Like most other aspects of life, the ongoing pandemic has disrupted the federal government’s plans to disburse grants, loans, and subsidies for the construction of rural broadband networks. But unlike the sporting events and concerts that can be put on an indefinite hold, these funds are now needed more than ever by the Internet access providers trying to connect rural households during a time when everything has moved online. Federal agencies, like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), must find ways to manage the challenges caused by the spread of the novel coronavirus and to leverage their funds to support essential networks for families stuck at home.
These agencies’ main rural broadband programs — the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) and USDA’s ReConnect — are at different stages, both in their funding cycles and in their response to the Covid-19 outbreak. The pandemic has already led to changes at the USDA, which has extended the ReConnect application deadline and is set to receive additional funds from Congress. Meanwhile, the FCC has yet to alter the upcoming RDOF subsidy auction, but it could speed up the process to address the current crisis, which threatens to linger through the summer.
While more must be done to address the many digital divides exacerbated by the pandemic, federal agencies should at least use existing programs to their full advantage to connect rural Americans during this unprecedented time.
ReConnect Extends and Expands
USDA launched the ReConnect broadband program last year to award more than $1 billion in grants and loans to connect unserved and underserved rural areas. In round one of the program, the agency distributed more than $600 million to 70 providers across 31 states. Many of these awards went to community-owned networks, including rural cooperatives and local governments.
Earlier this week, USDA announced that it is pushing the ReConnect round two application deadline back to April 15 because of the pandemic. In a USDA press release, Deputy Under Secretary Bette Brand said:
In light of the Covid-19 National Emergency, USDA is extending the application deadline for round two of ReConnect Pilot Program funding to give rural businesses, cooperatives, and communities extra time to apply for this critical assistance that will help bring high-speed broadband connectivity to rural communities.
USDA had already extended the application deadline last month, setting it at the end of March. The agency did not identify the novel coronavirus, which was actively spreading in the United States at the time, as the reason for the first extension, but it’s possible that it played a role in the decision.
Furthermore, Congress has allocated an additional $100 million to USDA for ReConnect broadband grants as part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, the recently passed stimulus package. While it will likely fund high-quality, locally-owned fiber networks, the extra money is ultimately almost comically inadequate when compared to rural connectivity needs. Broadband consultant Doug Dawson explained why on his blog:
I’ve seen estimates over the years that it will take $100 billion to bring fiber to everybody in rural America. While a $100 million grant program might sound huge, if the need is $100 billion, then Congress just allocated one-tenths of one percent (0.1%) of the money needed to solve the rural broadband issue . . . When we map out the areas covered by this extra money you won’t be able to see it on a map of the US.
To the FCC: Hurry Up
As Congress bolsters the ReConnect program, a much larger pot of funding is simmering at the FCC. The agency’s upcoming RDOF reverse auctions will award $20.4 billion in subsidies to Internet access providers to expand rural broadband across the country. Phase one of the program has a budget of $16 billion.
While the FCC plans to conduct the phase one auction later this year, Jonathan Chambers, partner at Conexon, has proposed expediting the RDOF process to speed up the deployment of rural connectivity.“The one thing I think the country doesn’t have anymore is time...We don’t have time to build these networks,” he shared recently on episode 402 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.
In particular, Chambers, who works with rural electric cooperatives, recommended that the FCC award accelerated funds only to bidders that promise gigabit-capable Fiber-to-the-Home networks and distribute any remaining funding at a later date. He also suggested various changes that could facilitate the collapsed time frame, including not tweaking eligible areas and streamlining application forms. One advantage of his idea is that it uses an existing program and funding to attack the connectivity crisis exposed by the Covid-19 outbreak.
Electric cooperatives and other community owned providers are well-situated to respond to the hastened timeline proposed by Chambers. “I work for 50 to 100 electric co-ops right now who’d be prepared to start building fiber networks in rural areas if the RDOF were implemented today,” he said on the podcast episode. Chambers explained how these fiber networks could not only address connectivity challenges facing families today but also prepare communities to rebuild their local economies after the pandemic:
You’ve got activity today, which then leads to the economic activity of the future because you’ll be enabling, through the networks, the kinds of social, healthcare, educational — all of everything that people do by living on the Internet will be enabled in rural areas . . . We’re ready now. Let’s get started now. Let’s move the timetable for the RDOF process up.
Listen to Chambers discuss his proposal and the upcoming RDOF auction on episode 402 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast below.