WASHINGTON — U.S. Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), ranking member and chairman, respectively, of the Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband, Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), all members of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, today introduced the Rural Internet Improvement Act. This bipartisan 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.
“Expanding access to broadband services and connectivity in rural areas across South Dakota has long been a priority for me,” said Thune. “Access to these broadband services is typically determined by where you live, which often leaves rural communities in the dust. Our bipartisan legislation would help bridge the digital divide by improving USDA’s ReConnect Program to ensure its funding goes to truly unserved areas.”
“High-speed, reliable broadband is critical for New Mexico families and businesses, but the digital divide leaves far too many rural and Tribal communities behind. I’m proud to introduce this bipartisan legislation to make USDA programs more efficient and ensure that unserved communities receive the investments they need,” said Luján. “I will continue working to improve broadband access for all New Mexicans – especially in rural and Tribal communities.”
“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 Klobuchar. “This bipartisan legislation will make key improvements to this popular program, allowing for a more convenient application process and more efficient deployment. As co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, I’ll keep fighting to ensure all Americans can access the high-speed internet they need.”
“I’ve long supported efforts to expand broadband access to unserved communities,” said Fischer. “I’m proud to join my colleagues on this bill to help USDA’s ReConnect program properly prioritize the connectivity needs of rural America.”
“We applaud the work of Senators John Thune, Ben Ray Luján, Amy Klobuchar, and Deb Fischer to introduce legislation focused on helping broadband reach more Americans,” said NCTA – The Internet and Television Association. “The Rural Internet Improvement Act of 2022 would replace existing programs with a revised ReConnect program that would enhance participation and results so more communities can be connected to broadband even faster. Most significantly, 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. Deploying robust, affordable high-speed broadband to all Americans is a key priority for cable providers, so we look forward to working with members on passage of this legislation.”
“Senator Thune has long been a leader in promoting and sustaining better access to broadband in rural areas, and NTCA appreciates his continued interest and leadership in examining ways to improve the workings of USDA’s ReConnect Loan and Grant Program,” said Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA – the Rural Broadband Association. “We look forward to conversations with Senator Thune and his colleagues in Congress about how best to build upon the early successes of this program and how best to coordinate this program with other essential broadband-related initiatives and private sector efforts.”
“Broadband is no longer a luxury: it is a necessity,” said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. “The American Farm Bureau has long prioritized expanding broadband access in rural America, and we applaud Senators Thune, Luján, Klobuchar, and Fischer for working to streamline current broadband programming to ensure investments go to those areas that still are not served. Ensuring limited resources are targeted to those most in need will help all rural Americans access the services and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s economy.”
“The American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) applauds Senators Thune, Luján, Klobuchar, and Fischer for their leadership in addressing the critical issue of rural broadband access in America,” said Andy LaVigne, president and CEO of the American Seed Trade Association. “The Rural Internet Improvement Act would take necessary steps to address the digital divide in rural communities. Seed companies and their customers rely on connectivity, and ASTA appreciates the Senators’ efforts in establishing accountability for existing programs and innovative ways to streamline processes to support rural America. We appreciate Congress’ commitment to this critical issue, and we look forward to working together as they consider this key legislation.”
“The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association is grateful to Senators Thune, Luján, Klobuchar, and Fischer for prioritizing agriculture innovation and progress through the Rural Internet Improvement Act,” said Ethan L. Lane, vice president of government affairs at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “In rural America, internet access opens doors to increased efficiency, economic growth, and environmental sustainability. On-farm efficiency increases when producers are able to communicate from remote areas of their operation, compete in a fast-paced, competitive global marketplace, and use precision agriculture technologies that facilitate improvement of the land and natural resources. This legislation will ensure rural connectivity is afforded to a greater number of producers whose businesses simply cannot maintain viability for the future without it.”
The Rural Internet Improvement Act would:
- Streamline USDA’s broadband authorities by merging and codifying the popular 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.
Thune recently participated in the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry’s first 2023 farm bill hearing, which focused on rural development and energy programs that are administered by USDA. Thune welcomed South Dakotan Denny Law, CEO of Golden West Telecommunications in Wall, South Dakota, to talk about the importance of targeting federal broadband funds to rural areas that are in need of reliable broadband services.
Earlier this year, Thune introduced the Connect Unserved Americans Act, bipartisan legislation that would ensure broadband funding goes to unserved areas, including rural communities in South Dakota. The bill would also increase coordination between federal agencies that are disbursing broadband funding to prevent the overbuilding of existing broadband networks at the taxpayer’s expense.
Thune, who has helped write four farm bills throughout his time in Congress, will continue introducing farm bill proposals ahead of the current bill’s expiration, which is set for September 2023.