30 Senators Press FCC Chairman on Rural Broadband Funding Issue

A bipartisan group of 30 senators wrote to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on May 30 regarding their concerns about several aspects of a program the agency is conducting that will provide funding to help bring 4G wireless broadband service to primarily rural areas of the U.S.

The letter focuses on issues the senators have with the challenge process connected to the FCC’s Mobility Fund Phase II support program that will provide up to $4.53 billion in support available over 10 years to primarily rural areas that lack unsubsidized 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) service.

On May 22, 2018, the FCC released its initial eligible areas map, which is based on mobile providers submitting current, standardized coverage data on qualified 4G LTE service, as well as subsidy data from the Universal Service Administrative Company. Following the release of the map, interested parties can now challenge initial determinations that an area is ineligible for MF-II. Following the challenge process, challenged providers will have an opportunity to respond to all challenges. The FCC will then disburse the $4.53 billion in support through a multi-round reverse auction where mobile broadband providers commit to compliance and deployment requirements.

In their letter, Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., Jerry Moran, R-Kan., Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Angus King, Jr., I-Maine, Cory Gardner, R-Colo., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Pat Roberts, R-Kan., Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., James Lankford R-Okla., Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Richard Shelby, R-Ala., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Cindy Hyde-Smith D-Miss., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Ron Johnson, R-Wis., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Todd Young R-Ind., Chris Coons, D-Del., Thom Tillis, R-N.C., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Tina Smith, D-Minn., Tom Udall, D-N.M., Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., Doug Jones, D-Ala., Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Deb Fischer, R-Neb., raised concerns regarding the accuracy of the FCC’s eligible areas map.

“This map is intended to reflect areas that lack unsubsidized mobile 4G LTE service, but it, unfortunately, falls short of an accurate description of areas in need of universal service support,” the letter says. “Therefore, the FCC’s challenge process will play an outsized role in determining appropriate eligible areas for MFII support.”

On top of accuracy concerns, the senators objected to the challenge process.

“Communities in our states that are not initially eligible or successfully challenged will be ineligible for up to $4.53 billion in support over the next 10 years, exacerbating the digital divide and denying fundamental economic and safety opportunities to rural communities,” the senators wrote. “While you have noted that state, local, and tribal governments can participate in the challenge process, absent additional direction, they remain unaware or unprepared to do so. We appreciate and encourage additional outreach to state, local, and tribal governments on how they can participate in the challenge process. However, with less than 100 days remaining and additional state outreach presentations not yet completed, MFII challengers will struggle within the current timeframe to provide requisite information that will correct significant flaws in the current map.”

The senators noted that during recent testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Pai said the FCC has some flexibility to extend the challenge deadline, and in their letter they urged him to extend the process window by 90 days.

“The MFII process presents an opportunity to take significant steps to address the digital divide and preserve and expand mobile broadband in rural areas,” the senators wrote. “We strong urge you to ensure this opportunity is available to all communities deserving support through compiling accurate data that reflects our constituents’ experience, including providing additional time for challenges to submit data, conducting additional information sessions for state, local, and tribal governments, and providing Congress with an update on final eligible areas before conducting an auction of support.”

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