Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) announced more than $1 billion in funding to promote meaningful broadband access in rural, Tribal, and socially vulnerable communities. This program has the potential to deliver robust, affordable broadband to rural and Tribal communities that is essential to their civic, economic, and educational livelihoods. The program will offer eligible recipients a mix of grants, grants and loans combined, and just loans to deploy truly robust broadband networks (capable of 100/100 Mbps upload/download broadband speeds) to eligible communities. Much of what is in the ReConnect program is consistent with Public Knowledge’s advocacy on the infrastructure bill pending before Congress, so we are excited to see the USDA’s RUS step up to deliver meaningful broadband access to rural and tribal communities.
What do we love about this program? There is a lot to love here. Specifically, in order to ensure that our most vulnerable communities, including Tribal areas, are able to benefit from this opportunity, the RUS has set aside $350 million in grant funding for Tribal governments and “socially vulnerable communities” to build 100/100 Mbps networks to their communities. This will ensure their communities have not only the ability to access robust broadband today, but will have the ability to morph those networks over time as speed and demands shift – these are the future-proof networks Public Knowledge called for in the infrastructure package.
Additionally, by providing these funding grants without a requirement that the eligible entity commit a percentage of matching funds, these communities that are oftentimes challenged to secure collateral to invest in broadband networks will have an opportunity to access funding. That is not to say there are not controls over the grant funding; in fact, only projects that USDA determines to be financially feasible and sustainable will be eligible for an award.
Moreover, Public Knowledge is very excited about the evaluation criteria that will be used to award funding. Projects will be ranked and awarded funding based on criteria that includes points for addressing affordability (20 points), serving higher poverty areas (20 points), committing to net neutrality (10 points), and offering wholesale broadband service (10 points). These criteria, if utilized by applicants, will promote affordable broadband, expand consumer access to the content of their choosing, and inject competition into a highly-concentrated market. Those will all bring benefits to consumers in rural and Tribal areas.
Finally, the USDA has released an interactive mapping tool that allows applicants to draw the boundaries of the areas they seek to serve and through the use of datasets understand how that defined area scores in terms of economic need, rurality, and social vulnerability. The data included in the map is rich with detail and is the type of tool that should be scaled as part of other mapping efforts underway at the Federal Communications Commission.
Other funding sources are made available under the re-imagined ReConnect program that will mix grants and loans (or simply loans) with matching funds requirements to promote broadband access in rural and Tribal areas, and they are equally important sources of funding to help solve the digital divide. We encourage local leaders, entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and others in these communities to explore what these funding sources have to offer your community as you seek to overcome the challenge that a lack of broadband presents.
In the last administration much was made about serving rural areas. The goal they set was at least 25/3 Mbps upload/download speeds everywhere – a goal that even at the time was outdated. Under this administration, concrete steps are being taken to get the robust, future-proof networks into our rural and Tribal communities so they have a critical tool to promote civic, economic, and educational opportunities that will help them sustain and grow well into the future.