Tester: Effective Rural Broadband Development is Critical Amid COVID-19 Crisis

Senator advocates for broadband expansion and data mapping improvements in Montana’s underserved areas

As schools and health care providers become increasingly reliant on the internet to deliver services during the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. Senator Jon Tester is stressing the need to close the digital divide in rural communities that lack broadband access, without the unnecessary spending of taxpayer dollars.

At a Senate Commerce Committee Hearing, Tester questioned broadband association officials about the effectiveness of industry, legislative, and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) measures in helping to provide those lacking broadband from effectively participating in the nation’s current social and economic reality brought about by the global health crisis.

“If there’s one thing this pandemic has pointed out, it’s that we need high-speed internet, we need good cell service,” said Tester. “Otherwise we don’t have health care that can be distanced, we don’t have tele-education when schools are out.”

The coronavirus crisis has forced many essential services to move online, preventing individuals in rural and frontier areas that lack broadband from accessing things like telehealth care and schooling. Tester is calling attention to this digital divide and highlighting the need to build out broadband services without wastefully spending taxpayer dollars, especially when clear data on where there is and isn’t service is severely lacking.

“I’m in one of those areas [in Big Sandy, Mont.] where we do have pretty decent internet…the problem is this thing right here [holding up his cell phone] only works if you hold it in a certain position,” said Tester. “Can we build out in the unserved areas without a good mapping program? Is that even possible?”

Tester has been critical of the FCC’s wasteful spending after a series of broken promises to bring broadband to rural areas, particularly their $4.5 billion Mobility Fund Phase II that failed in part because of inaccurate broadband mapping. The agency recently announced a new 5G Fund that would make up to $9 billion in Universal Service Fund support available to carriers to deploy advanced 5G service in rural America, and Tester is working to ensure that this funding isn’t misused yet again.

During another recent Senate Commerce Committee Hearing, Tester emphasized his skepticism that the agency would be able to deliver on the 5G Fund after the failure of the Mobility Fund. He restated this doubt in a bipartisan letter sent to the Commission, and demanded that they focus their efforts on providing reliable broadband to rural communities.

As a working farmer in an area with limited cell service, Tester has been a leader in pressuring the FCC to improve broadband access in rural America. Last year, he backed the bipartisan Broadband DATA Act to force broadband providers to fix inaccurate coverage maps and help individuals and other entities challenge coverage maps in a non-burdensome way. He has pushed the FCC to prioritize improving broadband access in rural communities on multiple occasions, and grilled the agency’s Chairman, Ajit Pai, on their failure to do so.

Watch Tester’s full remarks HERE.

Visit tester.senate.gov/coronavirusresources for a list of resources for Montanans during the COVID-19 outbreak