NCTA Backs Rural ReConnect Subsidy Revamp

A stack of money
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Cable broadband operators are all for a new bipartisan bill focused on subsidizing rural broadband buildouts where there is no physical plant and with a thumb on the scale for experience in such buildouts.

NCTA-The Internet & Television Association applauded the introduction Tuesday (November 29) of the Rural Internet Improvement Act of 2022. (opens in new tab)

Backing the bill is Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), ranking member and chairman, respectively, of the Communications Subcommittee, along with Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.). All of them are members of the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.

The bill would "streamline" USDA rural broadband subsidy programs, essentially replacing the current ReConnect Program to better target it to areas without wired broadband service.

In 2021, USDA made $1.15 billion in federal loans and grants available to expand high-speed internet access in rural communities across the country through the ReConnect Program, part of President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.

Also: USDA Makes $1B Available for Building Better Rural Broadband

Republicans in particular, along with cable operators, generally advocate for such a definition, rather than using speeds or price as a determinant of availability.

Speaking to that was Sen. Thune, who said in a statement: "Our bipartisan legislation would help bridge the digital divide by improving USDA’s ReConnect Program to ensure its funding goes to truly unserved areas.”

Klobuchar was focused on what she characterized as "key" improvements that would "allow for a more convenient application process and more efficient deployment."

The ReConnect program has had a definition of broadband availability that included considering the economic needs of the community to be served; the extent to which a provider will offer affordable service options; and a project’s commitment to strong labor standards.

"[S]ignificantly," said NCTA, "this bill would direct funding for network expansion to areas where at least 90 percent of households lack access to broadband, and it would encourage reliance on applicants with demonstrated experience constructing and operating broadband networks in order to promote network construction that is on budget and on time. These are solid improvements to the current program that should be adopted as part of next year’s farm bill," to which the standalone bill is expected to be attached.

In addition, according to Thune's office, the bill would:

1. "[M]erge and codify the popular Rural e-Connectivity Pilot Program (ReConnect) with USDA’s traditional broadband loan and grant program;

2. "Enhance the participation of all types of broadband providers in the ReConnect Program by removing unnecessary barriers;

3. "Increase transparency by improving the challenge process in the ReConnect Program;

4. "Improve the coordination between USDA and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on broadband programs; and

5. "Require USDA to enter into a memorandum of understanding with the FCC and National Telecommunications and Information Administration to facilitate outreach to rural residents and businesses of available federal programs that promote broadband access, broadband affordability, and broadband inclusion." ■

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.