Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act: Funding for USDA Rural Broadband Programs

Updated November 19, 2021
Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act: Funding for USDA
Rural Broadband Programs

On November 15, 2021, President Biden signed the
FY2020, and $2 million in FY2021 for Rural Broadband
Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law (P.L. 117-
Program loan subsidies.
58). The act invests $1.2 trillion in the nation’s
infrastructure, including roads, highways, and electric,
Congress has provided a more restrictive definition of
water, and railway systems. The act also invests in
eligible service areas for the Rural Broadband Program than
broadband (i.e., high-speed internet) infrastructure,
for the ReConnect Program. The definition for eligible
including in rural areas where households have historically
service areas involves two parts: the minimum broadband
had lower access to broadband compared with households
speeds that constitute “sufficient access” and the percent of
in urban and suburban areas.
households that have access to broadband at those speeds.
ReConnect defines eligible service areas as areas where at
P.L. 117-58 includes funding for two U.S. Department of
least 90% of households lack sufficient broadband access to
Agriculture (USDA) broadband programs that serve rural
broadband. Sufficient broadband access is defined as
communities: the ReConnect Program and the Rural
speeds of at least 100 megabits per second download and 20
Broadband Program. This is in addition to provisions that
megabits per second upload (i.e., 100/20 Mbps). The Rural
amend or provide funding to broadband programs
Broadband Program defines eligible service areas as areas
administered by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s
where at least 50% of households do not have sufficient
National Telecommunications and Information
broadband access. Sufficient broadband access is defined as
Administration (NTIA) and the Federal Communications
speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps.
Commission (FCC). This InFocus summarizes the
provisions in the infrastructure act related to the ReConnect
Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act
Program and the Rural Broadband Program.
Division J, Title I of P.L. 117-58 provides $2 billion for
Program Overviews
USDA broadband programs, to remain available until
The ReConnect Program offers loans, grants, and loan/grant
expended. This includes $1.926 billion for ReConnect
combinations to help construct or improve facilities
Program grants and loans and $74 million for Rural
required to provide broadband access to rural areas. Eligible
Broadband Program loans. This funding exceeds FY2021
applicants include corporations, cooperatives, public
levels by $1.291 billion (+203%) for the ReConnect
entities, U.S. territories, and federally recognized Indian
Program and by $72 million (+97%) for the Rural
tribes. The program can also fund the acquisition or
Broadband Program. The act allows up to 4% of the
upgrade of an existing system not currently providing
funding for both programs to be used for administrative
sufficient broadband access.
costs (i.e., $80 million) and up to 3% of the funding to be
used for technical assistance to potential applicants (i.e.,
The Rural Broadband Program offers loans to help
$60 million). It also directs $5 million of the technical
construct, improve, or acquire facilities and equipment
assistance funds to establish and support cooperatives to
needed to provide broadband access to rural areas. Eligible
offer broadband service in rural areas. Additionally, the act
applicants include corporations, cooperatives, public
directs USDA to collaborate with the FCC and the NTIA in
entities, U.S. territories, and federally recognized Indian
awarding funding for broadband projects.
tribes. Congress has also authorized the Rural Broadband
Program to issue grants and loan guarantees (in recent
Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act
years, Congress has appropriated funding only for direct
Requirements for ReConnect Projects
The infrastructure act includes not only funding but also
language that directs how USDA is to administer the
Although the programs are similar in mission, key
ReConnect Program funding. These provisions do not apply
distinctions include funding levels and how the programs
to the Rural Broadband Program. The provisions focus on
define eligible service areas. In recent years, Congress has
the ReConnect Program’s definition for eligible service
provided more funding for the ReConnect Program than for
areas (i.e., percent of households without sufficient
the Rural Broadband Program. As an example, Congress
broadband access and the minimum speeds that constitute
appropriated $550 million in FY2019, $655 million in
sufficient access). The next section describes the provisions
FY2020, and $635 million in FY2021 for ReConnect
included in the act and compares these provisions with the
Program grants and loan subsidies, and Congress
current law, current regulations governing the ReConnect
appropriated $5.8 million in FY2019, $2 million in
Program (7 C.F.R. §1740), or recent funding opportunity
announcements (FOAs) published in the Federal Register.

Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act: Funding for USDA Rural Broadband Programs
Proposed Service Area Requirements
Development Act (P.L. 87-128). The designation allows the
The act defines eligible areas for ReConnect projects
Secretary of Agriculture to consider communities that do
funded by P.L. 117-58 as rural areas where at least 50% of
not meet the definition of a rural area under certain USDA
households lack sufficient broadband access. It defines
Rural Development programs to be eligible for funding if
sufficient broadband access as speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps. they have qualities that are rural in character.
More restrictive than current regulations. This definition
Similar to prior rounds of funding. The definition of rural
of eligible areas is less restrictive than current ReConnect
area in P.L. 117-58 is the same definition used in current
Program requirements. Currently, the program requires that
ReConnect program regulations. Regulations do not contain
90% of households served by projects be in areas without
language allowing funding to be allocated to projects in
sufficient broadband access. Regulations state that USDA
areas rural in character. However, the Consolidated
will define the minimum speeds that constitute sufficient
Appropriations Act, 2021 (P.L. 116-260, Division A,
broadband access in FOAs; these speeds may not be lower
Section 791) allocated up to 10% of ReConnect Program
than 10/1 Mbps. The latest FOA defines sufficient
funding for projects serving rural in character communities.
broadband access as 100/20 Mbps (86 Federal Register
58860, October 25, 2021).
Other ReConnect Program Criteria
In addition to the criteria above, the act allows pole
Set-Aside for High-Need Rural Areas
attachment fees and replacement costs for shared use of
The act requires that 10% of the funding for the ReConnect
utility poles owned by electric cooperatives to be eligible
Program (i.e., $192.6 million) be set aside for service areas
costs under ReConnect projects funded by the bill. The act
where at least 90% of households are in a rural area without
also waives matching requirements for applicants that are
sufficient broadband access (speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps).
Alaska Native Corporations or federally recognized Tribes
on underserved trust lands. Additionally, it waives
More restrictive than prior rounds of funding. This
matching requirements for projects that serve colonias or
requirement is more restrictive than current ReConnect
persistent poverty counties (counties that have had a
Program requirements for sufficient broadband access. The
poverty rate of 20% or higher over the past 30 years).
latest ReConnect FOA defines sufficient broadband access
as speeds of at least 100/20 Mbps. The threshold for high-
Comparison with current law. Current law, program
need areas—90% of households lacking sufficient access—
regulations, and prior FOAs have not specified whether
is the same threshold that defines an eligible service area in
pole attachment fees and replacement costs are eligible
current program regulations.
project costs. Current law allows USDA to waive matching
requirements for certain utilities projects on underserved
Broadband Buildout Speed for Projects
trust lands (7 U.S.C. §936f). In recent years, Congress has
The act requires ReConnect Program projects to provide
directed in annual appropriations acts that at least 10% of
broadband service to the proposed service area at minimum
direct loan and grant funding under certain USDA rural
speeds of 100/20 Mbps.
housing, business, and utilities programs be allocated for
projects in persistent poverty counties. This language did
Less restrictive than prior rounds of funding. Current
not apply to funding for the ReConnect Program.
program regulations state that USDA will define buildout
—the minimum broadband speeds USDA requires
Additional CRS Resources
project awardees to provide—in FOAs. The most recent
 CRS In Focus IF11262, USDA’s ReConnect Broadband
FOA requires projects to deliver broadband to the proposed
Pilot Program, by Alyssa R. Casey
service area at speeds of at least 100/100 Mbps (i.e., 100
Mbps symmetrical speeds).
 CRS Report RL33816, Broadband Loan and Grant
Programs in the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service, by
Rural in Character Exception
Lennard G. Kruger and Alyssa R. Casey
The act uses the definition of eligible rural area codified in

the Rural Electrification Act: cities or towns with 20,000 or
CRS Report R46780, Overview of the Universal Service
Fund and Selected Federal Broadband Programs
fewer inhabitants and not in an urbanized area contiguous
coordinated by Patricia Moloney Figliola
and adjacent to a city or town that has a population of
greater than 50,000 inhabitants (7 U.S.C. §950bb(b)(3)). It
also allows the Secretary of Agriculture to allocate up to
Lisa S. Benson, Analyst in Agricultural Policy
$50 million of ReConnect Program funds to projects in
Alyssa R. Casey, Analyst in Agricultural Policy
areas rural in character. Rural in character is a designation
with statutory authority in the Consolidated Farm and Rural

Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act: Funding for USDA Rural Broadband Programs

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