Wicker stresses rural broadband expansion for public safety

Published 7:00 am Thursday, July 27, 2017

By U.S. Senator Roger Wicker 

When a major emergency occurs, first responders such as police officers and firefighters must be able to communicate with each other.  But as we have witnessed in crisis after crisis, they often cannot connect because they are using devices that operate on different radio frequencies.

Communications systems also become overloaded, lacking the capacity to sustain the surge of users.  These communications gaps were a significant problem on Sept. 11, 2001, and four years later when Hurricane Katrina devastated our communities.  They are still a problem today.

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Five years ago, Congress established the First Responder Network Authority, known as FirstNet, in an effort to close these communications gaps for our firefighters and law enforcement.  FirstNet’s goal – the creation of a nationwide, interoperable broadband network for public safety – would empower communities from coast to coast with the capacity to respond to disasters quickly and resolutely.

Rural areas, however, may not have the same access to high-speed Internet as their urban counterparts, making broadband expansion critical to the deployment of FirstNet and its operations.  Addressing these current disparities in coverage has been a top action item for the Senate Commerce Committee and its telecom subcommittee, which I chair.

That commitment to the expansion of reliable rural broadband was reiterated on July 20, when the subcommittee overseeing telecom issues received an update on FirstNet.  Last month, initial plans were issued to states about the network’s deployment in their jurisdictions.

States will have a chance to provide input before the plans are finalized and can choose to opt out entirely, developing their own public safety networks and then connecting them to the national network.  This coordination between FirstNet and states is key.

States have unique needs when it comes to communications coverage.  For example, any plan in Mississippi should address the deployment of coverage in rural areas and efforts to keep user fees low for public safety officials to use the network.

Damon Darsey, who serves as the medical director of the Mississippi Center for Emergency Services at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, testified before the subcommittee during its FirstNet hearing.

He noted the development of the Mississippi Wireless Information Network after Hurricane Katrina, which connects local, state, and federal teams to help expedite their response to an emergency.

This network now covers most of the state.  Dr. Darsey also highlighted the use of voice communications by Mississippi MED-COM to connect first responders with medical personnel.  Because of MED-COM, Mississippians can receive medical guidance right away, instead of when they arrive at the hospital.  These advances in technology are valuable examples as we move forward in the development of FirstNet.    

A day before the subcommittee update on FirstNet, the full Senate Commerce Committee questioned President Trump’s nominees to the Federal Communications Commission.  I was encouraged by the nominees’ commitment to standardizing data collection for wireless broadband development.  Unless we have accurate information about where the coverage gaps actually are, we cannot put a solution in place that improves the high-speed Internet service of consumers in rural areas.

A bill I introduced with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), titled the “Rural Wireless Access Act,” would require the FCC to establish a consistent methodology when collecting data.  This data can then be used to ensure that funding goes to truly underserved areas.

Mississippians have already seen the successes of broadband innovation in telehealth, precision agriculture, and public safety, revealing the impact of this investment in our rural communities.  Basing these investments on precise data and creating state-oriented plans for public safety bring us closer to closing the digital divide and being ready when crisis strikes.