Actually, there is broadband money in the big federal budget bill

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Update: Trump signed it. Done deal.

Update: the U.S. senate approved the bill this morning, now it’s up to president Donald Trump to sign or veto it.

An extra $600 million was added to federal broadband subsidies for rural areas, in the mammoth, all-in-one spending bill passed by the house of representatives yesterday, and up for a vote in the U.S. senate today. I missed it Wednesday night as I was skimming through its two thousand-plus pages, but the sharp eyed journos at Politico’s Morning Tech newsletter caught it.

The money is tagged for “a new broadband loan and grant pilot program” run by the federal agriculture department’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS). It doesn’t define what exactly the program is supposed to be piloting, though. Aside from language barring overlapping loans or grants, the only direct instructions in the bill set out specs for determining whether or not a rural community is eligible…

At least 90 percent of the households to be served by a project receiving a loan or grant under the pilot program shall be in a rural area without sufficient access to broadband, defined for this pilot program as 10 Mbps downstream, and 1 Mbps upstream, which shall be re-evaluated and redetermined, as necessary, on an annual basis by the Secretary of Agriculture.

RUS already uses a 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up eligibility criterion for its other rural broadband programs, but any infrastructure it subsidises has to be capable of supporting service at the Federal Communications Commission’s advanced services standard of 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up.

That’s significantly better than the slow, 1990s DSL speed levels demanded by telco and cable lobbyists and approved by California’s lawmakers last year. Assembly bill 1665 lowered California’s minimum acceptable broadband speed to 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up, and allowed California Advanced Services Fund subsidies to be spent on infrastructure as slow as 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up.

Questions still to be answered about the new federal program include what sort of broadband service providers are eligible – RUS rules and traditions favor the small rural cooperatives and telephone companies prevalent in the midwest and south, but not so common in California – and how the money will be split between grants and loans.