Tag Archives: RUS

California can offer a cure for midwest derangement syndrome

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Eligibility for broadband subsidies harder to prove under Senate farm bill requirements

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Trail of tiers.

The version of the federal farm bill passed by the senate has problematic requirements for documenting eligibility for the broadband infrastructure grants and loans it authorises. It sets 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds as a minimum. If an area does not have at least one service provider offering that level of service or better, then it’s eligible for construction subsidies, assuming all the other requirements are met.

To prove an area is eligible, though, the lack of service has to be…

(I) certified by the affected community, city, county, or designee; or (II) demonstrated on (aa) the broadband map of the affected State if the map contains address-level data; or ‘‘(bb) the National Broadband Map if address-level data is unavailable.

Certification by local agencies would be the only option in many cases. The California broadband availability map does not have “address-level data”. It reports broadband speeds by census block. I don’t know of any states that get more granular than that. State data collection formats and requirements generally follow the standards the National Telecommunications and Information Agency uses for its national broadband map.

The national map tracks broadband speeds by tiers, e.g. 768 Kbps to 1.5 Mbps, 1.5 to 3 Mbps and 3 to 6 Mbps. Unless the tier definitions are changed and all the data is re-collected – a process that would take years – there’s no way to tell if an area has 4 Mbps down or 1 Mbps up. The map will tell you if speeds are less than 3 Mbps down and 768 Kbps up, but you couldn’t document eligibility if service was a little faster but still less than the 4 Mbps down/1 Mbps up mark.

The bill doesn’t outline a procedure for local certification of broadband speeds. Presumably, those details would be worked out by the Rural Utilities Service, which would administer the program. The national broadband map and state-level mapping programs allow rapid analysis leading to reasonably certain conclusions about eligibility. Not being able to use those tools will add cost and delays to broadband project proposals.