U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., has won support for an amendment to the 2012 Farm Bill that will help extend high-speed Internet access to rural areas, the senator’s office said today.
The amendment makes loans and grants available to unserved and underserved communities, and contains provisions to ensure accountability. Virginia’s senior senator, Democrat Jim Webb, was one of five co-sponsors of the amendment.
Here’s the complete announcement from Warner’s office:
WASHINGTON – U.S. 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. Warner’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 is expected later today.
The Rural Utility Service (RUS) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was established to eliminate the “digital divide” between rural and urban areas. However, more than 18 million Americans – many of them residing in rural regions – still do not have access to broadband service at all. A 2009 report by USDA’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.
“Building out a nationwide broadband network will strengthen our economy and put more people back to work. Yet the digital 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,” Sen. Warner said. “At 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.”
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 enhancingreporting 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.
“I want to commend Sen. Warner and everyone on this amendment for a tremendous amount of work. It’s a bipartisan amendment and makes a tremendous amount of sense. It’s real reform,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said on the floor.
“Passing this amendment is a step forward in protecting taxpayers,” said David E. Williams, president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, which also endorsed these reforms. “The Warner amendment is critical in bringing some accountability to the RUS.”
Senator Warner, a former technology entrepreneur and Virginia governor, has long championed broadband technology as a significant tool to extend economic development opportunities and increase the overall competitiveness of America’s rural areas. Last week, two other Warner proposals to promote cost-effective expansion of broadband service moved forward through an Executive Order signed by the President. The Executive Order instructs federal agencies charged with managing thousands of federal buildings and roads to adopt a uniform approach that will allow broadband carriers to build their networks on, and through, federal properties to help speed the overall connectivity of the nation’s communities, businesses and schools.