On Robocalls & Rural Broadband, Tester Takes Federal Communications Commission to Task

‘Access to high-speed Internet is what’s going to put people back in rural America’

(U.S. Senate) – U.S. Senator Jon Tester grilled Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing today on the agency’s efforts to hold telecom companies accountable, combat robocalls, and expand rural broadband.

“Access to high-speed Internet is what’s going to put people back in rural America,” Tester told Pai. “That’s why we’ve got to figure out how people can have access to the Internet in rural America.”

Tester first asked Pai about the FCC’s recent proposal regarding broadband service maps, which closely mirrors Tester’s Broadband Data Improvement Act. Tester has been adamant about the consequences of inaccurate coverage maps on broadband buildout in rural America. These maps are based on company-reported data and it is the FCC’s responsibility to hold companies responsible for the accuracy of this data.

“So, if somebody gives you bad information, what kind of fines are we talking about?” Tester asked Pai on the mapping issue. “Because it’s got to hurt. If they know it’ll hurt going in, they’ll give you good information.”

That’s why Tester introduced the Broadband Data Improvement Act, to help increase federal funding for broadband buildout in rural areas by improving the accuracy of broadband coverage maps. Tester went on to ask Pai about the FCC’s recent proposal to stem the flood of robocalls.

“Everybody on the Commission says that [blocking] robocalls should be free,” Tester said. “If you all think it should be free and we all think it should be free, then make it free. I’m not going to beat the dead horse, but my head will explode if I get a charge.”

The FCC recently issued a new rule that would allow customers to automatically block robocalls. Some phone companies currently offer this service, but customers have to opt-in and often pay a fee. The FCC’s new rule allows phone companies to make this service standard, as long as they give customers the opportunity to opt-out. But the rule does not prohibit companies from continuing to charge customers for this service.

As Montana’s only member of the Senate Commerce Committee, Tester has taken the lead on stopping the scourge of robocalls. He recently helped pass the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act, which enables regulators to identify, track, and prosecute the worst robocall offenders. He has also been an active supporter of expanding broadband and cellular service in rural America. Launching his #ConnectMT initiative in 2015, he has helped address connectivity issues facing people across Montana and recently helped secure $600 million to launch the ReConnect Program to expand high-speed internet in rural communities across the country.