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ReConnect, a Long-Awaited Agriculture Department Broadband Program, Unveiled by Secretary Sonny Perdue

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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)

 

 

Broadband Mapping

FCC Opens Broadband Data Collection Program

The data will go toward improved maps, which the FCC chair said will be available by the fall.

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Screenshot of Bill Price, vice president of government solutions for LightBox

WASHINGTON, June 30, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday officially opened its new system to collect broadband service information from over 2500 broadband providers.

The Broadband Data Collection “marks the beginning of [the FCC’s] window to collect location-by-location data from providers that we will use to build the map,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a press release.

Screenshot of Bill Price, vice president of government solutions for LightBox

Broadband providers will be required to provide availability claims and supporting data. Supporting data will include sections such as “propagation modeling information” and “link budget information.” The deadline to submit is September 1.

Rosenworcel said the agency has established consistent parameters that require broadband providers to submit data using geocoded locations that will “allow [the FCC] to create a highly precise picture of fixed broadband deployment, unlike previous data collections, which focused on census blocks, giving us inaccurate, incomplete maps.”

With this information, the FCC will build a common dataset of locations in the United States where fixed broadband service can be installed, called the “fabric.” Rosenworcel said that this fabric will serve as a “foundation upon which all fixed broadband availability data will be reported and overlaid in our new broadband availability maps.”

Following the completion of the maps, government entities and internet service providers will be given a challenge window where availability claims may be challenged based on submitted data.

Rosenworcel previously said that the improved broadband maps will be available by the fall.

States expect to be busy fact-checking these claims as they are released, said panelists at Broadband Breakfast Live Online Event Wednesday. States will be involved in individual challenging processes and will be expected to provide information on availability through individual speed testing.

States want to get these maps right because they serve as a broadband investment decision making tool, said Bill Price, vice president of government solutions for LightBox, a data platform that is helping states build broadband maps. That means many states are committed to obtaining accurate local coverage data to utilize federal and state funding.

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place on Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. Watch the event on Broadband Breakfast, or REGISTER HERE to join the conversation.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022, 12 Noon ET –Broadband Mapping and Data

Now that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Notice of Funding Opportunity has been released, attention turns to a core activity that must take place before broadband infrastructure funds are distributed: The Federal Communications Commission’s updated broadband maps. Under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, as implemented by the NTIA’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, these address-level maps from the FCC will determine the allocation of funds among states and serve as a key source of truth. Our panelists will also consider the role of state-level maps, the NTIA challenge process and other topics. Join Broadband Breakfast as we return to one of the subjects that we know best: Broadband data and mapping.

Panelists:

  • Bill Price, Vice President, Government Solutions, LightBox
  • Dustin Loup, Program Manager, Marconi Society’s National Broadband Mapping Coalition
  • Ryan Guthrie, Vice President of Solutions Engineering at ATS
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

Panelist resources:

Bill Price, Vice President of Government Solutions, is responsible for LightBox broadband data and mapping solutions for government. Bill has more than 40 years in telecommunications and technology services development and operations. His track record includes delivering the Georgia statewide location level broadband map, the first fiber metropolitan area network in the U.S., and launching BellSouth’s internet service. LightBox combines proven, leading GIS and big data technology to transform how decisions are made in broadband infrastructure planning and investment.

Dustin Loup is an expert on internet governance and policy and program manager for the Marconi Society’s National Broadband Mapping Coalition. Much of his work centers on improving digital inclusion and establishing transparent, open-source, and openly verifiable mapping methodologies and standards.

Ryan Guthrie is VP of Solutions Engineering at Advanced Technologies & Services.  He started with ATS in 2006 and has been involved in all aspects of the business from sales and marketing through solution design and implementation.  Ryan also manages regulatory solutions for ATS and has been deeply involved with the federally funded broadband projects by assisting ISPs with their performance measures testing compliance.

Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney. Drew brings experts and practitioners together to advance the benefits provided by broadband. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, he served as head of a State Broadband Initiative, the Partnership for a Connected Illinois. He is also the President of the Rural Telecommunications Congress.

WATCH HERE, or on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook.

As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.

SUBSCRIBE to the Broadband Breakfast YouTube channel. That way, you will be notified when events go live. Watch on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

See a complete list of upcoming and past Broadband Breakfast Live Online events.

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FCC

FCC Commissioner Supports Rural Telco Efforts to Implement ‘Rip and Replace’

In remarks at the Rural Wireless Association event on Wednesday, Commissioner Geoffrey Starks reaffirmed the FCC’s goals.

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Photo of Carri Bennet, general counsel of the Rural Wireless Association, leading a discussion at the summit on Wednesday by Drew Clark

PARK CITY, Utah, June 30, 2022 – Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks acknowledged the agency’s goal of obtaining secure broadband networks at an event of the Rural Wireless Association on Wednesday.

“We must ensure that our broadband networks are secure,” Starks said in keynote address at the Rural Wireless Infrastructure Summit here, delivered via Zoom. “This is evident in the constant barrage of attacks of American networks from hostile state and non-state actors.”

Starks continued, “insecure networks, by definition, can’t provide the stable, reliable, always on communications we need. Especially during emergencies… Broadband must be secure for the full benefits of broadband to be achieved.”

The issue of ridding American telecommunications networks of equipment manufactured in China was a constant theme during the conference.

In addition to Starks’ presentation, several sessions addressed the dilemma faced by telecommunications carriers, particular rural ones, that had in the past invested heavily in lower-cost equipment from Huawei, a leading Chinese manufacturer.

As the political winds have changed on the topic over the past three years, Congress has allocated funds for a “rip and replace” program. The FCC is expected to announce the providers that will receive nearly $2 billion as part of the program by July 15.

But some fear that number could be more than $4 billion short of needed funds.

“The funds available will cover only a very small portion” of the costs to replace Huawei with non-Chinese manufacturers, said Carri Bennet, general counsel of the Rural Wireless Association.

Potential new requirements imposed on telecom providers

The commission recently sought comment on whether it should require carriers that receive high-cost support to have include baseline cyber security and supply chain risk management plans.

If these plans are included in requirements, Starks said that American communication networks would be protected from bad actors. Moreover, they are consistent with requirements already included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Starks thanked the RWA for its activity and advocacy in the “rip and replace” proceedings, officially dubbed the Secure and Trusted Communications Network Reimbursement Program.

“The threat is real,” called Starks. “Companies that are deemed by the federal government to be a threat to the United States and its people can not have free reign in data centers featuring some of the most sensitive data of Americans.”

This comes only days after Commissioner Brendan Carr called for Apple and Google to remove Beijing-based popular video-sharing application, TikTok, from their app stores in response to the apps’ obligation to comply with the Peoples Republic of China’s surveillance demands.

Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark contributed to this report.

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Infrastructure

States Must Ease Zoning, Permit Regulations for Broadband Buildouts

‘You have to take a serious look at red tape.’

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Screenshot of Heather Gold , Carolyn Price, Shane Butler and Bob Knight (left to right)

WASHINGTON, June 30, 2022 – States must ease regulations surrounding local building permits and zoning that may prevent internet service providers from building broadband infrastructure, said experts in community and stakeholder engagement at a Rural Broadband Conference on Tuesday.

“If you want to attract private industry or want to bring fiber to your community, you have to take a serious look at red tape,” said Bob Knight, CEO of marketing firm Harrison Edwards Strategic Communications.

“Let’s be realistic,” Knight continued. “We are operating at a time where private investment can go anywhere, we are operating at a time where materials are scarce… now is not the time to mess around and slow up the process [through regulations.]”

The Upstate New York Town Association, a group dedicated to serving the needs of upstate New York communities, indicated that it would continue to lobby for an easing of state regulations to support broadband connectivity in its region.

Knight encouraged states to engage with stakeholders and local community members to make the process easier and build networks in a timely fashion. “Get as many [local] voices as you can.”

Communities in Upstate New York worked with local engineers to develop broadband models that work for their topography. Understanding the local geography proved beneficial in building out networks that connect to all community members, said Carolyn Price, executive director of the Upstate Association.

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