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ReConnect Formalization?

House Ag Leaders Eye Broadband Adds to 2023 Farm Bill, Amid IIJA Criticisms

House Agriculture Committee leaders eyed how to address broadband issues in the 2023 farm bill during a Thursday hearing, with panel ranking member Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., and some others noting dissatisfaction with the degree to which the $65 billion in connectivity money included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would affect rural areas. “Rural broadband will continue to be a major focus” for House Agriculture despite House passage of IIJA’s connectivity money instead of the panel-approved Broadband Internet Connections for Rural America Act (HR-4374), which included $43 billion to Rural Utilities Service programs for FY 2022-29 (see 2107140061), said panel Chairman David Scott, D-Ga.

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We must understand” how NTIA, the FCC and Agriculture Department “plan to communicate and collaborate to effectively reach our shared goal of 100% nationwide coverage, which is why we established procedures for interagency coordination” among those agencies in the 2018 farm bill (see 1812200067), Scott said: “We must continue to engage with each other to ensure effective coordination, evaluate the agencies’ responses, and address any barriers that may exist” in the 2023 farm bill. Rep. Ann Kuster, D-N.H., who’s also a House Commerce Committee member, said she hopes to “further enhance USDA’s broadband programs” via the 2023 bill.

I remain disappointed that USDA was largely excluded from playing its essential role” via IIJA “in bringing broadband and its unparalleled understanding and reach into rural communities,” Thompson said: “It is the best situated agency to help rural providers serve their communities. Yet, my colleagues in the Senate made a different choice, choosing instead to create a new series of programs. So, in addition to focusing on coordination, we must also ensure these new programs are accessible, efficient, and effective for rural service providers. As these new agencies wade into the difficult work of bridging the digital divide, it is critical they focus on the unique needs of rural communities.”

Thompson said he's “disappointed” representatives from the FCC or NTIA “declined our invitation to testify today. Their absence is noted and illustrates their indifference toward the needs of rural Americans.” The FCC and NTIA didn’t comment. Thompson later told Undersecretary for Rural Development Xochitl Torres Small he’s “appreciative” that she will be involved in coordinating with the FCC and NTIA on broadband spending because “I believe the FCC needs adult supervision and needs supervision of people that understand rural America” given past “egregious errors” in its broadband maps. FCC opened its bulk map challenge process for state, local and tribal governments and ISPs Monday (see 2209020041).

The only way we reach” unserved areas of the U.S. with broadband via IIJA “is if we coordinate,” Torres Small said. “It is hard. There are silos. People are used to working within their agencies.” IIJA’s coordination requirements mean the agencies are now “learning from each other” and “learning how to reach different people” who were used to working only with only one entity, she said: “One of the hard parts is timing, making sure that our programs and the timing for our windows for application is aligned with timing for other programs. It’s going to become even more of a challenge when we are working with the states,” which is why proactive coordination with state governments has become important.

There are some differences” in the mapping practices for the FCC, NTIA and USDA, but those maps are “getting better with each iteration,” Torres Small told Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif.: “When I was in Congress,” past use of large census tracts in the maps for rural areas was “the bane of my existence” and “is not an accurate area of measurement for whether or not you have high-speed internet.” That “is changing” and improved coordination is also helping the situation, she said.

Congress should consider” as part of the 2023 farm bill “whether it intends to formalize” the USDA ReConnect program originally piloted in the FY 2018 omnibus federal spending bill (see 1803230038) “and if so, consider the program’s current role in conjunction with available funds at other federal agencies,” said USTelecom Vice President-Strategic Initiatives and Partnerships Lynn Follansbee: The Rural Utilities Service should create “clearer processes” for ReConnect to improve transparency.

Stearns County, Minnesota, Commissioner Tarryl Clark urged lawmakers to streamline “application processes” for broadband programs via the 2023 farm bill and ensure federal programs “encourage broadband deployment projects that offer technological solutions that best fit a community’s needs, while also prioritizing projects that promise the most reliable and high-speed service.”

House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee member Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., meanwhile, urged NTIA to “reconsider” its requirement that participants in the IIJA-funded broadband equity, access and deployment (BEAD) and middle-mile programs “must obtain a standby irrevocable” letter of credit from a bank that equals 25% of the grant amount.” That requirement “contravenes the IIJA because it prevents ‘the distribut[ion of] the funds in an equitable and nondiscriminatory manner’ to all broadband providers, both big and small,” Harris said in a letter to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo we obtained Thursday: The rule “will deter NTIA and State broadband offices from selecting the best providers to deliver broadband to unserved and underserved households.”