Lawmakers unveiled a plan that would potentially make affordable high-speed internet a reality for millions of rural Americans.
Supporters propose using at least $40 billion in federal funds to connect the more than 34 million people in the U.S. still without broadband. About two-thirds are in rural areas.
Dubbed "A Better Deal: Universal High-Speed Internet"—a take on President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal—the plan unveiled Sept. 28 would support getting high-speed connections to people "in the most efficient and cost-effective means possible."
In a statement, backers said the program would have "broad eligibility so that partners like rural co-ops, local governments, or other alternative entities could compete on an equal playing field with private sector providers." Bids would be rated by cost, service quality, and other factors.
"Bids from providers who have failed to make good on previous commitments would be given a higher level of scrutiny or flat out rejected," the statement added.
NRECA CEO Jim Matheson, who serves on the Federal Communications Commission's Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, applauded the plan.
"Broadband access is a key ingredient to a healthy 21st century economy, especially in America's rural communities. Expanded high-speed internet access should be a top economic priority for policymakers, and I'm glad that a growing number in Congress recognize the need to solve this problem," said Matheson.
"Congress, the Federal Communications Commission and other stakeholders should work together and move swiftly to help make broadband a reality for those who call rural America home," he added.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., noted that "rural areas have seen a mass depopulation over the last 50, 60 years," and said high-speed internet "will help repopulate those areas."
Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., called high-speed internet "critical for rural America, where half the people are being left out. That's un-American."
Under the plan, applications to fund buildouts would be accepted from any area of the U.S., but the statement said they would be weighted "so that support is targeted to those areas that are most in need of assistance," and "account for the topographic, geographic, and economic challenges in providing high-speed internet throughout the country."