Sen. Thune Slams FCC Over High-Cost Broadband Subsidies Shortfall (Updated)

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Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD) hammered the Federal Communications Commission at a hearing for not investing enough in subsidizing and deploying broadband to rural areas like his home state, calling it an "unacceptable failure" and adding that he has urged FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to act immediately to correct the situation. Chairman Pai's office signaled it agreed the FCC's budget-control mechanism worked against closing the rural digital divide, and it was on the way to fixing it.

"[R]ural Americans should never be left behind their urban counterparts," Chairman Thune said. He said the following principles should guide the committee with regard to building out rural broadband: rural Americans, and the smaller businesses serving them, must not be an afterthought when making public policy decisions; universal service cannot be achieved without pragmatic and bipartisan cooperation in Congress and without proper oversight of the FCC and other agencies, such as the Rural Utilities Service; and certainty and sufficiency of funding for broadband in rural America must be ensured. Ranking Member Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) echoed Thune's rural concerns, calling broadband deployment the infrastructure challenge of this era. Both expressed concerns about lack of broadband on tribal lands and both called for addressing the funding shortfall and the cap on the Universal Service Fund high-cost fund before the end of 2018. A spokesperson for Chairman Pai said, "Chairman Thune is right that the last Administration’s budget control mechanism has stymied efforts to close the digital divide in rural America. That’s why chairman Pai led his colleagues earlier this year to devote an additional $500 million to small, rural carriers that serve their communities. And that’s why he hopes his colleagues will join him later this year in establishing a sufficient and predictable budget so that those in rural communities are not left behind any longer.”

Chairman Thune's criticism of the FCC was not limited to the Universal Service Fund. He also took aim at the FCC's broadband mapping data, which is widely known to be inaccurate. "Our current maps are insufficient," Thune said. "Without accurate maps, we cannot build out broadband to truly unserved areas."  US Cellular Vice President Grant Spellmeyer called the maps ‘nowhere near accurate’ and said his company will run out of time before challenging as much as it would like. ‘It’s going to crack open a digital divide that’s far worse than what we’ve seen previously,’ he warned, suggesting the FCC be ‘directed to stand down’ and potentially hand over the responsibility to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Sen. Thune Slams FCC Over High-Cost Broadband Subsidies Shortfall Lawmakers worry about cuts to rural broadband program (The Hill) Ajit Pai faces rare criticism from GOP senator on rural broadband failures (ars technica) Broadband Mapping Anger Boils Over (Politico) Senators, Providers Criticize ‘Unpredictable’ FCC Funding for Rural Broadband (nextgov)