WASHINGTON, DC -- Congressman Mike Michaud has sent a letter signed by his colleagues to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) urging the agency to raise broadband eligibility standards for the Community Connect Grant Program so that more rural communities lacking high speed internet access can apply for assistance.
"As the program is currently structured, a number of Maine communities have been blocked from seeking assistance," said Michaud. "Increasing the standard will enable more underserved rural communities to compete for broadband infrastructure grants. Increased high-speed internet access will improve educational and health care opportunities as well as boost the competitiveness of rural businesses."
Community Connect is a decade old program designed to assist underserved rural communities that lack broadband internet access. Since its inception the program has defined broadband internet as 200Kbps or faster. Communities with any internet access above 200Kbps have been ineligible for the program. Such a low threshold excludes many rural communities from assistance despite having internet that is insufficient for businesses and far slower than the FCC's National Broadband Plan benchmark of 4Mbps.
USDA recently announced proposed changes to Community Connect that will streamline the Program and make it more effective. Those changes permit USDA to update the broadband eligibility threshold each year in the Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA).
January 15, 2013
The Honorable Tom Vilsack
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, D.C. 20250
Dear Secretary Vilsack,
We write in support of the proposed changes to the Rural Utilities Service's (RUS) Community Connect grant program. As you know, the program funds broadband infrastructure projects that provide rural communities with high-speed internet access. While the proposed changes will improve the program's overall effectiveness, we believe future Notices of Funding Availability (NOFA) should also include a modernization of broadband eligibility standards.
Specifically, we support an update to the Community Connect Program's (CCP) definition for Broadband Transmission Service (Broadband) to meet today's faster technological standards. The CCP's prior broadband definition of 200 Kbps was outdated and prevented communities with any internet access even slightly faster than 200 Kbps from seeking assistance. Common applications used by most small businesses, such as videoconferencing or offsite data backup, require a minimum of 3 Mbps internet speeds with much faster speeds needed still for those applications to work reliably. When Broadband service is defined in future NOFAs, the speed requirements should be increased to allow additional communities lacking high-speed internet to compete for assistance.
Other FCC and USDA broadband programs have already modernized to meet improving technology. In 2010, the FCC's National Broadband Plan set its broadband benchmark at 4 Mbps for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads. The USDA's Rural Broadband Access Loan Program also updated its broadband eligibility threshold to 3Mbps to ensure that rural communities with slower internet speeds could apply for assistance.
CCP is often the only option to expand broadband internet in rural areas. Low subscriber bases place both private investment and USDA Broadband Access Loans out of reach. Unfortunately, as a result of the 200Kbps standard, many underserved rural communities have been left with no programs to help them expand their broadband capacity even though their internet speed is too slow for common web applications that businesses need to be competitive in the modern economy.
Without access to high-speed broadband internet, rural areas face significant barriers to economic development, educational and health care resources. We urge you to modernize the CCP broadband eligibility standards in subsequent NOFAs to bring it more in line with other federal programs. Improving this standard will ensure that more struggling rural communities are able expand broadband access for their residents, schools, health care providers, and businesses.
Anna G. Eshoo
Terri A. Sewell
Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan