Senators want to revamp ReConnect to target 'truly unserved areas'

A group of U.S. senators has proposed legislation to revamp the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Broadband ReConnect Program, aiming to simplify the application process and better target unserved rural areas.

The bipartisan bill, dubbed the Rural Internet Improvement Act, would merge and codify ReConnect with USDA’s traditional broadband loan and grant program, according to a release from the office of Senator John Thune. It would also ensure ReConnect funding is allocated to areas where at least 90% of households lack broadband access. The program currently has a dedicated funding category for areas where 90% of households lack sufficient service, but for all other categories the bar is currently set at 50%.

“Access to these broadband services is typically determined by where you live, which often leaves rural communities in the dust,” Thune said in a statement. “Our bipartisan legislation would help bridge the digital divide by improving USDA’s ReConnect Program to ensure its funding goes to truly unserved areas.”

Also backing the bill are Senators Amy Klobuchar and Deb Fischer. Klobuchar stated the legislation would allow for a “more convenient application process and more efficient deployment.”

Specifically, ReConnect grant and loan applicants would only be required to state which entity is applying and the geographic area they plan to serve. Additionally, the bill outlined applicants would have more flexibility in providing financial eligibility for their projects.

NCTA – The Internet and Television Association said it “applauded” the senators’ proposal to establish a revised ReConnect program.

“Most significantly, this bill would direct funding for network expansion to areas where at least 90 percent of households lack access to broadband, and it would encourage reliance on applicants with demonstrated experience constructing and operating broadband networks in order to promote network construction that is on budget and on time,” the trade group stated.

This isn’t the first time Congress has sought to improve ReConnect rules. In February, Thune along with Senators Tina Smith, Roger Wicker and Bob Casey proposed legislation to raise the program’s rural household requirement from 50% to 80%.

The new bill also stipulates that the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service, which oversees the ReConnect program, would work with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to create a public database containing information on areas eligible for broadband funding.

The FCC recently released the first draft of its broadband coverage map, taking a key step in bridging the digital divide. However, the USDA currently uses its own map for funding programs.

The proposed legislation added the USDA should collaborate with the FCC and NTIA to facilitate outreach to residents in rural areas, so that they are better informed about available federal broadband subsidies.

The USDA earlier this month wrapped up funding awards for ReConnect round four, distributing a total of $1.15 billion for rural broadband deployment. Round four applicants had to provide proof they could supply broadband speeds of at least 100 Mbps downstream and 20 Mbps upstream – what the USDA classifies as “sufficient access” to broadband.