Congress already allocated $65 billion for broadband in 2021 via the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), but as negotiations over the 2023 Farm Bill get underway some are angling for even more cash to boost rural broadband.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the Farm Bill is a sprawling piece of legislation covering agricultural and food programs that is revisited every five years or so. The last Farm Bill was passed in late 2018, meaning it is up for renewal in the back half of 2023.
Though you might not immediately associate internet infrastructure with agriculture, rural broadband programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have been a part of the Farm Bill since 2002. The ReConnect Program is probably the best-known of these, but the USDA also oversees the Telecommunications Infrastructure Program, Rural Broadband Program (RBP), Community Connect Grant Program (CCGP), and Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program (DLTP).
Annual appropriations for the last three – $350 million for the RBP, $50 million for the CCGP and $75 million to $82 million for the DLTP – were included in the 2018 bill and are set to expire on September 30 of this year. The ReConnect Program has received funding sporadically through separate legislation, including $2 billion from the IIJA in 2021. But the Congressional Research Service noted Congress could consider a longer-term funding mechanism for ReConnect in its 2023 Farm Bill.
Despite a seeming glut of broadband funding for other programs like the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program, there appears to be an appetite for more money for rural deployments.
David Scott, a Congressman from the state of Georgia who is the top minority party member (also known as the “ranking member”) on the House Agriculture Committee, named broadband as one of his priorities for the upcoming Farm Bill.
“We must ensure that appropriate funding is given to USDA to help us bridge the digital divide between rural and urban America,” his office said in a press release. It is unclear how much money Scott would consider "appropriate."
The 118th Congress’ House Agriculture Committee held its first Farm Bill listening session in Pennsylvania this week. During the session, Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree also highlighted the importance of boosting rural broadband, Beef Magazine reported. And as NRECA pointed out, rural electric cooperatives showed up to push for more broadband funding as well.
Before negotiations over the Farm Bill kick into high gear as the year progresses, the House Agriculture Committee is hoping to hold several more listening sessions. Additionally, the Senate Agriculture Committee – which began holding hearings about the Farm Bill late last year – said its own feedback tour will continue through the early part of this year. It is also accepting suggestions for the 2023 Farm Bill via a submission form.
As with all U.S. legislation, the Farm Bill will need to be passed by both the House and Senate and be signed by President Joe Biden to become law.