Tag Archives: RUS

Federal agencies begin to sing the same broadband policy music, according to NTIA report

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Mormon tabernacle choir

There’s more coherency and cooperation amongst federal broadband development planning and programs, according to a report just released by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Once you get past the love letter penned to president Donald Trump by a couple of his cabinet secretaries, it’s a good overview of how at least some parts of the federal bureaucracy are trying to coordinate broadband policy.

The need for better execution is clear. The report notes the gap between urban and rural broadband availability – 2% of urban residents lack access to fixed service at a minimum speed of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. The divide is even wider when, um, overly optimistic fixed wireless availability claims are factored out.

Most of the agency initiatives mentioned in the report already exist, and focus on streamlining processes for things like getting permits to build fiber routes through federal lands or renting space on federally owned towers. That’s all useful, and it’s good to know that, little by little, federal agencies are making it easier to get some work done.

But money talks. No new broadband funding was announced, but the report does highlight the federal agriculture department’s new ReConnect program, which will direct $600 million into rural projects. It also offers clues to other sources of broadband money in the federal bureaucracy…

Other Agencies have also made broadband an allowable expense within their current funding streams. Funding for broadband infrastructure may be supported by block and formula grants provided through programs managed by HUD and the DOE. The Economic Development Administration (EDA), Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), and DRA have identified broadband as an eligible expense and a priority for economic development. These funding streams are critical. They can catalyze private investment and ensure that services are sustained and upgraded over time.

The report also recommends closer cooperation between the agriculture department and the Federal Communications Commission, suggesting that the USDA’s infrastructure construction grants and the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF) operating subsidies could complement each other.

Perhaps, but it would require a major change in the way the FCC decides who gets CAF money. Right now, incumbent telephone companies get first dibs on nearly all the money, and what’s left over is auctioned off. USDA, on the other hand, opens up infrastructure grant application windows at irregular intervals. Redesigning the programs would almost certainly require congressional approval.

One agency is conspicuously absent from the action items. Although the report mentions the federal transportation department, it doesn’t sketch out a role for it, and there’s no mention of dig once requirements for federal highway projects.

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.

California can offer a cure for midwest derangement syndrome

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Monterey County’s former U.S. congressman, Sam Farr, used to call it “midwest derangement syndrome”. That’s the condition that seems to afflict federal agriculture department subsidy programs, including broadband development grants and loans.

It’s real. The agriculture department’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) has a long track record of favoring small states with lots of small farms in small counties. In other words, the sort of rural communities that predominate in the midwestern and southern U.S.

California has places where you can find traditional family farms with traditional farm families in residence. But more commonly, you’ll find three other kinds of rural: exurban bedroom and, effectively, retirement communities, traditional western rural economies built around ranching, mining, timber or tourism, and small (by Californian standards) cities in the midst of large corporate croplands. Residents of towns like Gonzales and Hilmar don’t live on farms. They commute.

A big federal budget bill passed earlier this year set aside $600 million for “a new broadband loan and grant pilot program”. It’s up to RUS to figure out what that means, and they’re asking for advice

Eligible rural areas are defined as having at least 90 percent of the households without sufficient access to broadband, defined in the law as 10 Mbps downstream, and 1 Mbps upstream. At present, RUS is working to determine what types of technologies and services are defined as ‘‘sufficient access.’’ In particular, RUS is seeking information about the transmission capacity required for economic development, and speed and latency, especially in peak usage hours, to ensure rural premises have access to coverage similar to that offered in urban areas. Comments are specifically requested on whether affordability of service should be included in evaluating whether an area already has ‘‘sufficient access’’ and how to benchmark affordability of internet services. And if so, what equates to consumers’ costs being so high that they are effectively rendered inaccessible to rural households?

It’s a very good question. If broadband costs too much or is delivered, say, via flakey wireless systems, are the needs of rural communities being met?

This is also an opportunity to make the case for California’s kind of rural. Comments are due 10 September 2018.

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).

People matter, not paperwork, for rural broadband development

by Steve Blum • , , , , ,

The success of broadband subsidies targeted to rural areas should be evaluated, at least in part, on the number of rural subscribers projects actually attract. That’s one of the conclusions of an investigation by the federal government accounting office into $3 billion worth of grants and loans given out by the U.S. department of agriculture’s rural utilities service as part of the 2009 stimulus program.

There were two pots of broadband stimulus money back then: the NTIA’s broadband technology opportunities program and RUS’s broadband initiatives program (BIP). I worked on grant applications to both programs, and found RUS’s standards a little more exacting – they had been in the rural broadband subsidy business for several years by that time. NTIA was completely new at the game.

But after looking at the results in 2012, the GAO said the subscribership data that RUS was using to track project success was “innaccurate” and a year later found it hadn’t improved substantially. Part of the problem is that the projects served more than just rural communities…

RUS does not track subscribership by rural area and, as a result, is not able to show the impact of the BIP program on rural broadband availability. The [inspector general] previously found that RUS’s performance information makes it impossible to measure BIP’s impact in rural areas because the information was not collected by rural area. The Recovery Act required that BIP service areas be at least 75 percent rural without sufficient access to high-speed broadband service to facilitate economic development. The rest of the project area may not be rural.

GAO is recommending formal, annual reports of how well, or not, RUS-funded projects meet the goals set out for them. That’s a good idea. The wrangling over the latest update of farm support programs consumed a lot of time and effort, but expanded rural broadband development resources. More rigorous oversight will help ensure that the money goes toward serving the people who need it most.

Long shot for federal broadband grants in California

by Steve Blum • , , , , ,

Federal broadband infrastructure grants are pretty thin. Earlier this year, congress approved $10 million a year for five years for rural gigabit pilot projects. The FCC is looking at putting money into rural broadband experiments, but isn’t saying how much. And the US department of agriculture’s rural utilities service – which usually just makes loans – has $13 million available now for “advanced communications technology in rural areas”, via its Community Connect grant program.

The official announcement went out last week, just before the Memorial Day weekend (h/t to Connie Stewart at the California Center for Rural Policy and the Redwood Coast Connect regional broadband consortium for the pointer). The deadline for applying is 7 July 2014.

The question for Californians is whether it’s worth the trouble. The last time the USDA awarded a Community Connect grant in California was 2011. In the 12 years since the program began, only 7 broadband projects have been funded here for a total of $4.4 million. 5 of those grants went to Indian tribes and 2 to commercial broadband projects.

Compare that to what the California Public Utilities Commission has done in the past year: $41.7 million in grants from the California Advanced Services Fund to broadband infrastructure projects (including $6.6 million to backfill federal grants in tribal areas). Ten times what the Community Connect program has put into projects here in the past 12 years and almost twice what the feds are spending on broadband development nationwide.

So applying for a federal Community Connect grant is a low probability play. Should you do it? Robert Heinlein put it best:

Certainly the game is rigged. Don’t let that stop you; if you don’t bet, you can’t win.

Good luck!

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.