June 23, 2020
Today, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to immediately release $100 million in rural broadband funding, as millions of families continue to adjust to a new normal of online learning, work, and health care due to the COVID-19 crisis. Before the coronavirus pandemic, rural and native communities already faced a substantial broadband gap. According to a recent FCC report, over 25% of rural Americans are without access to quality broadband, compared to only 1.7% of Americans living in urban areas. Now, the pandemic has exacerbated this divide, as Americans are forced to stay, learn and work from home. Gillibrand called on the Trump administration to quickly spend the $100 million in funding for federal grants administered through the USDA ReConnect program under the CARES Act, in order to prioritize and expand rural communities’ essential access to broadband. The ReConnect program is desperately needed to provide loans and grants for the costs of construction, improvement, or acquisition of facilities and equipment required to provide broadband service in eligible rural areas.
“It’s disappointing, and frankly unacceptable, that the administration has yet to invest hard-won funding for rural broadband infrastructure that Congress guaranteed in the CARES Act,” said Senator Gillibrand. “Because of the administration’s inaction, New Yorkers have been trying to do the impossible and get by in the era of COVID without access to broadband in their homes, relying instead on free public Wi-Fi or limited satellite internet. We must fight to close the pervasive digital divide in our country and ensure that every American has access to vital technological resources, no matter their zip code or socioeconomic status. Rural and native families cannot wait any longer, and I’m going to fight to get this funding to the communities that need it the most.”
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans who have been forced to stay home have become more reliant on internet access to participate in daily life. Work, school, health care, communicating with loved ones, and more, now take place online. Unfortunately, more than 338,000 families in New York State lack broadband, which makes connecting to the internet far too difficult, especially in rural and native communities. While Congress fought to include an additional $100 million to the USDA ReConnect Broadband program for grants in the CARES Act, months later the Trump administration has spent only a small fraction of that money. Tens of millions of dollars allocated for broadband infrastructure have been left unused as families struggle. In a letter, Senator Gillibrand, alongside Senator Tina Smith (D-MN), urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to expedite spending of crucial ReConnect program funding.
Full text of the letter can be found here and below.
Dear Secretary Perdue,
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on rural America, further stretching what is already limited resources in rural and native communities across the country. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced people to work from home, students to learn from home, and people to access healthcare from home. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven that broadband isn’t just nice, it is necessary for our nation’s economy to work for everyone.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, rural and native communities were already facing a broadband gap. According to the FCC’s 2019 Broadband Deployment Report, over 25% of rural Americans are without access to fixed terrestrial broadband at quality speeds, compared to only 1.7% of Americans living in an urban environment. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted these broadband deficiencies as Americans are forced to stay home to work and go to school.
The USDA ReConnect program was specifically designed to address rural and urban internet inequities, by equipping rural America with grants and loans to facilitate and fund construction of new broadband infrastructure. Recognizing the need for broadband access in rural communities, Congress appropriated an additional $100 million under The CARES Act for the ReConnect Program. However, the USDA has only obligated a small fraction of this money.
These funds are desperately needed, and it is unacceptable that this money is still unspent.
We ask that you listen to the needs of millions of Americans living in rural communities across the country, expedite the spending of ReConnect program dollars, and prioritize improved broadband access.