Voicing his frustration with the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) consistent failure to bring rural America up to speed with mobile wireless service, U.S. Senator Jon Tester grilled agency officials on their strategy to implement a proposal that aims to bring 5G services to rural communities during this week’s Senate Commerce Committee hearing.

The hearing followed a December announcement by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai that the botched $4.5 billion Mobility Fund Phase II—which aimed to bring 4G technology to rural America—would be replaced with 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.

“Folks in rural America and rural Montana have waited for years for the Mobility Fund to get out the door, and you guys know as well as I, it never happened,” said Tester. “The lack of reliable cell service in our communities has tremendous, enormous public safety impacts and business impacts. 

Tester has been critical of the FCC’s plans to bring reliable coverage to rural America following multiple shortfalls in their previous strategies. During a Senate Commerce Committee Hearing last month, he 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 last week, and demanded that they focus their efforts on providing reliable broadband to rural communities.

In this week’s hearing, Tester also brought up the issue of workforce shortages when it comes to developing and building the infrastructure necessary to deliver on the FCC’s 5G promises to rural communities. He pointed out that the United States does not currently have the workforce necessary to build 5G infrastructure quickly—especially in rural areas—and asked FCC officials how they can pressure the Department of Labor (DOL) to compensate for this issue.

“Who’s putting pressure on the [Department of Labor] to make sure we’re getting the kind of well-trained employees out there?” Tester said. “…you can have the best laid plans, but if you don’t have the workforce, you’re done.”

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.

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