Eligibility for broadband subsidies harder to prove under Senate farm bill requirements

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Trail of tiers.

The version of the federal farm bill passed by the senate has problematic requirements for documenting eligibility for the broadband infrastructure grants and loans it authorises. It sets 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds as a minimum. If an area does not have at least one service provider offering that level of service or better, then it’s eligible for construction subsidies, assuming all the other requirements are met.

To prove an area is eligible, though, the lack of service has to be…

(I) certified by the affected community, city, county, or designee; or (II) demonstrated on (aa) the broadband map of the affected State if the map contains address-level data; or ‘‘(bb) the National Broadband Map if address-level data is unavailable.

Certification by local agencies would be the only option in many cases. The California broadband availability map does not have “address-level data”. It reports broadband speeds by census block. I don’t know of any states that get more granular than that. State data collection formats and requirements generally follow the standards the National Telecommunications and Information Agency uses for its national broadband map.

The national map tracks broadband speeds by tiers, e.g. 768 Kbps to 1.5 Mbps, 1.5 to 3 Mbps and 3 to 6 Mbps. Unless the tier definitions are changed and all the data is re-collected – a process that would take years – there’s no way to tell if an area has 4 Mbps down or 1 Mbps up. The map will tell you if speeds are less than 3 Mbps down and 768 Kbps up, but you couldn’t document eligibility if service was a little faster but still less than the 4 Mbps down/1 Mbps up mark.

The bill doesn’t outline a procedure for local certification of broadband speeds. Presumably, those details would be worked out by the Rural Utilities Service, which would administer the program. The national broadband map and state-level mapping programs allow rapid analysis leading to reasonably certain conclusions about eligibility. Not being able to use those tools will add cost and delays to broadband project proposals.

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