U.S. Senators Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, both R-Wyo., joined a bipartisan group of senators in urging U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue to change a self-imposed requirement that prevents providers in rural communities in Wyoming and 18 other states from applying to the USDA ReConnect program, which funds rural broadband deployment.
Since 2018, USDA has been authorized to make grants and loans of about $600 million per year to foster rural broadband through its ReConnect program. Currently, service providers in areas that received Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Connect America Fund Phase II (CAF-II) grants are ineligible for USDA ReConnect grants and 50/50 loan-grant combinations, even if only a satellite provider received funding for that area. The legislation that authorized the ReConnect program does not mandate such an exclusion.
Nearly 60 percent of Wyoming areas are ineligible to apply for a ReConnect grant funding based on already-awarded CAF-II funds to satellite providers.
“USDA can, and should, fix this. USDA is neither statutorily required to eliminate FCC grant recipients from ReConnect eligibility, nor does it consider satellite service as sufficient broadband service for the purposes of awarding ReConnect funding,” the senators wrote. “To rectify this inequity and further USDA’s stated goal of expanding broadband access for all Americans, we urge you to act to allow service providers to submit applications for ReConnect funds if the area has only received FCC auction funding for satellite service, but would otherwise be eligible.”
As the senators highlighted in today’s letter, USDA considers satellite coverage insufficient for the needs of rural communities. Satellite service has much lower bandwidth caps, reliability and network speeds than fiber and fixed wireless services. This makes satellite service ill-suited for the telemedicine, mental health services and interactive distance learning applications that help rural communities thrive.
The letter, led by U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., was also signed by U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Patty Murray, D-Wash., Doug Jones, D-Ala., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Angus King, I-Maine.
A copy of the letter is available here.