Hill oversight tightens amid coming broadband surge

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With billions of dollars set to flow to internet connectivity, lawmakers are questioning how the Biden administration plans to coordinate spending them. In January 20 hearing before the House Agriculture Committee, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack fielded several questions from lawmakers of both parties about how the department has set up its latest round of $1.15 billion in broadband loan and grant funding through its ReConnect program, which will accept applications through February 22. The infrastructure law President Joe Biden signed in November 2021 slated an additional $2 billion for ReConnect. Some House lawmakers peppered Vilsack with questions about USDA’s new points system for prioritizing applicants. Others worried about USDA’s changes to what counts as an “underserved” eligible population, which now means any area lacking 100 Megabits/second download over 20 upload speeds, well above the FCC broadband definition of 25/3 Mbps. The agriculture secretary vigorously defended his department’s points set-up as balanced, reflecting a mix of priorities. “There is a need for additional capacity, which we’ve learned during the course of the pandemic,” he told one lawmaker of higher favored speeds. “It’s equipping rural America to basically have the kind of broadband access that is meaningful and can actually make a difference.” 25/3 Mbps won’t be enough for future precision agriculture and distance learning needs, he added, noting points awarded for serving rural and economically struggling areas and vulnerable populations like seniors can “offset” an applicant’s perceived disadvantages and keep steering dollars toward the neediest communities. “This is an ongoing, iterative process and we learn,” Vilsack told lawmakers, saying criteria could evolve in future funding rounds.

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