TUPELO • Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley has issued a subpoena as part of an effort to probe how AT&T has used more than $238 million in federal money intended to expand internet service within the state.
Presley announced his investigative action on Thursday afternoon and said the subpoena comes after AT&T refused to voluntarily comply with informal requests from the Public Service Commission about the company’s use of federal dollars from the Connect America Fund.
“Their attitude has been ‘trust us,’” Presley said. “Well, guess what: We don’t.”
The telecommunications company claims the Connect America money has been used to make services available to some 133,000 locations within the state.
But Presley, who represents the state’s northern district on the Public Service Commission, wants documentation to provide more information about those claims, including the number of customers who have taken service in the areas where AT&T claims it has expanded service.
He also wants to know how many complaints have been lodged by customers who are taking service in areas where coverage was expanded using federal money and is seeking information about individuals who may have been told they were eligible for service, only to find later out from a service technician that no service was available.
In a statement, AT&T spokesman Jim Kimberly said the company has complied with all federal regulations.
"We are in compliance with the requirements of the Connect America Fund (CAF) as well as with all laws regarding federal USF programs," the statement read. "We will respond to any lawful request for information. In Mississippi, we are confident that we will exceed the final CAF II goal of providing high-speed access to 133,000 rural Mississippi homes by the end of this year."
But claiming that AT&T “has done an F-minus job of communicating,” Presley said spared no words in his assessment of the company’s response to regulatory overtures.
“AT&T’s attitude is indicative of a sentiment that says we want all the money that we can get and we want to answer as a few of the questions as we have to,” Presley said. “And that’s unacceptable.”
Because of what Presley variously described as the attempt of AT&T to “put up roadblocks” and “stiff-arm” the regulatory function of his office, the fourth-term public service commissioner said he will use the leverage of the legal system as far as he’s able to find the information he’s seeking.
“The public has a right to know how these dollars are being spent,” the commissioner said.
The first phase of the Connect America Fund was awarded in 2012, with $115 million in federal dollars made available for rural broadband expansion. The next year, a second round of the first phase awarded an additional $385 million.
In 2018, Phase II of the Connect America Fund awarded almost $1.5 billion in federal dollars disbursed through an auction process to providers willing to build out rural broadband networks.
On Thursday, Presley said he isn’t yet suggesting that AT&T hasn’t met its obligations related to receipt of these funds, but he finds the company’s failure to answer his questions alarming.
“I do question a company’s motivations to not answer regulators’ most basic questions about $283 million that they have taken,” Presley said. “When you combine all the federal funds that they have taken, AT&T has been the biggest hog at the trough.”