President Biden signed an extension to the Farm Bill on Thursday as part of a new appropriations package aimed at averting a government shutdown.
The bill that Biden signed is commonly referred to as stopgap funding because it extends funding for some government programs through January 19 and for others until February 4 of 2024.
Telecompetitor checked in with Leif Oveson, vice president of government affairs for NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association, and Eric Keber, vice president of government affairs for WTA—Advocates for Rural Broadband this morning about the bill.
As they explained, the bill authorizes USDA to continue to operate broadband programs included in the 2018 Farm Bill through September 2024. But despite some news reports stating that the Farm Bill broadband programs were funded through September, those programs are only funded through January 19, Oveson and Keber said.
Stakeholders are hoping that Congress will pass additional legislation to further extend government funding, pending resolution of issues involving other federal programs.
USDA Broadband Program Funding
Oveson and Keber confirmed with Telecompetitor that key broadband deployment programs in the current Farm Bill are the Broadband Loan and Grant Program, the Community Connect Program and the Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program.
According to WTA, those programs are slated to get the same level of funding specified in the current Farm Bill, which, on an annual basis, is:
- $3 million for the Broadband Loan and Grant Program
- $35 million for Community Connect
- $70 million for the Distance Learning & Telemedicine Program
The ReConnect Program, also administered by USDA, is not part of the Farm Bill, but is temporarily funded through January 19 at the current level of approximately $379 million on an annual basis, Keber said. That program makes grants, loans and grant/loan combinations to cover some of the costs of rural broadband deployments.
Farm Bill Wish List
Both NTCA and WTA would like to see the ReConnect program moved into the Farm Bill when the bill is updated. Because Farm Bills are normally updated every five years, this would eliminate the need to reauthorize ReConnect funding every year.
“We want to get ReConnect properly authorized so it’s a longer-term program, rather than relying on appropriations each year,” said Keber. He added that WTA wants to make sure that ReConnect rules require funding recipients to deploy service at speeds of at least 100 Mbps symmetrically in keeping with the rules that have been in place for the last two years.
NTCA has noted that it would not like to see ReConnect give preference to certain types of providers.
According to Oveson, stakeholders have until September 2024 to negotiate an updated Farm Bill.
It’s worth noting that, during the COVID pandemic, the ReConnect Program received extra funding beyond what was budgeted. The additional funding was included in legislation passed to help spur broadband deployments in unserved areas as COVID caused the nation to recognize the need to make broadband available nationwide.