Rielly acknowledged problems with the maps, but defended efforts to correct them. 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," DeChiaro reports. "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."

Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the FCC has not made enough progress and accused the Republican majority of putting off vital improvements to the way it gathers data, DeChiaro reports. "We are careening towards a disaster with waste, fraud and abuse here," she said. "We’re giving out billions and billions of dollars a week before the election when we know our data is wrong."

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