Stumping for Rural Broadband Growth

Witnesses Like USDA ReConnect Program, but Express Some Differences on Speed Requirements

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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USDA's ReConnect Program is working to expand rural broadband. But industry experts disagree on some requirements of the program. (DTN file photo)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Various broadband industry officials testified before the House Agriculture Committee on Tuesday at the "Closing the Digital Divide in Rural America" hearing. Different internet technologies and organizations were represented.

All six who testified agreed on the importance of continuing USDA's Reconnect Loan and Grant Program to expand high-speed internet in unserved areas. However, there was some disagreement on the particulars of the program, mainly the minimum speed requirement for rural high-speed internet.


Shirley Bloomfield, CEO NTCA -- The Rural Broadband Association, said her organization stands ready to close the digital divide in rural areas. The group covers 30% of the nation's land mass but only 5% of the population.

Nationwide carriers left rural areas behind in recent decades as the importance of the internet grew and carriers couldn't get a return on their investment. Small internet providers tried to fill the gaps, but often they could not afford to expand their networks, she said.

Bloomfield said USDA has enabled much development in rural areas with the ReConnect program and is helping close the digital divide. Expanding internet to unserved areas is important, and rural communities want quality, affordability, and reliability.

"This should be assessed by real results on the ground in these rural areas, rather than by promises made," Bloomfield said.

Specifically, Bloomfield wants rural broadband to be just as robust and reliable as in urban areas. Her group encouraged the House Ag Committee to push for the symmetrical download/upload speed of 100/100 megabits/second (Mbps).

This will ensure rural internet needs are met and is the best use of taxpayer money by building a large enough network the first time. Now is not the time to move the program backward, she said.

Also in agreement with the 100/100 requirement was Jim Matheson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). More than 200 rural electric cooperatives are involved with providing high-speed internet to rural regions, he said.

The definition of an area unserved by broadband should be tweaked to include areas that do not have at least 100/100 Mbps service, Matheson said. Congress should prioritize this and meet this basic need, he added.

"Rural residents should have access to this basic requirement," he said.

The process of building high-speed internet in rural areas today mirrors what electrical cooperatives did 100 years ago, pushing electrical service into rural areas, he said.

Matheson said his group would like to see USDA create a program to aid providers with middle-mile costs. As the name implies, this is where a network operator's core network is not connected to each individual end-user but involves other transport and landing facilities.

Middle-mile access is often much more expensive than the last-mile access. Many rural providers lack access and funds to get to this middle mile, he said.


Not all rural internet providers are on board with the 100/100 Mbps requirement.

David Zumwalt, president and CEO of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), said his group supports the USDA ReConnect program, but it should not be obtaining gate information for applying providers. This would include megabit speed, he said.

Those internet providers who apply for the ReConnect program must meet the 100 Mbps requirement in all proposed service areas, according to the USDA ReConnect website (…).

"In our experience, rural customers are not asking for 100 Mbps service nor does it represent what urban subscribers are actually using today," Zumwalt said.

With 100/100 Mbps symmetry a requirement, many providers wouldn't apply for the ReConnect program, leaving rural residents without any internet, he said. In some cases, rural communities could be waiting even longer for broadband.

Zumwalt said his organization wants a 100/20 requirement instead of 100/100. There is no flexibility with symmetrical speeds, leaving some rural communities unserved longer than necessary, which is not what the program wants, he said.

"We don't want to overbuild in areas where providers already have broadband," he said. "This distorts the market, wastes taxpayer money and slows the whole process down."

All rural communities, regardless of size, should have access to broadband service, Zumwalt said.


All forms of rural internet should be represented in the USDA ReConnect program, according to Tom Stroup of the Satellite Industry Association, who also testified. Satellite internet requires no cable or fiber and can provide internet service to everyone, even in the most rural areas, today, he said.

Satellite internet provides speeds and service very comparable to terrestrial sources. Up to 200 Mbps speeds are available, and all 50 states are covered, he said.

Stroup said his group would like to see USDA focus money on satellite providers. Allocating specific funds or grants to support the development and deployment of satellite programs in rural areas is what is needed, he said.

"No one internet technology will close the digital divide issue; all forms are needed," Stroup said.


The application process was also mentioned by a couple of witnesses.

James Assey, with NCTA -- The Internet and Television Association, said that among the improvements to the ReConnect program his organization would like to see would be the modernization of the application process. This would encourage more providers to apply for funds, he said.

Stories were told of small internet providers spending much time filling out the ReConnect application. Lack of communication between government agencies was also discussed as something preventing the expansion of rural broadband.

Assey also pushed for accurate maps of broadband in rural areas. Without an accurate map of what areas have internet and what areas don't, how can you make sure every area is covered? he asked.

"We are seeing signs of better maps, and I think we will be poised to make significant strides in the coming years with our maps," Assey said.

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Russ Quinn