Federal Communications Commissioner Ajit Pai in 2020

Then-Chairman of Federal Communications Commission Ajit Pai (L) testifies as then-FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel (R) listens during a hearing before Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee at Russell Senate Office Building June 24, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

FCC Cheered for Cleaning Up After Pai Awarded Contracts to Connect 'Empty Parking Lots'

"Ajit Pai ignored early criticism and rapidly awarded money to the likes of Elon Musk for building broadband bridges to nobody."

The Federal Communications Commission announced Monday a round of funding for new broadband deployments and its intention to "clean up issues" stemming from former chairman Ajit Pai's mismanagement of a program meant to bring connectivity to rural areas.

At issue is the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. Adopted in 2020, the "program can do great things, but it requires thoughtful oversight," FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, whom President Joe Biden tapped to lead the agency, said (pdf) in a press statement.

Under the leadership of Pai, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, the FCC awarded 180 bidders contracts to expand broadband to underserved areas. Pai, in a December statement, touted (pdf) the auction as an "incredible success" and declared the program "the single largest step ever taken to bridge the digital divide."

Digital rights advocacy group Free Press dug in to those claims and the bids outlined by companies to help purportedly unconnected areas. The group found Pai's program was on track to be "one of the most wasteful projects in FCC history" in light of bids to cover "empty parking lots" and urban areas already well connected.

The FCC's Monday statement appears to reference the those findings and directs those who won grants to withdraw their requests if they don't meet the program's mandate:

In light of complaints that the program was poised to fund broadband to parking lots and well-served urban areas, the FCC sent letters to 197 winning bidders. The letters offer providers an opportunity to withdraw their funding requests from those places already with service or where significant questions of waste have been raised. Next, the FCC made clear that it will not tolerate any provider participating in the program that is not serious about providing broadband service or has not made appropriate efforts to secure state approvals. To this end, the FCC rejected requests from AB Indiana in Florida and LTD Broadband in California, Oklahoma, and Kansas to waive program deadlines, in light of their failure to act in a timely way to seek state certification.

Free Press noted Monday that Starlink--Elon Musk's satellite internet company--was among those receiving the new FCC letters.

"Concerns have... been raised that certain areas included in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction are already served by one or more service providers that offer 25/3 Mbps broadband service or otherwise raise significant concerns about wasteful spending, such as parking lots and international airports," Starlink was told.

S. Derek Turner, Free Press's research director, welcomed the FCC's announcement as a sign of much-needed change at the agency and "close attention to the issues we originally raised at the tail end of the Pai FCC."

"While we have yet to fully review the series of recommendations and actions" the FCC announced Monday, Turner said that "it's encouraging that Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel wants to get this right."

"In a rush to take credit for this program before his departure, Ajit Pai ignored early criticism and rapidly awarded money to the likes of Elon Musk for building broadband bridges to nobody," he added. Turner further accused Pai of wanting "to put a pretty bow on a bad process."

By contrast, Turner said that "under Rosenworcel, the FCC seems determined to do the due diligence that Pai skipped to ensure that federal money actually connects real people--as opposed to traffic medians--to affordable services."

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