USDA Needs Greater Flexibility in Deployment of Broadband Authority, Says RUS Administrator Andy Berke

Director of RUS called for more flexibility in how it administers federal funds.

USDA Needs Greater Flexibility in Deployment of Broadband Authority, Says RUS Administrator Andy Berke
Photo of Hilda Legg, former RUS administrator, and current Administrator Andy Berke

HOUSTON, May 2, 2023 – Rural Utilities Service Administrator Andy Berke called for greater flexibility in how it administers federal funds, speaking at the Broadband Communities Summit here Tuesday.

If Congress doesn’t provide additional flexibility for the U.S. Department of Agriculture agency, RUS might be stuck with out-of-date processes that hinder the success of its programs Berke said in an address here.

Berke compared RUS with the National Telecommunication and Information Administration’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program under the bipartisan infrastructure law. BEAD provides greater flexibility to its awardees – the states – to determine for themselves which infrastructure model and technology caters best to their community’s needs.

The RUS is responsible for the administration of the ReConnect program. ReConnect offers grants, loans, and loan-grant combinations for broadband infrastructure that connects rural addresses to high-speed internet. Applicants may use appropriated money to fund construction or improvement of facilities required to provided fixed terrestrial service, fund reasonable pre-application expenses, and fund the acquisition of an existing system that does not provide sufficient broadband access.

The ReConnect program began in 2018 and is now in the process of reviewing applications for the fourth round of funding. According to the RUS, the program received 305 applications requesting a total of $4.8 billion in grants, a multiple of the amount available of $1.1 billion.

The USDA and other are awaiting the fate of the 2023 Farm Bill, which would provide the agency with its authority from Congress to administer its broadband programs.

The RUS is “determined” to meet the President’s pledge of connecting “every American” to high-speed internet, claimed Berke. High-speed connection is no longer a luxury, but a utility, he said.

Hilda Legg, former RUS director, urged rural Americans to “stand up and say what they want.” She argued that rural Americans should request that their representatives lobby for the flexibility that the RUS needs to successfully deploy the life-altering ReConnect program.

All the same, Brandon McBride, previous administrator of RUS, said that rural Americans need to remain patient as they wait for greater policy flexibility

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