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USDA is holding back on rural broadband funding, senators say

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and eight other senators wrote to the US Department of Agriculture on Wednesday demanding that the agency extend more funding to rural communities for broadband deployment.

In 2018, Congress authorized the USDA’s ReConnect Program to provide rural communities with the funds necessary for deploying high-speed broadband (25 Mbps down) in sparsely populated areas. Internet providers can apply for loans and grants to fund their build-outs, but according to the lawmakers, the USDA has created its own restrictions on who is able to receive the funding.

As of right now, providers that have already received loans or grants to deploy satellite internet access from the Federal Communications Commission are now ineligible to receive funding for other services like fixed wireless or fiber through the ReConnect Program.

“This USDA-imposed restriction — which is not required by law — prevents rural communities across the country from receiving their share of over $500 million in federal funding for high-speed broadband,” the lawmakers wrote, “which is vital to reducing the digital divide and harnessing important opportunities in telemedicine and online education, and the high-paying jobs that come with them.”

The USDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Satellite services like HughesNet and Windstream can connect communities without access to broadband, but connection can be spotty, depending on an area’s landscape or if a community is experiencing bad weather. The USDA’s self-imposed funding stipulation could bar local service providers from accessing funds to provide their small towns and communities with meaningful access to the internet.

Rural broadband has become a popular issue among 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. Many candidates want to throw more money at the issue, proposing billions of dollars in grants to solve the rural connectivity problems. On top of funding, proposals from more progressive candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) would preempt state laws that bar communities from building out their own publicly owned networks.

Earlier this year, the FCC voted to approve its new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which creates a pot of more than $20 billion for cooperatives, satellite operators, and other telecoms to compete for in order to connect unserved areas across the country. But that plan hasn’t won over everyone. Democratic Commissioner Geoffrey Starks wrote earlier this month that the program has similar rules limiting funding grants as the USDA’s program.

According to Starks, “any area that the Commission ‘know[s] to be awarded funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Program or other similar federal or state broadband subsidy programs, or those subject to enforceable broadband deployment obligations.”

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