Tester Grills FCC Chairman on Plan to Spend Billions on Broadband Expansion without Accurate Coverage Maps

Senator: ‘The potential for wasting money here is just over the top”

In his ongoing fight to ensure every Montanan has broadband access whether they’re in Billings or Bynum, U.S. Senator Jon Tester is demanding that Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai work to ensure that the agency is closing the digital divide that disadvantages rural areas and expanding telehealth services without blatantly wasting taxpayer dollars.

During a recent Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Tester expressed concerns involving the FCC’s plans to allocate billions in taxpayer dollars towards broadband service development in rural and remote areas without accurate broadband coverage maps. The agency announced that it will roll out their $9 billion 5G Fund and their $20 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) before they are able to build accurate, granular service availability data through the implementation of Tester’s Broadband DATA Act.

“This Committee has always been very very bipartisan in the fact that we want [data] maps that are right so you can spend the money and not waste the money,” said Tester. “I don’t see how you’re going to put this money out without good maps. I just have to tell you, I want this money out sooner than later—I come from a state that has underserved areas big time—but the potential for wasting money here is just over the top!”

Tester continued: “We’re counting on those maps being correct, and if they’re not we’ve just wasted a ton of money…If we’ve seen anything in Montana, we’ve seen healthcare being short changed and we’ve seen education being short changed because we don’t have the service, and that’s the bottom line.”

Tester’s Broadband DATA Actsigned into law this spring—works to build more accurate broadband coverage maps by directing the FCC to collect and disseminate granular service availability data and use it in any new awards of funding for expanding internet access. Chairman Pai has stated that the FCC needs an additional $65 million of funding in the first year to begin implementation of the bill, however, the agency is still forging ahead on their 5G Fund and RDOF before the Broadband DATA Act can improve coverage maps, potentially wasting billions of taxpayer dollars.

Accurate and granular data will enable federal agencies to target funding to the areas that need it most, close remaining coverage gaps, and ensure accountability and transparency. The Broadband DATA Act forces the FCC to issue new rules for collecting deployment data from broadband providers and makes it easier for individuals and other entities to challenge coverage maps in a way that is non-burdensome. The FCC will be ordered to submit a report to Congress on their efforts to enforce new rules on providers that knowingly and intentionally misreport data.

As the virus continues to spread, telehealth is being used by many providers to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while still ensuring patients have access to health care, especially in rural and remote areas. Following the recent Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Tester sent a letter to Chairman Pai insisting that he not leave states like Montana behind when it comes to utilizing $200 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Relief Act funding allocated to help the agency expand telehealth services.

“With almost $160 million funds already out the door, I am concerned about the FCC’s implementation of this program,” wrote Tester. “The FCC’s decision to distribute funds to providers based in areas that have a high rate of coronavirus cases at the time of the application leaves providers looking for preventive measures out of luck. My state responded quickly and effectively to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus, but the fight is not over. Telehealth allows providers to continue to offer excellent care while reducing exposure to COVID-19. My state cannot afford to be left behind.”

Watch Tester’s full remarks at the Senate Commerce Committee hearing HERE.

Read Tester’s full letter to Chairman Ajit Pai HERE.