Senator Kirsten Gillibrand today announced that the omnibus spending bill passed last week includes significant investments that will expand access to high-speed broadband service in rural communities and other high-need areas. The bill provides $600 million for a new grant-loan program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Utilities Service (RUS), which would provide much-needed investments in improving broadband service in rural and tribal areas. The omnibus bill also includes a provision to install broadband conduits as a part of federally-funded highway projects, streamlining the process for expanding broadband service.
“Reliable, high-speed internet service isn’t a luxury anymore, it is a necessity and one of the most important economic engines that communities need in order to thrive. Our schools, hospitals, and businesses rely on the internet in order to conduct their daily work, and it’s unacceptable that some of our rural communities still don’t have access to this essential technology,” said Senator Gillibrand. “I’m very pleased to announce that the recently passed spending package will help bring high-speed internet access to communities in New York that are still in need, and I was very proud to fight to make sure this critical assistance was included in the bill. Internet access is critical to everyone’s ability to get ahead, and I will continue working with my colleagues in the Senate to ensure that our communities have the resources necessary to stay connected in the changing economy.”
Nationally, over a third of rural Americans and 41 percent of tribal residents lack access to broadband. Last year, Gillibrand introduced the Broadband Connections for Rural Opportunities Program (B-CROP) Act along with Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) to help bring high-speed broadband to rural areas. Gillibrand wrote to Congressional appropriators earlier this month and urged them to include language from the B-CROP Act in the omnibus bill as part of the $20 billion commitment to rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure included in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018. The B-CROP Act proposes the same USDA grant-loan program included in the omnibus that would make grant funding available for rural broadband projects in high-need areas to be awarded in combination with loan funding available through RUS. Too often, however, loans do not offer enough incentive or support for service providers to invest in rural communities that have the greatest need. By combining grants with loans, this new program will help further incentivize broadband expansion in rural and tribal areas. The $600 million dedicated to this new grant-loan rural broadband pilot is a 10-fold increase in rural broadband investment compared to Fiscal Year 2017.
Bipartisan legislation that Gillibrand also co-led, the Streamlining and Investing in Broadband Infrastructure Act, was included in the MOBILE NOW Act that was attached to the omnibus spending bill. This provision ensures that states install broadband conduits while roads are already under construction in federally-funded highway projects, such as the construction of a new highway or the addition of highway lanes or shoulders. Known as “dig once,” this proposal will help cut the costs of installing broadband infrastructure.