FCC Bungled Broadband Mapping And Subsidies So Badly, It Got Boxed Out Of Broadband Infrastructure Plan
from the you-get-a-time-out dept
So we’ve noted for a long time how the FCC’s broadband maps are a bit of a joke, routinely overstating broadband competitors, speeds, and service availability. We’ve also routinely noted how these bad maps go hand in hand with extremely sloppy subsidy programs that often dole out money to regional monopolies for doing as little as possible. That was punctuated recently by a $9 billion scandal in which the FCC (under Trump appointee Ajit Pai) doled out hundreds of millions of undeserved dollars to ISPs (like Elon Musk’s Starlink) so they could deliver broadband to airport parking lots and traffic medians.
While the agency has been taking steps to remedy some of the problems under interim boss Jessica Rosenworcel, the agency’s mapping and subsidy dysfunction seems to have resulted in it being boxed out of managing the $65 billion in new broadband funding included in the infrastructure bill:
“What happened: Critics say the program, known as the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), was rushed in order to begin before the end of the Trump administration. Problems with the accuracy of the FCC’s broadband maps led to complaints about funds being awarded to provide broadband in parking lots. There are also concerns that the agency did not thoroughly vet companies before allowing them into the auction, leading to questions about whether providers who won subsidies will be able to deliver service.
Axios is fairly polite about this, but your top telecom regulator being boxed out of an historic broadband funding plan because they were too incompetent…isn’t great. Yeah, the FCC was also boxed out because Congress wanted governors to have more control and the Biden administration felt it would have more control if the Commerce Department was in charge (instead of a regulator), but it’s still pretty damning. And while the Trump administration was particularly bad about using bullshit data to justify or just ignore regional monopolization, that’s not exactly a new tendency for the agency.
Despite a decade of development and a $350 billion price tag, the FCC’s broadband availability map is a complete joke. It takes only five minutes tinkering with it to notice that it outright hallucinates competitors, broadband availability, and available speeds. It also, at direct industry behest, refuses to include one of the most important metrics: price. The agency’s map is so bad, the NTIA recently started developing its own map that pulls from a broader data pool and (gasp) actually acknowledges that price is an important metric.
Of course part of the problem is that the FCC was somewhat eviscerated under Pai at the behest of AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast. Much of the agency’s consumer protection authority was stripped away during the net neutrality repeal, leaving it incapable of policing a lot of telecom sector harms. The rush late-game appointment of Trump BFF Nathan Simington (as part of that whole doomed quest to have the FCC regulate social media), also left the agency gridlocked at 2-2 commissioners. That means there’s no voting majority, and the agency is currently incapable of making any changes of substance.
So because the Biden camp still hasn’t even nominated a fifth commissioner and permanent FCC boss seven months into his term, the agency’s stuck in kind of a quagmire where it can’t make any meaningful changes or improvements. And if he picks the wrong person to permanently lead the agency, like an industry-cozy-revolving-door-type like FCC boss turned cable lobbyist Mike Powell, or a “I’m too afraid to rock the boat” type like Obama’s first FCC pick, Julius Genachowski, nothing much will change either.
The FCC is in desperate need of a leader with backbone who can not only shore up the agency’s dodgy mapping and broadband subsidy problems, but also restore much of the regulator’s eroded consumer protection authority. And it needs a leader willing to recognize that mediocre U.S. broadband is a direct result of regional monopolization and corruption. But because the “big tech” policy debate has sucked absolutely all of the oxygen out of the room in DC policy conversations, “big telecom” continues to get the short end of the stick, despite suffering from many of the very same (and in some cases worse) problems.