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Wicker: FCC award will expand high-speed internet in rural Mississippi

Mississippi scored an important victory this month in our effort to connect rural communities to the internet.

On Dec. 7, the Federal Communication Commission announced the results of a competitive auction in which private-sector companies bid for the opportunity to supply broadband to rural communities. Mississippi received an award of $495 million for these efforts — second only to California, the nation’s most populous state. This means one out of every $18 from this auction will go to Mississippi’s broadband deployment efforts.

This investment is a major step forward for our state. The FCC estimates 435,000 Mississippi residents will gain access to reliable, high-speed internet because of this award. Still, the buildout will take time, and some communities may have to wait longer than others. I am taking steps to try to speed up this process as much as possible.

Deployment set to begin this spring

Broadband is critical to our nation’s economy and way of life. The pandemic has made the internet even more crucial, as many Americans are now attending school, going to work, and receiving health care online. Yet 18 million Americans, largely in rural areas, are still unconnected.

The FCC recognized this disparity last year by launching the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), a program aimed at closing the digital divide between rural and urban America. This fund will provide $20 billion to deploy broadband in rural communities over the next decade.

Deployment funds are awarded to private-sector companies through two separate auctions. These bidding contests allow taxpayers to get the best value for their money. Funding from the first auction will be put to use starting this spring and will focus on areas with no broadband coverage at all.

The second auction will benefit a wide range of underserved areas, and I am working to have this auction conducted as soon as possible.

Speeding up the process

As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees broadband policy, I have made access to high-speed internet for all Americans a top priority.

In June, I wrote a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai about the need to accelerate the distribution of federal funds to eligible providers, like the Rural Electric Cooperative Consortium in Mississippi. I have also introduced legislation that would offer incentives for providers to complete their buildout obligations in half the time. This would extend internet access to more homes and businesses sooner.

Earlier this year, Congress passed and President Trump signed the Broadband DATA Act, a law I authored to improve the way broadband data is collected. For years, the FCC has used flawed data maps that showed many parts of Mississippi having connectivity, when in fact they did not.

My legislation requires the FCC to collect more accurate and granular data, providing a better picture of the gaps in broadband coverage. I am working to ensure these improved maps are in place before the second RDOF auction.

If accurate data is being used, Mississippi should receive another substantial award to support broadband construction in our rural communities.

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