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How the Farm Bill and the USDA ReConnect Program May Help Narrow a Rural Digital Divide

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Editor’s Note: The most recent edition of Broadband Communities Magazine features a special section on rural broadband, including this overview piece about the passage of the Agricultural Improvement Act and the ReConnect. Incidentally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s series of webinars on the program continue with events on Tuesday, March 12; Thursday, March 14; and Wednesday, March 20. For details about upcoming events, visit https://www.usda.gov/reconnect/events.

New Funding For Rural Broadband January/February 2019   •     By Drew Clark  |  BroadbandBreakfast.com | The passage of the Agricultural Improvement Act and the opening of a funding window for the ReConnect program will help narrow the rural digital divide.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has two new significant broadband programs to implement in addition to its existing telecommunications-focused programs.

On December 20, 2018, President Trump signed the Agriculture Improvement Act, known as the “farm bill.” In addition to including measures designed to stimulate rural broadband, the act also revamped several aspects of Rural Utilities Service broadband funding.

One week earlier, the Agriculture Department unveiled the details of its $600 million broadband loan and grant program – dubbed ReConnect – which was originally called for by appropriations legislation passed in March 2018.

Farm Bill Additions

The farm bill, H.R. 2, passed by the House of Representatives on December 12 and by the Senate one day earlier, included a number of items previously included in the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act and increased funding for RUS grant and loan programs to $350 million for the years 2019 to 2023. It annually allocates $50 million for Community Connect grants, $10 million for rural middle-mile infrastructure grants and loans, and $10 million for a gigabit-focused program called the Innovative Broadband Advancement Program.

The precision agriculture measure established a task force to identify connectivity gaps in agricultural areas. Members, who will be nominated by the USDA and the Federal Communications Commission, will also develop policy recommendations to promote the rapid, expanded deployment of fixed and mobile broadband internet access service on unserved agricultural land, with a goal of achieving reliable capabilities on 95 percent of agricultural land in the United States by 2025.

The task force will propose effective policy and regulatory solutions that encourage the adoption of broadband internet access service on farms and ranches and promote precision agriculture; recommend specific steps that the FCC should take to obtain reliable, standardized data measurements of the availability of broadband internet access to unserved rural areas; and explore ways that USDA expertise can inform FCC policies.

Additionally, the farm bill legislation codifies the Agriculture Department’s definition of minimum acceptable broadband speeds at 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. And it will require that RUS fund projects only in areas where at least 90 percent of households lack access to internet speeds of more than 10 Mbps downstream/1 Mbps upstream.

ReConnect Details Unveiled

On December 13, one day after the House passed the farm bill, the USDA released the long-awaited details of the ReConnect program. It implements the $600 million in new funding that was included in the $1.3 trillion congressional omnibus spending bill passed in March 2018.

“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 briefing at the department’s headquarters near the National Mall. “We don’t want an urban-rural divide in the county,” he said. “When are we going to stop having to drive rural kids to places where they can do homework by skimming off Wi-Fi from fast food restaurants?”

The program is being administered by USDA Rural Development, the umbrella agency at the Agriculture Department that includes the Rural Utilities Service.

Jannine Miller, senior adviser for rural infrastructure to Perdue, introduced the secretary, saying that “connecting America is truly transformative.”

Funding Rules for ReConnect

Municipalities, rural electric co-ops and utilities, and private internet companies may all apply for funding through ReConnect.

The USDA will make available approximately $200 million for grants, $200 million for loan and grant combinations 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 loan applications can be submitted between March 1 and June 28. (At press time, the USDA was shut down, so these dates may have to be adjusted.)

Chad Parker, the Rural Utilities Service assistant administrator for telecommunications policy, said that projects funded through this initiative must serve communities with fewer than 20,000 people who have no broadband service or whose service is slower than 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload.

“Approved projects must create access speeds of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload,” Parker added. Priority will be awarded for projects that propose to deliver higher-capacity connections to rural homes, businesses and farms.

“USDA seeks to stretch these funds as far as possible by leveraging existing networks and systems without overbuilding existing services greater than 10/1 Mbps,” the USDA said in a news release.

Evaluation criteria include connecting agricultural production and marketing, e-commerce, health care and education facilities. The grant program and grant/loan combination program will award funding to the applicants with the highest scores according to the evaluation criteria, but the pure loans will be awarded on a rolling basis to any qualified applicant.

Previous research by the 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.

ReConnect Implementation

The USDA is holding a series of webinars and regional in-person workshops; a list of upcoming public webinars and workshops is available at ReConnect’s resource portal at reconnect.usda.gov.

The historical genesis of the program includes the Trump administration’s establishment of an 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 the rural United States, and increasing investments in rural infrastructure was a key recommendation of the task force.

At the time of the March 2018 omnibus appropriation bill’s passage, 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.”

Reception to ReConnect

A variety of other government and nongovernment entities weighed in with support for the ReConnect program.

Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said in a statement, “I’m pleased the USDA is finally moving forward on the $600 million high-speed internet investment Congress provided in the 2018 omnibus. Expanding high-speed Internet access is vital to the growth and success of our small towns and rural communities in Michigan and across the country.”

When the bill was passed in March, Stabenow noted that the $600 million for rural broadband “represents the largest investment in broadband expansion since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.”

Jim Matheson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, said, “Secretary Perdue’s announcement lays the groundwork for an improved approach to making broadband a reality across rural America. This pilot program and the strong broadband provisions included in the 2018 farm bill highlight a much-needed shift in federal policy to make rural broadband a possibility for the estimated 23 million Americans who lack it.

“More than 100 electric co-ops have launched broadband deployment projects to help modernize rural economies,” Matheson added. “We are very pleased that the pilot program adopts a 25/3 sufficiency standard and will prioritize applications that would deliver speeds in excess of the 25/3 minimum standard.”

Matheson said “all capable providers should have equal access to federal funding” and that grants should be prioritized in areas with the lowest population density “given that is a prime cost driver of the lack of broadband deployment.”

Source: New Funding For Rural Broadband, from Broadband Communities

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Education

Metaverse Can Serve as a Supplement, Not Replacement, For Educators: Experts

The virtual world where avatars can meet as if they were in real life can be a companion for education.

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Screenshot of the Brookings event Tuesday

WASHINGTON, June 29, 2022 – Experts said at a Brookings Institution event said Tuesday that while the “metaverse” can go a long way toward improving education for some students, it should serve as a supplement to those educational goals.

The metaverse refers to a platform of 3D virtual worlds where avatars, or virtual characters, meet as if they were in the real world. The concept has been toyed with by Facebook parent Meta and is being used as a test for the educational space.

“The metaverse is a world that is accessible to students and teachers across the globe that allows shared interactions without boundaries in a respectful optimistic way,” Simran Mulchandani, founder of education app Project Rangeet, said at Tuesday’s event.

Panelists stated that as the metaverse and education meet, researchers, educators, policymakers and digital designers should take the lead, so tech platforms do not dictate educational opportunities.

“We have to build classrooms first, not tech first,” said Mulchandani.

Rebecca Kantar, the head of education at Roblox – a video game platform that allows players to program games – added that as the metaverse is still emerging and being constructed, “we can be humble in our attempt to find the highest and best way to bring the metaverse” into the classroom for the best education for the future.

Anant Agarwal, a professor at MIT and chief open education officer for online learning platform edX, stated the technology of the metaverse has the potential to make “quality and deep education accessible to everybody everywhere.”

Not a replacement for real social experiences

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, senior fellow of the global economy and development at the Center for Universal Education, said that while the metaverse brings potential to improve learning, it is not a complete replacement for the social experience a student has in the classroom.

“The metaverse can’t substitute for social interaction. It can supplement.”

Mulchandani noted the technology of the metaverse cannot replace the teacher, but rather can serve to solve challenges in the classroom.

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Digital Inclusion

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel Emphasizes 100 Percent Broadband Adoption

‘It’s about making sure wireless connections are available in 100 percent of rural America,’ said the chairwoman.

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Photo of Kelley Dunne, CEO of AmeriCrew, leading panel on workforce issues at the Rural Wireless Infrastructure Summit by Drew Clark

PARK CITY, Utah, June 28, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission is making progress towards bringing “affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to 100 percent of the country,” Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said at the Rural Wireless Infrastructure Summit here on Tuesday.

Rosenworcel pointed to the $65 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act now being deployed across the country, with a particular focus on unconnected rural and tribal areas.

Although the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration will take the lead with these funds, the FCC’s new broadband coverage maps will be important in implementing state digital equity plans.

In her remarks, Rosenworcel also discussed how the upcoming 2.5 GigaHertz spectrum auction will involve licensing spectrum primarily to rural areas.

At the July FCC open meeting, said Rosenworcel, the agency is scheduled to establish a new program to help enhance wireless competition. It is called the Enhanced Competition Incentive Program.

The program aims to build incentives for existing carriers to build opportunities for smaller carriers and tribal nations through leasing or partitioning spectrum. Existing carriers will be rewarded with longer license terms, extensions on build-out obligations, and more flexibility in construction requirements.

“It’s about making sure wireless connections are available in 100 percent of rural America,” she said.

She also indicated her commitment to work with Congress to fund the FCC’s “rip and replace” program to reimburse many rural operators’ transitions from Chinese-manufactured telecommunications equipment. She also touted the role that open radio access networks can plan in more secure telecommunications infrastructure.

In other news at the conference, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr addressed the role of funding broadband operations in rural America, the challenges of workforce training, and ensuring that rural carriers have access to high-cost universal service support.

In a session moderated by AmeriCrew CEO Kelley Dunne, panelists from the U.S. Labor Department, the Wireless Infrastructure Association and Texas A&M Extension Education Services addressed the need to offer a vocational career path for individuals for whom a four-year degree may not be the right choice. AmeriCrew helps U.S. military veterans obtain careers in building fiber, wireless and electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

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

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Broadband's Impact

Broadband Speeds Have Significant Impact on Economy, Research Director Says

From 2010 to 2020, a 10.9 percent growth in broadband penetration drove .04 percent increase in GDP, the study found.

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Photo of Alan Davidson of the NTIA, Caroline Kitchens of Shopify, Raul Katz of Columbia University (left to right)

WASHINGTON, June 28, 2022 – Broadband and higher speeds have made significant contributions to economic growth over the last decade, according to a study discussed at a Network On conference Tuesday.

Raul Katz, director of business strategy research at Columbia University, conducted his research to determine where the United States economy would be if broadband had not evolved since 2010. He developed four models to explain the economic contribution of broadband, and all found support to suggest that broadband development has contributed to substantial economic growth.

The long-run economic growth model showed that between 2010 and 2020, a 10.9 percent growth in broadband penetration drove a .04 percent increase in gross domestic product – the measure of the value of goods and services produced in the nation. States with higher speed broadband had an economic impact of an additional 11.5 percent.

“States with higher speeds of broadband have a higher economic effect,” said Katz. “Not only is there penetration as a driver, but there’s also… return to speed. At faster speeds, the economy tends to be more efficient.”

The study found that if broadband adoption and speed had remained unchanged since 2010, the 2020 GDP would have been 6.27 percent lower, said Katz.

Caroline Kitchens, a representative for ecommerce platform Shopify, said Tuesday that there’s been great growth in the ecommerce business, which relies entirely on a broadband connection. “Worldwide, Shopify merchants create 3.5 million jobs and have an economic impact of more than $307 billion. It goes without saying that none of this is possible without broadband access.”

“We have really seen firsthand how broadband access promotes entrepreneurship,” said Kitchens, indicating that this has promoted a growing economy in over 100 countries.

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