The Quilt is pleased to offer recommendations for a new USDA program created to expand rural broadband in underserved rural and tribal areas throughout the United States.
A new rural broadband program funded within the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 now authorizes the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Utilities Service (RUS) to distribute $600 million through the “e-Connectivity” pilot that targets support in the form of grants and loans.
In July, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue invited comments on the implementation of the e-Connectivity Pilot Program, and The Quilt responded on behalf of R&E networks across the country.
According to a 2018 report by the FCC, approximately 19 million rural American households do not have reliable, affordable, high-speed internet access. Without e-connectivity, the report noted, rural Americans cannot reach their full productivity in the workplace, receive the best education, nor benefit from the highest quality of health care.
USDA is developing this pilot to catalyze private investment and bring broadband to unserved rural areas of the country. The new program provides a unique opportunity to develop modern methods to leverage federal funds that increase private investment in broadband services for as many rural American homes, businesses, farms, schools, and health care facilities as possible.
There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to solutions to bridge the broadband gap in
underserved areas. The Quilt has offered the following recommendations:
- R&E networks play a vital and expansive role in their respective broadband landscapes.
- RUS should prioritize e-Connectivity Pilot Applications that include connectivity to Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs) and tribal lands.
- The e-Connectivity Pilot should consider the broadband needs of communities and regions, not just census blocks.
- The e-Connectivity Pilot should fund middle-mile infrastructure where necessary to deliver sufficient broadband access to residences and CAIs.
The program should measure broadband access, affordability, and performance (noting a recent submission to the NTIA on how to improve the quality and accuracy of broadband availability data by one of our member networks, Merit, filed jointly with The Quello Center at Michigan State University). Please see our previous blogpost on this official submission.
USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. Gaining expert insight on this pilot program will give the USDA all the information they need to make the most effective use of these new and innovative funds.
Submissions and comments were due to the USDA by Sept. 10, 2018.