February 27, 2020
Urges USDA to drop arbitrary limits in broadband program that are costing rural, Tribal communities in New Mexico critical federal funding
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) joined a bipartisan letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sunny Perdue, urging him to push for equitable Tribal and rural broadband access by expanding eligibility for ReConnect, a program that funds rural broadband deployment and is authorized to make $600 million of grants and loans per year to foster rural broadband.
Currently, rural communities in New Mexico face barriers to receiving ReConnect grants. Service providers receiving Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Connect America Fund Phase II support for satellite service are ineligible for USDA ReConnect grants and 50/50 loan-grant combinations—preventing providers in rural communities across 19 states from applying to ReConnect. The legislation that authorized the ReConnect program does not mandate such an exclusion. Udall is a member of both the Senate Commerce Committee that oversees the FCC and the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee with jurisdiction over USDA.
“USDA can, and should, fix this. USDA is neither statutorily required to eliminate FCC grant recipients from ReConnect eligibility, nor does it consider satellite service as sufficient broadband service for the purposes of awarding ReConnect funding,” the senators wrote. “To rectify this inequity and further USDA’s stated goal of expanding broadband access for all Americans, we urge you to act to allow service providers to submit applications for ReConnect funds if the area has only received FCC auction funding for satellite service, but would otherwise be eligible.”
As the senators highlighted in today’s letter, the USDA considers satellite coverage insufficient for the needs of rural communities. Satellite service provides lower-quality connections than fiber and fixed wireless services, due to much lower bandwidth caps, reliability and network speeds. Satellite service is therefore ill-suited for telemedicine, mental health services and interactive distance learning applications that help rural communities thrive.
As vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Udall is fighting to expand Tribal broadband access. Earlier this month, Udall introduced the Bridging the Tribal Digital Divide Act of 2020 to expedite the deployment of affordable broadband service on Tribal lands by coordinating and improving federal resources. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), less than half of households on Tribal lands have access to fixed broadband service. This represents a nearly 27-point gap compared to non-Tribal rural areas. This gap only widens when compared to the country-wide average. In 2018, the FCC estimated that 35 percent of Americans living on Tribal lands lacked access to broadband services, compared to eight percent of all Americans.
Joining Udall on the letter are U.S. Senators Ron Wyden, (D-Ore.), John Barrasso, (R-Wyo.), Jeff Merkley, (D-Ore.), Patty Murray, (D-Wash.), Mike Enzi, (R-Wyo.), Doug Jones, (D-Ala.), Tammy Baldwin, (D-Wis.), and Angus King, (I-Maine)
A digital copy of the letter is available HERE.
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