AT&T took fed money for broadband network that wasn’t deployed, official claims

Mississippi Commissioner Brandon Presley (Image: Mississippi Public Service Commission/Graphic: The Desk)

Telephone giant AT&T didn’t make good on its promise to deploy a broadband wireless Internet platform in rural areas of Mississippi, despite taking hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grant money to do so, according to accusations from officials in that state.

The accusation came in a letter sent to federal regulators on Tuesday that charged AT&T with accepting $283 million through the Connect America Fund, a program intended to expand rural access to broadband Internet in under-served parts of the country.

The letter followed similar accusations made by last month by Brandon Presley, a Mississippi utility commissioner who issued a subpoena to AT&T for documents related to its rural wireless broadband network in the state. Prior to the subpoena, Paisley said AT&T refused to comply with informal inquiries for documents and other materials related to how the fund money was spent and how the phone company deployed its broadband network there.

“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 in a statement last month. “With their claim that they have exceeded making service available to 133,000 locations, it is natural to ask these questions, especially in light of the lack of internet service during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, AT&T refuses to answer.”

Shortly after the statement, AT&T answered Presley and promised to provide the requested materials after the commissioner promised to withhold “competitively sensitive” information about its services.

Those documents were apparently sent to the commissioner’s office within the last few weeks. Presley and two other officials now say they reveal “a wide-array of inconsistencies in what AT&T advertises as available and what actually exists when consumers try to get internet service,” Presley’s office said in a statement this week.

Among other things, Presley says the documents helped his office uncover “concrete, specific examples” of areas where AT&T told federal regulators and other officials that it had deployed wireless broadband services to some homes where the service was never provided.

A spokesperson for AT&T told the Associated Press it carried out its commitment to provide access to rural wireless broadband to homes in Mississippi and elsewhere as required by the Connect America Fund and that the information reported to federal regulators was not incorrect.

“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,” AT&T said. “We will continue to focus on doing work that matters to Mississippians by deploying high-speed infrastructure in communities across the state.”

The commissioner’s office is requesting the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) probe AT&T over the matter. It was not clear if the FCC would take up the initiative.

Disclosure: As of the publication date of this article, the author of this story owned stock in AT&T.