Members of Congress Urge FCC to Vet Provider Promises on Rural Broadband

Members of Congress are urging the Federal Communications Commission to make sure that broadband providers can deliver on promises of high-quality service. (Photo By: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc./Getty Images)
Funding from the Federal Communications Commission’s largest reverse auction for rural broadband is expected to serve over 900,000 locations in 31 states. (Photo By: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc./Getty Images)

A bipartisan group of 160 senators and House members is calling on the Federal Communications Commission to verify that broadband providers can truly give rural Americans the high-quality service they promised to deliver.

NRECA and NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association are worried that some companies that made winning bids during the first phase of the recent Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction do not have the ability to carry out their ambitious plans.

Lawmakers, in a letter sent Jan. 19 at the urging of NRECA, asked the commission to scrutinize the long-form applications that auction winners must now submit to the agency to validate that they have the technical, financial, managerial and operational skills and resources to perform as promised. Providers must submit the applications for approval to receive federal funds.

“We also strongly encourage the FCC to make as public as possible the status of its review and consider opportunities for public input on the applications,” the senators and House members wrote. “Such transparency and accountability will be essential to ensure the success of this program and to minimize any opportunities for fraud or abuse.”

One of NRECA’s concerns is that some companies won bids promising service they cannot deliver. For example, several companies said they could provide gigabit speeds using fixed wireless technology that is not widely available, said Kelly Wismer, NRECA’s lobbyist on broadband issues.

“Many of the winning applicants claim they will deliver levels of service with certain technologies that are only achievable in extremely limited conditions and terrain—or still not commercially available,” Wismer said.

Electric cooperatives also competed in the auction to provide high-speed internet service to rural communities, and the integrity of the auction and public trust in future auctions depends on companies providing realistic information about what they can provide, Wismer said. The congressional letter asked the FCC to vet all the long-form applications, so co-op applicants will also be scrutinized.

“At the end of the day, what’s important to NRECA is that the broadband provider, whoever it is, can deliver on the promises they made so unserved Americans get access to high-speed internet,” Wismer said.

Without proper vetting, lawmakers warned, “we fear that we will not know whether funds were improperly spent for years to come.” Wismer said rural residents will suffer the consequences if that happens because they “desperately need fast and reliable broadband service.”

That need has been underscored during the COVID-19 pandemic as rural students have struggled to do schoolwork at home.

The FCC announced winners of its RDOF action last month. Those winners are slated to be awarded a total of $9.2 billion to reach more than 5.2 million unserved communities throughout rural America. Electric co-ops were among the winning bidders and are expected to receive more than $1.6 billion to serve 900,000-plus locations in 31 states.

“We all hope this program will be a great success—and it is in that spirit that we write to encourage you to take every reasonable measure possible to ensure this turns out to be the case,” the lawmakers told the commission.

Erin Kelly is a staff writer at NRECA.