Congressman Nolan Introduces Sweeping New Rural Broadband Initiative

Hot off the presses…

Rural Broadband Initiative Act recalls success of New Deal’s Rural Electrification Administration that connected rural American to the electrical grid in the 1930’s.

Recalling the success of the New Deal’s Rural Electrification Administration (REA) that began connecting every corner of rural America to the electrical grid in the 1930’s, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan has introduced legislation to launch a massive effort of similar scope for high-speed broadband. Nolan’s Rural Broadband Initiative Act (H.R. 3152) would lay the foundation for new funding and a coordinated federal strategy to bring 21st Century high-tech communications services to millions of underserved rural people and businesses.

“It’s time to bring high-speed broadband to all of rural America,” Nolan declared. “More than half of all rural Americans are without high-speed broadband. Yet there is currently no clear Congressionally approved plan, no strategy, and no single federal office responsible for helping connect tens of millions of rural people to modern broadband services. Here in rural America, high-speed broadband is essential to our ability to compete – to help start new businesses, create new jobs, attract new people and provide the education and health care services so essential to our quality of life.”

Nolan said his measure would centralize key rural broadband grant and loan initiatives under one Office of Rural Broadband Initiatives at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Under the direction of a new Under-Secretary appointed by the President, the office would administer roughly $724 million in existing rural broadband loan and grant programs – streamlining regulations and acting as a one-stop clearing house to provide assistance for local, state and regional governments seeking to connect their areas.

The office would further act as central clearinghouse of broadband information for all federal agencies – including the Federal Communications Commission, which administers some $4.5 billion specifically designated for rural areas.

The bill would also establish a sense of Congress that “necessary funds should be made available to provide universal and affordable broadband access” across the nation “with a focus on underserved rural communities.” This provision is considered key to future budget requests that would follow a wide-ranging assessment of the rural broadband needs – and a forthcoming report to Congress outlining a national rural broadband strategy – required by Nolan’s bill.

Duluth News Tribune has an opinion on the proposed legislation…

Nolan’s initiative may leave the impression Washington isn’t doing anything to encourage broadband in rural areas, where, right now, fewer than 50 percent of residents have adequate access. Washington may not be doing enough, but there is the federal Connect America Fund, the modern reincarnation of the Universal Service Fund, the funding mechanism that helped build out telephone networks, including to farms and other sparsely populated areas, last century.

The Connect America Fund collects fees from telephone users in order to offer annual service subsidies that allow Internet providers to extend service to higher-cost rural areas without increasing the bills of existing ratepayers. Through 2020, $85 million is available annually in Minnesota alone.

Our state’s Internet service providers — Frontier, Consolidated, Windstream and CenturyLink — just need to say yes to the cash. Frontier did so in June, accepting enough to extend broadband Internet access to 46,910 rural Minnesota homes and businesses. Windstream accepted more than $1.5 million, it announced yesterday, enough to expand and support broadband to approximately 8,880 rural Minnesota customers. The deadline to accept the money is the end of this month.

Encouraging is that momentum seems to still be building for border-to-border broadband, in Minnesota as well as in D.C. Discouraging is that it seems to be happening so frustratingly slow, as we opined last month, Minnesotans may be left swearing they can hear the high-pitched whine of a dial-up modem searching for connection.

This entry was posted in FCC, MN, Policy by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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