In the digital age, access to fast and reliable internet is often a prerequisite for participation in society. However, millions of Americans in rural areas do not have access to the speed and consistency of broadband. A number of federal programs have been created in response to the digital divide between rural and urban communities, with billions of dollars allocated to bringing people online. However, overlapping programs often result in the inefficient use of funds. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) must determine the best way to ensure that taxpayer dollars are used to close the digital divide, bring rural Americans online, and avoid wasteful spending.

The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and the Connect America Fund  (RDOF and CAF) were created to serve areas that had typically been excluded from high speed internet because it was too difficult and costly to deploy the infrastructure. These programs came with explicit conditions surrounding who qualifies and how the dollars awarded must be used. The FCC also implemented non-compliance measures and default rules for providers to be subject to if they were unable to meet program requirements.

Among the conditions listed was that locations and providers who received funding were ineligible for additional funding from another federal program, which would include programs like the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment Program (BEAD). Additionally, recipients can be fined for failing to meet the commitments they made when they were bidding for federal funding. Unfortunately, many internet providers have not met the conditions of their RDOF and CAF funding and have instead defaulted – or announced their intentions to default.

Providers are now requesting amnesty from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from the penalties associated with not fulfilling the conditions of the program, with the likely intent of qualifying for BEAD funding instead. Last year, FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel articulated why this is ill advised, “When the Commission set up this program, it set rules of the road to ensure that winning bidders would fulfill their promise to use this funding to build new broadband  infrastructure. The Commission’s default rules are designed to impress upon recipients the importance of being prepared to meet all Commission requirements and be prepared to fulfill deployment obligations.”

What would amnesty mean for the areas left unserved because of default and for the taxpayer dollars allocated to RDOF and CAF?

Should providers receive amnesty, they would be exempt from the penalties associated with not using federal funding to bring people online. Perhaps more critically is that these providers likely plan to hop from RDOF funding to BEAD funding. This should not be permitted. And, at the very least, any providers who default on their RDOF obligations must be prohibited from bidding on BEAD funding for the same locations.

Without question, states should be prepared to ensure these areas where providers default are included as they restructure the BEAD allocation competitive funding process.

Closing the digital divide is a complex problem, but allowing RDOF and CAF II providers to default on their commitments without penalty only to allow them to re-bid in BEAD would exacerbate the problem, not close it. Rather, the FCC and state broadband offices should look to maximize the funds allocated and incentivize providers to honor the terms of the programs they fall under in order to avoid default and conquer the digital divide.