Denver — U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Ted Budd (R-N.C.) introduced the Connecting Our Neighbors to Networks and Ensuring Competitive Telecommunications (CONNECT) Act of 2023 to reform the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) ReConnect Loan and Grant Program. The CONNECT Act makes it easier for small providers to apply to this program, and ensures federal funding reaches rural communities faster by shortening required permitting deadlines. ??U.S. Representatives Brittany Pettersen (D-Colo.) and Juan Ciscomani (R-Ariz.) will introduce companion legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“Broadband is the essential infrastructure of the 21st century, but rural communities across Colorado and the country are being left behind. It’s time Washington made federal programs easier to access for small providers–who are most attuned to the needs of their customers–and strengthened support for local governments, nonprofit organizations, and cooperatives seeking to provide internet service to rural residents,” said Bennet.
“The USDA’s ReConnect Program has already helped bridge the digital divide in North Carolina, but the application process remains complicated and expensive. This makes it harder for small rural providers to get projects approved. I’m proud to partner with Senator Bennet on bipartisan legislation that will make it easier for more Americans to get access to affordable, high-quality internet,” said Budd.
“Access to reliable, high-speed internet is essential for the success of our students, businesses, and communities—but too many Coloradans, especially in rural areas, are without broadband,” said Pettersen. “Much of my district encompasses rural mountain towns, many that don’t have consistent access to internet, so I’m proud to introduce this bill alongside Congressman Ciscomani and Senators Bennet and Budd to improve and strengthen the USDA’s ReConnect program. It’s the next step as we close the digital divide and level the playing field for all Americans.”
“In today’s age, internet access drives almost every aspect of life, from economic growth to educational opportunities,” said Ciscomani. “Yet too many rural areas in Arizona lack access to strong, reliable broadband, which stunts the growth and prosperity of these communities. I am proud to partner with Congresswoman Pettersen and Senators Bennet and Budd in this bipartisan effort to close the digital divide.”
Millions of rural Americans continue to lack adequate access to the internet, where the costs of connection can be high and existing service too slow or expensive to be of much use. While the ReConnect Loan and Grant program provides broadband funding for eligible rural areas, the application process can be complicated and prohibitively expensive for small providers.
Specifically, the CONNECT Act would:
- Establish an Office of Technical Assistance to aid eligible providers with application forms;
- Create a Mini-Grant Program offering grants up to $20,000 for small providers;
- Prioritize applications from local governments, nonprofit organizations, or cooperatives;
- Designate rural areas that receive broadband service via non-wireline technology as eligible for ReConnect funding;
- Shorten certain permitting deadlines for USDA-funded broadband projects from 270 to 180 days;
- Create an interagency Broadband Council to recommend uniform speed and application requirements for federal programs; and
- Expand federal easements for certain electric utilities to enable them to lease existing fiber capacity.
"Senator Bennet's CONNECT Act marks a significant stride toward bridging the digital divide. By listening to Colorado residents, service providers and local governments, Sen. Bennet's bill gives Colorado's rural communities the resources they need to thrive in the digital age and accelerates the deployment of vital connectivity across the state," said Brandy Reitter, Executive Director, Colorado Broadband Office.
“With an unprecedented amount of funding being dedicated to erasing the digital divide, it’s more important than ever that administrators not only cut down on the red tape but also set higher performance standards for service providers. Senator Bennet’s CONNECT Act does both, relieving many application challenges and solving the age-old pattern of repeatedly funding the same networks and areas while ensuring broadband funding programs aren’t competing against one another,” said Kent Blackwell, Chief Technology Officer, Delta Montrose Electric Association.
“Senator Bennet’s proposed legislation will improve broadband programs and fills significant gaps that hinder deployment in rural areas. His leadership in proposing an interagency Broadband Council will bring much needed consistency through all of the federal agencies. His mini-grant program will bring more and better applications to the table, opening the door for smaller local providers, and thus promote economic development in rural areas. Thank you, Senator Bennet, for taking time to understand these issues and presenting this legislation that is a win for both rural and urban areas,” said Jon Saunders, Chief Business Development Officer, SECOM Inc.
“The CONNECT Act will dramatically improve the ability of community-led service providers to obtain much needed financial assistance to expand connectivity to hard to reach areas of our community. The proposed reforms will support the hard work local governments have done to help bridge the digital divide by bringing future proof fiber networks to areas that have been neglected. I applaud the effort of Sen. Bennet's CONNECT Act to align to the needs of our community and appreciate his continued efforts to bring high speed internet connectivity to all,” said Mark Pfaffinger, Chief Information Officer, Larimer County.