FCC Blocks Elon Musk From Getting Millions In Subsidies For Delivering Broadband To Traffic Medians

from the actually-paying-attention dept

Late last year consumer group Free Press released a report showing how numerous broadband providers had been gaming the FCC's RDOF (Rural Digital Opportunity Fund) subsidy program to get money they didn't really deserve. The program doles out roughly $9.2 billion in subsidies paid for by money paid by consumers into the Universal Service Fund (USF). The study clearly showed that during the last RDOF auction a long list of ISPs gamed the system to gain millions in subsidies to deliver broadband to areas that didn't make any coherent sense.

This ISP, for example, nabbed millions of dollars to deploy service to places that already had it -- like five feet outside of Apple's $5 billion new campus. Elon Musk's Starlink also managed to nab $886 million in subsidies to deploy broadband service to places like airport parking lots and traffic medians.

The whole mess was just completely ignored by previous FCC Boss Ajit "what broadband competition problem" Pai. After months of withering criticism from numerous fronts, the FCC under interim boss Jessica Rosenworcel has stepped up and fired off letters to several of the worst offenders, giving them a second chance to apply for funding with proposals that actually serve the public interest:

"The Federal Communications Commission told SpaceX and other companies on Monday that the billions in rural broadband subsidies it doled out last year can’t be used in already connected areas like “parking lots and well-served urban areas,” citing complaints. The commission, in an effort to “clean up” its subsidy auction program, offered the companies a chance to rescind their funding requests from areas that already have service."

Granted the problems with the RDOF subsidy process is just one small part of a much bigger problem. For years the government has doled out billions of dollars to telecom giants for fiber networks they then routinely half deploy. Inaccurate maps and availability data then mar the process further, obscuring not only the lack of access (up to 42 million Americans still can't access broadband) but the way a lack of overall competition harms consumers and raises rates (83 million Americans live under a broadband monopoly).

Thanks to the immense political influence giant telecom providers have over Congress and regulators, efforts to improve the entire mess comes glacially, when they come at all. That's not to ignore the huge benefit subsidies can have on less affluent and disconnected areas of the country when applied correctly, but, for decades now, regional monopolies have dictated US telecom policy. And the result has generally what you'd expect: namely billions in pointless tax breaks and subsidies thrown at companies like AT&T in exchange for layoffs, pipe dreams, and perpetually half completed networks.

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Filed Under: ajit pai, broadband, competition, elon musk, fcc, jessica rosenworcel, rdof, rural digital opportunity fund, starlink, subsidies, usf
Companies: spacex, starlink


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  • icon
    Samuel Abram (profile), 4 Aug 2021 @ 1:50pm

    What? The FCC doing its job?

    I'm liking this Jessica Rosenworcel woman a lot. She's light decades better than Ajit Pai, that's for sure.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Thad (profile), 4 Aug 2021 @ 4:41pm

      Re: What? The FCC doing its job?

      She's still friendlier to the cable lobby than I'd like, but yeah, no disagreement that she's a big improvement over that last guy.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 5 Aug 2021 @ 7:16am

        Re: Re: What? The FCC doing its job?

        So was Tom Wheeler, Ajit Pai's successor. At least Wheeler have the balls to enact Net Neutrality until his successor took it down.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          sumgai (profile), 5 Aug 2021 @ 8:54am

          Re: Re: Re: What? The FCC doing its job?

          Errr, not successor, but predecessor. Tom Wheeler came before Ajit Pai.

          Sadly, if Pai ever has to "face the music" for what he did to this country, he'll have qualified immunity. And here I though that the public had a right to seek redress from its government. Guess I was wrong about that one....

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 5 Aug 2021 @ 8:07am

        Re: Re: What? The FCC doing its job?

        "...no disagreement that she's a big improvement over that last guy."

        A bloody fence post would be an improvement over 'idjit' Pai.

        Which is a problem, really. People have lowered their standards so much over these last few years now I'm pretty sure americans can't tell a merely crooked office holder from an acceptable one.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          PaulT (profile), 6 Aug 2021 @ 12:43am

          Re: Re: Re: What? The FCC doing its job?

          "A bloody fence post would be an improvement over 'idjit' Pai."

          Well, the fence post would be merely inactive whereas Pai actively worked against the interests of consumers in the interests of entrenched legacy corporations, so... yes.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Aug 2021 @ 10:58pm

      Re: What? The FCC doing its job?

      She's light decades better than Ajit Pai, that's for sure.

      This... is not a high bar to clear.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Aug 2021 @ 4:08pm

    Where do people expect StarLink to build their ground station to serve hundreds of people via their satellites other than where they can connect to a fibre trunk link. There is little point in building the ground station, which connect users to the Internet in places where there is not a good fibre service. Starlinks intended customers can be a hundred or more miles away from where they build. If and when, and Given Musks record, its more likely when, they get their laser link between satellites working, their users can be even further away from the ground stations.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Aug 2021 @ 4:20pm

      Re:

      It doesn't matter. The FCC offers subisides based on the location of customers being served, not the location of ground stations (or any other infrastructure).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 4 Aug 2021 @ 4:33pm

        Re: Re:

        Given the coverage areas of satellites, Starlink would not be specifying services areas at the detail level of car parks and medians. Anybody used to fibre deployments would likely ask where they are building, and assume that meant that was where they intended finding customers.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 4 Aug 2021 @ 5:58pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          What you think is "likely" is irrelevent. The FCC program guidelines are quite clear, and "location of networking infrastructure" is not included. The "detail level" is defined by the FCC, and is not concerned with how many other areas may or may not be served by the same deployment. This isn't hard, the program requirements are easily accessible to anyone who cares more about reality than about being right.

          And come on, how stupid do you think Musk is? Building critical satellite receivors on a traffic median? Or inside a major city at all? It's ludicrous. Whatever you might want to say about Musk, he's not nearly as incompetent as you claim.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 4 Aug 2021 @ 10:18pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            Should he provide detailed description of 500-mile radius around each base station? The median might be just the cheapest place to build.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 5 Aug 2021 @ 1:07am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            And come on, how stupid do you think Musk is? Building critical satellite receivors on a traffic median? Or inside a major city at all?

            By the nature of satellite services, Ground station are built where there is good connectivity to the Internet, so that they can extent that connectivity to user tens or hundreds of miles away from where good connectivity is available. Airports and traffic medians, outside cities, can have clear low horizons, as needed for working satellites over unserved areas some distance from the ground station. Major fibre trunk runs, between cities, are often run along road routes, and always have spare fibre available, so building a ground station on a median is a reasonable decision.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Aug 2021 @ 6:33pm

      Re:

      In an airport parking lot or traffic median? That's where they keep the IXs, right?

      That's granting your framing that this has something to do with ground stations, which it fucking bloody well does not. But thank you for playing!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 5 Aug 2021 @ 12:47am

        Re: Re:

        Both places often have dark fibre available.

        Also, being as specific as an airport or median location when dealing with a satellite system is defining where something will be built, as a satellite service area is thousands of square miles. Starlink themselves build ground stations, therefore any location they specify is likely where they are building a ground station.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Aug 2021 @ 6:53pm

      Re:

      "....more likely when..."

      Still waiting for FSD........

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Aug 2021 @ 6:47pm

    This ISP, for example, nabbed millions of dollars to deploy service to places that already had it -- like five feet outside of Apple's $5 billion new campus.

    The linked story said that Apple's campus had good internet service, not that some place five feet outside the office did. So, do you have a citation, or should people just be satisfied that they're near unattainable connections?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Aug 2021 @ 10:08pm

    Is that the whole story?

    The issue with Starlink sounds a lot more like an issue with how "rural" is defined geographically at various resolutions and results of automated application of rules rather than any cunning effort to fleece. Airport parking lots are very big, as is the space around the Apple Campus. Some places wind up in a weirdly patchwork mix of rural, suburban, and urban density in close proximity which makes assumptions potentially laughably wrong. Everyone is likely all working with proxy data too because well, - the coverage data is terrible.

    The parking lot stories sound rather "treadmill for shrimp" cherry picking to give false implications about the whole. The shrimp treadmill was a cunning way to save money in metabolic testing but presented as a bizzare waste of grant funding. In this case the definitions and mixed data sets and analysis likely mean that if you looked over both with a fine toothed comb you will see many disagreements between maps which make one party look stupid when zoomed in upon.

    One example is an asbestos risk map including a "high risk" area in a park. It looks like an algorithmic screw up because "There aren't buildings there it is forest!" but the old state hospital had an abandoned expansion plan pre-ban which was grown over. Of course it would make a relatively attractive squat for the homeless too.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Aug 2021 @ 4:33am

    Karl, what's the true story?

    This article reads like SpaceX is losing the entire $886 million RDOF grant. I sincerely doubt that this is even remotely true. So far I haven't found any factual breakdown of how much SpaceX will actually lose from this grant. Also, though you do note there are others who will also lose portions of their grants, you do your best to minimize this. How common is this problem? Is SpaceX even the worst offender? Also, what was the actual cause of these apparently inappropriate grants? Were the ISPs actually grifting, or was it a case of bidding on insufficient information, like an inadequate FCC coverage map?

    This article could have been so much more interesting and informative if there had been some actual investigative reporting rather than this skin-deep forwarding of other reports seasoned with a (fortunately not as blatant as usual) touch of anti-Elon hate mongering.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      anon, 6 Aug 2021 @ 1:40pm

      Re: Karl, what's the true story?

      If you look at the previous coverage maps you'll see, if you zoom in, that they are delineated along census block lines. This doesn't mean that the entire census block is covered, but that there is at least one address, but not necessarily any second address in that block that has service.

      What SpaceX did was game the system. Since Starlink will be available nearly everywhere (where the sky is visible) between 54°S and 54°N, they applied for every location for which the FCC offered to pay them. Don't blame SpaceX for taking the FCC documents strictly literally. If this proves anything, its that the drones that work in the FCC probably shouldn't...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 5 Aug 2021 @ 5:25am

    "a chance to rescind their funding request"

    Given how much has been looted from USF vs punishments given out... if I was a corporation I'd like my odds for offering wifi to the maranari trench.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Aug 2021 @ 6:22am

      Re:

      Marinari trench? Is that somewhere in Italy? Birthplace of Pizza? Not to be confused with the Mariana trench, south-west of Guam.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Quarthinos (profile), 5 Aug 2021 @ 6:23am

    Why so much hate on Elon Musk?

    Why is Elon Musk called out BY NAME in this headline? He's the CEO of SpaceX, but he's not responsible for running the company day-to-day, that's Gwynne Shotwell's job. The headline implies that Elon Musk personally asked the FCC to give him money so he could provide broadband to "Traffic Medians". If the filing causes the FCC to change how they do broadband coverage maps, will you give Elon Musk the credit?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Aug 2021 @ 6:54am

      Re: Why so much hate on Elon Musk?

      Easily explained. Karl Bode is and anti-Elon Musk bigot. This is a common pattern in his reporting. Whenever he thinks he can say anything about Elon Musk, he does so in the most negative way he can think of, to the extent of inventing easily disprovable lies. I wouldn't be surprised to find him to be a TeslaQ supporter.

      What I find really unusual is that Musk has so many traits and actions that could reasonably be criticized, yet KB by and large ignores them to concentrate on unreasonable criticism.

      It's a shame, as much of his reporting is insightful and informative, just not when it concerns Elon Musk.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Bloof (profile), 5 Aug 2021 @ 11:02am

        Re: Re: Why so much hate on Elon Musk?

        Anti Elon Musk bigot? Well, that's new. I had no idea that white billionaire twitter trolls with a weird cult of personality were a persecuted minority.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 5 Aug 2021 @ 12:16pm

          Re: Re: Re: Why so much hate on Elon Musk?

          From the Merriam Webster dictionary:

          Definition of bigot
          : a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices
          especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (such as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance

          So note that there is no requirement that the target of bigotry be a minority or persecuted, or even a group (though that is usual).

          So yes, bigot.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      kallethen, 5 Aug 2021 @ 7:48am

      Re: Why so much hate on Elon Musk?

      Yeah, Ars Technica has a much better article about this situation:
      https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2021/07/ajit-pai-apparently-mismanaged-9-billion-fund -new-fcc-boss-starts-cleanup/

      Based on my reading of their article, this is less a fault of Musk/Starlink and much more the fault of Ajit Pai.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Aug 2021 @ 11:07am

    before worrying about giving/stopping funding to people or companies, the FCC should be concentrating on getting Biden to get off his ass and put the control into the Hands of the Democrate majority. perhaps then some serious changes and decisions can be made and carried out that will benefit those that Pai screwed into the ground and got away with doing without getting any punishment whatsoever. he never even got hauled for his complete abuse of position!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    EGF Tech Man (profile), 5 Aug 2021 @ 1:37pm

    Traffic medians are full of communications

    Between traffic signal sync and remote monitoring, traffic cameras, RWIS stations, traffic counters, speed sensors, changeable message signs, etc. there is a lot of data flowing in modern highway right of ways.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      OGquaker, 5 Aug 2021 @ 10:59pm

      Re: Traffic medians are full of communications

      And rail lines, and gas pipelines, and the power grid and every right-O-way that investors could think up between the deregulation of common carriers in the early-1990s till the dot.com collapsed. Then the Telcos picked up giga-miles of fiber from silly "investors" for one cent on the dollar.
      In america, the littleguy pays for infrastructure ether with taxes (Eisenhower) Wall-street startups (they fold faster than restaurants) or monopolists: IBM sold millions of Selectric typewriters five at a time to the unsuspecting to finance IBM's personal Computer in the 1980's. P.S. Airports need an independent inviolable connection & the DOD has contracted for a pocket-size Starlink connection from a third party.
      Disclaimer: the DOD's 10 oxygen-free copper coax hardlines running 20 feet under ground near my brother's house between Point MuGu Navy Base and Denver was ripped out and sold off to a fiber Co. in early 1990's

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Lostinlodos (profile), 5 Aug 2021 @ 4:00pm

    Has anyone been in a parking garage or airport? Let me know that signal there now works out for you.

    I get that the intended focus is on “poor and underserved” but a competent thought would be get broadband nation wide. No dead spots.

    Including the 30 minutes you spend on the toilet in the airport after eating the stuff they pretend is food on flights.

    I don’t like the situation but it’s, again, better to get coverage period rather than worrying about who is first.
    The more coverage, the better.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Aug 2021 @ 6:59pm

      Re:

      I see your point and I don't travel much, but in the last few years I haven't been in an Airport that didn't have free wifi. I would imagine that any airport with offices would need internet for those offices (and it's a really, really small airport if it doesn't have any offices).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Lostinlodos (profile), 5 Aug 2021 @ 8:50pm

        Re: Re:

        I just think about adding service as adding service. The more the better.

        I understand the concern in random places but this isn’t AT&T we’re talking about here. Or charter, or cox.
        Anyone figure to ask “why?”
        Probably not.
        But I’m interested in the answer myself!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 6 Aug 2021 @ 4:14am

          Re: Re: Re:

          You are working under the mistaken assumption that Starlink itself builds where its customers are. But it builds ground stations to connect the satellites to the Internet backbone, which require multiple fibres, as the ground station can serve multiple satellites with multiple users, and clear horizons o be able to 'see' the satellites at lower elevations.

          The ground station does not serve the Airport itself, as the have plenty of fibre, that is why Starlink are there. To use Starlink, as an end user you need a dish, and router from Starlink, and up to 100W of power for the dish, and the dish need to be stationary to track and switch satellites every few minutes. It is the nature of satellite systems that the operator sets up their equipment remote from their target users, and where they have good fibre connections, so that they can serve users that are isolated and tens of miles, or more, from any land based Internet connection.

          Starlink is now available in parts of the UK, and where it becomes available, Hughes satellites users are switching.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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