Today, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand held a video press conference to announce her push for full funding of the USDA Rural Broadband Program for Fiscal Year 2023. The 2018 Senate-passed Farm Bill increased the annual funding authorization level of the USDA broadband program to $350 million. Additionally, Congress authorized supplemental funding of $1.9 billion over ten years for the ReConnect program in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, totaling an additional $2 billion investment in USDA programs for expanding broadband in rural areas. Gillibrand co-leads this letter with Senator Roger Marshall (R-KS).
“Reliable, high-speed internet access isn’t a luxury anymore – it is a necessity and one of the most important tools that communities need in order to thrive in the 21st century,” said Senator Gillibrand. “I am proud to lead this annual push and urge appropriators to fully fund the USDA Rural Broadband Program to improve broadband infrastructure across the nation. We must close the digital divide in our country and ensure that every American has access to essential technological resources, no matter their zip code or socioeconomic status.”
Without access to high-quality, affordable broadband service, workers have fewer opportunities for good-paying jobs, farmers and business owners are isolated from new markets, children are limited in educational opportunities, and health care providers do not have reliable access to the most advanced technology available to help patients. The COVID-19 pandemic intensified the educational divide, with an estimated 12 million students lacking reliable internet access at home in early 2021. This problem particularly affects students in rural areas, as well as lower-income students and students of color.
Senator Gillibrand has repeatedly fought to deliver funding to ensure students and families have access to reliable internet at home. She continues her leadership in this annual push, following her call for funding in FY20, FY21, and FY22. She also pushed to prioritize high-speed broadband in the American Rescue Plan, which delivered more than $7.1 billion nationally to provide internet and connected devices to vulnerable students and educators. In the 2018 Farm Bill, Senator Gillibrand successfully included a provision to make grant funding available for rural broadband projects in high-need areas. This provision, based on Gillibrand’s bipartisan Broadband Connections for Rural Opportunities Program Act (B-CROP Act), encourages more high-speed broadband deployment to high-need areas by awarding grants in combination with loan funding available through the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service. Gillibrand previously called on FCC leadership to authorize available emergency funds for the E-Rate program as schools and students relied on remote learning during the pandemic. The E-Rate program allowed students to learn safely from home while guaranteeing online access to course materials.
The full text of the letter is available here or below:
Dear Chair Baldwin and Ranking Member Hoeven,
We write to ask for your support of the rural broadband loan and grant program authorized by the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 as you develop the fiscal year (FY) 2023 Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill. Specifically, we request that you include the fully authorized annual funding amount of $350 million to continue implementing this program. Affordable, high-speed internet access is critical for the economic development and quality of life of the nation’s rural communities. Nationally, more than 17.3 percent of Americans in rural areas lack access to fixed terrestrial broadband at speeds of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps, compared to only 2 percent of Americans in urban areas. Without access to high-quality, affordable internet service, workers have fewer opportunities for good-paying jobs, farmers and business owners are isolated from new markets, children are limited in their education opportunities, and health care providers do not have reliable access to the most advanced technology to help patients.
With broad stakeholder support as well as bipartisan, bicameral agreement in Congress, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, better known as the 2018 Farm Bill, expanded the existing U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Utilities Service’s (RUS) Broadband Program to include a new grant component to be offered along with the already provided loan and loan guarantee financing. Too often, loan financing does not offer enough incentive or support for service providers to invest in rural communities that have the greatest need. In FY2020, FY2021, and FY2022, Congress appropriated $555 million, $635 million, and $486.6 million, respectively, for the USDA’s ReConnect Pilot Program, which also offered grant funding and loans for rural broadband projects. Additionally, through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Congress authorized an additional $1.9 billion over ten years for the ReConnect program, totaling to an additional $2 billion investment into USDA programs for expanding broadband in rural areas. By combining grants with loans, as well as making additional improvements to the USDA RUS Rural Broadband Program like raising speed standards, the 2018 Farm Bill builds on this pilot, enhancing the economic feasibility of projects that provide high-speed, high-quality internet to rural America.
Every American, regardless of where they live, work, or retire must have access to the technology necessary to succeed in the 21st century. To achieve this, we urge the committee to fully fund the annual authorized amount of $350 million for USDA’s Rural Broadband Access Grant, Loan and Loan Guarantee Program. After expeditious implementation of the Farm Bill Program, we would also request the transfer of any unused funding from the current ReConnect Pilot into this program.
Thank you for your consideration of this request.