AT&T falsely told the US government that it met its obligation to deploy broadband at more than 133,000 locations in Mississippi, state officials say.
Since 2015, AT&T has received over $283 million from the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund to expand its network in Mississippi. But the Mississippi Public Service Commission (PSC) said it has evidence that AT&T’s fixed-wireless broadband is not available to all the homes and businesses where AT&T claims it offers service. The PSC asked the FCC to conduct “a complete compliance audit” of AT&T’s claim that it has met its obligation.
“Our investigation has found concrete, specific examples that show AT&T Mississippi has reported location addresses… as being served when, in fact, the addresses are without service under their [Connect America Fund] obligations,” said a letter to the FCC sent Tuesday by all three Mississippi PSC commissioners. “This pattern of submitting false data to the USAC [the Universal Service Administrative Company, which administers the program on the FCC’s behalf] merits a full compliance audit by the FCC, USAC, or whichever appropriate agency. We feel it is our duty to alert you to this issue.”
The PSC told the FCC that its “staff is more than willing to cooperate with any part of this investigation” and can provide “all documents, subpoenas, and data requests that we have propounded in this effort.” The evidence isn’t public because “AT&T Mississippi filed the evidence in question under seal at our agency,” the letter said.
End-of-2020 deadline approaches
In August 2015, AT&T accepted $428 million in annual payments from the FCC’s Connect America Fund, with the obligation to “deliver broadband at speeds of at least 10Mbps for downloads and 1Mbps uploads to over 1.1 million homes and businesses in its rural service areas” in 18 states. That included $49.8 million a year in Mississippi, where AT&T is required to deploy broadband to 133,981 homes and businesses by the end of 2020. The Connect America Fund is paid for by Americans through fees imposed on phone bills.
With its deadline coming up in a few months, AT&T claimed it is providing service to over 133,000 locations in Mississippi, but state officials were skeptical. AT&T initially tried to thwart Mississippi’s investigation by refusing to provide records in response to a request from PSC Commissioner Brandon Presley, reportedly saying that it was “not obligated to provide that.” But the company supplied the documents in mid-September after Presley issued a subpoena.
“AT&T has pocketed $283,780,632 of public money with a promise to expand Internet service, yet they refuse to answer the most basic questions of a regulator surrounding the use of these dollars and the actual success of their plans,” Presley said at the time. The subpoena asked for “documents showing the number of actual subscribers to AT&T’s fixed wireless service within the 133,000 locations where the company claims to have provided service, the number of complaints filed with the company by customers who have taken service, and the number of Mississippians who applied for fixed wireless service based on AT&T’s assertion that it was available and were later determined not to be in an area covered.”
The Mississippi PSC now “has clear and convincing evidence that data submitted by the AT&T Mississippi to federal entities is invalid and that the company has factual knowledge that the information is incorrect,” Presley said this week when he announced the request for an FCC audit.
“Our investigation has revealed a wide array of inconsistencies in what AT&T advertises as available and what actually exists when consumers try to get Internet service,” Presley said. “All the while, AT&T has submitted data saying that they have used federal funds to bring Internet service to these specific homes. AT&T knows, for a fact, that information that they have provided regarding where their Internet service exists is false. They know that through their own, internal records. It’s imperative that the FCC and other appropriate federal agencies work with us to hold them accountable.”
History of false claims
When contacted by Ars, AT&T did not address the specific allegations but said, “The data we report as part of Phase II of the Connect America Fund is already subject to strict audit and compliance measures by the federal government. We will continue to focus on doing work that matters to Mississippians by deploying high-speed infrastructure in communities across the state.” AT&T previously told the Clarion Ledger that it is on track to meet its deployment requirements by the end of 2020, but that it wouldn’t disprove the allegation that AT&T claimed it offers service at locations where it does not.
AT&T has a history of making false claims similar to the ones alleged by Mississippi. In April, AT&T disclosed to the FCC that it falsely reported providing home-Internet service in nearly 3,600 census blocks spread across parts of 20 states, including Mississippi. (This was a separate report under the FCC’s Form 477 data-collection program and not tied to any specific funding.) The error had gone unnoticed for over two years—AT&T blamed it on a problem “with a third party’s geocoding software.” At the same time, AT&T is fighting an FCC plan to require drive tests that would verify whether its mobile coverage claims are accurate.
As we previously reported, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai touted inaccurate data submitted by another ISP in order to claim that his deregulatory agenda sped up deployment, even though FCC staff had already flagged the data as likely being inaccurate. We contacted the FCC yesterday about Mississippi’s request for an audit of AT&T and will update this article if we get a response.