The U.S. Department of Agriculture is set to open applications this month for the latest round of grants and loans it offers under a program to facilitate rural broadband development—but unlike past disbursements, the evaluation criteria this time around come with a controversial twist: Republican lawmakers recently sent up red flares over the inclusion of net neutrality as a scoring metric for proposed projects.
The Broadband ReConnect Program, established in 2018, so far has doled out more than $1.5 billion to nearly 200 entities to improve rural broadband in areas that lack fast Internet access. This includes 12 states that received $167 million in August to deploy broadband infrastructure.
USDA announced a third round of funding for the program in late October, which opens up to applications next week. Up to $1.1 billion is available for loans and grants, including $350 million for tribal governments and socially vulnerable communities, defined as communities that face a high risk of disease outbreak and natural or human-caused disasters, according to the CDC’s social vulnerability index.
Project applications are evaluated and assigned points based on 10 metrics—now including net neutrality. Applications will receive points for net neutrality if they do not “block lawful content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices,” “impair or degrade lawful internet traffic on the basis of internet content, application, or service,” or “engage in paid prioritization,” among other factors.
The USDA’s decision to include this as a scoring metric has caused dismay among some lawmakers. Over a dozen Republican senators last month signed onto a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, urging him to reverse USDA’s decision to include net neutrality in its criteria. The senators pointedly argue that USDA is overstepping its bounds on an issue that has been the subject of extensive debate in Congress and at the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees telecommunications policy.
“Any effort to impose unnecessary ‘net neutrality’ restrictions would be dangerous to our nation’s dynamic broadband economy and threaten future investments in broadband infrastructure,” the senators wrote. “It is deeply troubling that USDA is suggesting it has the authority much less the qualified staff and expertise to make determinations about ‘lawful Internet traffic.’ If USDA decides to make attempts at regulating the Internet absent authority from Congress, it would lead to tremendous legal and marketplace uncertainty.”
A USDA spokesperson confirmed to Innovation Policy News that the department has received the letter and is working to respond promptly.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the partisan aisle, Sens. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) sent a letter to Vilsack strongly supporting the new criteria.
“Net neutrality rules benefit consumers, promote free speech, and enrich the economy by making the internet a fair playing field where entrepreneurs and businesses of all sizes can thrive,” Markey and Wyden wrote.