Today, Congressman Chris Pappas (D-NH-01) joined Congresswoman Kat Cammack (R-FL-03) and Congressman Jim Costa (D-CA-16) in sending a letter to urge USDA Secretary Vilsack and the Department of Agriculture to ensure the ReConnect Pilot Program serves rural America and the underserved communities that need it most.
Established in 2018, the ReConnect Pilot Program has targeted rural areas where at least 90 percent of households lack broadband service, focusing its funding in necessary regions and making sure duplicative funding does not lead to overbuilding. Over the last several months, however, new guidelines for the program have raised concerns about overbuilding, the service areas, and shifting dollars away from those the program intends to serve. The letter requests the USDA carefully consider future rounds of ReConnect funding to make every effort to serve the communities who are not served by other broadband programs.
"We must expand access to broadband in New Hampshire and across the country and ensure every home, small business, and classroom is equipped with a fast, reliable, affordable connection," said Rep. Chris Pappas. "High-speed broadband is a necessity for our communities and a prerequisite for our country to compete and lead in a global, 21st-century economy. That is why I joined a bipartisan group of my colleagues to call on Secretary Vilsack to ensure that Round 3 funds of the Rural eConnectivity (ReConnect) Program are adequately and appropriately targeted to areas in need."
"I'm pleased to join Rep. Costa in leading this letter with my colleagues," said Rep. Cammack. "Access to affordable, reliable, high-speed internet in North Central and Northeast Florida remains a challenge and ReConnect--designed to reach the communities most in need--is pivotal in achieving this goal. The last thing we need is more funding that does not meet the needs of those it aims to serve."
The letter earned the support of the Internet and Television Association (NCTA) and the Rural Broadband Association (NTCA).
"The issues raised in Reps. Cammack and Costa's letter to the USDA highlight critically important issues if America is going to complete its mission of connecting all communities with robust broadband service," said the NCTA. "The concerns raised in the letter will lead to government funding being wasted on building second or third broadband networks in some communities while others wait at the back of the line. We thank all of the Members who signed for standing up for unconnected communities and raising these important issues. We urge the USDA to change its guidelines and do everything it can so that broadband funding is delivered where it is needed most--those communities without any service."
"Too many farms, homes, and businesses in Iowa do not have access to affordable, reliable broadband which they need to live, work, and thrive. That needs to change," said Rep. Randy Feenstra. "While the ReConnect Pilot Program has been successful at connecting rural communities to the internet, proposed changes by this administration threaten its original purpose by diverting funds from rural America to big cities. Our rural communities, families, and main streets deserve better, and I will continue to do everything possible to connect Iowans to the country and the world."
"Bridging the digital divide is more important than ever as the agriculture industry and rural Americans struggle to keep up in a digitally-dependent age," said Rep. Jim Baird. "Our producers need every resource available to them to help fulfill their critical work of feeding, fueling, and clothing our nation, and securing reliable connectivity is a key component. Ensuring that we provide complimentary rather than duplicative funding for underserved communities so that we can prioritize the most underserved areas is essential in bridging the digital gap, which is why I joined Rep. Cammack in encouraging the USDA to make every effort to put unserved households and communities first."
"Ensuring our rural communities in the Central Valley have reliable, high-speed internet is critical. The ReConnect program has played an important role, and should continue to do so, in funding broadband deployment to the most underserved communities like those in the Valley," said Rep. David Valadao. "Funding from this program can have a positive impact all across our rural communities, including in schools, hospitals, on the farm, and more. USDA must take every step to ensure these funds continue to reach the communities that need them most."
"Without reliable connectivity, those living in working in rural areas are left at a severe disadvantage compared to their urban and suburban counterparts," said Rep. Troy Balderson. "We must ensure our rural communities have access to high-speed broadband internet as a means for leveling the playing field and fostering economic growth and investment in these communities."
"The lack of high-speed internet is leaving rural Americans behind and deepening the digital divide. Broadband coverage is especially challenging in forested and mountainous areas, like the Sierra mountains in my district. The only way to guarantee every rural resident has access to high-speed connectivity is to make sure federal funds aren't being duplicative to one area, and are spread throughout rural America," said Rep. Doug LaMalfa.
"USDA plays a critical role in bringing broadband connectivity to communities across Rural America. We must prioritize federal funding for broadband infrastructure in unserved areas and build upon the progress we made in the 2018 Farm Bill to ensure that those unserved communities who need broadband service most get priority, rather than duplicate service and overbuild," said Rep. Rodney Davis.
The full text of the letter may be found below.
Dear Secretary Vilsack,
We write today to ask you to ensure that the Rural Utilities Service's (RUS) Rural eConnectivity (ReConnect) Pilot Program remains focused on the urgent task of connecting unserved rural Americans and closing the digital divide.
For years, rural communities had been left behind because they are simply too remote and too uneconomic to serve without the assistance of targeted broadband subsidies.
Since its creation in 2018, the ReConnect Pilot Program has played a critical role in funding broadband deployment to communities in rural America that lack access to broadband service, administering two rounds of funding for broadband deployment. The ReConnect program applied lessons learned from previous programs to be more effective in directing funding to unserved rural communities. First, ReConnect funding has been targeted to rural areas where at least 90 percent of households do not have access to broadband. These are the parts of rural America that have remained truly unserved. Second, the ReConnect program has made careful use of funding by avoiding overbuilding areas that are already in the process of receiving broadband through another funding program. These important guardrails, and other reforms, such as improving broadband coverage data through a challenge process, and opening the program to additional qualified broadband providers, have helped ReConnect successfully target funding and deployment of service to truly unserved areas.
Unfortunately, recent developments could upend this progress. 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 Communication Commission's (FCC) Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). We are also concerned that reducing the unserved threshold from 90 percent to 50 percent for funding as required by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) will once again shift dollars away from the rural areas that are most in need of broadband.
Instead of dedicating valuable funding to completing the task of finally connecting unserved rural communities, the next round of ReConnect could direct a substantial amount of funding to areas that already have robust broadband service. Given the unprecedented amount of broadband funding that has now been appropriated through the IIJA, our concerns about duplication of Federal resources are magnified. In addition, we are concerned that the application is unduly difficult to complete and prevents many broadband providers from applying for funding.
Due to the large number of new Federal and State broadband programs that will be distributing broadband funds, it is imperative that ReConnect work in a complementary -- not duplicative -- manner with the FCC's RDOF program, as well as the NTIA, Treasury, and state broadband programs to maximize the combined impact and reach as many different rural communities as possible. Duplicating service in project areas funded by other government agencies' programs will only harm the effort to close the digital divide and continue to leave many Americans without access to reliable, affordable, and high-speed internet.
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. These actions are vital to meet our shared goal of connecting all Americans.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter.