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RUS Will Not Rely on Form 477 Data to Determine ReConnect Program Awards

Randy Sukow / Mar 11, 2019

Jannine Miller, a senior advisor to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, today told an audience at the NRECA Annual Meeting/TechAdvantage Expo that internet providers who are unhappy with the quality of FCC Form 477 data will be able to challenge the Commission’s data when they apply for the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) ReConnect program. Most in the rural telecom industry consider Form 477 data to be inaccurate, overstating the actual portion of the rural population with access to broadband.

“We’ll look at [Form 477 data].  It’s a first look,” Miller said at the Orlando, FL meeting. But that data will not be definitive. “By law, we have to care about [speed at] the household level. The FCC is not required to do that with any maps that they do, but we are,” she said.

Miller said that at some point in the future, after it receives applications for grants, loans and 50/50 grant-loan combinations, RUS will publish whether individual applicants are eligible for funding in their proposed service areas based on Form 477 data and other sources. Applicants that dispute the agency’s findings will have 30 days after publication to challenge the findings.

RUS has not yet determined whether it will publish the entire eligibility list at once or in installments, Miller said. When the list(s) comes out, it will be available on the ReConnect program’s web site. If an applicant makes a strong enough case that the Form 477 data the RUS assessment are inaccurate, Miller said that RUS could send its representatives to proposed services areas to test available broadband speeds.

NRTC Broadband Development has the capability help members to gather data and make compelling Form 477 challenges. Working with its partner, CrowdFiber of Rome, GA, NRTC already gathers extensive speed data for members planning broadband strategies.

As Eric Freesmeier, president, NRTC Broadband Development said in a blog post earlier today, internet speed issues data could have a dramatic effect on the strength of a ReConnect application. For example, applicants are eligible for Reconnect grants of 100 percent of the residents in a proposed service area do not have access to 10 Mbps downstream/1 Mbps upstream service. Applicants for 50/50 grant-loan combos must show that at least 90 percent of their service areas have no 10/1 access.

“Grants are going to be very competitive. We’re going to have so many applications coming in for grants …  Every household in a service area that comes to us for a grant has to be currently unserved at 10/1,” Miller said.  “We’re giving a little leeway on the loan and loan/grant combo, but no leeway with the grant.” RUS will limit each participant to one application; nobody will be permitted to apply separately for loans, grants and applications.

Miller urged potential applicants to follow all the developments on the program’s web site, especially the events page.  RUS recently announced a series of webinars to help broadband providers through the application process. The first one tomorrow (March 12) is titled “Engineering Requirements of ReConnect.” Two others will follow: “Financial Requirements of ReConnect,” March 14, and “Overview of ReConnect Application,” March 21.

She also advised that there will be a series of regional two-day ReConnect workshops beginning April 2-3 in Washington, PA. Watch the events web site for additional dates.

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