Federal Agencies Meeting Milestones on Rural Broadband Expansion

In the September 2020 President’s Management Agenda (PMA) updates, two Federal agencies focused on rural broadband expansion reported they are meeting key milestones.

The Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Commerce both have an Agency Priority Goal (APG) focused on rural broadband expansion. The USDA is focused on broadband connectivity for residential and commercial purposes and the Department of Commerce is zeroed in on rural broadband expansion for public safety needs.

The USDA’s overarching goal is to “create and implement innovative solutions to rural connectivity by expanding broadband infrastructure and services.” By Sept. 30, 2021, rural broadband investments will leverage more than $250 million in non-Federal funding through a program that will encourage private sector development and enable the deployment of “innovative solutions and cutting edge technologies.” Specifically, USDA is looking to use broadband deployment to support precision agriculture, distance learning, and telemedicine.

In the PMA update, USDA identified three key activities during the third quarter of the 2020 fiscal year:

  • Loan and grant funding totaling over $852 million has been awarded to 96 projects serving unserved rural communities across 36 states.
  • As part of its newest broadband program, ReConnect, the USDA had invested $749 million in 82 projects. The investments include grant and loan funding for high-speed broadband infrastructure. The funding will impact 174,580 households.
  • The second round of the ReConnect Pilot Program received 172 applications for $1.57 billion funding. The second round will enable USDA to implement innovative new solutions to rural connectivity by leveraging financial options with partners and continuing the success of the first round of funding.

USDA also reported that it has met all milestones that have come due and is on track to meet future milestones.

In terms of the impact COVID-19 has had on the APG, the agency noted that it did have to undertake quite a few unplanned actions to help rural residents, businesses, and communities amid the pandemic. Further, the CARES Act provided the agency with an additional $125 million towards rural broadband development, specifically ear marketed for distance learning and telemedicine grants. In terms of COVID-19 changing how USDA operates, the agency said that it has moved its workforce to telework and has changed in-person events for the APG to virtual events.

The Department of Commerce is focused on how broadband can be used to improve rural public safety. Under its goal statement, the Commerce Department said it will “increase the public’s safety by providing first responders with access to a nationwide wireless broadband network.” By Sept. 30 of this year, the national wireless broadband network, dubbed FirstNet, will allow the public safety community to serve an additional 8.9 million people within the rural population by providing coverage reaching 55 percent of the entire rural population. By September 30, 2021, Commerce will ensure the FirstNet Solution will provide coverage reaching 60 percent of the entire rural population.

In terms of FY20 Q3 updates, the Commerce Department noted that it has validated nationwide public safety broadband network coverage data and determined that in FY20 Q2 the wireless broadband network covered an additional 3.5 percent of the rural population, which is approximately an additional 1.8 million people. It further noted that by the end of FY20 Q2 53.5 percent of the rural population – or 27.4 million people – were now covered by the broadband network. FirstNet found that it has succeeded its FY20 Q2 goal of covering 50 percent of the rural population by 3.5 percent.

The Commerce Department noted that the FirstNet Authority expects to report FY20 Q3 information by November 2020, which is considered on time due to a lag in receiving data from private sector partners.

The agency reported that it has met its milestones and is on track to meet future deadlines.

Kate Polit
About Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs