Brandon Presley, a Commissioner on the Public Service Commission of Mississippi, recently sent a letter to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel asking the FCC to investigate AT&T’s performance under the CAF II program. This FCC program gave AT&T $280 million to improve rural broadband speeds in the state to at least 10/1 Mbps.
Presley’s letter follows a request a year earlier from all three Mississippi Commissioners asking the FCC to conduct a full compliance audit on AT&T. The letter said that the PSC had documented specific examples of where AT&T had not done any upgrades, including listing homes as having improved service that have no broadband service.
This is an issue that I’ve written about many times. My consulting firm helps rural counties across the country undertake large volumes of speed tests – and in some counties, we can’t find any rural DSL customers who are receiving 10/1 Mbps DSL. These counties weren’t just served by AT&T, and we’ve seen the same thing happening in counties served by Frontier, CenturyLink, and Windstream.
To be fair to the telcos, the problem is not universal. We have done speed tests in counties where most rural DSL speeds exceed 10/1 Mbps. But it looks to us like there are a lot of places where the telcos didn’t do much, if anything, with the CAF II funding. In many of our studies, we also do field engineering inspections, and we’ve often found no new fiber construction and rural DSL cabinets still running old DSL technology. We’ve seen in many counties where the DSL speeds in the county seats has improved, and we speculate that the telcos upgraded the town DSL using the CAF II but didn’t spend the money as promised in the rural areas.
We no longer have to rely on our small sample of county speed tests because the recent NTIA maps and the DSL maps created by some states show the same thing. Those maps are often created by huge numbers of speed tests. We know that speed tests are not perfect, but when large-scale speed tests show that nobody is meeting the CAF II 10/1 Mbps target that it’s pretty certain that no upgrades were made.
As you might expect, AT&T denies the allegations in Mississippi. They claim to “have invested billions of dollars, building out our wired and wireless networks across Mississippi, and we are proud of the work we have done as a company to keep communities connected and help fuel Mississippi’s economy. . . We are also proud of the work we have done through federal and state programs that help expand critical connectivity in underserved and unserved areas, including the FCC’s Connect America Fund Phase II program. We have worked closely with the FCC and USAC on this program and any suggestion that we filed false data is patently incorrect.”
The AT&T situation is more complicated than the other big telcos because AT&T largely says it is meeting the CAF II requirements using fixed cellular service. It’s probably true that customers today who are in the range of AT&T towers that have received the new bands of frequency being labeled as 5G can receive faster broadband. But those new cellular networks don’t reach everybody in rural areas, and there are still a lot of cellular dead spots. More importantly, AT&T only started to upgrade the rural cellular networks after the end of the CAF II program.
Hopefully, this issue soon becomes history if the new round of federal grants brings faster broadband to these rural areas. But Commissioner Presley is worried that AT&T and the other big telcos will chase the new funding and will repeat history by underperforming on promises made to regulators.
This also raises the question about whether there should be large penalties against the telcos who didn’t make the upgrades. It would not be hard for the FCC to make a list of counties where upgrades weren’t made. They have access to large amounts of speed tests, and they could also activate local governments to investigate and provide feedback.
I personally think the right remedy is that the telcos must return the full amount of funding in areas where they didn’t make upgrades and that money ought to supplement the BEAD grants and be given to whoever is going to bring better broadband to the affected counties.
Ideally, the FCC or other federal agencies would prohibit any telco that is caught cheating in this manner from getting any further rural subsidies. The big telcos are lining up to pursue the $42.5 billion in BEAD grants that will probably be awarded a year or so from now. AT&T recently announced that these big grants have enticed it to add a goal of 5 million new fiber passings in rural areas. Since those grants are administered by the states, AT&T might have a challenge getting any of the BEAD grants if State officials like Commissioner Presley have any input on the grant winners.