Three associations representing broadband providers and suppliers are asking legislators to specify a minimum 100 Mbps symmetrical broadband speed for the ReConnect rural broadband funding program in the 2023 Farm Bill.
The associations are the Fiber Broadband Association, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. The associations were among 16 entities that signed a letter to key members of the House and Senate agricultural committees urging the minimum speed standard.
Other rural broadband stakeholders signing the letter included CoBank, the National Rural Health Association, The National Rural Economic Developers Association, the Rural Telephone Finance Cooperative and others.
The letter went to key members of the Senate and House agriculture committees.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect program covers some of the costs of deploying broadband to rural areas. The letter notes that applications outpaced supply in all three rounds, including the third, in which 100 Mbps symmetrical service was required. More than $3.1 billion has been invested in the first three rounds of the program, the letter notes.
“The overwhelming demand for ReConnect funding even as applicants have been expected to perform at high levels proves that setting a high standard for network and service capabilities does not deter applicants whatsoever, but rather demonstrates a surplus of interest by providers willing and able to deliver better broadband in rural America that will rival what is available to urban users,” the letter reads.
The letter points out that setting lower speed floors would be “short-term solutions that are likely to be quickly outpaced by technological evolution and consumer demands and require substantial re-investment relatively soon thereafter.”
The organizations’ position that the program’s popularity was not dimmed by higher speed requirement was validated by Andy Berke, the administration of the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service who said in a webcast last November that the third round of the program received three times as many applications as opportunities for funding.
The Fiber Broadband Association and the NTCA released statements backing the higher standard.
“The third round of ReConnect has proven that there is a surplus of providers interested and able to deliver better broadband services to rural America,” Fiber Broadband Association President and CEO Gary Bolton. “Our hope in raising the minimum standard is to ensure that every American to benefit from the Farm Bill will have access to high-quality, high-speed fiber broadband.”
His view was echoed by NTCA Chief Executive Officer Shirley Bloomfield. “NTCA has consistently urged longer-term perspectives rather than short-term incremental views of what represent efficient investments given the evolving level of services that consumers will need over time. Today we join our partners in rural development, education and communications in encouraging Congress to serve the interests of rural communities by codifying in the Farm Bill a minimum service level commitment of 100 Mbps symmetrical broadband service–a minimum level of service for which there has already been substantial demand in prior broadband funding rounds.”
Round 4 – which will consist of $150 million in loans, $700 million in grants and $300 million in grant/loan combinations – opened on September 6, 2022 and closed on November 2.
Last October, 24 states, Puerto Rico, Guam and Palau received $759 million.