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USDA Invites Comments on the Implementation of the e-Connectivity Pilot Program

Erin McDuff
Release Date

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development is inviting comments on the implementation of the e-Connectivity Pilot Program established in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018, announced State Director John Huffman today.

“Internet access is an essential tool in our daily lives, but some people, especially in rural areas, still do not have reliable broadband service to their homes or businesses,” said Huffman. “Lack of e-connectivity can prevent businesses from accessing new markets, limit students in their education, hinder farmers from using the latest technology to manage their crops, and complicate many elements of day-to-day life. I am thrilled to announce that USDA is taking the first steps toward launching a new pilot program geared toward introducing broadband to previously underserved small communities.”

According to a 2018 report by the Federal Communications Commission, 80 percent of the 24 million American households that do not have reliable, affordable, high-speed internet access are in rural areas. Without e-connectivity, rural Americans cannot reach their full productivity in the workplace, receive the best education, nor benefit from the highest quality of healthcare.

USDA’s new e-Connectivity Pilot Program is intended to catalyze private investment and bring broadband to underserved rural areas. The new program provides a unique opportunity to develop modern methods to leverage federal funds to increase private investment in broadband services for as many rural American homes, businesses, farms, schools and healthcare facilities as possible.

This pilot program was made possible by a $600 million appropriation in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018. The framework outlined by Congress for this program allows the new federal funds to be deployed in rural areas with a population of 20,000 or less. Incumbent and competitive rural telephone and broadband service providers, rural electric cooperatives, private firms (with the exception of sole proprietors and partnerships), nonprofits, and governmental bodies will be eligible to apply. Rural areas with current internet service speeds of 10 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload will be eligible. The requirements on build-out speeds are not specified by the law and are therefore under development. See page 52 of the legislation for details.

USDA is seeking input as we develop the rules and requirements of the e-Connectivity Pilot Program. Those with an interest in rural broadband deployment are welcome to contribute. Specifically, comments are being sought on the following issues:

  1. Ways of evaluating a rural household’s “sufficient access” to broadband e-connectivity at speeds of 10 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream, and how broadband service affordability should be factored in.
  2. Best options to verify speeds of broadband service provided to rural households.
  3. Best leading indicators of the potential project benefits for rural industries, such as agriculture, manufacturing, e-commerce, transportation, healthcare, and education, using readily available public data.

USDA’s goal is to make the most effective use of these new and innovative funds through utility partnerships, where possible. Public input on methods to evaluate the viability of applications that include local utility partnership arrangements is also being sought.

Comments are due on or before 2:00 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time on Monday, September 10, 2018, and can be submitted by either of the following methods:

1. Federal eRulemaking Portal:
In the lower “Search Regulations and Federal Actions” box, select “Rural Utilities Service” from the agency drop-down menu, then click “Submit.” In the Docket ID column, select “RUS-18-TELECOM-0004” to submit or view public comments. 

2. Postal Mail / Commercial Delivery:
When submitting comments by mail, please state that your comments refer to Docket No. RUS-18-TELECOM-0004. Comments may be sent to the following address:

          U.S. Department of Agriculture
          Rural Development Innovation Center
          ATTN: Michele Brooks, Regulations Team Lead
          1400 Independence Ave., SW
          Stop 1522, Room 1562
          Washington, DC 20250

USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; housing; community services such as schools, public safety, and healthcare; and high-speed internet access in rural areas. For more information, visit www.rd.usda.gov/or.