The agency’s chairman says people in rural areas shouldn’t have to wait for high-speed net access, but a dissenting commissioner says faulty data will leave some behind.
The Federal Communications Commission voted this week to approve a $20.4 billion fund designed to ensure that residents in rural areas of the US have access to broadband internet connections.
The move was the agency’s “single biggest step to date to close the digital divide,” the FCC said in a press release Thursday, but two of the five agency commissioners dissented in part to the plan, saying, among other things, that it relies on faulty data.
The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will be allocated over the next 10 years to broadband providers. It’ll also be available to cable providers, wireless companies and electric co-ops, which have traditionally been excluded from such government subsidies.
The fund targets “rural areas across the country where residents currently lack access to adequate broadband and would deploy high-speed broadband to millions of rural Americans in an efficient and effective manner,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement earlier in January, when he proposed the rules for the initiative to fellow agency commissioners.
But Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, one of the partial dissenters during the vote on the fund, said this week that the maps the FCC relies on to determine where coverage is needed aren’t accurate. She said collecting reliable data should take precedence over handing out money to broadband providers.
“Right now, if a single subscriber in a census block is identified as having broadband, we conclude broadband is available throughout,” Rosenworcel said in a statement about the vote on the fund. “That’s not right. It masks so many people who are unserved and erroneously suggests our broadband efforts are done.”
Money for the fund will be raised in a two-phase auction. Some FCC officials have said the first phase of the auction relies on data about areas that lack coverage, which isn’t in dispute. Once the FCC has more accurate broadband deployment data, Pai has said, it’ll begin the second phase of the auction to allocate funds to partially served areas.
“We don’t want millions of rural Americans to wait longer than necessary to obtain the economic, educational and health care opportunities provided by high-speed broadband,” Pai has said.
But Rosenworcel counters that “haste makes waste.”
“The FCC should know in detail where service truly is and is not,” she said in her statement. “It should be that we figure this out before sending federal funds to who knows where to build who knows what. But that is not what we do today. We rush billions of dollars out the door in what feels like a broadband publicity stunt.”
The vote on the fund came down along party lines. Chairman Pai and Commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr, all Republicans, approved. The two Democratic commissioners, Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks, approved in part and dissented in part.