June 4, 2018 10:25:38 AM
JACKSON -- If a U.S. senator and a public service commissioner get their way, many Mississippians will spend the next six months trying to prove how bad their local cellphone service is.
It's all part of an effort to make Mississippi eligible for as big of a slice of $4.5 billion as possible.
What the Federal Communications Commission calls the Mobility Fund II will be spent throughout the decade of the 2020s to enhance fast mobile service in areas that currently lack such service.
Here's the hitch, though. The federal regulatory agency will only offer money in areas where its maps show there's no service, or where there's only one currently subsidized provider. For each map area, a provider will be allowed to bid on how much subsidy is needed over 10 years to provide the service. The lowest bids will win.
The idea, said Michel Janson, the assistant bureau chief for the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, is to maximize the new areas served using the money.
Preliminary maps produced for the FCC by wireless carriers shows most of Mississippi is adequately covered by fast mobile service. Areas likely to get most of the money would be in the West or the northern Great Plains.
U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker isn't buying it, though.
"We think, just based on everyday experience, that we're one of the states that needs it the most," the Republican from Tupelo said after a meeting on the subject Thursday in Jackson.
The FCC says local and state government agencies and other groups can challenge its map, by running a speed test on a specified phone that shows no broadband service in an area. After pressure from Wicker and other lawmakers, the FCC has agreed to extend the period for challenges through the end of November.
"There's money there, there's a bad map, there's a way to challenge it," Wicker said. "Now we just need a room full of people from all across the state of Mississippi to help us make this work so we don't get left out."
Wicker, for example, said he would like to get county supervisors, the Mississippi Development Authority and the regional planning and development districts involved.
The room Thursday was mostly empty, though, with only representatives of the Public Service Commission and the Mississippi Farm Bureau attending.
Farm Bureau officials say they're still figuring out if they will join farm lobbies in other states in challenging local maps. But Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley said in a phone interview Friday that he's ready to go. Presley said he's collected thousands of complaints in recent years about bad wireless service from constituents through what he calls Zap the Gap.
Presley, a Democrat who represents the northern third of the state, said it's unfair that rural residents pay for cellphone and data plans but can't use them because of a lack of coverage. He and his staffers plan to buy the phones specified by the carriers and start making speed tests in areas where they've gotten complaints.
Presley said he'll be headed to an area near Tremont in Itawamba County.
"That area, you can't find a cellphone signal with a SWAT team or a search warrant," Presley said.
Wicker and Presley, although members of different parties, both agree that improving cellphone service is a key issue in the rural parts of Mississippi, which is in turn a very rural state.
"This is going to mean better agriculture, better health care," Wicker said. "People's lives are going to be saved if we can get this right."
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