TUPELO • A U.S. Senate committee chaired by Mississippi’s Roger Wicker examined the challenges posed by inadequate broadband internet access in rural areas and probed the best way forward.
Wicker, Mississippi’s senior senator and a Republican, convened the Wednesday morning hearing as the Federal Communications Commission prepares to distribute some federal money earmarked for the construction of additional broadband infrastructure in underserved areas.
Wednesday’s hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee began with a reminder by Wicker of how severely the COVID-19 crisis has stressed rural education, healthcare and business due to inadequate internet access.
Social distancing, Wicker said, “has caused a huge uptick in the use of broadband. One estimate shows that average broadband usage is up by 47 percent since the pandemic began.”
The Commerce Committee’s ranking member, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, sounded the same theme.
“The COVID crisis has made it crystal clear: Functioning broadband is absolutely necessary for every American home,” Cantwell said.
Witnesses appearing before the committee all shared this view of the significance associated with reliable internet access but noted some of the obstacles providers face.
In the current moment of economic hardship, Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of the Rural Broadband Association, noted that smaller providers are themselves facing the same difficulties as are all small businesses.
Such a financial bind could jeopardize the ability to build out new infrastructure.
“An increasing number of customers are becoming unable to pay for service, and members are concerned about their ability to repay loans and purchase critical supplies,” Bloomfield said.
The planned FCC disbursement of money from the Rural Development Opportunity Fund also drew some conversation. This fund totals near some $20 billion, and up to $16 billion will be dispersed in phase 1, via a reverse auction currently scheduled for October.
The Mississippi Public Service Commission and some rural electric cooperatives have asked for an acceleration of the RDOF process. Some witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing said the current timeline should not be altered, including Steven Berry, president and CEO, Competitive Carriers Association.
“We have members that are looking at that,” Berry said. “I would hate to see it moved up, because those that are planning on participating in the September/October timeline would be disadvantaged.”
Questions about the accuracy of connectivity maps also hung over Wednesday’s discussion. Funds from the RDOF will only be available in areas deemed eligible based on a lack of adequate internet services currently available, and Wicker, as well as Jerry Moran of Kansas and Jon Tester of Montana, lobbed questions to witnesses about the accuracy of mapping.
Bloomfield suggested the first phase of the RDOF was less reliant on accurate mapping because it will target completely underserved areas.
Berry said he thought RDOF would benefit from better maps, but emphasized that a subsequent disbursement of 5G funds is even more reliant on accurate data.
“I would hate to think we’re going to overlook those areas that could and should and very well need to be connected because we don’t know where they are,” Berry said. “It just boggles my mind that we can’t just focus our resources on the areas of most need.”
Wicker quickly voiced agreement with Berry.
“I hope everyone is listening there,” the Mississippi senator said.