FCC seeks to reduce rural broadband funding waste with new accountability program

The agency plans to conduct double the number of audits it did in 2021.

Ariel Skelley via Getty Images

The Federal Communications Commission is ready to authorize more than $1.2 billion in funding through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. Announced in 2019, the 10-year program seeks to expand broadband internet access across rural America. In an announcement spotted by The Verge, the FCC says the funding wave will see 23 broadband providers bring internet service to more than 1 million locations across 32 states.

Additionally, and maybe even more importantly, the FCC also announced the Rural Broadband Accountability Plan, a program to ensure recipients of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund are properly spending the funding they receive from the public.

As part of the program, the FCC plans to double the number of audits it conducts in 2022 compared to 2021. It will also subject the largest dollar recipients to on-site audits and random checks to ensure compliance. What’s more, the FCC plans to post the results of its audits, speed tests and latency testing to the USAC website so that the public can take part in the accountability process. “These new measures will help ensure that the providers we fund in this program will do the job,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said.

The announcement of the Rural Broadband Accountability Plan comes after the FCC said last year it was taking steps to “clean up” the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. In July, the agency revisited winning bids from the program’s December 2020 auction, which was overseen by former Chairman Ajit Pai, after it received complaints it “was poised to fund broadband to parking lots and well-served urban areas” rather than rural communities. The FCC sent letters to 197 organizations and companies, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX, giving them the opportunity to withdraw their funding requests.

“This program can do great things, but it requires thoughtful oversight,” Rosenworcel said at the time. “That’s why we are refocusing the program on unserved areas and putting winning bidders on notice of their obligation to ensure that support goes to the areas that need it.”