Bipartisan Group Urges USDA to Use Narrower Guidelines to Allocate Broadband Funds
WASHINGTON — More than two dozen members of Congress are urging Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to ensure the funds set aside for rural broadband expansion make it to the most rural of areas.
The bipartisan letter urging the department to narrow the scope of who can get the loans comes as the department closed a recent round of applications worth hundreds of millions of dollars in loans and grants through the ReConnect Program. The department is also set to give out another $2 billion to underserved telecom providers, which was appropriated through the bipartisan infrastructure law.
Lawmakers are worried that new wider guidelines for applicants could push funds appropriated to serve the most rural areas to other broadband providers.
“We are troubled by the Round 3 ReConnect guidelines that could allow a new broadband provider to obtain funding to build a broadband network to serve the very same area awarded to another provider that has received funding from other programs like the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.
“We are also concerned that reducing the unserved threshold from 90% to 50% for funding as required by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will once again shift dollars away from the rural areas that are most in need of broadband,” the legislators wrote.
The ReConnect Program awards grants and loans to broadband providers in areas with fewer than 100 megabits per second download and 20 Mbps upload speeds. However, it prioritizes providers in areas lacking internet access services of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds.
Access to broadband has been a top priority throughout the pandemic as many people were forced to work from their homes via internet connections.
To participate in a standard one-on-one Zoom meeting, the video calling platform that became ubiquitous with work-from-home setups, users should have 3 to 3.8 Mbps upload and download speeds for the best high definition video, according to its website. That’s per person, so if multiple people in a home need to use the internet for work or school there’s a need for higher bandwidth speeds.
This policy priority to expand access to broadband has created multiple funding sources through the Department of Agriculture, the FCC and others, as the legislators point out in their letter. Their hope is that the department can focus on allocating funds to the most rural of areas while there are funding sources for other broadband improvements across the country.
“As USDA implements the current and future rounds of ReConnect funding, the agency should carefully consider the impact of these policies on rural America. We encourage the agency to take every possible action to prioritize funding for communities with the highest percentages of unserved households and for communities that are not being addressed through another broadband funding program,” the legislators wrote.
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