Federal programs are imperative in order to bridge the broadband gap that exists across rural America, but support can’t stop there. That’s according to Chad Rupe, former RUS administrator and current Managing Member at Rural America Strategies, LLC.
“It shouldn't just be government proceeds going out to support low-income individuals, it should be giving those people a leg up, and letting them go out and earn a higher income to be able to be part of the mainstream and middle-income type of bracket,” Rupe said. “That's really key to sustainability. So we have to lift those boats, if you will, to get everyone to a sustainable income level to afford these types of networks.”
Rupe served as the 21st Administrator of the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service. In his tenure, Rupe implemented the 2018 Farm Bill changes to rural broadband (including Smart Grid deployment), deployed over $18 Billion in federal loans and grants for 8,000 utility borrowers, led the ReConnect broadband program and more.
“Hopefully later this spring or early summer we'll see another ReConnect round. They're very dedicated people,” Rupe said. “So yeah, I think there's going to be another round and good opportunity for people to participate, and I look forward to seeing what happens.”
Rupe says the ReConnect program is a real opportunity for broadband expansion--leveling the playing field to allow for more wide deployments in those hard-to-reach areas.
In regard to the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), Rupe said he may have done things a little differently in regard to funding recipients.
“I ran our program at USDA and I only invested taxpayer funds in things that I knew had proven out in technology and would be a good return on investment,” Rupe admitted. “So, there was a lot of focus on fiber. When we're talking about taxpayer dollars, I think it's important that we're diligent in the application of those funds.”
When considering technologies like Low Earth Orbit Satellites for rural unserved America, there’s also a concern with regards to security issues when advancing technology too quickly. He noted how every time technology is expanded, a window opens for potential bad actors to enter and take advantage of the situation. He notes how there is the need to increase coverage, but that we also need to focus on making sure we are deploying secure networks.
“Fortunately, we have a lot of smart people who are focusing on this effort at the national level,” Rupe said. “I think the rip and replace [Huawei equipment] thing that’s going on by the FCC is definitely a positive development. And hopefully, that will be sufficient to help out with some of those cybersecurity issues.”
Reflecting on his time and efforts with RUS, Rupe said he is most proud of the fact that the organization itself has people out in rural America [RUS General Field Reps (GFRs)]--real ties to the community. He noted that it takes those strong ties to the community to be able to stand up to DC lobbyists who might have different priorities.
“You've got to be willing to be the bad guy to make sure that this stuff gets done,” he said. “Because in the end, everyone's trying to serve rural America. Everybody's trying to get this stuff deployed to the places that need it. And if you're going to make a promise, you need to keep it. If you're going to do the job, do it. Stand behind your word and follow that.”
Now in his current role as Managing Member of Rural America Strategies, Rupe still focuses on the same ideals as when he served as RUS administrator. His organization is looking to leverage federal, state and local partners to close the broadband gap of accessibility and affordability, enhance adoption through 5G, increase precision agriculture for enhanced profitability and production, and promote sustainable energy policy. Achieving these goals will enable Rural America Strategies to empower rural communities with the tools they need to sustain and enhance their quality of life.