FCC’s focus on 5G for major metros could leave rural American behind, Tester fears

Sen. Jon Tester is urging the Federal Communications Commission to update its coverage and availability maps, saying the agency’s current mapping doesn’t reflect the reality of communications in rural states like Montana.

As the FCC focuses on bringing 5G service to the nation’s larger metros, Tester fears rural America will be left behind, crippling both its economic future and connectivity.

“Those coverage maps are inaccurate, and those maps must better reflect the areas in Montana where coverage is weak,” Tester said on Tuesday. “If the FCC is truly making a decision based upon these maps, as they are written today, Montana will be left behind.”

During a conference call with state media, Tester pledged to continue pushing the FCC for better rural coverage. Last week, he quizzed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai about focusing communication upgrades on the nation’s urban centers at the expense of rural America, part of which still lacks basic service.

Tester summarized the challenge as the 21st century’s version of rural electrification.

“5G is the next best thing in wireless communication – 100 times faster than 4G,” Tester said. “But I’m worried that some places in Montana will never get 1G, much less 5G. If the FCC is focused on bringing 5G to the bigger cities, what does that do for rural America?”

Tester has asked the nation’s cellphone companies to use Billings as a pilot city for 5G coverage – a move he believes would reflect the challenges of connecting rural communities.

Other nations are moving toward 5G and despite the challenges, Tester added, the U.S. must remain competitive and do the same.

“It’s one of those races that’s worth winning,” Tester said. “But the question becomes, what happens to places where we don’t have any wireless? Do we forget about them? As they’re pushing for 5G – and I applaud them and will support them – they need to take into account rural America.”

Tester brought former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to Montana four years ago to show him the communications challenges facing the state. Tester and Wheeler specifically discussed increasing wireless infrastructure investment to rural communities through the Universal Service Fund.

The fund was created to provide resources and incentives to local telecommunication carriers to expand 4G wireless coverage in rural areas. In February, the FCC said roughly 50,000 square miles of Montana was eligible to expand 4G wireless coverage.