Brown Introduces Bill to Expand Broadband Access in Rural Communities

Connecting Rural America Act Would Reauthorize Successful Rural Broadband Loan Program and Provide Grants to Underserved Communities

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) introduced legislation to expand access to broadband for Ohio’s rural communities. The Connecting Rural America Act will strengthen existing U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs that provide for the construction, improvement, and acquisition of facilities and equipment to provide broadband service to underserved, rural communities.

“Broadband service is essential for the economic strength of Ohio’s rural communities,” Brown said. “Though our state has made great gains through the Ohio Middle Mile Consortium and with existing USDA programs, there are still too many communities that lack access to broadband. That’s why this bill is so important. By bridging the ‘digital divide,” we can ensure that all Ohioans have access to Web-based information and services that will allow our rural communities and businesses to compete in the global economy.”

Brown’s bill reauthorizes the Rural Broadband Loan Program, created in the 2002 Farm Bill and modified in the 2008 Farm Bill, through 2017 and adds a grant component to the existing program. Under this legislation, USDA would be authorized to provide grants, in addition to the current grant-loan package, to specifically target small, remote, and high-poverty communities. Read a full summary here.

With new or increased broadband access, communities will be able to compete on a level playing field to attract new businesses; schools can create distance learning opportunities; medical professionals can provide cost-efficient remote diagnoses and care, and business owners can expand the market for their products beyond their neighborhoods to better compete in the global economy. The investments will create jobs in the short term and help establish a new foundation for long-term economic growth.

Brown is working to connect Ohio’s rural areas and small towns to broadband. In 2010, Brown helped secure funding for a project that is expanding access to broadband for 34 counties in Appalachia. The project will deploy more than 1,900 miles of fiber optic network to connect nearly 600 community anchors. In June 2010, Brown wrote to U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Gary Locke in support of the OMMC for the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. After the Connecting Appalachia application was denied in the first round of consideration, Brown’s office convened a roundtable of stakeholders in preparation for the second round. In March 2010, Brown also wrote to National Telecommunications and Information Administration Assistant Secretary Strickling in support of the OMMC Connecting Appalachia application.

Before the Recovery Act was passed, Brown was integral in bringing together business and community leaders to coordinate a strategy for expansion of broadband. In March 2008, Brown’s office hosted a forum in Zanesville where stakeholders throughout Appalachian Ohio spoke to the importance of expanding broadband.

Brown sponsored the Rural Broadband Act, legislation which would establish a federal Office of Broadband Initiatives dedicated to creating a comprehensive rural broadband strategic vision and increasing access to the Internet in rural parts of the United States. Brown also authored an amendment to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 with Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) to increase USDA funding for broadband. The amendment directed $2.5 billion through the USDA to target rural and underserved communities.

Upon passage of the Recovery Act, Brown convened a day long workshop among potential broadband applicants and brought USDA Undersecretary Dallas Tonsager to Ohio to discuss the application process and encourage local collaboration and partnerships.

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