USDA's ReConnect Program Misses Important Opportunity to Boost Broadband Deployment

Late last week, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Utilities Service (RUS) published a “funding opportunity announcement,” which seeks to provide $1.15 billion for the next round of its rural ReConnect program.  The following statement may be attributed to Claude Aiken, President and CEO of WISPA:
Washington, DC, October 25, 2021 – The USDA’s RUS has historically had an important role in supporting the deployment of broadband in hard to serve rural areas of the country.  Americans have benefited immensely from the connectivity which has resulted from these investments.  The ReConnect program is the most recent iteration of this effort.
While WISPA appreciates USDA’s focus, we believe the way ReConnect has been designed misses an important opportunity.  Instead of inviting the largest pool of applicants to ensure its success, the scoring system for grantees means that, in a practical sense, these funds will be available to only a few entities, significantly limiting the reach of U.S. taxpayer dollars and efficacy of the deployment program.
In short, innovators and entrepreneurs on the front lines of closing the digital divide likely will find themselves unable to access this funding, and, worse yet, could have their efforts to connect rural America undone by the funding.
WISPA’s members provide connectivity to the hardest to reach areas of America – precisely where RUS wants to go and where economic development is often needed most.  Though some of our members take Federal, state and local support to build their networks where available, most still rely on self-financing as the primary method to grow and extend their reach to new consumers.  This successful model has brought robust connectivity to over 7 million Americans and counting.  It has also created high tech jobs for rural communities.
The terms by which this funding is made available punishes investment by weighting factors unrelated to the deployment of robust, competitive and evolutionary broadband.  Put simply, this will hurt small, rural internet service providers.  The end result will be inefficient overbuilding of these vibrant community-based networks that have served this country so well.  Such an outcome seems an odd “reward” for their tireless entrepreneurship and investment in the communities where they live.      
All Americans need access to affordable broadband to thrive in our economy, community and family endeavors.  WISPA is encouraged that USDA shares this goal, too.  Community-based providers play an integral role in making this happen, and we look forward to working with the USDA as it implements this and other similar programs to get all Americans online.    
WISPA’s 1000 members are composed of fixed Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) and the evolving industry that supports fixed broadband connectivity, including equipment suppliers, support services, and other components needed to run a successful business. Our members, and WISPs in general, provide broadband access to millions of residential and business customers in rural, urban and Tribal areas across America.

Mike Wendy