A bipartisan group of policymakers recently introduced a House bill that aims to eliminate duplicative broadband programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The Rural Internet Improvement Act of 2023 – introduced by Reps. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., Darren Soto, D-Fla., Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, D-Wash. – calls for the merging and codifying of USDA’s popular Rural e-Connectivity Pilot Program (ReConnect) with the agency’s broadband loan and grant program.
Reliable high-speed broadband services are necessary for America’s rural communities, providing opportunities for telehealth, education, and economic development, the May 11 press release says. There are more than 14.5 million Americans who still lack access to both fixed and mobile broadband.
“Access to reliable high-speed broadband services is no longer a luxury, but a necessity, especially for our rural communities,” Rep. Darren Soto said in a statement. “The Rural Internet Improvement Act seeks to bridge the digital divide by streamlining USDA broadband authorities, focusing on truly unserved communities, and ensuring program accountability and transparency.”
In addition to streamlining the USDA’s broadband authorities, the Rural Internet Improvement Act of 2023 would:
- Ensure ReConnect funding is going to areas most in need of reliable broadband service;
- Enhance the participation of all types of broadband providers in the ReConnect Program;
- Increase transparency by improving the challenge process in the ReConnect Program;
- Improve the coordination between USDA and the Federal Communications Commission on broadband programs; and
- Require USDA to enter into a memorandum of understanding with the FCC and National Telecommunications and Information Administration to facilitate outreach to rural residents and businesses of available Federal programs that promote broadband.
A group of bipartisan senators – Sens. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., John Thune, R-S.D., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Deb Fischer, R-Neb. – reintroduced a companion bill in the Senate earlier this year.
“Access to [broadband services] is typically determined by where you live, which often leaves rural communities in a less advantageous position than their urban counterparts,” Sen. Thune said when the Rural Internet Improvement Act was reintroduced in the Senate on Jan. 30. “Our bipartisan legislation would help bridge the digital divide by improving USDA’s ReConnect Program to ensure its funding goes to truly unserved areas.”
The House bill comes just one day after lawmakers and Federal agency heads called for a National Broadband Strategy from the White House, noting that numerous broadband programs can be helpful to address a multifaceted issue like broadband access, but fragmentation can also mean that programs overlap and lead to the risk of duplicative support.