The federal agriculture department will be handing out $300 million in broadband upgrade grants, and making another $300 million in loans next spring. It’s the result of a new rural broadband subsidy program that was included in a massive federal budget bill earlier this year. The (sparse) details were announced on Thursday, the day after the federal farm bill was passed by congress.
The ReConnect program, as it’s called, has a lot in common with the 5 year, $350 million per year broadband subsidy funding in the farm bill. Including one important new feature: grants are available, in addition to loans. In the past, most of the broadband development money managed by the agriculture department’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) was given out as loans. It’s a funding model that works well for established rural service providers, such as electric or telephone cooperatives, but it’s not so useful for new market entrants.
Another similarity is speed standards. The money is targeted at communities that lack “sufficient access to broadband service”, which is defined as 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds. That’s disappointing – although it’s better than what cable and telco lobbyists
bought sold at the California capitol, it’s significantly slower than the 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up that the agriculture department uses as the minimum necessary residential broadband service level for other purposes, and nowhere near the 100 Mbps down/20 Mbps up speeds that rural homes and business actually need.
The good news is that any broadband infrastructure built with money from the ReConnect program has to be capable of delivering service at speeds of 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up. The farm bill goes one step further by requiring subsidised infrastructure to be future proof, at least to a degree.
A proposed project area is eligible if 90% of the homes don’t have access to that level of service. The project area also has to be in a rural area, but that’s generously defined: any city with 20,000 people or fewer, or any urbanised area next to a city with 50,000 or fewer people is eligible.
That limit could change. The farm bill raises the population limit for cities to 50,000 people, and that language might end up applying to the ReConnect program as well. It’s just one of the many details that still have to be worked out. The general outline of the program was published on Thursday, but the application and other detailed requirements won’t be available until February.
The deadline for grant applications is 29 April 2018, with grant + loan and loan-only proposals due later, on 29 May and 28 June 2018, respectively.