Tag Archives: farm bill

Eligibility, application details for $600 million rural broadband subsidy program released

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Salinas valley field

Rural broadband grant money will go to areas where 100% of homes do not have access to sufficiently fast service, which is defined as 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds from a wireline or fixed wireless provider. Mobile and satellite service don’t count. If a mix of grant and loan is applied for, then only 90% of the homes have to be unserved at that level.

The federal agriculture department rolled out its new ReConnect program in a webinar yesterday, and filled in a lot of the details about what sort of areas are eligible, which will score higher than others, and who can apply for the $300 million in grants and $300 million in loan money approved by congress earlier this year.

Grants will go to applicants who score the most points on the program’s grading scale. The fewer people per square mile and the more farms served, the more points a project gets. The points max out at 6 people or fewer per square mile and 20 farms served. Serving businesses, schools, health care and other critical facilities, and tribal lands also rate higher.

Faster speeds are better. The minimum service speed for subsidised projects is 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload, but proposals that promise a symmetrical 100 Mbps to every home and business in the project area will score the best.

For the most part, the program will avoid spending money in areas that received broadband subsidies from either state or federal sources.

One question left unanswered – and I asked it – is whether communities where the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund (CAF–2) is paying incumbent telephone companies to upgrade service to the 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps level (areas where CAF–2 subsidies were auctioned off are explicitly ineligible, though). Those build outs are not yet complete, and not all homes and businesses in a given community are subsidised, so it’s possible that some areas earmarked for CAF–2 money would lack sufficiently fast service and, presumably, be eligible.

Pretty much any organisation other than a sole proprietorship or simple partnership can apply, including local governments, cooperatives and non-profit corporations. There is one catch: either the applicant, or the applicant’s parent company, has to have been in business for at least two years. Start-ups need not apply.

States with better broadband programs will get a boost, too. Extra points go to projects in states that have a broadband development plan, that don’t keep utilities out of the broadband business and streamline permit and environmental clearances.

One intriguing hint was dropped during the webinar. The program managers are anticipating a second round of funding after the initial money is spent. It’s possible that another deal could be cut as part of a federal budget package – that’s where the $600 million came from. But it seems likelier that the new money will come from the $1.7 billion earmarked for broadband grants and loans in the recently passed farm bill.

The fun is only beginning.

Rural Utilities Service, funding opportunity announcement and solicitation of applications, ReConnect broadband grant and loan program, 14 December 2018.

I’m collecting documents regarding this program here.

$600 million federal rural broadband subsidy program launches, grant applications due in April

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Salinas ag tech summit 13jul2018

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.

Lots of fiber in federal farm bill, and it’s not just hemp

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Hemp

A five year farm bill with billions of dollars set aside for improving broadband infrastructure in rural areas is heading for president Donald Trump’s desk. Negotiators from the federal senate and house of representatives cobbled together a compromise bill earlier this week, and the house gave it a final blessing yesterday. It keeps most of the pro-broadband development provisions in earlier drafts.

The bill also legalises hemp production – the roping, not the doping kind.

The conference report is more than 800 pages long, and until I get through it all in detail I’m not going to try to figure how much broadband money is actually in it. One provision sets aside $350 million a year for five years for just a couple of programs. And there are several more that deal with broadband, directly or indirectly.

What’s clear from a quick read, though, is that rural representatives aren’t buying the nonsense pushed by AT&T and other monopoly telcos (and swallowed hook, line and sinker by the Federal Communications Commission) that 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds are adequate. Although that’s the level that at least some of the new rural grants and loan programs will use to determine eligibility – i.e. if a community has that level of service, it wouldn’t be eligible for subsidies – any infrastructure built with that money will have to do better. The bill sets the minimum speeds for new service at 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up, and the agriculture department will have to look ahead and raise the bar as necessary to meet “projections of minimum acceptable standards of service for 5, 10, 15, 20, and 30 years into the future”.

That’s true even if it means a do-over in some places…

The [congressional negotiators] are acutely aware of the challenges created by the ever-increasing bandwidth needs of applications running over the Internet. These bandwidth needs mean that the expectation for “broadband-quality service” in urban, suburban, and rural communities increases over time. While protecting project areas provided assistance from a competing USDA-assisted project is essential for program integrity, such protections can result in a lack of further investment in rural broadband systems and rural residents receiving levels of service which degrade relative to expectations over time.

In establishing the broadband buildout speeds, the [congressional negotiators] intend the [federal agriculture secretary] establish requirements for applicants to build systems capable of providing higher quality broadband service as the term of assistance lengthens, to help to ensure that USDA-financed broadband systems are able to meet the connectivity needs of rural residents for the entirety of the length of time such system is protected from overbuilding under USDA’s broadband programs.

The bill allows spending on middle mile projects, which are particularly needed in rural areas where wholesale connections to major Internet hubs, like Silicon Valley, are at best prohibitively expensive but often unavailable at any price.

It’s welcome relief for rural Californians. The forward looking standards and the wholistic view of necessary broadband infrastructure is a stark contrast to the California legislature’s decision last year to lower the minimum acceptable broadband standard to 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up and tightly restrict middle mile funding. The millions of dollars – $1.3 million in the past legislative session alone – that AT&T, Comcast, Charter, Frontier and other incumbents have paid to California legislators produced results in Sacramento. They hand out even bigger bags of cash in Washington, D.C., but fortunately rural interests count for a lot more there.

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).

$50 million for rural gigabit projects included in farm bill

by Steve Blum • , , , , ,

Incumbents are still king.

The U.S. senate just joined the house in approving a new $50 million ($10 million a year for five years) “Rural Gigabit Network Pilot Program”. It’s in the farm bill just sent on for the president’s approval (or not). Unlike current rural broadband subsidy programs, it allows grants in addition to loans and doesn’t particularly favor incumbents.

An eligible applicant is one that does “not already provide ultra-high speed service to a rural area within any State in the proposed service territory”. Ultra-high speed service is defined in the bill as “1 gigabit per second downstream transmission capacity”. Only rural communities – 20,000 inhabitants or fewer – where there’s no existing gigabit service are eligible.

The program is actually more expansive than the original version in the bill passed by the senate but rejected by the house – there’s no longer a five project maximum and a limit of one per state.

Other than the gigabit program, though, federal rural broadband subsidies won’t change very much. Like the version passed by the house last summer, the compromise farm bill is heavily weighted towards the status quo: the core broadband subsidy program administered by the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) will continue at the $25 million a year level, only allow loans and will generally protect and fund incumbent service providers. It also lets incumbents challenge projects proposed by would-be competitors and sets a minimum service level of 4 Mbps down/1 Mbps up.

The rural gigabit community program will be worth watching. It’s not a lot of money – one fiber-to-the-home project can chew through $10 million in a hurry – but it’s more than nothing, which is what the federal government is doing now.

Text of compromise 2014 farm bill.

Current law governing federal rural broadband subsidies – the new language amends what’s already there.

Twelve days of Christmas might end with broadband in a farm bill

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Democrats and republicans are reportedly finding middle ground on a re-write of the U.S. agriculture, rural development and food subsidy law, otherwise known as the Farm Bill. The two competing bills passed earlier this year both include money for rural broadband projects, but the house of representative’s version has only about half as much money in it as the senate’s. In either case it’s barely noticeable in a trillion dollar-scale package.

There’s no word on how broadband programs are faring, in the fight over billions of dollars for crop subsidies and food stamps. According to Politico.com, negotiators are determined to keep the haggling out of the public eye until a final version is ready for vote, probably in January…

Few details have been released publicly by [house and senate ag committee chairs] Lucas and Stabenow to date, and both are leery of saying too much before January and risking attacks over the recess. “Your mother wouldn’t let you open your Christmas present before Christmas morning,” Lucas joked, fending off questions from reporters.

Negotiators seem to be focused on dollars and not on ideological differences, which takes a lot of heat out of the discussion. On that basis, I’d bet that any broadband goodies that might end up under your desiccated tree in January will be about the same dollar total as the status quo house version, but still could include some of the senate’s perks, like allowing grants in addition to loans or funding rural gigabit community pilot projects.

It isn’t going to happen by Christmas, but by the time we get to ten lords a leaping we might have some idea.

Rural broadband alternatives remain under the radar in farm bill negotiatons

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The cloaking device seems to be working.

Rural development subsidies, including broadband construction programs, do not seem to be among the hot button issues as the debate in Washington continues over the trillion-dollar farm and welfare package known as the farm bill.

There are major differences between the broadband subsidies approved earlier this year by the republican controlled house and the democrat controlled senate. The house version more or less continues the current program, maintaining the focus on loans and keeping it at $25 million per year. The senate version doubles the funding to $50 million a year, allows direct grants as well as loans and sets up a vaguely worded rural gigabit community pilot project.

The senate’s version makes it possible for more communities to apply, raising the population limit from 20,000 to 50,000. On the other hand, only areas with one incumbent service provider (or none) are eligible. The current program allows funding for areas with as many as two incumbents. Other provisions bake a 4 Mbps down/1 Mbps up acceptable service level into law and allow incumbents to directly challenge projects.

The house version also creates a protest process for incumbents, and requires the USDA to consider the cost of upgrading existing facilities rather than financing a new competitor. On the whole, cable and telco lobbyists should be pleased.

The real wrangling is over the two big ticket items – food stamps and crop price and insurance subsidies – but several side battles have emerged. Labelling requirements for imported food, California’s rules regarding the treatment of farm animals and requirements for adding ethanol to gasoline are among the smaller issues getting attention in the media and, it appears, from the senate and house staffers who are doing the grunt work.

Nothing yet, though, about rural development programs.

Prepared statements, but no prepared solutions for rural broadband development

by Steve Blum • , , ,

We’ll get back to you on that.

Wednesday’s meeting between senators and house members from both parties, to discuss what’s known as the farm bill, set the table for ongoing negotiations over what’ll be in it, but didn’t otherwise show progress toward agreement. The farm bill is a trillion dollar package of subsidies for farmers, rural development projects and groceries for the millions of people in the U.S. that rely on food stamps. The house and the senate have competing versions with significant differences – including how rural broadband projects are supported, if at all – and it’s up to the farm bill conference committee to negotiate a compromise.

The committee met on Wednesday for two and a half hours. Most of that time was taken up by committee members reading prepared statements. A couple of points quickly became clear: 1. the big tussle will be over the big ticket item, food stamps and 2. no matter what’s actually in the bill, most on both sides want to be able to claim they’re saving money. Somewhere, some how.

Rural broadband subsidies are small change by Washington standards (tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on the version), but tiny cuts can be turned into big symbols, giving cover to the truly huge programs.

Given the way the process works, we might not know the fate of broadband spending until the farm bill is actually passed. The conference committee’s first meeting was public, but the real negotiations will take place behind closed doors. Once a compromise is reached, the result more or less goes directly to the floor of both houses, and the legislative details might not be publicly available until after the vote.

The timeframe for a decision is uncertain. Because the previous farm bill has largely expired, there’s a sense of urgency, and there’s an expectation of it taking a few weeks, not days or months. But like “small change”, “urgent” has a different meaning in Washington.

Rural broadband on the table as farm bill negotiations resume

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Talks resume in Washington this week.

The future of rural broadband subsidies in the U.S. could be decided at a meeting, currently scheduled for Wednesday, between senators and members of the house of representatives in Washington. The house and senate have passed two very different versions of a bill to reauthorise a trillion dollars worth of farm-related programs. Broadband spending amounts to a small fraction of the total, in either version, so the main attention will be on the big money issues, like food stamps, crop insurance and direct farm subsidies.

The senate’s bill expands rural broadband spending in a couple of interesting ways, allowing the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service to give out direct grants as well as loans and establishing pilot projects to build gigabit networks in rural areas. Broadband providers in rural California would likely benefit from those changes, which are more in tune with broadband business models here, even given the potential problems with implementation.

The house version of the bill makes more radical changes to farm and food stamp policy, but it’s relatively status quo when it comes to broadband. Funding for the loan program would continue at $25 million annually – not much when you consider that’s how much California puts aside for broadband programs every year – and eligibility rules would be tweaked, also similar to changes made here last month.

Cable and telco lobbyists are working as hard in Washington as they did in Sacramento to hamstring funding that might go to potential competitors, so nothing is safe. Another danger is that rural broadband subsidies are small change but often high profile, which could draw the attention of lawmakers looking for symbolic cuts.

Broadband faces another urban-rural divide in Washington

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Is that a city pork or a country pork?

The fate of federal broadband subsidies in rural areas might hinge on a debate going on in Washington over food stamps. Every few years (five or whenever they happen to get around to it…) congress has to reauthorise the massive and complex system for managing and supporting U.S. agribusiness.

The farm bill, as it’s commonly called, has exploded far beyond crop insurance and commodity price supports. With a price tag approaching a trillion dollars, it’s become a vehicle to, among other things, direct federal funds toward rural development and urban social programs. Particularly food stamps, notwithstanding the fact that the program is well used in farm country too.

That urban-rural straddle has kept the dollars flowing for more than fifty years. But there are hints the end is in sight.

The senate passed its version of the farm bill last month, including a hefty helping of cash that, among other things, establishes a pilot program for rural fiber-to-the-home projects. And reauthorises the food stamp program.

That bill bounced back to the house of representatives where it hit a brick wall . Democrats who thought it trimmed too much out of food stamps and republicans who wanted the cuts to go deeper voted defeated it. This stand off could last long enough to let current programs expire and default back to a law passed in 1949.

An alternative that’s been floated this week, though, would split off food stamps and similar programs into separate legislation. Rural broadband subsidies would, in all likelihood, stay with the farm bit of the bill. But losing what amounts to automatic support from urban interests would lead to aggressive horse trading. The end of the grand bargain could mean the end of an easy ride through congress for rural development programs.