WASHINGTON, December 13, 2018 – The Agriculture Department on Thursday unveiled the details of is $600 million broadband loan and grant program – dubbed “ReConnect” – and which was originally called for by appropriations legislation passed in March.
“High-speed internet e-Connectivity is a necessity, not an amenity, vital for quality of life and economic opportunity, so we hope that today rural communities kick off their rural broadband project planning,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who spoke at a press briefing at the department’s headquarters near the National Mall.
“Under the leadership of President Trump, USDA has worked to understand the true needs of rural communities facing this challenge so we can be strong partners to create high-speed, reliable broadband e-Connectivity,” said Perdue.
The program is being administered by “USDA Rural Development,” the umbrella agency at the Agriculture Department. The “Rural Development” moniker is now being utilized by the department to discuss an array of economic development initiatives.
Indeed, the Rural Utilities Service – the traditional entity within USDA to operate telecommunications and broadband programs – is not even mentioned in the press release.
The former head of RUS, Ken Johnson – appointed in April – no longer works at the USDA, and no replacement has been named. USDA has not responded to repeated requests by BroadbandBreakfast for information about when and why Johnson departed USDA.
Details of the rural development program ReConnect
Municipalities, rural electric coops and utilities, and private internet companies may all apply for funding through the ReConnect program.
USDA will make available approximately $200 million for grants, plus $200 million for loan and grant combination, and $200 million for low-interest loans. The grant applications are due by April 29, 2019, the loan-grant combination applications are due May 29, and the loan applications are due on June 28.
The USDA will utilize its traditional definition for “rural” in awarding grants and loans: Projects funded through the initiative must serve communities with fewer than 20,000 people.
An additional restriction on the awarding of grants is that projects funded through the ReConnect initiative must serve communities with no broadband service or, the Agriculture Department’s press release states, “where service is slower than 10 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload.” The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as internet connectivity with speeds of at least 25 Mbps downstream, and 3 Mbps upstream, rendering 10/1 connections not officially “broadband.”
According to the USDA, the evaluation criteria include connecting agricultural production and marketing, e-Commerce, health care and education facilities.
Previous research by USDA – and many others – has connected high-capacity broadband to all aspects of rural prosperity, including the ability to grow and attract businesses, retain and develop talent, and maintain rural quality of life.
Websites and webinars run by the Agriculture Department
USDA is holding a series of online webinars and regional in-person workshops, and list of upcoming public webinars and workshops can be found at the ReConnect Program’s resource portal at reconnect.usda.gov.
In April 2017, Trump established the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity to identify legislative, regulatory and policy changes that could promote agriculture and prosperity in rural communities.
The task force findings included 31 recommendations to align the federal government with state, local and tribal governments to take advantage of opportunities that exist in rural America, and increasing investments in rural infrastructure was a key recommendation of the task force.
See the Report to the President of the United States from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity, as well as the various categories of the recommendations at Rural Prosperity infographic.
More significantly, $600 million in funds were included in the $1.3 trillion congressional omnibus spending bill passed in March.
At the time, Perdue said that “increased support for broadband internet access is in line with administration goals and will be an important boost as we look to improve the economy in rural America."
Statements of support from other government agencies and industry groups
A variety of government and non-government entities weighed in with support for the ReConnect program.
Said Michael Kratsios, deputy assistant to the president for technology and head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy:
- “Millions of rural Americans are on the wrong side of the digital divide, missing out on many of the benefits and opportunities of today’s digital age. In rural areas, seniors lack access to modern health care, students are left behind on educational opportunities, and small businesses in the heartland can’t sell their goods to a global market. Today, the Trump Administration, led by Secretary Perdue and USDA, took important action to bring high-speed internet to rural communities through the launch of the ReConnect Program. This new and innovative pilot program is dedicated to spurring broadband deployment and investment in the areas that need it most. We can’t allow rural America to fall behind, and today’s announcement is a critical step to help all Americans succeed in the 21st century."
Said David Redl, assistant secretary for communications and information and NTIA administrator:
- “The Administration is taking an important step to help close the broadband coverage gap for the millions of rural Americans who lack access to broadband connectivity with the launch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s $600 million grant and loan program. NTIA looks forward to providing technical assistance to potential applicants through its partnership with USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS). NTIA’s BroadbandUSA team has extensive experience working in the telecommunications industry, building broadband networks and consulting with service providers and local governments. Using this expertise, our team will be supporting educational materials and workshops to help applicants with the grant and loan process.”
Industry groups also expressed support, with NTCA (formerly the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association) CEO Shirley Bloomfield saying:
- “We all recognize the value of and fundamental need for robust, sustainable broadband in rural America—technology that supports health care, education, economic development and more—and we hope this program can be a critical component of delivering on that value and responding to that need.”
No connection between ReConnect and the recently-passed Farm Bill
The ReConnect program bears no connection to the Farm Bill, which was passed on Tuesday by the Senate, and on Wednesday by the House. The bill, which also has some provisions impacting broadband, has not yet been signed by the president.
(Photo of Secretary Perdue on Thursday by Jerry Hagstrom/The Hagstrom Report)