A bipartisan group of senators – Sens. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M.; John Thune, R-S.D.; Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; and Deb Fischer, R-Neb. – have reintroduced the Rural Internet Improvement Act. The legislation would “streamline and bolster U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development broadband programs and ensure that their funding is being targeted to rural areas that need it the most,” according to the bill’s cosponsors.
The legislation targets the USDA’s Rural e-Connectivity Pilot Program (ReConnect), which provides loans and grants for the construction, improvement, or acquisition of facilities and equipment needed to provide broadband service in eligible rural areas.
“The ReConnect program is critical for rural communities across the country, helping families connect to critical opportunities online while enabling farms and businesses to access new technologies,” said Sen. Klobuchar. “This bipartisan legislation will make key improvements to this popular program, allowing for a more convenient application process and more efficient deployment.”
According to the bill’s cosponsors, the Rural Internet Improvement Act would:
- Streamline USDA’s broadband authorities by merging and codifying the Rural e-Connectivity Pilot Program (ReConnect) with USDA’s traditional broadband loan and grant program;
- Ensure ReConnect funding is going to areas most in need of reliable broadband service by limiting funding to areas where at least 90 percent of households lack access to broadband service;
- Enhance the participation of all types of broadband providers in the ReConnect Program by removing unnecessary barriers;
- Increase transparency by improving the challenge process in the ReConnect Program;
- Improve the coordination between USDA and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on broadband programs; and
- 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.
“Access to [broadband services] is typically determined by where you live, which often leaves rural communities in a less advantageous position than their urban counterparts,” said Sen. Thune. “Our bipartisan legislation would help bridge the digital divide by improving USDA’s ReConnect Program to ensure its funding goes to truly unserved areas.”
The bills primary sponsors, Sens. Lujan and Thune, are the leadership members on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband. Sens. Lujan and Thune, as well as the bill’s other cosponsors are all members of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.
The bill does not currently have companion legislation in the House.