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Broadband's Impact

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

Drew Clark

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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

Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney at The CommLaw Group. He has closely tracked the trends in and mechanics of digital infrastructure for 20 years, and has helped fiber-based and fixed wireless providers navigate coverage, identify markets, broker infrastructure, and operate in the public right of way. The articles and posts on Broadband Breakfast and affiliated social media, including the BroadbandCensus Twitter feed, are not legal advice or legal services, do not constitute the creation of an attorney-client privilege, and represent the views of their respective authors.

Broadband's Impact

FCC to Vote On Emergency Broadband Benefit Policies By Mid-May: Rosenworcel

The agency is expected to vote on policies for the $3.2B program by mid-May to ensure proper implementation, chairwoman says.

Derek Shumway

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April 14, 2021 – Jessica Rosenworcel, the chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission, said Tuesday the agency will be voting by mid-May on policies to deliver the $3.2-billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which has received over 9,000 interested institutions through its portal.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit program is part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 that passed Congress in December 2020, which provides up to $50 in a monthly internet discount for families and $75 for tribal lands to access broadband internet.

It’s “the nation’s largest ever broadband affordability program,” Rosenworcel said Tuesday on a virtual panel hosted by Allvanza, an advocacy group for Latinxs and underserved communities within the technology, telecommunications and innovation industries; the Multicultural Media Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC); and the Asian Pacific American Advocate group (OCA).

It’s “designed to make sure we get every household in this country connected to high-speed Internet service because this pandemic has proven like nothing before,” she added.

The FCC made a sign-up portal on its website to determine interest in the program, and over 9,000 institutions have signed up to date, Rosenworcel said, adding she hopes the policies for the EBB can address the homework gap by extending internet subsidies normally reserved for schools and libraries to households.

Evelyn Remaley, acting assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information and acting National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Administrator, said minority-aimed broadband initiatives have done great work in bringing together providers and companies with minority-serving institutions.

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Digital Inclusion

Virt Seeks To Serve As The Hub To Find And Join Virtual Events

Launched last week, virt.com hopes to take advantage of the rise in virtual events by crowdsourcing them in one place.

Tim White

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Photo of GHS co-founder Victor Zonana, left, from Global Health New Zealand

April 13, 2021 – Global Health Strategies, the global advocacy group focused on health and policy, last week launched Virt.com, a new open-source media platform that crowdsources virtual events on various issues.

Those “issue channels” include health, Covid-19, climate and environment, gender, food and nutrition and human rights. It relies on users in different regions posting about upcoming events in those categories.

The launch last week coincided with a new ad campaign called Unmutetheworld, focused on digital equity around the world with the belief that internet access is a human right. It includes partnering with groups like National Digital Inclusion Alliance and grassroots organizations in many different countries.

“The pandemic has transformed our lives. The way we connect, the way we celebrate, the way we mourn, the way we work, access healthcare and learn, has changed,” GHS CEO David Gold said in an interview. “Broadband allows us to connect virtually even during the pandemic, but so many people don’t have access to the internet, they cannot connect, and we have to change that,” he said.

Gold described Virt as a way to connect people globally to meaningful conversations about health, science, policy, technology, among other topics. “We have a window of opportunity right now with the pandemic to really change. Despite all the terrible effects of COVID-19, we have this moment in time to make the case for big investments,” he said.

Gold highlighted the work of GHS and the Unmutetheworld campaign to connect people across different nations. “Broadband access comes to the heart of economic development, we have to take that momentum in the U.S. and expand it around the world,” he said.

Broadband is becoming increasingly more important, with more people working, schooling, or using health services virtually than ever before due to the pandemic.

Broadband central to digital activities

“Broadband used to be a ‘nice to have,’ now it is a ‘must have,’” Angela Siefer, executive director at NDIA, said in an interview. “Twenty years ago, we were worried about having enough computers in a classroom and lucky that one of them connected to the internet, but that has changed now, and we need to keep up with the technology. It permeates our whole lives,” she said.

President Joe Biden recently announced a new $2.3-trillion infrastructure proposal called the American Jobs Plan, which includes $100 billion for broadband programs over eight years. Congress has also recently introduced legislation on broadband initiatives, including $100 billion as part of the Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s America Act, or LIFT America Act, sponsored by the Democratic delegation on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“We are excited about the potential of these government initiatives, not just for funding deployment, but also to address affordability, digital literacy skills and devices,” Siefer said. “We’ve never had this much awareness about broadband issues. We’re seeing real ideas being put into action.”

Siefer also mentioned state-level efforts to expand broadband, including recent legislation in New York and Maryland. Maryland plans to spend $300 million of federal funding from the American Rescue Plan on broadband programs, including infrastructure, subsidies for fees and devices, and grants for municipal broadband. New York state recently announced the 2022 fiscal year budget including a $300 billion infrastructure package that contains broadband subsidies for low-income residents and an emergency fund to provide economically-disadvantaged students with free internet access.

“We’re seeing a shift to address adoption and affordability at both the state and federal level, where previously we only saw discussion of availability,” Siefer said. “It’s not just about unserved and underserved areas when it comes to digital equity, because the infrastructure might be there, but people are not participating in broadband for a variety of reasons,” she said. “Affordability and digital literacy lock people out. New programs aim to solve that problem and get people connected.”

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Education

Libraries Must Be Vigilant To Ensure Adequate Broadband, Consultants Say

Derek Shumway

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Photo of Stephanie Stenberg via Internet2

April 7, 2021 – Libraries should monitor their broadband speeds and ensure they are getting quality connections, according to library consultants.

Carson Block from Carson Block Consulting and Stephanie Stenberg of the Internet2 Community Anchor program told a virtual conference hosted by the American Library Association on Tuesday that it’s time libraries take a closer look at how they are getting broadband and if they are getting the speeds they are paying for. If not, they said they should re-negotiate.

Block and Stenberg shared details about the “Towards Gigabit Libraries” (TGL) toolkit, a free, self-service guide for rural and tribal libraries to better understand and improve their broadband. The new toolkit helps libraries prepare for E-Rate internet subsidy requests to aid their budget cycles.

It also has tips about communicating effectively between library and tech people since there is a gap in knowledge between those two groups. The TGL is supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and Gigabit Libraries and Beyond (GLG) to improve the toolkit and expand throughout the United States. In addition to focusing on rural and tribal libraries, now urban libraries will be included for support.

During the event, a live poll showed all participating attendees said they “very infrequently” had technical IT support available in their home libraries. Stenberg said this confirmed TGL’s findings that libraries need more tech and IT support, as the majority of respondents in previous surveys gave similar concerning results.

To really emphasize the need for adequate broadband and support at libraries, another question was asked to live attendees about their current level of expertise around procuring and delivering access to broadband as a service in their library, assuming that the majority of attendees worked for libraries. All participants said they possess “no experience” trying to get broadband in the library.

Common issues that are to blame include libraries with insufficient bandwidth, data wiring or poorly set-up networks. Old and obsolete equipment also contributed to bad Wi-Fi coverage.

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