Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has sent a letter calling on the Senate Appropriations Committee to fully fund the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Broadband program for fiscal year 2023.
“If there is one thing that we learned during COVID, it is that access to the internet is not a luxury, but a necessity,” Gillibrand said in a video news conference Thursday afternoon.
Gillibrand, in the letter she co-leads with Sen. Roger W. Marshall, R-Kansas, is asking for $350 million in federal funding for fiscal year 2023 to help connect Americans living in rural communities to high-speed internet.
In 2018, the Senate passed the Agriculture Improvement Act, better known as the 2018 Farm Bill, and increased the annual funding authorization level of the USDA broadband program to $350 million a year through 2023. The amount has been authorized every year, but it has not been fully funded in past years, Gillibrand said.
“To close this pervasive digital divide, Congress must do its part,” she said.
Included in the funding package would be money for grants to help with last-mile needs in communities where houses may be within hundreds of feet of broadband connections, but still cannot afford to connect to those services. The grants, available to governments and other entities, would help pay for any costs not covered by private companies.
Gillibrand, in the letter, noted a study that found 17.3% of rural Americans lack access to fixed-terrestrial broadband at speeds of 25 Mbps/3Mbps, compared to only 2% of Americans in urban areas.
“We owe it to every American to ensure that we are able to make use of this critical resource and are not locked out of opportunities simply because of where they live,” Gillibrand said.
Without access to high-quality, affordable broadband service, Gillibrand said, rural Americans have fewer opportunities for good-paying jobs, farmers and business owners are isolated from new markets, children are limited in educational opportunities, and health care providers do not have reliable access to advanced technology to help patients.
“We must close the digital divide in our country and ensure that every American has access to essential technology resources, no matter their ZIP code or socioeconomic status,” Gillibrand said.
Gillibrand said there is broad stakeholder and bipartisan support for the funding. The $350 million would join other loan and grant programs in the USDA Rural Utilities Service’s Broadband Program to invest in rural communities. This includes $1.9 billion in funding over 10 years for the USDA’s ReConnect program in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.