Lawmakers worry about reliability of broadband cards at House Ag hearing

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Members of the House Agriculture Committee expressed concerns about the reliability of broadband cards during a hearing on Thursday.

The Rural Development Division of the Department of Agriculture, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Federal Communications Commission distribute funds to connect underserved communities, but do not follow the same process to determine where to go. This money. But they all rely on FCC broadband maps, which are historically notorious for their inaccuracy.

With the NTIA and FCC not present at the hearing, lawmakers pressed USDA officials about the validity of the current card the agency uses to distribute the funds. Xochitl Torres Small, USDA undersecretary for rural development, said each iteration of the mapping process improves as agencies collect more of their own data and become less dependent on census tracts.

Torres Small said Rural Development, which is responsible for distributing grants and loans through the ReConnect program and the Telecom Infrastructure Loan and Loan Guarantee program, uses the National Broadband Availability Map of the NTIA to determine where the funding should be distributed. The agency then allows Internet service providers to challenge its decisions with their own data and, if necessary, to visit the site to resolve any disputes.

The agency then sends the information to NTIA, which can be used to improve the map. Torres Small said the collaboration is important for the programs to work well, noting that the department also consults with states like Georgia that have drawn their own maps.

“This cartographic collaboration is crucial,” she said.

Torres Small, when asked about how the cards could be improved for the future, said it was important that information from previous rewards flow into new cards to ensure funding continues to go where it is. most needed.

“These maps are crucial in deciding where you might plan to serve in the future,” she said. “It’s the vision of what is possible.”

Representative Glenn Thompson, a Republican from Pennsylvania and a ranking member of the committee, criticized past Congressional efforts to place some of the programs in the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, rather than the USDA, which he said has more staff and a greater presence in rural areas. who need broadband.

“Since 2013, thirteen new broadband programs have been authorized and funded by Congress, none of which are administered by the USDA,” Thompson said. “Shame on Congress. Shame on administrations for allowing this to happen.

The USDA ReConnect Program closed the application window for the third round of ReConnect Program funding this spring. Torres Small said the program will deliver $1 billion in broadband funds to rural communities.

Lynn Follansbee, vice president of strategic initiatives and partnerships for USTelecom, the national trade association representing network providers, said the implementation of the ReConnect program needed to be more transparent. She noted that there are currently rules that limit the participation of certain candidates.

Follansbee also said the ReConnect program is technically still a “pilot” program, saying lawmakers should consider whether to formalize the program and, if so, coordinate it. his current role in conjunction with funds available in other federal agencies.

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