At the direction of Chairman Ajit Pai, the FCC has launched an investigation into whether “one or more major carriers” violated the agency’s rules by submitting incorrect coverage maps for use in the challenge process for the FCC’s planned Mobility Fund Phase II (MF-II) reverse auction.
The MF-II map is based on carrier-submitted data. The challenge process — which completed its first phase on Nov. 26 — allowed parties to submit test results showing that areas designated as currently served by mobile broadband actually lack such service. If an area is served, it would not be eligible for the $4.53 billion in MF-II support that will be available in the reverse auction. Smaller carriers that hope to obtain support to serve those areas, as well as members of Congress representing rural areas, have criticized the FCC’s MF-II map as inaccurate and argued that challengers need more time to drive the many miles of road necessary to collect test results to prove it.
The FCC said today that it is suspending the next phase of the challenge process, during which carriers could respond to challenges of their coverage claims. The Commission said that the investigation is being launched “after a preliminary review of the 20,809,503 speed tests” conducted in 37 states that were filed during the first phase of the challenge process. That preliminary review “suggested significant violations of the Commission’s rules,” Chairman Pai said.
The Chairman also said, “My top priority is bridging the digital divide and ensuring that Americans have access to digital opportunity regardless of where they live, and the FCC’s Mobility Fund Phase II program can play a key role in extending high-speed Internet access to rural areas across America. In order to reach those areas, it’s critical that we know where access is and where it is not. … We must ensure that the data is accurate before we can proceed.”
In a statement, Commissioner Brendan Carr said, “Chairman Pai’s decision to launch this investigation has my full support. Earlier this year, I said I would monitor how the maps align with consumers’ real-world experiences. Now that the challenge process has closed, the data provided confirm that Chairman Pai has made the right call.
“Throughout this process, I heard from providers serving the Oklahoma panhandle and communities across rural America. I spent time in small towns and rural counties in Mississippi, Nebraska, Colorado, and other states and heard firsthand the challenges that many Americans face in getting a high-speed, 4G LTE connection. It’s more than a frustrating inconvenience. It limits access to economic opportunity, to a 21st century education, and to high-quality telehealth applications. That’s why it’s so important to ensure the data underlying our broadband maps are accurate,” Commissioner Carr continued.
“It is deeply concerning that FCC staff’s preliminary analysis of the challenge data shows that one or more major carriers potentially violated the Commission’s MF-II mapping rules and submitted incorrect maps. Today’s announcement aligns with concerns I shared with Chairman Pai, and I look forward to working with him and our able staff to complete this investigation,” he added.
Praise for Chairman Pai’s decision came from Senate communications, technology, innovation, and the Internet subcommittee Chairman Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), who has been critical of the FCC’s broadband mapping information and the MF-II challenge process, and who has been working recently on the possibility of placing language in year-end appropriations legislation that would force the FCC to delay the challenge process and examine the accuracy of the data. Sen. Wicker is first in line in terms of seniority to succeed Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.) as chairman of the full Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee when the latter gives up his gavel in January for his new role as majority whip.
“Today’s announcement from the FCC confirms what we have known all along - the FCC’s mapping procedure is fatally flawed. I thank Chairman Pai for his work to launch this investigation and will be tracking the results closely. It is important for us to get this coverage map right so we can accurately target federal support to the communities in need of broadband service,” Chairman Wicker said.
The Rural Wireless Association also welcomed the investigation and the suspension of the response phase of the challenge process.
“RWA’s concerns about overstated coverage have been borne out by challenge process data. RWA member Panhandle Telecommunication Systems, Inc. drove 124,421 miles (a distance nearly equivalent to driving 5 times around the Earth) during the challenge process, and took a total of 3,605,517 speed tests. Of the total test points collected, 3,232,612 (89.7%) tested below 5 Mbps download speed or did not register 4G LTE service at all. Another RWA member collected 2,684,667 test points, and found that 99.09 percent of those points tested below 5 Mbps download speed or did not register 4G LTE service at all. Yet another RWA member collected 1,485,324 test points, and found that 82.9 percent of those points tested below 5 Mbps download speed or did not register 4G LTE service at all,” RWA said in a press release.
RWA General Counsel Carri Bennet said, “Overstated coverage by Verizon and others has caused RWA’s members to spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours to prove a negative. We know that out of 106 entities that had access to the USAC portal, only 21 submitted challenges. Many entities, RWA members included, made the difficult decision to sit out the challenge process — not because of a lack of interest, but because the overstated coverage across the country made participation prohibitively expensive. To illustrate just how high a barrier to entry there was, three small rural wireless carriers submitted more than 37 percent of the total test points submitted nationwide. This was not the ‘robust’ challenge process that the Commission envisioned.”
In response to TR Daily’s request for comment, an AT&T, Inc. spokesperson said, “Accurate MFII maps will ensure that scarce USF dollars flow to where they are needed most. We will cooperate with the investigation and look forward to its quick resolution so the auction can proceed.”
A Sprint Corp. spokesperson declined to comment for TR Daily’s story, saying that the company will “respond directly to the FCC if we are requested to do so.”
Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile US, Inc. did not respond to requests for comment by TR Daily’s news deadline. —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]
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