Reconnecting the Rural eConnectivity Program to Reality

A rural ranch in Montana
(Image credit: Getty Images)

These days, technology-advanced farms are just as reliant on broadband connectivity as any other modern business. Sensors, automation, autonomous vehicles and other “precision agriculture” tools bring greater efficiencies and productivity to many American farmers, who literally help feed the entire world. The Farm Bureau projects that more widespread adoption of these broadband-enabled best practices could boost U.S. agricultural productivity by $65 billion per year

That’s a big reason why Congress is investing in a multitude of federal programs to ensure internet access is available to all corners of our nation, especially households, businesses and farms in rural communities.

Michael O'Rielly

Former FCC member Michael O'Rielly (Image credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

One of those initiatives — the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural eConnectivity Program, or ReConnect — is due for some key improvements as Congress considers the upcoming Farm Bill. The adoption of targeted reforms Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) have proposed in the Rural Internet Improvement Act of 2023 would be a smart and thoughtful place to start. 

The ReConnect program has been a bit of an anomaly since its 2018 inception. Initially funded as a one-time pilot project, the program has been extended annually without traditional guardrails or oversight. That has generated some inconsistencies, coordination difficulties and troubling outcomes. For instance, the program’s grant approval process, which fluctuates year to year, functions completely outside the Administrative Procedure Act, preventing interested parties from even commenting on the decision making. And those decisions deserve review. 

Improving ReConnect, however, must begin with making sure its funding reaches the rural communities that truly need it.  Just about everyone agrees that scarce federal funds must go to ensuring everyone has internet coverage, rather than subsidizing “overbuilds” in areas where fast connectivity already exists.  Every dollar spent overbuilding current networks fails to help needier rural communities gain modern digital infrastructure. 

Yet the overbuilding threshold for ReConnect has at times been lowered from 90% of households without internet in the area (arguably still objectionable) to 50% of households without Internet, which means half of the project would overbuild existing broadband. Why? No sound reasons were provided when it was last modified as part of the infrastructure spending bill. Thankfully, the Rural Internet Improvement Act restores the 90% target and focuses on building networks capable of commonly accepted broadband speeds. If this simple but fundamental correction can’t be made, efforts to codify a flawed ReConnect should be considered a non-starter. 

Likewise, the bill precludes funding for areas already covered by other federal broadband efforts and boosts the provider challenge process. For years, policymakers have demanded coordination from the differing federal broadband programs.  Why in the world should USDA fund broadband buildouts in areas that have already secured Federal Communications Commission, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Treasury Department or other federal funds for the same purpose?  Even the most ardent supporter of ReConnect should blush at the notion of double-dipping. 

Equal Opportunities

Additionally, the Rural Internet Improvement Act moves the program onto more solid ground so all qualified participants can apply and have an equal chance to win grants based on objective criteria. So far, whole broadband industry segments that have met of all the program’s qualifications haven’t won a single dime. The probability of this happening is about the same statistically as a cat successfully driving a tractor. 

A fair ReConnect process does not undercut the likelihood of telephone and electric co-ops, which have been primary beneficiaries of the current structure, from winning where they are the most qualified and prepared to bring service. Policymakers certainly don’t need to tilt the process in co-ops’ favor from the outset. In fact, my long history with telephone co-ops suggests that they are exceptionally capable and attune to rural community needs to do quite well in an impartial application process. This is likely why NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, an advocate for telephone cooperatives, has been favorable towards the bill, as have others. 

In a perfect world, there shouldn’t be a need to maintain a separate broadband grant program within the Department of Agriculture. For various reasons, policymakers have determined that ReConnect should remain, and I won’t quibble with that decision here. 

But if ReConnect is to continue, then we should expect that it be run fairly and efficiently, target those rural citizens in need, not overbuild areas where existing private sector providers offer service of sufficient quality, and prevent duplicative subsidies for broadband builds already being funded by other federal agencies. Solidifying and codifying these principles is exactly why the Rural Internet Improvement Act would bring credibility and sustainability to any broadband provisions continued in the eventual 2023 Farm Bill. ■

Michael O'Rielly

Michael O’Rielly served as a Federal Communications Commission commissioner from 2015 to 2020.