Sen. Roger Wicker Calls for Tougher Oversight of Broadband Subsidies

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.)
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) (Image credit: U.S. Senate Photography Officer)

Saying some fraud has already been uncovered, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, wants an investigation into whether billions of dollars in broadband subsidy spending already handed out went “appropriately” to unserved areas and areas economically affected by the pandemic.

Wicker is concerned the money could be used to overbuild existing providers while doing little to close the digital divide.

The CARES Act, which included COVID 19 relief-related broadband subsidies, also created the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC) to try to prevent waste, fraud and abuse, which are always a potential problem in any large government subsidy.

Wicker said PRAC, which is part of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, is in the best position to review multiple broadband subsidies across multiple agencies, including the Federal Communications Commission, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Department of Agriculture, as well as state and local governments.

“The speed at which funds were disbursed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the sheer amount of money involved, put the funds at high risk of fraud and misuse, making the work of oversight entities like the PRAC and IGs essential to a successful national recovery,” Wicker said in making the request. “We are already finding fraud within these new programs," which he said would continue absence the needed oversight from PRAC.”

In a letter to PRAC chair Michael Horowitz, Wicker pointed to the fact that the FCC's Inspector General had found that some broadband providers had been "fraudulently enrolling households in the Emergency Broadband Benefit [EBB] program."

Wicker asked Horowitz to answer a number of questions related to broadband subsidy oversight, including what broadband availability data the NTIA and the Treasury Department used to determine where the money went or is going. NTIA is counting on better maps from the FCC, which is in the process of creating them, but a process that is not yet complete.

Wicker also wants to know “what level of coordination is occurring between FCC, Treasury, USDA, and NTIA to protect against overbuilding and duplication of funding awards?;” “what, if any, federal, state, or local regulatory barriers are impeding or increasing costs to broadband deployment funded by these programs?;” and “what oversight measures are NTIA and Treasury implementing to ensure providers meet their buildout obligations?” ■

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.