A bipartisan coalition of 28 lawmakers is urging Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai to make providing access to mobile broadband in rural areas a priority.
“We support your efforts to close the digital divide for low-income and rural Americans," the lawmakers, who include Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), wrote in a letter to Pai.
"Going forward, these efforts must include removing barriers to broadband deployment and promoting innovation, as well as adopting a Universal Service Fund (USF) Mobility Fund Phase II (MFII).”
The Universal Service Fund is composed of telecommunications subsidies and fees managed by the FCC to promote universal access to telecom services for the public. The mobility fund specifically supports the expansion of broadband networks with up to $500 million available for deploying and maintaining mobile broadband and voice service in high-cost rural areas.
The buildout of broadband services in those areas has been slower because there are few customers to support the expenses of building the needed infrastructure.
Pai was critical of the fund in a Medium post Thursday.
“Right now, the federal government spends about $25 million of taxpayer money each month to subsidize wireless carriers in areas where private capital has been spent building out networks," Pai wrote. “This is perhaps a textbook definition of waste: public funds being spent to do what the private sector has already done.”
Pai has said that as chairman he will prioritize expanding broadband options and bridging the “digital divide” between urban and rural areas.
During a Senate Broadband Caucus panel on bridging the digital divide on Wednesday, Klobuchar expressed hope that broadband initiatives would be included in future infrastructure legislation.
“My number one priority is to make sure [an infrastructure bill] has broadband,” she said.
Klobuchar noted that she had spoken with Wilbur Ross, Trump's nominee for Commerce secretary.
“I personally met with Wilbur Ross in my office and specifically asked [about broadband] and he said it should be included in any package.”