Some say the lack of accessible high speed internet is placing rural communities at a disadvantage just as the lack of electricity did at an earlier time.

State Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley has renewed the call for the Federal Communications Commission to investigate whether AT&T really provided broadband service to over 133,000 locations in Mississippi with federal money it received.

Presley has written new Biden administration FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, asking the FCC for a “complete compliance audit of AT&T Mississippi” on whether it met its obligations for more than $280 million in federal Connect America funds for broadband expansion.

Last year, all three elected state PSC commissioners wrote a similar letter to the FCC asking for an audit and claiming a PSC investigation “found concrete, specific examples that show AT&T Mississippi has reported location addresses … as being served when, in fact, the addresses are without service.”

Presley in his latest letter said, “They have submitted false data for years, and I am convinced that you will act appropriately to send a message that there is ‘a new sheriff in town.'” He also told Rosenworcel, who served on the FCC during the Obama administration, “on a personal note, I am thankful for your friendship.”

FOLLOW THE MONEY: How is Mississippi spending billions in federal funds flowing through the state?

An AT&T corporate spokesperson in a written statement denied the claims.

“We have invested billions of dollars, building out our wired and wireless networks across Mississippi, and we are proud of the work we have done as a company to keep communities connected and help fuel Mississippi’s economy,” the statement said. “We are also proud of the work we have done through federal and state programs that help expand critical connectivity in underserved and unserved areas, including the FCC’s Connect America Fund Phase II program. We have worked closely with the FCC and USAC on this program and any suggestion that we filed false data is patently incorrect.”

The issue comes as Mississippi has received hundreds of millions of federal dollars in recent years to expand broadband internet access and federal funds continue to flow. Large cable and telecom companies such as AT&T are sparring with rural electric cooperatives for the funding, particularly $162 million the state is expected to receive for broadband as part of the American Rescue Plan Act.

READ MORE: Cable giants, Mississippi electric cooperatives battle over federal broadband dollars

With Presley leading the movement, the state Legislature in 2019 passed a law allowing electric cooperatives to provide internet service — an effort to expand broadband access in a poor, rural state where an estimated 40% of the state lacked access. The effort has been likened to providing electricity to rural Mississippi in the 1930s. Proponents said large cable and telecom companies were failing to expand service into rural areas because it wasn’t profitable enough.

Presley recently said: “If there is any idea circulating that somehow companies like AT&T can gobble up this $162 million intended for cooperatives and non-profits, I think that idea will be dead on arrival at Treasury based on their own guidance. Cooperatives and nonprofits who put people above profits are who these funds are designated for and that’s who should get them under any plan sent in by the governor. To try and please the AT&Ts of the world with these funds will only delay broadband expansion. I would fight that tooth, nail and claw.”

But cable and telecom providers say they have spent millions in private funds expanding internet service in Mississippi, and that they shouldn’t be cut out of government funding for expansion.

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.