House Agriculture Committee members voiced concerns about the reliability of broadband maps at a hearing Thursday.

The Agriculture Department’s Rural Development division, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Federal Communications Commission distribute funding to connect underserved communities, but do not follow the same process to determine where that money goes. But they all rely on FCC broadband maps, which are historically known for their inaccuracy.

With NTIA and FCC not at the hearing, legislators pressed USDA officials about the validity of the current map the agency uses to distribute funding. Xochitl Torres Small, USDA’s undersecretary for rural development, said every iteration of the mapping process gets better, as the agencies collect more of their own data and become less reliant on census tracts.

Torres Small said Rural Development, which is responsible for distributing grants and loans through the ReConnect Program and the Telecommunications Infrastructure Loan and Loan Guarantee Program, uses NTIA’s National Broadband Availability Map to determine where funding should be distributed. The agency then allows Internet Service Providers to challenge its decisions with their own data and, if necessary, travel to that location to resolve any disputes.

The agency then sends NTIA the information, which can be used to improve the map. Torres Small said that collaboration is important for the programs to work properly, noting that the department also consults with states like Georgia that have drawn their own maps.

“That mapping collaboration is crucial,” she said.

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Torres Small, when asked about how maps could be improved for the future, said it is important for information from previous awards to make their way into new maps to ensure the funding continues going to the places it is needed most.

“Those maps are crucial in terms of deciding where you could plan to serve in the future,” she said. “It’s the vision of what’s possible.”

Rep. Glenn Thompson, a Pennsylvania Republican and the committee’s ranking member, criticized Congress’s past efforts to place some of the programs in the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, rather than at USDA, which he said has more staff and a larger presence in rural areas that need broadband.

“Since 2020, thirteen new broadband programs have been authorized and funded by Congress, none of which are administered by the USDA,” Thompson said. “Shame on Congress. Shame on administrations for allowing this to occur.”

The USDA’s ReConnect program closed the application window for the third round of funding for the ReConnect program this spring. Torres Small said the program will disburse $1 billion in broadband funds to rural communities.

Lynn Follansbee, the vice president of strategic intitatives and partnerships for USTelecom, the national trade association representing network providers, said the ReConnect program implementation needs to be more transparent. She noted that there are currently rules that limit some applicants from participating.

Follansbee also said the ReConnect Program is still technically a “pilot” program, saying legislators should consider whether it needs to formalize the program and, if so, coordinate its current role in conjunction with available funds at other federal agencies. 

Editor's note: A previous version of this story quoted Glenn Thompson saying 13 new broadband programs had been authorized and funded by Congress since 2013. This has since been corrected to say 2020 rather than 2013. 

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