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May 20, 2024 11:24 AM
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Opinion: USDA Broadband Programs May Be Heading Off the Rails – Inside Sources

The House and Senate agriculture committees are taking a fresh look at broadband programs as they work to rewrite the Farm Bill.  Alarmingly, several ideas would significantly weaken the fiscal guardrails that steer rural broadband dollars to the remote, unserved communities where they’re most urgently needed.

Budget hawks — especially those in House and Senate leadership — must be vigilant against efforts to misuse the Farm Bill to push a bad broadband policy that promotes inefficiency and wastes taxpayer funding.

There is near unanimity from policymakers at all levels that every American family ought to have access to broadband service. The vast majority of the 8.6 million households without broadband available (according to the FCC’s latest data) are in rural America. Far from being neglected populations, enormous efforts are being made to address the fundamental economics and entice the private sector to serve sparsely populated communities that are often topographically challenged.  

It’s why multiple federal programs are precisely targeting these issues, complemented by Congress committing more than $165 billion in direct funding for broadband plus hundreds of billions more in flexible funding that can be used for broadband to bring service to these areas.

The agriculture committees are trying to determine how and under what conditions USDA’s rural broadband program, known as ReConnect, should continue funding broadband deployment. Surprisingly, recent hearings and bills have displayed a desire to ignore specific broadband lessons learned over the years. Of all the bills under consideration by Congress, only the Rural Internet Improvement Act of 2023 applies the proper lessons to improve and strengthen the ReConnect program.

For instance, it is universally accepted that the primary focus of broadband subsidies should be on bringing service to the unserved.  Yet, multiple bills introduced in the Agriculture Committee, including the Reconnecting Rural America Act, would allow grantees to use a significant percent of scarce funding to overbuild served territories — ensuring that the hardest-to-wire communities would thus fall further down the priority list.

In other words, taxpayer dollars would be spent building a network in a community with two, three, four or more existing broadband providers, while other communities with no access are still waiting. Unserved farmers, ranchers and residents of rural America without service should be swinging their proverbial pitchforks at efforts that inevitably delay service to their families and lands.

Additionally, almost all recent hearing witnesses — even those generously awarded prior funding — critiqued the Agriculture Department’s ReConnect application process for being too complicated, subjective and unnecessarily bureaucratic. And yet, most of the bills introduced in this Congress to codify ReConnect fail to put forward any reforms to the underlying program.

However, the bigger problem with ReConnect, is that applicants aren’t competing on a level playing field. The Agriculture Department’s rules stack the deck in favor of electric and telephone co-operatives, while broadband providers with a proven track record of success are being precluded from funding.  Secretary Tom Vilsack even testified mistakenly — at three congressional hearings — that ReConnect was intended to increase speeds of electric and telephone co-op customers — even though the underlying statute provides no advantage to co-ops over other providers and focuses the department on funding areas that are 90 percent unserved.

While there has been a historic relationship between co-ops and the department, all qualified broadband providers should have an equal chance to win ReConnect funds.  Shrinking the pool of eligible recipients to a subset of providers means that taxpayers pay more for deployment without benefitting from competing applicants — lower consumer costs, better services, more features and functions, and the like. Why would Congress allow this deficiency to be codified, as some have proposed?

The Farm Bill rewrite is our best opportunity to improve parts of the ReConnect program that prevent some parts of rural America from gaining access.  Ensuring the funding goes to unserved rural areas, improving the application process, and correcting eligibility to encourage broad participation should be priorities for anyone in Congress who believes in spending federal funding wisely and getting broadband to unserved Americans.

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