Senators aim to refine rules for $2B ReConnect program to better target rural areas

Four U.S. Senators sought to amend the recently passed infrastructure bill to ensure funding from the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) ReConnect program aids only the most rural areas of the country. The proposal would also compel federal agencies to more closely cooperate to see to it that support doesn’t fund overbuilds in areas which already have broadband access.

Passed in November 2021, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocated $2 billion in funding to the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service, which runs the ReConnect program. The law currently requires that at least half of the households served by a project funded by a ReConnect loan or grant must be in a rural area and lack access to internet speeds of 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream.

However, a bill introduced by Senators John Thune, Tina Smith, Roger Wicker and Bob Casey aims to raise the rural household requirement from 50% to 80%.

“We need to focus this critical funding on truly unserved areas to ensure that the program is as effective as possible,” Smith said in a statement. “Broadband is the infrastructure of the 21st Century – it isn’t just nice, it’s necessary if we’re going to build an economy that works for everyone.”

RELATED: USDA dishes out $1.2B for broadband in third round of ReConnect funding

The measure would also amend the earlier Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 to add the Treasury Department to the list of agencies required to coordinate on the distribution of broadband funding. That list currently only includes the USDA, Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Senator Wicker expressed concern about the potential for overbuilding fueled by federal funding, stating “we have seen this play out before.” The proposed legislation would help alleviate that concern and “make meaningful strides toward closing the digital divide,” he stated.

NCTA - The Internet & Television Association said it “strongly” supports the bill, deeming it “important legislation to improve the efficiency of government broadband programs.”

In order to become law, the measure must be approved by both the Senate and House of Representatives, and be signed by President Joe Biden. Its chances of passage are unclear.