U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Under Secretary Xochitl Torres Small warned changing the definition of what counts as “rural” broadband could negatively impact programs like the agency’s ReConnect initiative, resulting in a greater disparity between available funding and requests than already exists today.
The comments from Torres Small came during a Congressional hearing on Thursday in response to a call from Congressman Jimmy Panetta for the federal government to adopt a single definition of the word. He noted the federal government currently has more than a dozen different definitions for what counts as rural, and pressed for unification around a single, more inclusive standard.
“The complexity of those definitions can lead to wasted time for our local leaders who are seeking…funds for these types of programs,” Panetta said, noting eligibility for ReConnect and other funding sources is based on whether or not an area is considered rural.
Already in 2022, the ReConnect program has distributed more than $401 million in loans and grants for broadband projects across 11 states and the USDA is preparing to dish out more than $1 billion in a fourth funding round. The program currently defines rural as "any area that is not located in a city, town, or incorporated area that has a population of greater than 20,000 inhabitants or an urbanized area contiguous and adjacent to a city or town that has a population of greater than 50,000 inhabitants."
Torres Small noted that what is considered “rural” is very different across the country and acknowledged that federal definitions like those used by ReConnect don’t always reflect that diversity. However, she added changing the definitions for existing programs will have consequences.
“As we have conversations about how we make it simpler to navigate but also whether we change the rules of eligibility for what rural is - and we’re happy to provide technical assistance for that - we’ve also got to recognize that changes in eligibility would also impact who’s applying for the loans and grants and that the vast majority of our programs are oversubscribed,” she explained. “So conversations about eligibility also mean who’s competing for already limited funds. But it’s a huge need.”
Torres Small said the USDA believes technical assistance can help interested parties navigate different program requirements for the time being while Congress works to hash out new definitions.
Maps and overlap
Many of the questions during Thursday’s hearing centered on how the USDA is working with other federal agencies to avoid dishing out duplicative funding for broadband.
Torres Small said that as the USDA refines its own broadband coverage maps through both data collection and challenge processes, it passes that information on to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Additionally, she noted that the USDA changed its rules for the latest round of the ReConnect program to provide more clarity about which areas covered by FCC programs are and are not eligible for funding. This go around, for instance, areas funded by the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Phase I auction had to have winning bids listed as “Ready to Authorize” by a certain date to be counted as covered. Otherwise, they were determined to be eligible for ReConnect funding, she said.
Chris McLean, acting administrator for the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service, added “we also make our applicants commit that if they’re an RDOF recipient and an RUS recipient that we don’t pay for the same thing twice. We can level up those RDOF awards and we work carefully, again, to de-conflict.”
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