Collins, King Join Bipartisan Group Urging USDA to Direct Broadband Funding to High-Need Rural Areas

The Senators urge the USDA to set aside part of the $600 million in rural broadband funding allocated in the 2018 March Omnibus for geographically challenged areas

U.S. Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Angus King (I-Maine), a founder and co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, joined a bipartisan group of colleagues to urge the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to designate a funding carve out within the $600 million rural broadband e-Connectivity Pilot Program established in the March 2018 omnibus appropriations bill. The senators urged the USDA to work with states to determine eligible areas for a funding set aside within the total amount in the e-Connectivity program specifically to reach the high cost, rural and geographically challenged areas of the country that need it most. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), of the 24 million American households that do not have reliable, affordable, high-speed internet, 80 percent are located in rural areas.

 

“As you know, rural America is largely at a disadvantage for broadband deployment as a result of low population density, which makes these areas less attractive to the average broadband provider looking for a large return on investment,” the Senators wrote. “Certain areas, however, face even bigger obstacles to deployment because of their challenging topography.  Mountains and valleys, desert terrain, working forests, islands, remote coastal areas and ribbons of winding roads are central to the identity of the communities we represent, and their beauty is what draws people to visit from around the world.  Unfortunately, these same natural features make it far more expensive to construct critical broadband infrastructure.  For example, during the first phase of the Mobility Fund, the average cost of Auction 901 greenfield sites constructed by U.S. Cellular in West Virginia came in at about $1.2 million, three times more expensive than flatter, easier to serve states like Oklahoma which only had an average cost of about $400,000.”  

 

“With the additional effort and higher costs associated with this difficult and remote terrain, it is clear why providers would choose to avoid broadband deployment in high cost, geographically challenging areas,” the Senators continued. “Many of our states must absorb these high costs and invest their own resources into building out broadband infrastructure in hopes of reducing the financial barriers to attracting private partners, but they cannot afford to do it alone.  We need a federal partner that understands these unique challenges our states face when trying to expand broadband service and we ask that USDA consult with states to create a “high-cost” definition that accurately reflects the significant additional costs associated with deploying broadband in these areas so that our states can effectively compete for grant funding with other states that can build out for pennies on the dollar.  We strongly encourage you to address this disparity and ensure our states have a fair shot at this funding by establishing a reasonable set aside within this $600 million allocation for high-cost, hard to serve areas like the places we represent.”

 

In addition to Senators Collins and King, the letter was signed by Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).

 

The full text of the letter is available here and below.