Davis joins effort seeking prioritized broadband deployment in unserved rural areas

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) broadband programs must give priority to the truly unserved communities that most need connectivity, urged U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) and a bipartisan contingent of lawmakers in a March 29 letter sent to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.

“We write today to ask you to ensure that the Rural Utilities Service’s (RUS) Rural eConnectivity (ReConnect) Pilot Program remains focused on the urgent task of connecting unserved rural Americans and closing the digital divide,” the members wrote. “For years, rural communities had been left behind because they are simply too remote and too uneconomic to serve without the assistance of targeted broadband subsidies.”

Among the 27 lawmakers who joined Rep. Davis in signing the letter were U.S. Reps. Dusty Johnson (R-SD), David Valadao (R-CA), Troy Balderson (R-OH), and Jim Costa (D-CA).

The ReConnect Pilot Program, created in 2018 to fund broadband deployment in rural communities that lack access to broadband service, has successfully administered two rounds of federal funding for broadband deployment, according to their letter.  

“Unfortunately, recent developments could upend this progress,” wrote Rep. Davis and his colleagues. “We are troubled by the Round 3 ReConnect guidelines that could allow a new broadband provider to obtain funding to build a broadband network to serve the very same area awarded to another provider that has received funding from other [federal] programs.”

The lawmakers are also concerned that reducing the unserved threshold from 90 percent to 50 percent for funding as required by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) could once again shift dollars away from these rural areas. 

“Instead of dedicating valuable funding to completing the task of finally connecting unserved rural communities, the next round of ReConnect could direct a substantial amount of funding to areas that already have robust broadband service,” they wrote. “Given the unprecedented amount of broadband funding that has now been appropriated through the IIJA, our concerns about duplication of federal resources are magnified.”

Rep. Davis and the members asked Vilsack to ensure that ReConnect works in a complementary, rather than duplicative manner with the Federal Communication Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund program, as well as with other federal and state broadband programs, “to maximize the combined impact and reach as many different rural communities as possible.”

“Duplicating service in project areas funded by other government agencies’ programs will only harm the effort to close the digital divide and continue to leave many Americans without access to reliable, affordable, and high-speed internet,” they wrote.