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Local

Leveling the internet playing field: Spending bill provides $600 million for rural broadband

WASHINGTON – Two broadband bills sponsored by U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Channahon, were included in the nation’s new spending bill that provides $600 million in new funding for broadband projects in rural areas.

After taking Congress to task for passing the $1.3 trillion 2018 omnibus bill, President Donald Trump signed it on March 23. The bill funds the government through September.

The $600 million in appropriated funding will set up a pilot program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for rural broadband projects. The money also will be used to bolster existing USDA loan and grant programs targeting underserved rural areas.

The ag department estimates that the investment will leverage $1 billion in new rural broadband projects.

Kinzinger, who voted for the bill, serves as co-chairman of the Rural Broadband Caucus. He led the push in the House for two initiatives that were included in the spending bill.

The Rural Spectrum Accessibility Act aims to expand the reach of broadband by expanding wireless coverage in rural communities. Kinzinger also spearheaded a bill that requires the Federal Communications Commission to produce a report on veterans’ access to broadband and devise plans for increasing it.

The congressman said that although much work remains to be done, big steps are being taken to close the digital divide in rural America.

“After months of hard work by our House Energy and Commerce Committee, we have produced and enacted legislation to better utilize broadband spectrum, increase competitiveness, and expand broadband access in rural areas,” Kinzinger said in a news release.

As the importance of fast and affordable Internet connectivity increases, rural areas have been at a disadvantage in accessing information at home and in the workplace, schools and health care settings.

“Our rural communities have significantly lower rates of broadband availability and it’s important that we close that service gap,” Kinzinger said.

According to the FCC, 24 million American households don’t have access to reliable and affordable high-speed Internet, and 80 percent of those homes are in rural areas.

A total of $13.5 billion will be invested in rural infrastructure through USDA programs in this fiscal year.

U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Moline, also voted for the spending bill, but blasted House Speaker Paul Ryan for “continuing a pattern of governing from crisis to crisis”. The 2,232-page bill was released less than 24 hours before the vote that narrowly averted a federal government shutdown.

While Bustos was critical of the process, some of the causes she championed also were included in the bill. She said there will be more budget fights going forward, but called the bill a step in the right direction for her district.

“I am pleased that we were able to include several of my top priorities, such as continuing our investments to make drinking water safe, keeping the Rock Island Arsenal strong and funding critical research facilities such as the Peoria Ag Lab,” Bustos said in a news release.

On a broader scale, Bustos cited the bill’s investments in economic growth, workforce development, medical research and programs to fight the opioid epidemic as wins for her district.

While rural infrastructure fared well in this spending bill, advocates have promised to push for more funding in upcoming infrastructure and farm bills.

RURAL BROADBAND MAKES STRIDES IN NEW BUDGET

The federal government's fiscal year 2018 spending bill included $1 billion for rural infrastructure, including $600 million in new funds for rural broadband. The USDA estimates that the $1 billion will spur a $4.7 billion increase over the previous year in the funding of rural infrastructure projects. The total investment in rural communities’ infrastructure through USDA programs will total $13.5 billion in this fiscal year.

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