Senator Peter Welch (D-VT) convened his first hearing as Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee’s Rural Development and Energy Subcommittee this week on the need to expand access to broadband in rural communities. The hearing marks the first in a series on advancing economic opportunity and building a greener future for rural America.
Joined by Vermonters working on the ground to expand broadband access in the state, Sen. Welch explored the disparities between rural and urban broadband service and announced the introduction of a new bipartisan bill to improve the USDA ReConnect Loan and Grant Program, helping to ensure all Vermonters can access to high-speed broadband. Today’s hearing follows the announcement that Vermont’s first ReConnect grant has been awarded to NEK Broadband.
“Reliable, high-speed broadband isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity,” said Sen. Welch. “Today’s hearing called attention to the huge gap between broadband service in urban centers and what’s available in our rural communities. Rural families need broadband access to run farms and businesses, access online learning, and get health care through telemedicine. Without better service, rural communities will remain disconnected from the global, digital economy. That cannot happen. I’m committed to working alongside my colleagues—Republican and Democrat—to make high-speed broadband accessible in rural communities across the country and ensure no Vermonter goes without this essential service.”
Nationally, 22% of Americans in rural areas lack access to fixed terrestrial 25/3 Mbps broadband, compared to only 1.5% of Americans in urban areas. More than 20% of Vermonters lack access to 25/3 Mbps broadband.
The Subcommittee heard testimony from Vermonters Roger Nishi, Vice President – Industry Relations, Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom and Christa Shute, Executive Director, NEK Broadband.The hearing also included testimony from Jesse Shekleton, Director of Broadband Operations, Jo-Carroll Energy, Inc., James Frederick Johnson, CEO, Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative, Inc., and Justin Forde, Vice President of Government Relations, Midco from Illinois, Alabama, and North Dakota, respectively.
Earlier today Sen. Welch introduced the ReConnecting Rural America Act, a bipartisan bill with Sen. Roger Marshall (R-KS). The bill establishes 100/100 Mbps symmetrical buildout speeds for the USDA ReConnect Program, facilitates coordination among federal agencies administering broadband programs, and makes other improvements to the ReConnect Program to ensure all rural Americans have access to reliable, high-speed broadband.
The Subcommittee on Rural Development oversees many of the programs in USDA’s Rural Development mission area, including renewable energy, economic development, and housing—pressing issues for Vermont, which was the most rural state in the country according to data collected during the 2020 Census. As Chair of the Rural Development and Energy Subcommittee, Senator Welch is well-positioned to advocate for broadband proliferation and push for solutions to other problems facing rural Vermonters.
For a video of today’s hearing, please click here.
For more on the ReConnecting Rural America Act, please click here.