(TNS) — Mississippi’s senior U.S. senator is asking the Federal Communications Commission if it’s possible to speed up federal funding for rural broadband programs.
Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which has direct oversight of the FCC. The letter addresses the first phase of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which is scheduled to award around $16 billion in October to different bidders in the country.
“Given the current increased need for reliable internet during the pandemic, broadband funding, particularly through the RDOF program, may not come soon enough,” Wicker wrote. “I have heard from a number of different broadband providers that are ready to begin deploying in underserved areas, but cannot act until they receive critical support. This is not unique to Mississippi.”
The Daily Journal has previously reported that numerous Mississippians who live in rural areas do not have access to an adequate internet connection and are forced to travel long distances to complete tasks for work or school.
Wicker’s letter comes as a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives has been filed that would require the FCC to accelerate the funding program. The main author of the bill is House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), and the bill has attracted bipartisan support from some of Mississippi’s own House delegation.
The bill currently has 18 cosponsors, including U.S. Rep. Trent Kelly, a Republican who represents Northeast Mississippi in the House, and U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat who represents most of the Delta region in the House.
Under the current terms of the bill, the auction timeline would accelerate and award federal dollars to programs that are the sole bidder on a project who are offering service to a census block or a block group.
A Senate Commerce Committee aide has previously told the Daily Journal that Wicker is eager to see broadband expanded in Mississippi, and he’s reviewing all proposals on the table to make this idea a reality.
But Brandon Presley, the state’s northern district public service commissioner, believes the funds could arrive sooner if Wicker would introduce his own version of the House bill in the Senate.
The FCC did not respond to media inquiries from the Daily Journal, but the commission’s chief of staff, Michael Berry, tweeted at Presley and said the legislation that Presley is backing would end up delaying the auction instead of accelerating it.
“FACT CHECK: The FCC majority is working to begin the RDOF Phase I auction as soon as possible (October 2020),” Berry tweeted. “The FCC Democrats have been openly working to delay the auction and slow the deployment of broadband to unserved rural Americans.”
Presley wrote back to Berry saying that he’s opposed every effort to delay the auction, even against some members within his own party.
“Anytime you want to come to MS, I’ll pay for the gas to carry you around and let you try and sell that to mine and (Wicker’s) constituents and see if they believe you,” Presley tweeted. “In HR7022, we are asking for a very simple process and you are proving the very point I made in my tweet.”
After the tense Twitter exchange, Presley wrote a letter to Wicker saying that Berry decided that “placing partisan blame and confusing facts” were more important than considering alternative programs for the auction.
“Your letter was extremely courteous and nice, but the FCC will simply give you the same bureaucratic answers that Mississippians and America have come to expect,” Presley wrote. “They have shown that today. Your constituents and mine cannot fathom why we would purposefully not take action to expedite these funds.”
©2020 the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (Tupelo, Miss.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.