Lawmakers Pressure FCC on Broadband Subsidy Awards

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A bipartisan mix of lawmakers is pushing the FCC to vet the $9.2 billion in awards the agency announced last month through its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction. Winners included traditional broadband providers like Charter Communications and Frontier, as well as less conventional companies like SpaceX, working on satellite-delivered broadband.

The letter to the Commission agency comes amid questions about whether some applicants over-promised. Lawmakers urged the Commission to conduct a stringent review of the technical, managerial, financial and operational capabilities of winning bidders before distributing Universal Service Fund money. 

“Without proper due diligence today, we fear that we will not know whether funds were improperly spent for years to come,” they wrote. The group includes more than 150 legislators, led by Sens. John Thune (R-SD) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Reps. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and Tim Walberg (R-MI). They want the FCC to “redouble its efforts” to vet applicants’ additional, and longer, application forms and to “validate” what providers say they can accomplish.

Before he left the FCC as Chairman, Ajit Pai defended the subsidy effort as an “overwhelming success,” maintaining the “rigorous safeguards” should dispel concerns.

NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, has repeatedly lobbied for transparency and accountability throughout the process. “With the bidding portion of the RDOF round one auction now complete, the real work is only just beginning to ensure that broadband is delivered as promised to millions of rural Americans,” said NTCA Chief Executive Officer Shirley Bloomfield. “There is far too much money at stake and far too many consumers on hold to gamble on confidential promises about unproven service capabilities that might only be found to fall short years from now. The real success of this effort will be defined not by the auction results themselves but by the actual delivery of robust and reliable broadband to rural consumers.”

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, too, welcomed congressional oversight of the RDOF process. “The FCC’s long-form process asks hard questions of presumptive winners, thoroughly vetting applicants’ proposals so that regulators can be assured they are capable of meeting the program’s requirements, said WISPA VP Government Affairs Christina Mason. “It’s important to work deliberately through that process to properly ascertain the ability of winners to perform.” WISPA will continue to study the results of the RDOF Auction for lessons learned which might improve the next reverse auction and bring more, diverse players to the table, she added.

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