USDA seeking comments on rural broadband initiative

USDA is inviting comments on the implementation of the e-Connectivity Pilot Program established in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 on March 23, 2018.

USDA is developing this pilot program to catalyze private investment and bring broadband to unserved rural areas of the country. The new program provides a unique opportunity to develop modern methods to leverage federal funds to increase private investment in broadband services for as many rural American homes, businesses, farms, schools and health care facilities as possible.

According to a 2018 report by the Federal Communications Commission, 80 percent of the 24 million American households that do not have reliable, affordable, high-speed internet are in rural areas. Without e-Connectivity, rural Americans cannot reach their full productivity in the workplace, receive the best education in schools nor the finest health care in hospitals.

This rural broadband pilot program was proposed by President Trump and was made possible by a $600 million appropriation from Congress in the Consolidated Budget Act of 2018. As a result, USDA is excited to be able to create new funding and finance offerings through this pilot program to expand rural broadband in underserved rural and tribal areas.

 

The framework outlined by Congress allows these new federal funds to be deployed in rural areas with a population of 20,000 or less. A wide variety of entities is eligible for funding, including incumbent and competitive rural telephone and broadband service providers, rural electric cooperatives, private firms (but not sole proprietors or partnerships), nonprofits and governmental bodies. Rural areas with current internet service speeds of 10 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload at the household will be eligible to apply for the pilot program funds. The requirements on build-out speeds are not specified by the law and are therefore under development. See page 52 of the legislation for the full text (PDF, 2 MB).

USDA is seeking input as it develops the rules and requirements of the e-Connectivity Pilot Program. All stakeholders with an interest in rural broadband deployment are welcome to contribute. Specifically, comments on the following issues are sought:

 

  1. Ways of evaluating a rural household’s “sufficient access” to broadband e-Connectivity at speeds of 10 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream, and how broadband service affordability should be factored in.
  2. Best options to verify speeds of broadband service provided to rural households.
  3. Best leading indicators of the potential project benefits for rural industries such as agriculture, manufacturing, e-commerce, transportation, health care and education, using readily available public data.

USDA’s goal is to make the most effective use of these new and innovative funds through utility partnerships, where possible. Public input on methods to evaluate the viability of applications that include local utility partnership arrangements is also being sought.

Comments are due on or before 5 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Monday, Sept. 10, 2018 and can be submitted by either of the following methods:

  • Federal eRulemaking Portal: Go to www.regulations.gov and, in the lower “Search Regulations and Federal Actions” box, select “Rural Utilities Service” from the agency drop-down menu, then click “Submit.” In the Docket ID column, select RUS-18-TELECOM-0004 to submit or view public comments and to view supporting and related materials available electronically.
  • Postal Mail/Commercial Delivery: Please send your comments to Michele Brooks, Rural Development Innovation Center, Regulations Team Lead, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1400 Independence Ave., S.W., Stop 1522, Room 1562, Washington, DC 20250. Please state that your comments refer to Docket No. RUS-18-TELECOM-0004.