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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As the federal government readies to spend tens of billions of dollars on broadband upgrades, the Federal Communications Commission — the agency that has traditionally doled out subsidies for internet connections — is on the sidelines.

Driving the news: The bipartisan infrastructure bill recently approved by the Senate commits $42.5 billion to broadband deployment and related projects, but the money would flow to the states, with oversight from the Commerce Department.

The intrigue: The broadband money got routed around the FCC for several reasons, according to insiders familiar with the process.

  • The White House will be able to exert greater control over how the money is awarded if the Commerce Department is in charge rather than an independent agency like the FCC.
  • Sources noted that Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo was a key player in the infrastructure negotiations.
  • The FCC has also come under fire recently for how it handled awarding $9 billion for broadband in rural areas in 2020.

What happened: Critics say the program, known as the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), was rushed in order to begin before the end of the Trump administration.

  • Problems with the accuracy of the FCC's broadband maps led to complaints about funds being awarded to provide broadband in parking lots.
  • There are also concerns that the agency did not thoroughly vet companies before allowing them into the auction, leading to questions about whether providers who won subsidies will be able to deliver service.
  • "If the RDOF had been more successful, I think the FCC would’ve had a very significant role [in the new funding]," Blair Levin, a non-resident fellow with Brookings Institution, told Axios. "On the other hand, I think if we’re talking about this magnitude of money, the senators, many of whom are former governors, wanted governors to have more power."

What's next: The FCC said in July it's taking steps to "clean up" the program.

  • The agency sent letters to 97 companies that won funding in questionable locations to allow them to withdraw without penalties.
  • "For those applicants who are dragging their feet or can’t meet their obligations, follow the rules or we will disqualify you and move on," acting chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement last month.
  • The agency budgeted up to $16 billion for the program, but only awarded $9 billion. The extra money can be spent on a second phase of the program.

What they're saying: "The FCC stands ready to help get 100% of Americans connected in any way that Congress sees fit," an FCC spokesperson told Axios Tuesday.

What's next: House Democrats are expected to approve the bill as is rather than blow up the Senate's hard-won compromise — but not until after they also pass a much bigger, Democrats-only "soft infrastructure" bill.

Go deeper

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Sep 27, 2021 - Politics & Policy

This week is crunch time for Biden's climate agenda

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

This week is critical to determining the fate of President Biden's climate agenda.

Driving the news: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last night pledged a vote on bipartisan infrastructure legislation Thursday, rather than today as initially hoped.

Sep 28, 2021 - Economy & Business

First look: Yellen, Raimondo lobby business for Biden

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen (left) and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. Photos: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images (left) and Oliver Contreras-Pool/Getty Images

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo are delivering a pair of speeches Tuesday lobbying the business community to back the entirety of President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: While business groups have endorsed the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, they're opposed to the concurrent $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package — which would raise taxes on corporations.

Felix Salmon, author of Capital
2 hours ago - Technology

Facebook's scandals have been great for shareholders

Expand chart
Data: YCharts; Chart: Axios

Facebook has been embroiled in scandal for the past five years, and while the specific allegations change over time, a central theme is constant. Given the choice between commercial and moral imperatives, Facebook always seems to choose the option that is best for the share price.

Why it matters: Facebook's stock chart supports that narrative. Since the 2016 scandals alleging that the social network was infiltrated by foreign actors trying to influence the outcome of democratic elections, Facebook's revenues — and its stock — have been soaring.

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