For nearly a century, the United States Department of Agriculture has played a central, if understated, role in connecting this country to the pitfalls of modernity. Its commitment to universal service began in 1936 with the passage of the Rural Electrification Act, which created the Rural Electrification Administration, a new agency responsible for connecting rural communities and farms to electricity.
The REA was enormously successful, increasing rural electrification from 33% in 1940 to 96% in 1956. The REA was eventually incorporated into the USDA, and in 1949 was given the additional responsibility of rural telephony. Through its proven model that involved building local cooperatives and advocating for localities, REA connected rural communities at a staggering rate.
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REA’s successor, the Rural Utilities Service, a division of the USDA, continues the trend of rural connectivity through its broadband and telecommunications programs. Technology aside, the difference between then and now is that, unlike its leading role in rural electricity and telephony, it has taken a step back in rural broadband policy and planning. rural.
Most broadband planning and policy-making is done, for better or worse, by the Federal Communications Commission (and, with the passing of the Infrastructure Act, by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration as well, but that all seems to have changed with its October 2021 Notice of Funding Availability.
Significant USDA Changes to ReConnect
The USDA has championed rural broadband deployment since the mid-1990s and continues to provide crucial loans and grants through four different telecommunications programs totaling approximately $1.4 billion in investment. The most recent and arguably most successful broadband program is ReConnect, which began in 2018 with a congressional appropriation of $600 million. Through the Infrastructure Act, ReConnect received an additional $2 billion. So far, ReConnect has distributed $1.5 billion in loans and grants for rural broadband expansion.
This is ReConnect’s third and most recent funding notice, where the USDA has flexed its broadband decision-making muscles. Here, the USDA has made three crucial policy adjustments to the current standards currently set by the FCC.
First, it defined an eligible area as any location without 100 Mbps download/20 Mbps upload connectivity. This is a massive improvement over the FCC’s speed definition of broadband at 25/3 and thus significantly increases the number of eligible communities.
Second, it requires that networks receiving funding be able to meet or exceed 100 Mbps download/100 Mbps upload speeds on day one. This, by definition, rules out previously ubiquitous technologies like DSL and geosynchronous satellite which have both proven unable to deliver the speeds required by contemporary users.
Third, it prioritizes local governments, nonprofits, cooperatives, and public-private partnerships. This differs from the FCC, which has traditionally favored larger incumbents, and differs from the Infrastructure Act which simply states that these entities cannot be discriminated against.
The USDA single-handedly tried to reshape broadband policy, expanding eligibility, forcing grant and loan recipients to upgrade their networks, and championing a local-first solution to the divide. rural-urban digital.
New Changes Made by the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022
Unfortunately, this attempt may not last long. In the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022, passed on March 15, 2022, Congress reversed the USDA ReConnect criteria in three crucial ways. First, it reinstated the download threshold of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) x 3 Mbps upload, instead of the previously proposed 100 Mbps x 20 Mbps threshold.
Second, it lowered the requirement from 100 x 100 on day one to 100 x 20. Even that is subject to an “as far as practicable” clause. Third, and as Kevin Taglang of the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society first reported, the congressional explanatory statement that accompanied the law chastised the USDA for not acting in a technologically neutral manner. :
- The deal fears the most recent funding announcement will dictate build speeds that aren’t technology-neutral and could inflate deployment and consumer access costs. Therefore, the law sets deployment speeds to ensure that all broadband technologies have equal access to the program. In addition, the agreement encourages the Secretary to eliminate or revise the awarding of additional points under the ReConnect program to applicants from states without restrictions on the provision of broadband by utility providers to ensure that this criterion is not a determining factor for subsidies.
The Consolidated Appropriations Act is therefore a mixed bag for the USDA. While providing an additional $436 million for the ReConnect program, Congress lowered the speed threshold, thereby reducing eligible communities and thus enabling, once again, the deployment of technologies that cannot be the height of the needs and demands of contemporary users. Additionally, the last sentence of the excerpt above undermines the localism boost of the USDA’s previous ReConnect announcement.
Words matter. Definitions matter. Technology matters. As I remember in my new rural broadband book Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity, Technological neutrality is crucial to federal policymaking, but that doesn’t mean the policy should be what the NRECA calls, “technologically blind.”
For what it’s worth, USDA’s ReConnect NOFA was indeed technology neutral – it did not advocate one technology over another, but rather set the speed thresholds at such a level that obsolete technologies are not eligible. The USDA should be applauded for its attempt to advance the broadband needle to help local and rural communities. As we await the NTIA’s rulemaking process for the $42.5 billion BEAD program, policymakers can learn valuable lessons from this federal department tasked with championing rural communities.
Christopher Ali is an Associate Professor in the Department of Media Studies at UVa and a Knight News Innovation Fellow at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. He is Chairman of the Communication Law and Policy Division of the International Communications Association and author of two books on localism in the media, “Media Localism: The Policies of Place” (University of Illinois Press, 2017) and “Local News in a Digital world.” This room is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.
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