Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Utilities Service (RUS) published a funding opportunity announcement that seeks to provide $1.15 billion for the next round of its rural ReConnect program.
According to Claude Aiken, president and CEO of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), the RUS historically has had an important role in supporting the deployment of broadband in hard to serve rural areas of the country. Americans have benefited immensely from connectivity that resulted from these investments, he said. Aiken said that 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,” Aiken said. “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 Aiken’s view, innovators and entrepreneurs on the front lines of closing the digital divide are most likely to 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,” Aiken said. “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.”
Aiken said that 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, he said, this will hurt small, rural internet service providers. Aiken said that the end result would be inefficient overbuilding of what he called the vibrant community-based networks that have served the United States so well.
“Such an outcome seems an odd reward for their tireless entrepreneurship and investment in the communities where they live,” Aiken said. “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.”