USDA Admin Berke talks broadband demand, Farm Bill, ReConnect

Though it might seem a bit counterintuitive, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) actually has a major hand in broadband matters. The agency's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) is responsible for overseeing a number of rural broadband funding programs, including the well-known multi-billion-dollar ReConnect loan and grant initiative. 

Andrew Berke has only recently taken the reigns as RUS Administrator, having been appointed by President Biden in October 2022. That means he's now in charge at a critical juncture for rural connectivity, as billions in federal funding from other broadband programs like the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program flows into the industry. Fierce spoke with Berke to get a better handle on how the USDA came to be involved in broadband, how its programs are unique, what kind of broadband demand its seeing in rural America and what the forthcoming Farm Bill update could mean for its programs.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Fierce Telecom (FT): Can you provide an overview of broadband funding mechanisms available through the USDA?  How did USDA end up with broadband programs under its purview?

Andrew Berke (AB): The Rural Utilities Services, or RUS, dates back almost one hundred years to the 1930s. As a part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, he created the Rural Electrification Administration, or REA, under the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935. The goal was to bring electricity to rural America. In 1949, REA added the Telecom Program with the original mission of providing telephone service to rural America. That mission has since broadened to include high-speed internet. The newly created Rural Utilities Service assumed REA functions in 1994. Today, Rural Utilities Service is a leading champion of rural people’s visions for their communities: we help increase access to high-speed internet, ensure water in rural communities is safe to use and drink, and keep electricity affordable in rural America.

Modern and reliable infrastructure is a cornerstone for economic growth and quality of life in every small town. For too long, the digital divide has left too many people living in rural communities on the outside looking in. Our goal is to work through any challenges to ensure all Americans have access to reliable, affordable and high-speed internet to learn, work and participate in the 21st century economy. Under the leadership of President Biden, Vice President Harris and Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, USDA is committed to fulfilling that promise for rural Americans.

With this goal in mind, Rural Development has a variety of programs to help finance high-speed internet access in rural areas. Our telecom programs include the ReConnect Program, Community Connect Grants, Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grants, Rural Broadband Loans, Loan/Grant Combinations and Loan Guarantees, and the Telecommunications Infrastructure Loans and Loan Guarantee Program.

FT: Which broadband program is the largest? How are your programs different from those offered through the FCC and NTIA? Do any of your programs address affordability or just infrastructure?

AB: Currently, our largest program with the highest demand is the ReConnect Program. Since 2019 we have awarded over $3 billion in grants, loans, and loan-grant combinations under the ReConnect Program. USDA expects to award over $1.5 billion under this program in FY 2023. 

All of USDA’s broadband programs focus on capital infrastructure projects which deliver last mile broadband service specifically to rural America. USDA is committed to ensuring that the rich tapestry of people living in rural areas have every opportunity to succeed – and that they can find those opportunities right at home in rural America.

Equity is a key component of the Administration’s priorities and RD remains committed to making high-speed internet both accessible and affordable in rural America. In our latest funding round for the ReConnect Program, we require awardees to participate in the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program which helps households afford broadband service they need for work, school, healthcare, civic engagement, and economic opportunity. Additionally, as part of the scoring process under ReConnect, one of the scoring criteria provides points to applicants who agree to offer at least one low-cost option at speeds that are sufficient for a household with multiple users to simultaneously telework and engage in remote learning.

FT: Can you comment on the level of demand you’ve seen for broadband funding through your programs? Where does USDA see a particular need for more funding or support?

AB: More than ever, rural people need high-speed internet connections to work, to educate their children, and to access to health care. The ReConnect Program has been continuously oversubscribed since its inception, with far more applicants than funding we have available. This points to just how much people in rural communities need this type of assistance. While there’s quite a bit more work to be done, we should be proud of the progress we’ve made. In 2022, USDA partnered to increase internet access for 109,000 households, 5,900 businesses, 14,520 farms, 396 educational facilities, 435 essential community facilities and 51 health care facilities in rural places.

FT: How much broadband funding remains available (i.e. not yet allocated) through USDA programs?

AB: Thanks to President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, USDA is bringing affordable, high-speed internet to everyone in rural America. This historic legislation included a $65 billion investment ($2 billion for ReConnect) to ensure Americans can access affordable, reliable high-speed internet. Through the ReConnect Program, USDA has made significant investments that have helped rural Americans get access to affordable, high-speed internet. This is just the beginning of this effort – we have a long way to go.

We’re excited to continue announcing awards in the coming year that will connect more rural people to high-speed internet. USDA Rural Development is currently reviewing applications for Round 4 of the ReConnect Program and expect to announce awards in Summer 2023. We are also expecting to open another application window for the Community Connect Program in Spring of this year. We expect to announce these awards this Fall.

FT: What’s USDA’s stance on the use of fiber/cable vs fixed wireless to connect communities?

AB: The predominant number of applicants to our programs are utilizing fiber to provide high-speed internet service, but USDA RD is technology neutral. We only require that the project meets the minimum broadband buildout speeds required in the funding notice.

FT: Do you have any expectations about funding authorizations in the 2023 Farm Bill? What would happen to the USDA broadband programs if new funding is not authorized through the Farm Bill?

AB: The Farm Bill presents a critical opportunity to advance a new vision for locally-led rural development – one that empowers rural communities, farms and ranches with the technical assistance and tools necessary to thrive. USDA looks forward to working with a bipartisan group in Congress, partners, stakeholders and the public to identify shared priorities for the 2023 Farm Bill and to ensure that the programs USDA implements will best serve all people.

In the meantime, we’re hard at work, making our programs easy to access for people of all backgrounds and experiences. We’re reviewing our application processes to make them faster and easier to navigate. We’re making it easier for people to reach our staff, and we’re increasing the number of staff members in the field, giving us more flexibility and capacity.

As we work with Congress to identify priorities for the 2023 Farm Bill, it is through this shared work that USDA can best deliver its mission to serve all people across America by providing effective, innovative, science-based public policy leadership in rural development.