Is the FCC purposefully screwing up US school broadband projects?
Answer: Yes, but it's hard to prove
Martinez is not the only one angry. Education Week spoke to a number of people tracking efforts to build new networks and found a disturbing pattern of unnecessary requests for further details from USAC followed by vague reasons for denying applications.
In many cases, schools have spent years inking deals with nearby businesses and other funding sources and then paying consultants to handle the waves of paperwork only to find their applications rejected for reasons that are entirely unclear.
In one example, the CEO of a company in Utah that specializes in such projects, Ray Timothy, spent four years working on a project to run 70 miles of fiber in a remote part of the state, pulling in millions of private capital to make it happen, only to be denied federal funds for reasons he is still unsure about. He is certain that he answered every request for information – including some that required handing over commercially sensitive records – and even asked for and had a meeting with FCC boss Ajit Pai to request that his case be looked at. It remains unapproved.
The FCC and USAC meanwhile remain tight-lipped about what is going on. The FCC has given a vague statement about being committed to improving the situation but refuses to answer any questions in detail. And the USAC has yet to respond to repeated requests for comment.
What seasoned FCC observers suspect however is that the schools' effort to get fast and stable internet access has hits the rocks of Pai's extraordinary subservience to large cable companies.
For years, the large cable companies have responded extremely aggressively to any efforts by others to build fiber networks, even drafting and passing legislation in multiple state capitals that have shut down efforts for municipal broadband networks.
Having your Pai and eating it
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And as chair of the FCC, Pai has repeatedly introduced new rules or sought to overturn existing rules that serve only to benefit large cable companies, even going so far as to try to rewrite the definition of broadband so cable companies can claim greater coverage of the country and greater competition while retaining the exact same internet speeds.
The rules allowing schools to apply for funding for new fiber networks was introduced by the FCC under Pai's predecessor as a way to force the issue. But as with many of the Obama-era rules, Pai has set about either scrapping them or, if getting rid of them would be politically difficult, undermining them through bureaucratic changes.
It's fair to say that scrapping rules that allow schools to get faster and reliable internet access would not be a popular move. And so it appears the applications are simply being buried in paperwork and shoddy denials.
The irony is that Pai has made expanding broadband access a key goal for his time in charge. But it seems it only counts if that expansion is carried out by the large cable companies that he is so enamored with. ®