TUPELO • Mississippi’s U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker has filed legislation intended to speed the construction of broadband internet infrastructure in rural America.
The Federal Communications Commission intends to award federal money for the construction of rural broadband during an auction currently scheduled for October.
Wicker’s bill would offer incentives for winning bidders to complete their projects quicker. Phase one of the auction will distribute most of a $20 billion fund. Bidders will have six years to complete the awarded projects.
But the bill now backed by Mississippi’s senior U.S. senator would set aside an additional $6 billion to be used as incentives for winning bidders that are able to complete their projects in only three years.
Wicker chairs the Senate Commerce Committee.
“One of my top priorities is expanding access to broadband for communities of all sizes,” Wicker said in a statement. “The coronavirus pandemic has further underscored this pressing need, and I hope our legislation will advance quickly to meet the connectivity needs of Americans living in rural areas, including many in my home state of Mississippi.”
Joining Wicker as sponsors of the legislation are Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, and Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican.
October’s scheduled auction would disperse funds from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.
A different bill in the U.S. House of Representatives also seeks to accelerate the RDOF process, but its provisions differ from the Wicker legislation in the Senate.
Mississippi’s entire U.S. House delegation has signed on as co-sponsors of the House bill. That bill directs the FCC to begin funding some ready-to-go projects immediately, with a goal of completion within a year.
The House legislation has been endorsed by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.
One point of difference between the pieces of legislation: the Senate bill does not instruct the FCC to begin awarding any projects prior to the scheduled auction date.
According to a commerce committee aide, the FCC has expressed concerns about the feasibility of accelerating components of the auction process.
The FCC Chief of Staff Michael Berry made the same point in a Twitter exchange with Mississippi’s Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley.
Presley has previously accused the FCC of obstructing efforts to speed up the delivery of auction dollars.
As Senate discussions ramp up over the possibility of further relief efforts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Wicker’s broadband proposals could garner some notice.
“There’s been a lot of discussion about a COVID relief package and a lot of discussion about how broadband connectivity needs to be addressed,” said a commerce committee aide with knowledge of the process. “I think that would represent the next opportunity to get something like this addressed.”