It’s been a busy winter at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), where staff have had to consider whether one or more telecoms lied about coverage, who faked millions of public comments on net neutrality, and if text messages must be censor-free.
This month, the FCC announced that tests of mobile internet speeds suggest at least one carrier has misrepresented its service in some areas of the country by promising 4G. Last Friday, the FCC said it would pause a multibillion-dollar program designed to improve rural high-speed mobile broadband coverage while it investigates claims of misrepresentations in coverage by mobile carriers.
Last year, the FCC required Verizon, T-Mobile, and other carriers to submit data and maps indicating where they provide 4G LTE coverage. The FCC has planned to use those maps in helping distribute up to $4.5 billion over the next few years from the Mobility Fund, intended to help improve digital access in rural and underserved areas.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the agency needs to evaluate the accuracy of coverage maps and speed tests before moving ahead with the Mobility Fund, in order to ensure federal dollars are going to the right places and right carriers. “My top priority is bridging the digital divide and ensuring that Americans have access to digital opportunity regardless of where they live … In order to reach those areas, it’s critical that we know where access is and where it is not,” he said in a statement.
Earlier this year, the investigation was seemingly put in motion when the trade group Rural Wireless Association (RWA) filed a complaint over Verizon’s promised coverage areas, offering up speed tests as evidence. According to the RWA, Verizon filed a “sham” coverage map “as a means of interfering with the ability of rural carriers to continue to receive universal service support in rural areas.”
Verizon denied those claims at the time, and said the company was “confident that [its] Mobility Fund map is fully consistent with the FCC’s mapping specifications.” Last Friday, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr commented in support of the decision to investigate, “It is deeply concerning that FCC staff’s preliminary analysis of the challenge data shows that one or more major carriers potentially violated the Commission’s MF-II mapping rules and submitted incorrect maps.”
Media and industry insiders initially speculated that the unidentified, misrepresentative mobile carrier the FCC referred to was Verizon, given the RWA’s complaint against the company.
As Ars Technica reported Thursday, however, RWA has said it believes T-Mobile to be the carrier in question (or at least one of several that may turn up in the coverage crackdown. According to the group’s Monday FCC filing, T-Mobile claimed in a legal setting that it provided 4G coverage in areas where it hadn’t actually installed 4G equipment yet. T-Mobile has been reached out to for comment.
This month, the FCC has also been facing other key issues relating to consumer tech and digital access.
One involves the flood of apparently fake comments received by the FCC which mostly supported rolling back ‘net neutrality’ protections — unlike the vast majority of real comments, and most Americans — and in spite of which the FCC moved forward with the rollback, anyway.
On Saturday, BuzzFeed News reported that federal investigators are looking into whether the mass submission of fraudulent digital comments amounted to a crime as part of a Department of Justice investigation.
According to BuzzFeed, two organizations have received subpoenas in the matter from the FBI that are similar in scope to the subpoenas those organizations previously received relating to a separate investigation by the New York attorney general’s office. This amounts to the first indication that federal investigators are taking an interest in this case, BuzzFeed reported.
This week, the FCC also moved to re-define text messages in a way that has left industry groups showing their approval, and some consumer advocates shaking their heads.
As The Verge reported Wednesday, FCC commissioners voted along party lines to classify text messaging as an information service, rather than a telecommunications service, which is subject to stricter federal regulations.
Chairman Pai and his two Republican colleagues have argued that this classification will allow carriers more flexibility in trying to stem the flow of spam texts without fear of breaking the law; Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the commission’s lone Democrat, argued that carriers will now have the legal ability to block texts they find controversial, and likely without making a dent in the spam.
Ahead of the vote, Chairman Pai commented that “the FCC should not make it easier for spammers and scammers to bombard consumers with unwanted texts.”
Of course, the effectiveness of this plan, and of the FCC’s strategy for deterring robocalls, is yet to be seen. And presumably hundreds of millions of Americans will be following the results — provided they have reception.