Senators Scold USDA for Politicizing Broadband Access

By: Noah Vehafric

A group of 13 Senators wrote to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack expressing concerns over the agencies use of “net neutrality” standards for evaluating applicants of its upcoming ReConnect Loan and Grant Program. 

The ReConnect Program was authorized by the 2018 Consolidated Appropriations Act with the goal of expanding broadband adoption in defined rural and tribal areas. Applicants seeking funding from the program are scored using “evaluation criteria” and assigned points accordingly. The higher the points the higher the priority to receive funding. Some of the criteria includes the rurality of the community, the economic need of the community, labor standards employed by the applicant and also whether or not the applicant will commit to following net neutrality standard.  

Senators were critical of this factor writing that “Any effort to impose unnecessary “net neutrality” restrictions would be dangerous to our nations dynamic broadband economy and threaten future investments in broadband infrastructure.” 

In 2018 the FCC worked to repeal its short-lived net neutrality rules over concerns about how the rules were negatively impact investment and the expansion of broadband service. Data collected by USTelecom shows that investment declined by over $3 billion dollars during the implementation of the rules and data from the Pew Research Center showed that rates of home broadband usage fell 8% during that time as well. 

The ReConnect Program’s goal is to connect rural Americans but could face significant setbacks from requiring these net neutrality rules Senators warned: “If USDA decides to make attempts at regulating the Internet absent authority from Congress, it would lead to tremendous legal and marketplace uncertainty.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of connecting all Americans to the internet. Expansion policies should follow an evidence based approach that connects all Americans instead of setting down arbitrary principles that increase hurdles to connecting them. 

Photo Credit: Green Cornfield Under Cloudy Sky by Glenn Carstens-Peters licensed for free use.