An estimated 25% of farmers don’t have access to internet service, an important tool for marketing crops and planning for planting season. Last year revealed the many discrepancies in broadband nationwide in not only unserved areas, but also underserved areas with slower bandwidth speeds. New federal funds hope to build on closing the digital divide to address those shortfalls in coverage.
The bipartisan infrastructure deal approved in the Senate on Aug. 10 provided $65 billion for building out additional broadband coverage. To inject funds now, USDA announced an additional $167 million of ReConnect funding for 12 states to construct, improve and build out facilities to provide high-speed broadband access to rural places.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack says he hopes the infrastructure bill “gets quick and speedy action” in the House as it provides an “incredibly important investment in the future of our country and the competitiveness of that country in that bill” and a significant investment to expand broadband.
“But in the meantime, we can’t wait for the passage of that bill for those resources to be made available to USDA and the states across the country,” Vilsack says.
In this second round of awarding ReConnect funds from the $550 million Congress recently allocated, Vilsack says this latest funding awards provide the opportunity for USDA to add to the $1.5 billion already invested in the program which has benefited 300,000 households across rural America since the program began in 2018. USDA’s ReConnect Program provides loans and grants to construct, improve or acquire facilities and equipment needed to provide broadband service in eligible rural areas.
In a media call with Vilsack, NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association Chief Executive Officer Shirley Bloomfield says, “One of the things that I think we've learned a lot over the course of the last year and a half most unfortunately, is that broadband is not nice to have, it is a must have. And I think that the pandemic has highlighted the critical nature that we need to have access to fast and affordable and comparable broadband services, regardless of where you live in this country.”
Jim Matheson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, says local communities are asking their electric cooperatives to help make broadband access possible. Roughly 200 electric cooperatives in 39 states are already answering that call and hundreds more are looking at also offering broadband.
“We’ve been talking about bridging this digital divide for a long time, and there’ve been a lot of programs we’ve tried over the years to make that work,” Matheson says. “Yet still a significant number of Americans remain on the wrong side of that divide. If this was an easy problem to solve, we'd already done it. “
Matheson says the federal funds such as the ReConnect grants are a “vital ingredient to successfully bring rural America into the 21st century.”
Bloomfield adds that there’s not just a digital divide, but a rural/rural divide within that digital divide of those who are served by community-based providers and other intriguing partnerships and those larger providers who may not provide the level of connectivity needed.
Bloomfield notes there are definitely challenges providing broadband in rural America. “While I'm really excited about all of the initiatives, we've got to focus not just on deploying the broadband, but next deploying the right broadband. Let's give rural Americans access to comparable services. Let's not give them second class service.
“And that is why we feel very passionately that with this opportunity and the stars aligning, we should be looking to put future proof technology in place so that folks are not having to come back in three years and say, I need more access,” she says.
Infrastructure bill details
Specifically, the Senate’s infrastructure bill provides $65 billion for broadband and $2 billion is specified for rural areas. In addition, there will be $42.5 billion in grants to states that will go towards deployment. Bloomfield explains that is for deployment for those who are completely unserved, which means that area has to have 80% of residents have bandwidth of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. Then the money will gear up to target those who are underserved in those communities that have 80% or more who don’t have access to 100 Mbps/20 Mbps.
Every state will be guaranteed $100 million in grant support as the baseline, and then the rest of that money will be competitive based on need.
The bipartisan infrastructure plan also continues the emergency broadband program that the Federal Communications Commission put into place during the pandemic, which offered those who were impacted by job loss or simply an economic strain to have access to additional support to pay for broadband connectivity. “What this legislation will do is make that emergency program permanent that will help us really focus on how we make sure that we connect everybody regardless of your situation,” Bloomfield says.
Bloomfield notes there's also a very particular provision in the bill that says all of these government programs - whether through USDA’s ReConnect funds, the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, and any other federal programs - coordinate so that we ensure that “we are putting our precious resources where they are needed most.”
Vilsack says the $65 billion will also leverage additional resources as some will be in the form of grants, while others will be in the form of loans, which will allow “a significantly larger amount of investment and activity to be able to stretch those dollars.”
Bloomfield says Congress did allocate $98 million at the end of last year to determine what areas are unserved and underserved to help provide granular data through mapping in those areas. She says Federal Communications Commission Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel is working 24/7 to get this mapping done before the tranche of money goes out the door to be able to better paint the picture of where those underserved and unserved areas exist.
The Rural Broadband Association is also undergoing a mapping exercise to allow governments at the federal, state and even local level to look granularly and identify where are the holes and gaps in broadband coverage and best use the resources available to plug them as quick as possible.