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Saturday, September 30, 2023

Sen. Baldwin and a bipartisan group of senators wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue asking to change a USDA policy limiting funding from the ReConnect Program. 

Sen. Baldwin calls on USDA to allow more federal funding for rural broadband

U.S. Sen. Tammy Balwin, D-Wis., joined a bipartisan group of senators calling for a change in requirements to a U.S. Department of Agriculture program blocking rural communities in 19 states from funding for rural broadband expansion.

Baldwin — along with Senators Ron Wyden, D-Ore., John Barrasso, R-Wyo., Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Patty Murray, D-Wash., Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., Doug Jones D-Ala., Tom Udall, D-N.M. and Angus King, I-Maine — wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue urging him to change the requirements of an existing program to allow for more funding.

In 2018, Congress established the USDA ReConnect Program to provide loans or grants to facilitate broadband deployment in rural areas. However, the USDA’s policy restricts access to geographic areas that previously received funding from the FCC for satellite internet despite no legal requirement.

The senators say this self-imposed restriction prevents communities across the country from receiving their share of over $500 million in federal funding for high-speed broadband.

In August 2018, the FCC awarded a total of $1.49 billion to a variety of fiber, fixed wireless and satellite broadband providers. Satellite providers received funding for 200,000 locations across the U.S. even though satellite service is ill-suited for key broadband applications.

In 16 states, more than half the regions receiving funding will acquire satellite service. In some states, it’s even higher — 90 percent of locations in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi and Oregon will only receive satellite service. 

The USDA has even said satellite services would not be considered in determining whether a region has access to broadband, which is part of the reason the Senators are requesting the change in policy. 

“Satellite service has much lower bandwidth caps, reliability and network speeds than fiber and fixed wireless services,” Sen. Tammy Balwin said in a statement. “This makes satellite service ill-suited for the telemedicine, mental health services and interactive distance learning applications that help rural communities thrive.” 

The deadline for the second round of applications for ReConnect funding is Mar. 16, 2020.

The senators hope Perdue will change the USDA restriction and allow an extension of the application deadline to let affected applicants submit or amend their applications. 

“USDA can, and should, fix this,” the letter said. “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.” 

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