Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) today successfully amended the 2012 Farm Bill to provide new tools to extend high-speed Internet service to rural America. The amendment effectively targets loans and grants to unserved and underserved rural communities, and it also creates new metrics to improve accountability for taxpayers. Sen. Warnerâ€™s bipartisan amendment was cosponsored by U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Mark Kirk (R-IL)Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Jim Webb (D-VA). It passed by voice vote this afternoon, and final Senate passage of the 2012 Farm Bill was expected later today.
The Rural Utility Service (RUS) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was established to eliminate the â€œdigital divideâ€ between rural and urban areas. However, more than 18 million Americans â€“ many of them residing in rural regions â€“ still do not have access to broadband service at all. A 2009 report by USDAâ€™s inspector general found that many RUS grants and loans were being awarded to projects in non-rural regions, and fewer than three-percent of the RUS loans and grants between 2005-09 actually went to broadband investments in unserved communities.
â€œBuilding out a nationwide broadband network will strengthen our economy and put more people back to work. Yet thedigital divide between urban and rural regions continues to pose a challenge: while 70% of urban households have broadband, only 57% of rural households and fewer than one-third of rural farms have broadband today,â€ Sen. Warner said. â€œAt a time when federal, state and local support for economic development is shrinking, we should more closely target these limited resources to close the digital divide in rural communities in Virginia and across the country.â€
The Warner amendment provides meaningful broadband access for unserved rural communities by requiring that at least 25 percent of households in a proposed project area qualify as unserved or underserved. The Secretary of Agriculture will have discretion to reduce the percentage to not less than 18 percent for project areas covering 7,500 or fewer people, and 15 percent for areas covering 5,000 or fewer.
The Warner amendment also improves government accountability by enhancing reporting requirements in order to enable RUS and taxpayers to better assess the value of successful projects. It requires all funding recipients and RUS to report specific metrics about the number of residences and businesses receiving new service. These reports also will include information on average broadband speeds, as well as progress in extending broadband to specific educational, health care and public safety agencies and organizations.
Finally, the Warner amendment enhances broadband mapping. The National Broadband Map, launched in 2010, is a necessary first step in assessing the availability of broadband services across the country. Unfortunately, the map is not specific enough. The amendment requires RUS loan and grant recipients to provide broadband build-out data for use in the National Broadband Map so that RUS can better utilize more specific data in future funding decisions.
â€œI want to commend Sen. Warner and everyone on this amendment for a tremendous amount of work. Itâ€™s a bipartisan amendment and makes a tremendous amount of sense. Itâ€™s real reform,â€ said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said on the floor.