Thune, Fischer propose bipartisan Rural Internet Improvement Act

U.S. Sens. John Thune (R-SD) and Deb Fischer (R-NE) on Nov. 29 offered a bipartisan bill to help bridge America’s digital divide by ensuring that federal funding for rural development broadband programs is targeted to the most unserved areas.

The Rural Internet Improvement Act, S. 5137, which Sen. Thune sponsored with three original cosponsors, including Sen. Fischer and U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), would amend the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 to reauthorize and improve the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Rural e-Connectivity Pilot Program (ReConnect) loan and grant program, according to the text of the bill. The senators all serve on the U.S. Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee, where the bill has been referred for consideration. 

“Expanding access to broadband services and connectivity in rural areas across South Dakota has long been a priority for me,” Sen. Thune said. “Access to these broadband services is typically determined by where you live, which often leaves rural communities in the dust. 

“Our bipartisan legislation would help bridge the digital divide by improving USDA’s ReConnect Program to ensure its funding goes to truly unserved areas,” he added.

Sen. Fischer, who also has supported efforts to expand broadband access to unserved communities for many years, said she’s “proud to join my colleagues on this bill to help USDA’s ReConnect program properly prioritize the connectivity needs of rural America.”

If enacted, S. 5137 specifically would merge and codify the ReConnect Program with USDA’s traditional broadband loan and grant program; limit funding to areas where at least 90 percent of households lack access to broadband service; and enhance the participation of all types of broadband providers in the ReConnect Program by removing unnecessary barriers, according to a bill summary provided by the lawmakers.

S. 5137 also would improve the challenge process in the ReConnect Program; improve coordination between USDA and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on broadband programs; and require USDA to enter into a memorandum of understanding with the FCC and National Telecommunications and Information Administration to facilitate outreach to rural residents and businesses of available federal programs that promote broadband access, affordability, and inclusion, the summary says.

The measure is supported by NCTA – The Internet and Television Association, NTCA – the Rural Broadband Association, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Seed Trade Association, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.