Spanberger boosts U.S. funding for rural broadband

CULPEPER STAR EXPONENT, CLINT SCHEMMER

Rep. Abigail Spanberger prevailed late Thursday in persuading the U.S. House of Representatives to provide $55 million more to expand broadband service across rural America.

The House voted 408-22 to pass the Central Virginia congresswoman’s amendment to a House appropriations package. Her provision would increase by 10 percent the federal money for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Rural Broadband pilot program.

The change would allow more communities in Virginia and across the nation to receive funding to improve regional, high-speed access to the internet. She boosted the sum proposed by the House Appropriations Committee, which kept ReConnect funding level with fiscal 2019 at $550 million. Spanberger’s amendment increased the total to $605 million.

“If Congress provides 10 percent more dollars for broadband, that will be a nice uptick for many communities,” she said in an interview shortly before Tuesday’s vote. “I want to see as many local applications as possible. I hope my talking about the issue and supporting increase has increased awareness about the issue.”

This year’s first round of applications for ReConnect grants saw localities request three times as much money as is available. So, Spanberger worked with the House Appropriations Committee to identify cost offsets that wouldn’t hurt the Agriculture Department and assembled a bipartisan group of 12 representatives to back the amendment.

Culpeper County is one of those localities. It’s seeking a $2.3 million grant to build a broadband hub and link 13 miles of fiber-optic cable to serve up to 850 homes, farms and businesses near Lignum in the Stevensburg District.

Spanberger, a Democrat from Henrico County, is one of the House’s loudest voices advocating for rural broadband. She says that it and health care are the two topics she hears about most frequently from her 7th House District constituents.

“I’ve pushed the Appropriations Committee on this from Day 1,” Spanberger said. “It has been a big issue for me. It is vitally important to people in Central Virginia.”

In remarks Thursday on the House floor, she shared stories of Virginians hurt by insufficient internet access. “Across the country, insufficient rural broadband access is creating a divide between those who are connected and those who are not,” Spanberger told her colleagues.

This spring, the Virginian and Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., rallied 71 other members from South Dakota to South Carolina to request $900 million for broadband in appropriations for the USDA’s ReConnect program and the Farm Bill.

On Thursday, House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey praised Spanberger’s efforts.

“Thanks to Congresswoman Spanberger’s hard work and tireless advocacy, our fiscal year 2020 appropriations bills include significant funding to deliver the promise of broadband to communities in Virginia and beyond,” said Lowey, D-N.Y. “I look forward to continuing to work with Abigail to deliver results for the people, so that Virginians and every American can have a better shot at a better life.”

Having good access to the internet helps rural communities attract new businesses, sustain economic growth and give children better opportunities to learn, compete and succeed in the world’s hyper-linked economy, its supporters say.

A stark gap separates rural and urban areas when it comes to high-speed internet access, according to an April 2019 USDA report.

Of 24 million Americans without access to ground-based broadband, 80 percent of them live in rural areas, the Federal Communications Commission says.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said rural broadband is “critical for economic prosperity and quality of life” on matters ranging from education and health care to agriculture and manufacturing.

Last month, Spanberger was appointed to a new group focused on expanding high-speed internet access in rural communities. The House Task Force on Rural Broadband will lead those infrastructure efforts, aiming to ensure that all Americans have reliable access to high-speed internet by 2025.

The task force is chaired by Rep. Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip.

“Clyburn is driving it, he is leading the way,” Spanberger said of the broadband group. “Having his stamp of approval on this is fundamentally important to moving this issue forward.”

Spanberger, who co-chairs the Blue Dog Coalition’s Rural Opportunity Task Force, was among four House members who penned a Fox News op-ed last month that highlights the need to pursue bipartisan rural-broadband infrastructure policies.

“Rural Americans are proud of their tight-knit communities, their hard work, and their way of life,” she wrote with Reps. Joe Cunningham, Mikie Sherrill and Xochitl Liana Torres Small. “They’re looking for a fair shot to climb up the ladder, strengthen their local economy, and participate in the country’s economic growth. They believe, as we do, that your prospects for success and attaining the American Dream should not depend on your ZIP code.

“In a time that has been stained by hyper-partisanship, both parties should recognize the moment of opportunity that is in front of us to bring not only the rural economy but our entire economy into the 21st century through the bold vision of expanding high-speed broadband internet.”

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