Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., along with 16 House colleagues in a Dec. 7 letter, called on Senate and House appropriators to prioritize funding for broadband infrastructure projects and reject proposed cuts included in the Senate version of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 funding bill.
Specifically, the letter asked leaders of the Senate and House Appropriations Subcommittees on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies to increase federal investment in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Rural eConnectivity Pilot Program (ReConnect Program). The ReConnect Program is focused on partnering with businesses and local governments to expand broadband infrastructure and increase connectivity in rural and underserved communities across the country.
In FY 2020, the Federal government allocated $620 million for rural broadband connectivity, including $555 for the ReConnect program. Under the House version of the FY 2021 appropriations bill, rural broadband would receive $1.055 billion in funding, with $900 million for the ReConnect program. However, under the Senate bill, rural broadband would receive $465.6 million in funding – a decrease of $590 million over the House bill. As part of the Senate bill, $400 million of the broadband funding is earmarked for the ReConnect program.
The proposed cut has angered many in the House who represent rural and underserved communities.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a bright spotlight on the disparities that exist across the country between those who have broadband and those who do not,” the letter says. “These disparities have real public health and economic impacts – and not just during a public health crisis. In the midst of this crisis, millions of Americans find themselves without the ability to access a wide range of important services, including e-learning for children being schooled at home, video conferencing to work from home and stay in touch with our loved ones, and telehealth services that help flatten the curve by keeping those feeling ill at home.”
The bipartisan group of legislators highlighted the need for a significant increase in funding, explaining that since the program was launched, the USDA has reported an approximately 3-1 ratio in funding sought to funding available.
The letter was signed by Reps. Chris Jacobs, R-N.Y., Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., Chris Pappas, D-N.H., Jeff Van Drew, R-N.J., Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., Terri Sewell, D-Ala., Elise M. Stefanik, R-N.Y., Roger Marshall, R-Kan., John Katko, R-N.Y., Pete Stauber, R-Minn., Filemon Vela, D-Texas, Ro Khanna, D-Calif., Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and Stacey E. Plaskett, D-U.S. Virgin Islands.
“Cutting funding to this program, as the Senate bill would do, would not only be a failure to meet the demands already placed on the ReConnect program but would also be a failure to meet the needs of millions of Americans living in rural communities at a time when the challenges facing those without broadband have already been significantly exacerbated. Economic mobility and access to the modern economy of Americans should not be determined by their zip code. Access to reliable high-speed internet is fundamentally an issue of opportunity and equity,” the legislators wrote.