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Farm Progress reports:

Bridging the digital divide-particularly in rural areas where broadband is insufficiently deployed-is the Federal Communication Commission's top priority, the agency says. However, it continues to fall short for rural America and House Republicans want to direct resources to the USDA to address the shortfalls in rural connectivity.

"The FCC had had their chance, and they haven't gotten it done," says Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., and one of the lead authors of a new proposal to put USDA in the driver seat of trying to connect the last mile.

Scott along with House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Glenn "GT" Thompson, R-Pa., and other Republicans on the committee released their Broadband for Rural America Act which offers a targeted approach under the direction of USDA to address the digital divide facing rural America.

In urban areas, 97% of Americans have access to high-speed fixed service. In rural areas, that number falls to 65%. And on Tribal lands, barely 60% have access. All told, nearly 30 million Americans cannot reap the benefits of the digital age, according to the FCC.

The Republicans' bill authorizes $3.7 billion per year for critical rural broadband programs, including the ReConnect Rural Broadband Program, the Middle Mile Broadband Program, and the Innovative Broadband Advancement Program.

Scott explains the Middle Mile Broadband Program is the "on-ramp from rural America to where high-speed Internet actually is." The program was included in the 2018 Farm Bill but did not get funding through the appropriations process. The "middle mile networks" are an essential, but often overlooked component of Internet connectivity for many rural communities that connects local networks in one region to the Internet backbone.

The proposal also looks to build on the successes of ReConnect by establishing 25/3 Mbps connections as the threshold for minimum broadband service and imposing rigorous new buildout requirements to ensure that broadband networks financed through USDA meet the long-term needs of rural residents. Scott says as the bandwidth needs continue to expand, it is important to make sure rural America gets 25 before the FCC pushes the minimum to 100 Mbps.

Thompson notes that in a recent House Agriculture Committee hearing on broadband challenges, members heard from witnesses as well as those from both side of the aisle about the challenges of getting connectivity to that last mile.

Scott says the FCC concentrated on areas where the population is the densest, but this has left many rural areas left out. During a call with reporters, Scott said more than once how important it is to transfer the rural broadband funding from the FCC to USDA, which is more focus on rural America.

"USDA has the expertise, experience, infrastructure and reach to close the digital divide," adds Thompson.

Infrastructure option?
Discussions surrounding infrastructure are too often limited to our roads, bridges, and waterways, but in a 21st-century economy, broadband infrastructure must be at the heart of our efforts, a fact sheet from the House Agriculture Republicans notes.

Currently, the bill has 22 Republican co-sponsors, but Thompson says it's "ripe for being bipartisan" as Republicans work to offer solutions for inclusion in President Joe Biden's infrastructure package. "This bill would be a great addition to any infrastructure package," Thompson says.

Although the original American Jobs Plan left a place marker for rural broadband, Thompson says it was not largely focused on rural America and doesn't make the needed change to transfer the funding over to USDA.

"By continuing to invest in broadband, we can empower farm families, better serve rural America and fuel global economies," Thompson notes.

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