Farm Bill Hearing: Expanding Broadband to More Rural Communities

Broadband, community development, and clean energy were focal points during a Farm Bill hearing on rural development with USDA Under Secretary Xochitl Torres-Small.

She gave lawmakers an update on USDA’s vision for the next round of reconnect funding.

“Our Reconnect Round Three is targeted at reaching those places no one has dared to go before. It’s going to take NGO, it’s going to take working with new critics, whether it’s laying ground on the sea floor to reach an island off the coast or whether it’s reaching Alaska native villages you can’t reach even by road. So, we’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re seeing a lot of interest.”

The agency has expanded their outreach from for-profit broadband providers to a larger range of non-profit and community organizations. Torres-Small says the goal is to build partnerships.

“As we take on this next step that you’re going to be some of the hardest projects are looking to bring in as many potential partners as possible. And it to that point of coordination. One of the pieces that we see as one of our strengths is relationships with rural electric co-ops, that potentially we can help bring to the table. And so, in setting up this, this this small percentage of voluntary points as a way to try to get more people to be at the table solving problems. We’re hopeful that this will just create more options for communities that may not necessarily otherwise have folks who are looking to serve their area.”

She says the agency is also looking to expand processing capacity in communities to provide local jobs and support livestock producers.

“Right now, we have the Food Supply Chain Guaranteed Loan Program that has helped identify potential projects as well as lenders who might be eager to work with us on this issue. We’ve also announced impact, which is really building out that middle identifying middle, middle market projects that are very close to completion. How can we support that last step of investment to get them online and operating, expanding the number of books available?”

The Under Secretary also sees biofuels as a rural development opportunity to expand access to clean energy.

“I’m proud that USDA has invested 700 million in terms of providing support for those farmers that the experiences they had in the midst of Covid-19 and then another 100 million to build up that infrastructure that’s crucial to delivering those climates that climate smart fuel close to home”

She says it’s important to have rural development staff on the ground to help communities navigate the grant process and access available resources.

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