Federal farm bills crank up broadband speed, options

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

It’s farm bill time again in Washington, D.C. Every five years or so, congress reauthorises and rewrites rural development and (urban and rural) food stamp programs. The U.S. house of representatives and the senate passed their own bills, and each has good news for broadband infrastructure development. So far.

The version passed by the house specifically allows the federal agriculture department’s Rural Utilities Service, which runs the major rural broadband infrastructure programs, to fund middle mile projects. Those would be tied to “the future ability to link”. In other words, forward looking middle mile projects can be funded.

The U.S. senate’s version of the farm bill (taking into account the published amendments – but take nothing for granted) changes the minimum speed standard that RUS uses. It would read…

The minimum acceptable level of broadband service for a rural area shall be at least—
(A) a 25-Mbps downstream transmission capacity; and
(B) a 1-Mbps upstream transmission capacity.

That language only applies to projects funded by RUS via loans or, less commonly, grants.

There’s also wiggle room. Current law, which would not be changed, says that the federal agriculture secretary “may adjust…the minimum acceptable level of broadband service” and “may consider establishing different transmission rates for fixed broadband service and mobile broadband service”. As a matter of practice though, the agriculture department has only raised the minimum, not lowered it. The 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up standard is already written into regulations issued by the department.

Even so, clear instructions from congress are very helpful in this case. It can be hoped that the Federal Communications Commission, which uses a minimum standard of 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds for its rural broadband subsidy program, will notice of it.

The California legislature, on the other hand, went in the opposite direction last year. After accepting bag loads of cash self serving arguments from lobbyists working for AT&T, Frontier Communications, Comcast, Charter Communications and other big, monopoly-model Internet service providers, lawmakers lowered California’s minimum broadband speed standard to 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up and effectively banned middle mile projects.

It’s a fair bet big telcos and cable companies will apply the same kind of pressure on federal lawmakers as the two versions of the farm bill are reconciled. Their Washington, D.C. lobbyists are already claiming the senate’s bill will block “overbuilds” (it does include language that tightens the eligibility verification process – the devil will be in the details).