USDA Launches New Program to Create High-Speed Internet e-Connectivity in Rural America

WASHINGTON, Dec. 13, 2018 – Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue today announced that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is offering up to $600 million in loans and grants to help build broadband infrastructure in rural America. Telecommunications companies, rural electric cooperatives and utilities, internet service providers and municipalities may apply for funding through USDA’s new ReConnect Program to connect rural areas that currently have insufficient broadband service. Answering the Administration’s call to action for rural prosperity, Congress appropriated funds in the fiscal year 2018 budget for this broadband pilot program. USDA Rural Development is the primary agency delivering the program, with assistance from other federal partners.

“High-speed internet e-Connectivity is a necessity, not an amenity, vital for quality of life and economic opportunity, so we hope that today rural communities kick off their rural broadband project planning,” Secretary Perdue said. “Under the leadership of President Trump, USDA has worked to understand the true needs of rural communities facing this challenge so we can be strong partners to create high-speed, reliable broadband e-Connectivity.”

USDA will make available approximately $200 million for grants (applications due to USDA by April 29), as well as $200 million for loan and grant combinations (applications due May 29), and $200 million for low-interest loans (applications due by June 28).

Projects funded through this initiative must serve communities with fewer than 20,000 people with no broadband service or where service is slower than 10 megabits per second (mbps) download and 1 mbps upload.

Approved projects must create access speeds of at least 25 mbps upload and 3 mbps download. Priority will be awarded for projects that propose to deliver higher-capacity connections to rural homes, businesses and farms. USDA seeks to stretch these funds as far as possible by leveraging existing networks and systems without overbuilding existing services greater than 10/1 mbps.

Evaluation criteria include connecting agricultural production and marketing, e-Commerce, health care and education facilities. Previous research by USDA has demonstrated that high-capacity broadband is critical to all aspects of rural prosperity, including the ability to grow and attract businesses, retain and develop talent, and maintain rural quality of life.

To help customers with the application process, USDA is holding a series of online webinars and regional in-person workshops. The full list of upcoming public webinars and workshops can be found at the ReConnect Program’s resource portal at reconnect.usda.gov.

In April 2017, President Donald J. Trump established the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity to identify legislative, regulatory and policy changes that could promote agriculture and prosperity in rural communities. In January 2018, Secretary Perdue presented the Task Force’s findings to President Trump. These findings included 31 recommendations to align the federal government with state, local and tribal governments to take advantage of opportunities that exist in rural America. Increasing investments in rural infrastructure is a key recommendation of the task force.

To view the report in its entirety, please view the Report to the President of the United States from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity (PDF, 5.4 MB). In addition, to view the categories of the recommendations, please view the Rural Prosperity infographic (PDF, 190 KB).

USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; housing; community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural areas. For more information, visit http://www.rd.usda.gov.

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USDA Launches Rural Broadband Portal

(TNS) — The U.S. Department of Agriculture has launched a website to inform the public on ongoing rural broadband opportunities and future opportunities and to allow for feedback.

According to a release, $700 million is available every year for rural broadband connectivity projects with an additional $600 million a year in funds to soon become available.

“Rural high-speed broadband e-Connectivity is as important for economic development as rail, roads, bridges and airports – and as vital as the buildouts of rural telephone networks were decades ago,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a release. “USDA is committed to being a strong partner with rural leaders in deploying this essential infrastructure.”

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 80 percent of those in the United States without access to broadband reside in rural areas or on tribal lands.

USDA Broadband Portal

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Field Level Broadband Mapping Proposal

I have been working on the problem of broadband mapping accuracy since the summer of 2013 when the Gold County Broadband Consortia collected broadband survey forms at the Nevada County Fair. Plotting the information gathered at the Fair revealed some significant gaps in the California Broadband Maps. 

The GCBC worked with the California Public Utilities Commission staff to came up with a standard form which could handed out at community meetings to collect field level information on actual broadband coverage in the GCBC areas of responsibility, Sierra, Nevada, Placer, El Dorado Counties and eastern part of Alpine County The form was eventually put online, producing a spreadsheet that with a little clean up could be forwarded directly to the CPUC for inclusion on broadband maps.  Sample online map is HERE.

The problem of collecting field level data which show the real broadband coverage is a significant challenge for state and federal agencies responsible for producing accurate broadband maps. Maps which are essential for policy making and the equitable distribution of broadband subsidies.  I have been thinking about the problems for some time and propose the following solution.

In 1867, Oliver H. Kelley, an employee in the Department of Agriculture, founded the Grange. The Grange’s purpose was to provide farmers with an organization that could assist them with any difficulties that arose. One of the latest difficulties is the lack of broadband in rural communities. 

Rural Granges places them in the right location to participate in a grassroots field level broadband data collection program. Broadband access is becoming a component of modern agriculture, and the national Grange organization has highlighted the need for agricultural access to this critical infrastructure.  Granges have a vested interest in making sure broadband maps accurately reflect the real coverage.

According to the  National Grange Organization:

“. . .America’s most pressing broadband problem: our national need to expand high-speed Internet access across rural and underserved areas.”

State agencies responsible for broadband maps should consider developing a grassroots field level data collection program in conjunction with the State and County Granges in those counties with poor broadband coverage. The Granges collect the data in the field and state agencies consolidate the data in spreadsheets, create shape-files for submission to FCC/NTIA for publication of field level broadband data. 

With granges all across America, this program could be replicated in all states with large gaps in broadband coverage. This real-world data will help solve the national broadband mapping accuracy problem. 

This is a sketch of an idea, with lots of work and coordination ahead to create a fully functional program. Your thoughts?

RCRC: Rural Broadband Legislation Passed

This week, the House passed two pieces of legislation that would promote rural broadband. HR 3994, the Access Broadband Act, would create the Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth (OICG) within the Department of Commerce. HR 4881, the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act of 2018, would direct the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to establish the Task Force for Meeting Connectivity and Technology Needs of Precision Agriculture in the United States.

The OICG would streamline the application process for broadband deployment projects seeking federal funds. The office will:

  • Connect with communities that need access to high-speed internet and improved digital inclusion efforts;
  • Hold regional workshops to share best practices and effective strategies for promoting broadband access and adoption;
  • Develop targeted broadband training and presentations for various demographic communities through media;
  • Develop and distribute publications providing guidance to communities for expanding broadband access and adoption; and
  • Track construction and use of any broadband infrastructure built using federal support.

HR 4881, the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act of 2018, would direct the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to establish the Task Force for Meeting Connectivity and Technology Needs of Precision Agriculture in the United States. The task force would be responsible for measuring internet coverage gaps of cropland and ranchland, particularly in rural areas. Based on these findings, the task force would then recommend policies and legislation to expand broadband internet service for cropland and ranchland. Precision agriculture practices utilize 21st century data and technology to increase productivity for farmers and growers. HR 4881’s supporters argue precision agriculture will promote employment and economic prosperity for rural communities.

Four Telecom Bills Sail Through House

Four pieces of telecom-focused legislation passed the House by generous margins on Monday. In the afternoon, lawmakers passed by voice votes the PIRATE Act, H.R. 5709 (115), which would boost penalties for unlicensed radio broadcasters, and the ACCESS BROADBAND Act, H.R. 3994 (115) , which would create an internet connectivity office within the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration. In roll call votes Monday night, lawmakers passed by 378-4 the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act, H.R. 4881 (115), which would force the FCC and Department of Agriculture to assemble a task force looking at precision agriculture’s broadband needs, and by 379-1 the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act, H.R. 2345 (115) , mandating a study on creating an emergency dialing code for suicide prevention.

Source: POLITICO Morning Tech [Emphasis added]

2018 Farm Bill Broadband Update

 

Last Friday, the Senate Agriculture Committee released draft text for the Senate version of the 2018 Farm Bill. S. 3042, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, has bipartisan support and received near unanimous approval of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

The 2018 Farm Bill authorizes significant investments in rural economic development. The Senate version includes language that establishes a minimum broadband service speed for projects funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). All projects funded by the USDA must provide a minimum broadband speed of 25 megabites per second (Mbps) downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. This language modernizes the USDA’s standard of broadband service to reflect the standard observed by the FCC. In addition, the bill authorizes a multitude of funding and technical assistance programs to support rural broadband deployment.

Source: RCRC Barbed Wire Newsletter [Emphasas Added]

Those communities with a broadband plan can seek access to these funds. Got Plan?