February 26, 2020

Wyden, Colleagues Push USDA to Expand Rural Broadband Access

Arbitrary limits to USDA rural broadband program eligibility will cost rural communities critical federal funding

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., today led a bipartisan group of senators to urge the Trump administration to expand access to rural broadband by changing a requirement that prevents providers in rural communities across 19 states from even applying to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) ReConnect program, which funds rural broadband deployment.

Since 2018, USDA has been authorized to make grants and loans of about $600 million per year to foster rural broadband through its ReConnect program. Currently, service providers cannot apply for USDA ReConnect grants and 50/50 loan-grant combinations for areas that have already received Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Connect America Fund Phase II grants, even if only a satellite provider received funding for that area. The legislation that authorized the ReConnect program does not mandate such an exclusion.

In a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, the senators urge him to use his authority to broaden ReConnect eligibility.

“USDA can, and should, fix this. USDA is neither statutorily required to eliminate FCC grant recipients from ReConnect eligibility, nor does it consider satellite service as sufficient broadband service for the purposes of awarding ReConnect funding.” The senators continued, “[t]o rectify this inequity and further USDA’s stated goal of expanding broadband access for all Americans, we urge you to act to allow service providers to submit applications for ReConnect funds if the area has only received FCC auction funding for satellite service, but would otherwise be eligible.”

As the senators highlighted in today’s letter, USDA considers satellite coverage insufficient for the needs of rural communities. Satellite service has much lower bandwidth caps, reliability and network speeds than fiber and fixed wireless services. This makes satellite service ill-suited for the telemedicine, mental health services and interactive distance learning applications that help rural communities thrive.

Joining Wyden on this letter to USDA Secretary Perdue are U.S. Sens. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Patty Murray, D-Wash., Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., Doug Jones, D-Ala., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Angus King, I-Maine.

A digital copy of the letter is available here.