TUPELO • The Mississippi Public Service Commission on Wednesday sent a letter to the state’s senior U.S. senator urging him to help speed the process of disbursing federal money intended to help improve rural internet access.
The Federal Communications Commission currently plans to hold an auction in October that will begin awarding money from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.
The commission, made up of two Republicans and one Democrat, sent the letter to U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Tupelo). The commission wants Wicker to either encourage the FCC to amend its timeline or to file a bill in the Senate to override the current FCC auction timeline and require the agency to begin awarding funds to uncontested bidders with projects ready to begin.
“As we navigate these uncertain times in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the severe lack of broadband internet for all Mississippians has been brought to the forefront and cannot be overstated,” the letter reads. “Teachers and students are conducting distance learning. Health care professionals are relying on telemedicine … It is undeniable that the success of these efforts and functions rely on an essential service that simply does not exist.”
Wicker is the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which has oversight of the FCC.
Brandon Presley, the Northern District Public Service Commissioner, told the Daily Journal that some studies estimate that Mississippi could receive approximately $940 million in federal grant money. If the bidding process was able to start early, Presley believes this could inject needed funds into the state’s economy.
“We know that there is a massive need for broadband internet,” Presley said. “The need has been highlighted. There are funds that are available that are set to be funded in October. There is absolutely no reason to wait.”
The auction for the grant funds is set to begin on Oct. 22. This auction is the first phase of a project that will disburse around $20 billion over the course of 10 years, according to the FCC’s website. During the first phase of the plan, the federal agency will award up to $16 billion to bidders.
“I appreciate the commissioners’ letter and share their goal of expanding access to broadband in Mississippi as quickly as possible,” Wicker said in a statement to the Daily Journal. “We have been in touch with the FCC to determine if there are smart ways to speed up the process without undermining the success of the auction or the value to taxpayers.”
While it could take an extended period of time for an electric cooperative to service broadband to a rural home once federal funds are received, Presley believes it is important to try and accelerate the process as much as possible, especially if a second wave of COVID-19 occurs.
“Time is of the essence because we are at an intersection of a pandemic that has exposed in stark terms the digital divide in this state,” Presley said.
On March 2, the FCC issued a public notice for comment on the auction procedures. The comment period ended on April 10. The FCC is currently reviewing comments and will soon adopt final procedures. Once that occurs, a number of other steps, such as determining qualified bidders, must take place before the auction can begin.
An accelerated auction would depart from the rules and timeline already in place. If the FCC determined it had to reopen the comment period to change the timeline, that itself could take 45-60 days.
Congress could also expedite the auction by passing legislation overriding the FCC’s actions, but it is not clear how long it would take the FCC to implement the legislation. Communications officials at the FCC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Around 70 leaders of electric cooperatives in the country, including 13 from Mississippi, sent a letter to President Donald Trump and to congressional leadership also urging them to accelerate the RDOF program. The letter states if the process was accelerated, the cooperatives would immediately begin constructing new fiber optic broadband projects or expand their current projects.
“In the 1930s, rural electric cooperatives, in partnership with the federal government, helped pull rural economies out of the Great Depression,” the letter reads. “We have maintained those very electric networks and helped sustain our communities for over eighty years. In the current crisis, we are prepared again to build the necessary infrastructure in partnership with the federal government. Our commitment is to begin now. We ask the same of you.”
Caleb Bedillion contributed to this article.