The House Agriculture Committee unanimously advanced a bipartisan bill Wednesday authorizing $43 billion to expand rural broadband service nationwide by dramatically increasing USDA's expiring loan and grant program.

The Broadband Internet Connections for Rural America Act would authorize $4.5 billion in annual funding, starting in fiscal year 2022 for the ReConnect Rural Broadband program through fiscal year 2029. The existing program, established as a pilot in 2018, would sunset June 30, 2022. Congress provided $742 million for USDA rural broadband programs in fiscal year 2021.

“This connectivity is indeed a lifeline in so many ways for our farmers, for telemedicine, (and) tele-education,” House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott, D-Ga. said. “We have got to do what our bold pioneers and forebearers did in the 1930s and 40s when we brought electricity to our rural areas.”

Scott did not know whether this bill would be folded into the bipartisan infrastructure package currently being negotiated between Congress and the White House; that package includes $65 billion for broadband funding.

“What I’ve got to do right now is hurry up and get my bill out on the calendar and that’s what I’ll be working toward,” he told reporters. He said he would be having conversations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and heads of the Energy and Commerce and Budget committees.

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The bill has also been sent to the House Energy and Commerce Committee for consideration.

The bill's funding amounts are authorized but not mandated. Congress would have to fund the programs separately.

Under the bill, USDA must give the "highest priority to applications for projects to provide broadband service to unserved communities that do not have any residential broadband of at least" 10 megabits per second download and one megabit per second upload. Communities with less than 10,000 permanent residents and areas with a high percentage of low-income families will come next, according to the bill.

Under the current program, sufficient broadband access is defined as having broadband service at 10/1 Mbps.

“The Department of Agriculture has the expertise, experience, and reach to bring these investments to rural America quickly and responsibly,” said the committee's top Republican, Glenn "GT" Thompson of Pennsylvania.

Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA — The Rural Broadband Association welcomed the bill. "We look forward to working with the committee and Congress to ensure coordination between federal broadband programs and that all of rural America has access to broadband through proven future-proof technology," she said in a statement to Agri-Pulse.

Under the bill, USDA also would be authorized to provide grants up to $50,000 to applicants who collect broadband service data to improve coverage maps.

Other funding authorizations include $300 million for the Innovative Broadband Advancement Program for each fiscal year through 2029. This money would be used "to carry out projects in states and territories selected by the Secretary to be diverse on the basis of geography, topography, and demographics," the bill noted. No more than $25 million could be awarded to a single project in a year.

It also authorizes $150 million for Community Connect Grants annually for eight years. These grants provide money to eligible applicants who provide high-speed internet in "rural, economically challenged communities where service does not exist," according to USDA. This number is an increase from $50 million in the 2018 farm bill.

Some $150 million is allocated for distance learning and telemedicine loans and grants, which is an $82 million increase from the 2018 farm bill. Another $300 million would be authorized to expand middle-mile infrastructure, a boost from $10 million in the 2018 farm bill.

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