Senators urge USDA to open up rural broadband funding

Senators urge USDA to open up rural broadband funding
© Aaron Schwartz

A group of bipartisan senators is urging the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to open up its rural broadband funding program to more states suffering from a lack of Internet connectivity. 

In a Wednesday letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, the senators, led by Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenWhoopi Goldberg presses Sanders: 'Why are you still in the race?' Unprecedented health crisis called for historic expansion of unemployment insurance Coronavirus crisis scrambles 2020 political calculus MORE (D-Ore.), accused the agriculture agency of placing arbitrary limitations around which rural areas are eligible to receive some of the USDA's $500 million rural broadband fund, called ReConnect. 

As it stands, the USDA program says certain rural areas cannot qualify for the fund if they previously received money from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for satellite service. But the senators say satellite service is not enough to fix the issue of the "digital divide," and the USDA's funds could have life-saving impacts for areas that do not have good Internet access. 

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"USDA can, and should, fix this," the senators, including Sens. John Barasso (R-Wyo.) and Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinBiden's pick for vice president doesn't matter much Democratic senators call on FDA to drop restrictions on blood donations from men who have sex with men Juan Williams: Biden's promises on women are a big deal MORE (D-Wisc.), wrote. "USDA is [not] statutorily required to eliminate FCC grant recipients from ReConnect eligibility." 

There are multiple federal government programs aimed at improving Internet access in rural areas, which often struggle from a lack of connectivity. Republican lawmakers and regulators have occasionally raised concerns about overlapping funding for the same issue. 

But the senators wrote that the FCC satellite coverage funding is "insufficient for the needs of rural communities" because satellite service is often less reliable than fiber and fixed wireless services. 

Congress established the USDA's ReConnect Program, which furnishes loans and grants to improve broadband services in rural areas, in 2018. The senators pointed out that the USDA's restrictions are "not required by law."

They added that the funds could be "vital to reducing the digital divide" between rural and urban areas and "harnessing important opportunities in telemedicine and online education, and the high-paying jobs that come with them." 

USDA did not respond to The Hill's request for comment.