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FCC to Probe Possible ‘Significant Violations’ by Carriers in MF-II Coverage Claims

This article is reprinted with permission of Warren Communications News.

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by Adam Bender

(December 10, 2018) - The FCC will investigate if top wireless carriers submitted incorrect coverage maps in violation of Mobility Fund Phase II rules, Chairman Ajit Pai said Friday. The commission suspended the window for responding to MF-II challenges until the probe’s conclusion. Carriers said they'll cooperate. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, state commissioners and rural competitive carriers welcomed investigation, saying more work is needed.

The FCC is checking accuracy of carriers’ coverage maps after a preliminary review of the 20.8 million speed tests filed at the agency as part of the challenge process that ended Nov. 26 (see 1812040001). The maps will be used to target funding through an upcoming reverse auction. States and rural carriers raised concerns about carrier map accuracy and the challenge process, with the Rural Wireless Association accusing Verizon of inaccuracies (see 1811270059).

Verizon will help the agency better understand its coverage, if asked, a spokesperson said. AT&T will cooperate and hopes for quick resolution so the auction can proceed, a spokesperson emailed. “Accurate MFII maps will ensure that scarce USF dollars flow to where they are needed most.” Sprint “will respond directly to the FCC if requested to do so,” a spokesperson said. T-Mobile and CTIA didn’t comment.

“It’s critical that we know where access is and where it is not,” but the preliminary review “suggested significant violations of the Commission’s rules,” Pai said. “We must ensure that the data is accurate before we can proceed.” It’s the “right call,” said Commissioner Brendan Carr. “It is deeply concerning that FCC staff’s preliminary analysis of the challenge data shows that one or more major carriers potentially violated the Commission’s MF-II mapping rules and submitted incorrect maps.”

“The FCC’s wireless maps are totally inadequate,” said Rosenworcel. “Fix this mess and make its maps credible. We need to use every tool at our disposal to help ensure that communities across the country are fully connected.”

Senate Communications Subcommittee Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., likely to become Commerce Committee chairman next Congress, said he'll “closely” follow the probe. The commission's decision to investigate the carriers “confirms what we have known all along -- the FCC’s mapping procedure is fatally flawed,” he said. “It is important for us to get this coverage map right so we can accurately target federal support to the communities in need of broadband service.” Wicker has been gathering support for a proposed amendment to FY 2019 federal spending legislation that would force the FCC to revisit MF-II data (see 1812050049). Wicker's statement didn't address whether he'll abandon the amendment. A Wicker spokesperson didn't comment.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said it's "absolutely critical" the FCC "remains focused on ensuring that our limited universal service funds are effectively and accurately targeted to areas that lack unsubsidized 4G LTE service."

Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer is "heartened" to see the FCC investigate, the Republican said in a statement. His office and Connected Nation challenged the eligibility map. "Of the 187,397 coverage tests we conducted to validate carrier-reported coverage over the summer months, 119,994 tests failed (64.03%) -- meaning that these tests indicated less than 5 Mbps of mobile data service, or no service at all, in areas that the carriers had reported to be served," Colyer's office said. If Kansas results "are any indication, coverage in rural areas is significantly overstated and there is a fundamental problem with the maps the FCC used to derive the eligible areas," Colyer said.

Mississippi Public Service Commission Chairman Brandon Presley praised Pai “for recognizing that he needs to have the best data possible in the map before using as a basis to deny funding to possible unserved areas.” Presley has complained about Mississippi coverage and the Democrat sponsored last month’s NARUC resolution asking the FCC to address flaws in the challenge process (see 1811130001). “Granting NARUC’s request to permit additional challenge data from interested parties during the pendency of this investigation … can only enhance the FCC’s efforts to be certain the map used to allocate funds is as accurate as possible,” he said.

South Dakota Public Utilities Commissioner Chris Nelson lauded the FCC chairman for “recognizing that the original maps are faulty in many areas and his willingness to do the work necessary to get this process on the right track which will lead to a successful auction process.” South Dakota testing found 30 percent of locations “were challengeable, which tells us that the maps didn’t contain occasional errors but rather systemic errors,” said the Republican.

It’s responsible of the FCC to investigate allegations of rule violations, said Nebraska PSC Commissioner Crystal Rhoades, that agency's only Democrat. If the FCC finds violations, the commission should “hold the carriers accountable,” she said. Nebraska didn’t submit a challenge, she said.

“Overstated coverage by Verizon and others has caused RWA’s members to spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours to prove a negative,” said Rural Wireless Association General Counsel Carri Bennet. Of 106 entities that had access to the Universal Service Administrative Co. portal, only 21 submitted challenges. “Many entities, RWA members included, made the difficult decision to sit out the challenge process -- not because of a lack of interest, but because the overstated coverage across the country made participation prohibitively expensive.”

“The FCC’s eligibility map is fatally flawed, putting thousands of consumers, especially those in rural areas, at risk of falling behind,” said Competitive Carrier Association President Steve Berry. “It is gratifying that the FCC has recognized these flaws.” CCA wants the FCC “to create a new map based on reliable standards to ensure funds go to preserve and expand mobile broadband where needed most,” he said.

Pai probably responded to increasing pressure from Wicker and other legislators from both parties, though the FCC had been “pretty intractable” about defending its process and wanting to move ahead, said Public Knowledge Senior Policy Counsel Phillip Berenbroick in an interview. The probe is encouraging, but it’s one thing to open an investigation and another to follow through with strong enforcement, particularly when the carriers involved are strong allies on other issues important to Pai, he said.