Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai took heat from House Democrats Wednesday morning for moving ahead with a $20.4 billion broadband funding program before maps depicting coverage gaps were fixed.
During a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on FCC’s budget request, members did not hold back criticizing Pai for advancing the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) before the agency updated its broadband maps. The maps show areas that are and aren't served with high speed internet.
“The rollout of the fund is extremely troubling,” Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., said during the hearing. “For starters, it's being rolled out using old maps.”
FCC has been highly criticized for the accuracy of its national broadband map, which was last updated in 2018.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the Democratic commissioner who also testified in the hearing, backed Bishop saying the agency can’t manage problems that can’t be measured.
“We need to have maps before money and data before deployment,” Rosenworcel said. “Let’s take just a little time to make sure they are better.”
She argued moving ahead with inaccurate maps could cause some Congressional districts to be skipped with broadband service. Rosenworcel thinks significant improvements to maps could be accomplished in three to six months.
“That is flatly incorrect,” Pai said disagreeing with her. “I consulted with career staff at the FCC. Currently, it already takes six months to analyze any particular Form 477 to make sure they are error free.”
Form 477 is what FCC uses to determine which providers are servicing broadband in which areas.
Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., asked Pai about coordination efforts with the Department of Agriculture so the agencies weren’t overlapping on expansion efforts. Pai said he has met and discussed several times with Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue the importance of not duplicating efforts when providing funds to expand rural broadband.
However, Rosenworcel noted USDA’s Rural Utilities Service in previous administrations had been duplicating funding in the past, which has required FCC to return the money through the Universal Service Fund.
“For many years the Rural Utilities Service, Department of Agriculture has been giving out money and grants for rural broadband without coordinating adequately with the FCC,” she said during a House Appropriations Committee hearing Wednesday.
A USDA spokesperson repsonded after hearing about Rosenworcel's comments and pointed to a coordination report with USDA, FCC, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration that was sent to Congress last week.
“USDA is committed to being a strong partner in deploying high-speed broadband internet connectivity to families, farmers, businesses, and communities across rural Americ,” the spokesperson said. “We are fully coordinated with FCC and NTIA, as well as state governments and local partners to ensure we are investing as responsibly and effectively as possible."
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The USF is used as a mechanism by which interstate long distance carriers were assessed to subsidize telephone service to low-income households and high-cost areas, according to FCC.
Bishop and Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., also raised concerns about interference from the White House when Pai made the RDOF funding announcement with President Donald Trump. Bishop pointed out the program is set to start 13 days before the 2020 election.
The RDOF program would distribute $20.4 billion over ten years to expand rural broadband. The first phase of RDOF would distribute $16.4 billion through a reverse auction scheduled for October 22nd. It would target homes and businesses in census blocks that are entirely unserved by voice and broadband with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (mbps).
“The FCC should be focused on serving the American people and not politicizing for winning elections,” Bishop noted.
Pai defended his actions and said the president has not attempted to influence him on decisions the Commission has to make.
Pai would not comment on the recently-passed Senate legislation that requires FCC to collect more granular data for broadband maps when approached by Agri-Pulse. The second phase of RDOF would target unserved locations in partially unserved census blocks using new, more detailed data being developed through the Digital Opportunity Data Collection. The second phase would also focus on areas that did not receive funding in phase one allocations, according to the agency.
The Senate passed the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act by unanimous consent Tuesday, sending the bill to President Donald Trump’s desk.
The bill would also require the Commission to set parameters for service availability from mobile broadband providers to ensure accuracy. The House passed the bill last week.
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