Report: Congressional leaders push major increase in rural broadband investments
Additional federal support for rural broadband initiatives may soon be on the way thanks to legislation recently introduced in Washington.
On Wednesday, July 14, the House Agriculture Committee met to mark up and discuss HR 4374 – the Broadband Internet Connections for Rural America Act – a bill that would add $43 billion over 8 years to the ongoing effort to extend high speed internet to rural areas of the country.
In his opening statement, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. David Scott said, “It is impossible to overstate how important it is that we get every single resident of rural America connected to high speed and affordable broadband. This connectivity is a lifeline in so many ways for so many people.”
Committee leaders said they plan on moving the legislation to the Senate quickly.
In the Senate, bipartisan legislation was introduced by Senators Grassley and Klobuchar to make pandemic assistance and other federal funding available for states to use as matching dollars – a requirement for many rural broadband programs. The bill, referred to as the Assisting Broadband Connectivity Act, also clarifies that related projects can’t be declared ineligible for federal funding for the sole reason that they received state funding in the past.
According to the Ag Committee one pager, the Broadband Internet Connections for Rural America Act invests $43.2 billion in USDA’s Rural Development broadband programs by providing final mile technical and financial assistance to rural communities seeking to improve their broadband service, increasing resources available to build out “middle mile” infrastructure, providing grant funding to small rural communities, and providing funds to invest in distance learning and telemedicine capabilities.
The USDA has identified the Innovative Broadband Advancement Program, originally passed in 2018 with an effective term of four years (2019-2023), as the best option for distributing the new funding. That funding will be directed to a new program built from two previous projects: ReConnect and the Rural Broadband Program. Since its creation in the Fiscal Year 2018 appropriations bill, ReConnect has delivered over $900 million to rural areas to build, expand, and improve available broadband services. The bill provides a timeline and adequate funding to stand up the new “ReConnect Rural Broadband Program” by Fiscal Year 2023.
Assistance to Rural Communities
For rural communities with few resources, staff, and experience maintaining a broadband network, H.R. 4374 establishes the Broadband Connectors program, which will provide a broad range of assistance to these communities such as evaluating their broadband needs, identifying the ideal source of financing, providing guidance with the application process, and assisting in day-to-day management and maintenance of their network. This effort would be modeled after the successful Circuit Rider program utilized for the RUS Waste & Water Program.
Accurate broadband coverage maps are critical to knowing the level of resources needed to meet the stated goal of 100% broadband coverage nationwide. The Community Broadband Mapping Act, initially introduced as separate legislation before being incorporated into H.R. 4374, provides grants for rural areas to map and provide USDA the location, quality, speed, and affordability of broadband service and infrastructure in an area. The language included further ensures that the data provided by a grantee is verifiable and in compliance with measurement and accuracy standards.
CSG East has long recognized the inadequacy of the existing broadband mapping, upon which all federal broadband funding is based. In order to address this issue, the Agriculture & Rural Affairs Policy Committee will be bringing together experts for a webinar to discuss the mapping issue as part of the CSG East Annual Meeting on Thursday, August 19, 2021. To register for this and other informative events, go to the CSG East Annual Meeting website.
The House Ag Committee passed HR 4374 on a voice vote. It will now make its way through the full House and the Senate before being signed by President Biden. For further updates, follow CSG East’s Agriculture and Rural Development blog, where we will follow the progress of the bill and continue to post updates for members and state leaders.