FCC to probe whether carriers gave inaccurate broadband coverage data

Preliminary coverage tests suggest "significant violations" of rules that dictate which carriers are eligible for federal subsidies.

The Federal Communications Commission on Friday said it's launching an investigation into whether one or more major carriers gave the agency inaccurate maps of their broadband coverage, violating the rules of an initiative that provides subsidies for rural coverage.

"My top priority is bridging the digital divide and ensuring that Americans have access to digital opportunity regardless of where they live," FCC chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement.

The initiative, called the Mobility Fund Phase II program "can play a key role in extending high-speed Internet access to rural areas across America," he continued. "In order to reach those areas, it's critical that we know where access is and where it is not."

The FCC conducted a preliminary review of speed test data, which suggested "significant violations" of the rules, Pai said.

The initiative is reallocating $4.5 billion in previously-approved funding to bring high-speed mobile broadband service to rural Americans over the course of 10 years. The agency is using a competitive reverse auction to distribute the funds to private providers. To determine eligibility, mobile providers were required to submit current, standardized coverage data.

According to the FCC, more than 24 million Americans still lack fixed terrestrial broadband at speeds of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps. The agency's data shows a stark divide in rural and urban coverage: In urban areas 97.9 percent of Americans have access to both fixed terrestrial services at 25 Mbps/3 Mbps and mobile LTE at speeds of 5 Mbps/1 Mbps. Yet in rural areas, just 68.6 percent of Americans do.

Some say the FCC's numbers don't show the true extent of the problem.

"There is strong evidence that the percentage of Americans without broadband access is much higher than the FCC's numbers indicate," Microsoft President Brad Smith recently wrote. "We've seen this over the past 17 months in many places and in many ways, including by talking directly to the people who live in rural America."

Microsoft was one of three companies this past week -- in addition to SpaceX and T-Mobile -- that announced their own independent efforts to bring broadband to rural areas and other communities.

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