Electric cooperative leaders brought their challenges in deploying broadband to federal decision-makers and got a peek at what lies ahead in regulation, funding and action on Capitol Hill at the second annual NRECA Broadband Leadership Summit.
“We are working hard to make NRECA Broadband something that resonates with lawmakers, policymakers and members back home, and this event is where it all comes together,” said Jeffrey Connor, NRECA’s chief operating officer.
At the Nov. 7-9 gathering in Washington, D.C., NRECA Broadband participants had the opportunity to engage with Andy Berke, Rural Utilities Service administrator at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Evan Feinman, deputy associate administrator for the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and wireline legal advisers to each member of the Federal Communications Commission.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., addressed attendees on Capitol Hill before they met with their congressional delegations in the Senate and House. Stabenow will shepherd a massive Farm Bill through Congress next year and is preparing provisions that will facilitate electric co-op broadband efforts.
Participants also attended detailed sessions with experts in leasing dark fiber, workforce development, disaster funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and middle-mile development.
Here are some of the highlights:
FCC advisers discussed key areas of the complex net neutrality proposal that may lead to additional regulation of co-op-run broadband networks and took attendees’ questions about the impact of potential internet regulation, speed standards and the future of the Universal Service Fund.
NRECA Broadband will incorporate members’ feedback in filing comments to the FCC on Dec. 14 to support co-ops’ operational autonomy. “We’re asking the FCC to consider every regulation they are looking at through the lens of a small provider,” said Greg Orlando, NRECA regulatory affairs director.
USDA ReConnect program
Berke responded to co-ops’ specific issues with USDA’s ReConnect program, including how the cumbersome application process can mean hiring a consultant or foregoing the funding. “We hear you,” he said. “You will see at least some streamlining of the application in the next round.”
Berke also said he would look into the “rurality” scoring criteria of the ReConnect application that have sidelined some co-ops. “Most applications are good and should be funded,” he said. “Let me dig into that one more time and see if we can interpret that in a way that will be helpful.”
For the $42.5 billion BEAD program, Feinman urged co-ops to submit comments on state plans to identify unserved areas and on grant program rules. States and territories received BEAD allocations over the summer and must file their “blueprints” to NTIA by Dec. 27.
“No one in this room does not have a stake in BEAD,” said Feinman, who recalled how electric co-ops achieved the ambitious goals of running electric wire to rural households against many odds. “There is no better set of allies to get this done than with those who have done an analogous job before.”
U.S. Treasury funds
NRECA Broadband participants were updated on the U.S. Treasury’s $10 billion Capital Projects Fund from the American Rescue Act. Treasury has disbursed $9 billion to states, of which half have issued requests for proposal for broadband projects. These funds must be awarded as project reimbursement grants by 2026. Capital Projects Fund Director Joseph Wender encouraged participants to pursue these funds and offered assistance from his office.
“Think about opportunities that exist today,” Wender said. “I strongly encourage you to talk with your state broadband office.”
NRECA CEO Jim Matheson and Connor told attendees they will begin holding monthly virtual “town halls” with NRECA Broadband participants. Matheson noted that the strong relationship electric co-ops have with their members is important in Washington, saying member trust translates well in competitive broadband situations.
“When we engage with policymakers, we can more than hold our own in broadband,” Matheson said. “Our motivation is all about the member at the end of the line. The more engaged and active you are, the better. It really matters that we are all in this room.”
NRECA Broadband is positioning co-ops as a crucial force in rural broadband. Visit cooperative.com/broadband to learn more and sign up.