FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said today that the agency would extend by 90 days the challenge process window for the map of areas eligible for Mobility Fund Phase II support.
Mr. Pai announced the extension in a letter to senators that responded to their letter earlier in the day seeking the delay. The challenge window currently closes on Aug. 27.
“I am committed to ensuring that the challenge process will produce a high-quality map. To this end, we made sure state, local, and Tribal governments – not just carriers – were able to participate,” Mr. Pai told the senators. “We sent Commission staff to hold on-site training events in New Mexico, Kansas, West Virginia, Maine, New Hampshire, and Washington state, with another planned for tomorrow in Mississippi. We released a map of areas most susceptible to challenge, that is those where only one unsubsidized carrier reported offering service, so that challengers could better target their efforts. We also changed the parameters of speed testing for challengers, reducing the number of measurements required to successfully challenge an area. And we hope to release the list of qualifying handsets to the public in the next two weeks so that local governments can more easily enlist volunteers.
“Nevertheless, I agree with you that the agency should be exercising its discretion to ensure that the challenge process is as robust as possible,” Mr. Pai added. “Accordingly, I support extending the challenge process window by 90 days and have directed the Rural Broadband Auctions Task Force to figure out the procedural steps necessary to do just that. By lengthening the period during which challenges can be submitted, challengers will have an opportunity to conduct additional tests, which in turn means a more accurate map for carrying out the Mobility Fund Phase II auction.”
In their letter, the bipartisan group of 30 senators, led by Sens. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), Maggie Hassan (D., N.H.), and Jerry Moran (R., Kan.), noted that “many of us have expressed concern about the accuracy of the Federal Communications Commission’s map of eligible areas for Mobility Fund Phase II Support (MFII). This map is intended to reflect areas that lack unsubsidized mobile 4G LTE service, but it unfortunately falls short of an accurate depiction of areas in need of universal service support. Therefore, the FCC’s challenge process will play an outsized role in determining appropriate eligible areas for MFII support. 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.
“While you have noted that state, local, and Tribal governments can participate in the challenge process, absent additional direction, they may remain unaware or unprepared to do so,” the senators added. “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. Additionally, the parameters for challenges have already changed once during the existing challenge timeframe through the Order on Reconsideration on April 30, 2018, altering existing measurements for challenges.
“In recent testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee, you expressed that the FCC has ‘some flexibility [for] an extension of time’ to ensure sufficient time for state and local governments, as well as carriers and other potential challengers, such as state farm bureaus, to fully participate in the process,” the senators added. “To provide this additional time and encourage participation in the challenge process, we urge you to extend the current challenge process window by 90 days.”
Other senators signing onto the letter were Sens. Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii), Roy Blunt (R., Mo.), Angus King (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., Wisc.), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R., Miss.), Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), Ron Johnson (R., Wisc.), Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), Todd Young (R., Ind.), Thom Tillis (R., N.C.), Christopher Coons (D., Del.), 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.), Ed Markey (D., Mass.), and Deborah Fischer (R., Neb.).
Lawmakers and industry entities, which has also expressed concern about the length of the challenge process, welcomed Mr. Pai’s announcement today.
“I commend FCC Chairman Pai for his commitment to extending the Mobility Fund Phase II presumptive eligibility challenge process by 90 days,” said Sen. Wicker, who is chairman of the Senate communications, technology, innovation, and the Internet subcommittee. “With so much at stake, it is important for us to get this map right so that the millions of rural Americans who currently lack broadband service will be first in line to receive support through the Mobility Fund program.”
“I appreciate Chairman Pai’s response to our letter that he has agreed to extend by 90 days the challenge process to help correct maps of broadband coverage that are used to determine the distribution of federal funding to support rural wireless broadband expansion in New Hampshire and across the country,” Sen Hassan said. “However, I continue to have serious concerns about current FCC mapping that inaccurately shows that certain areas in New Hampshire have mobile broadband coverage when that is not the case on the ground and about the overly complicated challenge process. I will continue working across the aisle to help ensure that New Hampshire is appropriately represented in broadband expansion efforts so that all hard-working Granite Staters – regardless of their zip code – have access to broadband to help them succeed in the 21st century innovation economy.”
“We appreciate Chairman Pai’s prompt action to extend the challenge process of the FCC’s Mobility Fund II (‘MF II’) initial eligibility map,” said Steve Berry, president and chief executive officer of the Competitive Carriers Association. “The very fact that nearly one third of the Senate sent a letter expressing their concern about the accuracy of the map was a clear indication that action needed to be taken, and we greatly appreciate the leadership shown by Senators Wicker, Hassan, Moran and their colleagues to get this right. Many competitive carriers depend on critical USF support to provide essential mobile broadband services to their customers and to expand their networks, but the FCC’s map unfortunately missed the mark in determining areas that should be eligible for support.”
Mr. Berry added, “The challenge process provides an important opportunity for carriers and other challengers to submit information that will help correct significant flaws in the FCC’s current map, and Chairman Pai did the right thing by responding to Members right away and granting additional time. Chairman Pai himself noted the importance of correcting the FCC’s broadband coverage data and placed his hope in the challenge process to correct it. We are glad that he is keeping true to his word. Consumers, especially those in rural areas, will benefit from better, more accurate data, and I thank the Senators for taking such concerted action to help correct the FCC’s unfortunately incorrect map.”
“A 90-day challenge window extension will help to alleviate the significant burden of participating in the MF-II challenge process,” said Rural Wireless Association General Counsel Carri Bennet. “This extra time will help RWA members and other prospective challengers be better able to undertake the work necessary to mount successful challenges, which will, in turn, yield a more accurate 4G LTE coverage map and help to target USF support in rural areas where it is badly needed.”
RWA also said it “submitted data to the Commission showing that it will take rural carriers as many as 31.1 hours per day (or more) for the entire initial 150-day challenge period to challenge claimed coverage in their service areas using the Commission’s newly increased 400 meter buffer radius. A 90-day challenge window extension will help to provide small rural carriers sufficient time to collect the data that is required to challenge the existence of 4G LTE service in rural areas throughout the country.”- Paul Kirby, [email protected]
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