Agriculture Department leaders are looking to ensure that billions in government funding are easier to access by the rural communities many federal programs are meant to serve.

Speaking on this week’s Agri-Pulse Newsmakers, USDA Undersecretary for Rural Development Xochitl Torres Small highlighted USDA's ReConnect Program, which is currently seeing more applications than available funding. 

The 2021 infrastructure bill invested $65 billion to expand broadband connectivity in rural America. The expansion of funding was welcome for many areas hoping to leverage it to improve local internet service. Still, Torres Small says there are many ways rural development programs can better serve people living in those areas.

At a November Senate Ag Committee hearing, Torres Small was pressed by lawmakers to simplify the ReConnect application process. In response, she tells Newsmakers USDA is working to do just that.

“We can make sure that our programs are easier to access, so you don’t necessarily need a grant writer to qualify for the funds,” Torres Small said.

Progress is being made despite concerns from USDA and private sector groups about the accuracy of rural broadband coverage maps. The newest figures released by the Federal Communications Commission in November will be utilized to issue billions of dollars in grant funding. Concerns have flooded in from the countryside about overstating service areas and incorrectly representing structures.

Although figures are crucial to decisions, Torres Small noted that “we must not rely only on maps to make funding decisions.

“We look at the maps and a desktop review of the information out there. Then we also ask other telecommunications providers, 'Are there areas you think you're covering right now?' And if there's a discrepancy, we send people on the ground to review whether or not what folks are saying is accurate,” she said.

Emily Buckman with the American Farm Bureau Federation, Kate Fox Wood with the Association of Equipment Manufacturers and Jim Matheson with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association also joined Newsmakers to discuss what rural broadband deployment means for their member organizations. For his part, Matheson said electric coops are anxious to be involved, but know a lengthy process awaits.

“Let's not kid ourselves, these rural areas are the most expensive, hardest-to-serve areas in America, so it's going to take some time,” he said. “There is significant new federal funding to accelerate this, but there's a lot of work to be done and we're anxious to be part of the solution.”

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