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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.

It’s small ball, but at least U.S. congress is playing the broadband game

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Two broadband-related bills were passed by the U.S. house of representatives last week. Both focus on the federal broadband bureaucracy rather than infrastructure deployment or service upgrades, but at least there’s the hope that something will come of it.

House resolution 4881 was carried by representative Bob Latta (R – Ohio). It aims to promote “precision agriculture”, which seems to be just another way of saying “ag tech”. But it’s really about bringing modern broadband service to unserved rural areas. Sorta. It sets up a series of study groups, first within the federal bureaucracy, then including people from various aspects of the agriculture and telecoms industries. They’re charged with figuring out…

  1. The status of fixed and mobile broadband Internet access service coverage of agricultural land;
  2. The projected future connectivity needs of agricultural operations, farmers, and ranchers; and
  3. The steps being taken to accurately measure the availability of broadband Internet access service on agricultural land and the limitations of current, as of the date of the report, measurement processes.

HR 3994, by Paul Tonko (D – New York), would set up an Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth inside the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. It would be responsible for doing pretty much the same thing: figuring out where broadband gaps are, and how to encourage other federal agencies to plug them.

It’s hard to get excited about either bill. At best, we can expect to see a lot of meetings over the next two or three year, capped by what I’m sure will be earnest reports. But there are a couple of encouraging things.

First, it’s good that federal lawmakers can move something, anything at all. And even better that broadband bills are moving ahead on a bipartisan basis – both passed by wide margins.

Second, there seems to be agreement that broadband responsibilities aren’t limited to the Federal Communications Commission, which is a regulator and not a developer, and the federal agriculture department’s Rural Utilities Service, which is stuck in a 1930s electric cooperative business model.

Another reason not to get excited is that neither bill is law yet. The U.S. senate has to act, which is usually not the way the bet, and the president has to sign it, which means all bets are off.

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).

Federal ag department looks to co-ops to lead broadband development

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At least one member of the Trump administration isn’t trying to smack local broadband initiatives with a preemption sledgehammer. Agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue spoke to a gathering of representatives of rural electric cooperatives. Those are (usually) small electric systems that are organised as buyer cooperatives – electric customers are the owners. The federal agriculture department has been subsidising them for more than 80 years. Many of those co-ops have branched off into the broadband business, also with subsidies from the agriculture department’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS).

Perdue likes that idea. He said the expansion of broadband infrastructure and service is “rural electrification of the 21st century”…

We are at the beginning, I think, of a seismic shift in technology and when you think just the beginning, you said, well, the Internet’s been around for how many years? Well, only 15 or so. When you think about that – how quickly it comes upon us, how quickly we become dependent on these technological advances. The partnership between rural electric cooperatives and the federal, state and local communities, I believe, can be, must be revolutionary in the change. I think it will be literally transformative around our country as we participate with you, as you participate with local, state and federal authorities to make sure this happens, just like it happened beginning in 1936 with the [rural electrification] act. You got the potential to do the very same thing in the 21st century.

The big question on the table now is what will he do with the $600 million that congress set aside for new broadband grants and loans. Perdue said his department is working on it. He didn’t offer any details, although he encouraged rural cooperatives to offer ideas on how the money should be spent.

Looked at one way, Perdue’s speech is a genuine plus for independent broadband development in the U.S. His good words and encouragement for rural cooperatives are 100% in line with federal agriculture department policy and practice. Which is great if you live in the midwest or south, where rural cooperatives are thick on the ground – RUS broadband programs are custom tailored to serve them.

That’s not so good for California, or many western states, where the utility cooperative model didn’t take hold with the same enthusiasm. There are only three in California – in Riverside, Modoc and Plumas and Sierra counties – and as a result, RUS broadband money tends to go to other states. Perdue is right about the valuable role cooperatives play, where they exist, but he needs to expand his department’s thinking about how to get the same results where they don’t.

Trump outsources rural economic development to wireless broadband companies

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U.S. president Donald Trump put privately funded wireless broadband at the top of his rural economic development agenda yesterday. In a speech to the American Farm Bureau Federation, Trump embraced recommendations made by a government task force he created to define rural economic development policy. The task force report labeled rural connectivity “essential” and “fundamental for economic development”, and leaned heavily on wireless solutions.

“The task force heard from farmers that broadband internet access is an issue of vital concern to their communities and businesses“, Trump said. “That is why today, in a few moments, I will take the first step to expand access to broadband Internet in rural America. I will sign two presidential orders to provide broader, faster—and better—internet coverage”.

Those orders direct the interior department to make some of its assets, presumably towers and wireless sites, available for broadband development purposes and generally tell federal agencies to speed up antenna installations on federal buildings.

The task force did not call for increased federal spending on broadband infrastructure. Instead, it recommended trimming back regulations, favoring wireless facilities over wireline construction, and trusting broadband service providers to get the job done…

Past efforts to connect rural America have resulted in the allocation of substantial amounts of federal funds for broadband deployment and, while such investments made important contributions, our country has not fully achieved the connectivity needed for success in the economy of today and tomorrow. Although capital investment is one aspect of bridging the divide, far too many government policies stifle network buildout. By streamlining the deployment process, allowing access to existing infrastructure, and reducing barriers to buildout, risk can be reduced and providers can be encouraged to expand networks throughout rural America.

As we modernize and reduce regulations, we should also consider the full range of means to connect rural communities, including satellite, fixed wireless, and cellular networks. These technologies can be less expensive to deploy than traditional wired networks and are rapidly improving in quality.

The focus on building wireless infrastructure with private capital –supplemented by existing federal subsidy programs, particularly the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund (CAF) – is consistent with past Trump administration positions. Its national security policy paper, released last month, similarly called out 5G infrastructure. Republicans at the FCC and in congress favor using the CAF model as a low cost, incumbent-centric method of upgrading rural broadband. And of course, FCC chair Ajit Pai generally wants to take a weed whacker to telecoms regulations.

CAF-subsidised wireless service, as deployed by AT&T and planned by Frontier Communications, will freeze rural broadband speeds at 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload for a generation or more. That service level is far below the 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up standard adopted by the U.S. agriculture department, and it’s nowhere near enough to deliver, as yesterday’s report calls for, "reliable and affordable high-speed internet connectivity [that] will transform rural America as a key catalyst for prosperity.

But Trump says it’s enough.

Report to the president of the United States from the task force on agriculture and rural prosperity, released 8 January 2018

Rural broadband wins a round in the battle of the Beltway swamp

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I might have been wrong about Sonny Perdue. He’s the former governor of Georgia and lifelong agribusinessman that is now the Trump administration’s agriculture secretary. At the least, my critique of his background didn’t take agribusiness-as-usual into account.

The Rural Utilities Service (RUS) is part of his domain – it’s an agency within the federal agriculture department that, among other things, gives out loans and some grants to pay for broadband service upgrades and expansion in rural areas. California misses out on the most of that money, but it’s an important source of money for rural broadband projects in other states. For its latest round of broadband loans, RUS raised its minimum broadband service standard to 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds. If a community doesn’t have Internet access available at that level, then RUS considers it “unserved”.

That decision runs completely counter to the Federal Communications Commission’s effort to dumb down its standard for advanced telecommunications service, which is currently also 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up, but might be lowered to 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up.

There are a couple of potential explanations for why RUS is bucking the trend. The simplest is that the agriculture department’s wheels grind slowly and nobody at headquarters was paying much attention yet to technical changes already in the works for a relatively obscure program – Perdue has been on the job less than four months.

But another possible reason is that Perdue, who has his own priorities, isn’t getting the same level of attention from the white house that the FCC enjoys – The Donald is far more likely to be engaged with his Twitter audience and his own coverage on cable news channels than, say, hog husbandry. Perdue grew up on a farm and has spent his private sector career in agriculture. As a politician, he’s run things strictly along good old boy lines and was expected by some to do the same in Washington, D.C..

If those expectations have become reality, then Perdue likely isn’t worrying so much about pleasing big telephone and cable companies, or their amen corner on Trump’s policy team. His focus will be on making it easier for his friends and his natural ag industry constituency to tap federal subsidies. That might not be the most noble of motives for becoming a rural broadband champion, but it’s certainly a reliable one.

USDA embraces 25 Mbps broadband standard even as FCC dumbs it down

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Somebody knows when to crank it up.

The minimum acceptable broadband speed in rural areas is now 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. At least according to the federal agriculture department.

The Rural Utilities Service (RUS) offers loans to broadband providers – cooperatives and small telephone companies frequently tap the program – for service upgrades in areas that meet the agency’s requirements. One of those requirements deals with the speed and availability of existing service – if a provider is expanding into new territory, then at least 15% of the homes in that area must be “unserved”, as defined by RUS.

Originally, the RUS threshold for acceptable service was 4 Mbps down/1 Mbps up. If that level of service wasn’t available, then an area qualified as “unserved”. It’s periodically revised that definition, and for its latest broadband loan window, RUS has raised the bar

For the purposes of this [notice of funding availability], the agency is revising the definition of ‘‘Broadband Service’’, such that for applications submitted under this window, existing Broadband Service, the rate used to determine if an area is eligible for funding, shall mean the minimum rate- of-data transmission of twenty-five megabits downstream and three megabits upstream for both mobile and fixed service.

The new RUS rules also require any infrastructure that’s funded by its loans be capable of delivering service at those speeds…

With respect to the ‘‘Broadband Lending Speed’’, the rate at which applicants must propose to offer new broadband service is a minimum bandwidth of twenty-five megabits downstream and three megabits upstream for both mobile and fixed service to the customer.

It’s the same minimum that the Federal Communications Commission has set for advanced telecommunications services – high speed broadband, in other words. But ironically, while RUS raises its minimum, the FCC lowered its threshold for mobile broadband subsidies in rural areas to 5 Mbps down and no particular requirement on the upload side, and is considering dropping its advanced services benchmark to 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up for mobile, and perhaps all, service.

RUS has it right.

Federal broadband development swamp heads south

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The south rises again.

If you were hoping that Donald Trump’s campaign promise to drain the Beltway swamp was going to shake up the agriculture subsidy machine that funnels broadband development money to the south and midwest at California’s expense, then it looks like you’re going to be disappointed.

The U.S. senate confirmed former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue as agriculture secretary this week. He has spent his life in the southern farming industry, as a boy growing up on a farm, as a veterinarian, as governor and as a commodities trader. Even his fan boys, like those at National Hog Farmer, concede that he is “known for not pushing big agendas”.

What he is known for is dodgy dealings that benefit himself and his fellow good old boys (and, in fairness, girls) at taxpayer’s expense, according to Politico.com

Perdue, tapped by Trump to run USDA in January, has a long history of ethics controversies, notably when he signed a law giving himself a tax break, and when he was found to have violated Georgia law by funding his campaign accounts with contributions from his private enterprises…

“That good-old boy system is definitely embedded and definitely entrenched here,” said Sara Henderson, the public policy director for Common Cause Georgia, a nonpartisan government watchdog group. “And I think former Gov. Perdue is going to bring that to the federal government…"

Perdue faced 13 complaints to the state ethics commission during his years as governor, two of which resulted in findings that he broke state ethics laws. In 2002, Perdue was caught funneling illegal amounts of money from his private businesses into his campaign account and, in 2005, Perdue was forced to pay a $1,900 fine for improper campaign contributions and failing to correctly report the use of his private plane for a campaign event, records show.

The federal agriculture department’s broadband infrastructure subsidy program is rigged to favor the kind of rural communities that predominate in the midwest and south, and reliably passes over Californian projects. Former California congressman Sam Farr called it “midwest derangement syndrome”. The only difference this time is that it’s heading south.

Antique tech is good enough for USDA, so it must be fine for everyone else

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We’re upgrading to Pong next year.

All of a sudden, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s – and, consequently, the Federal Communication Commission’s – belief that slow 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds are adequate benchmarks for rural broadband infrastructure development makes sense. Technologically, the USDA is a decade behind everyone else. That’s an entire lifetime in Silicon Valley dog years.

I had signed up for a USDA webinar on the new round of the Community Connect broadband grant program yesterday (which sets an even lower, 4 Mbps download standard). An hour before it began, I received a “friendly note” from one of the coordinators telling me 1. the webinar uses Microsoft’s LiveMeeting platform, 2. it won’t run on a Mac, and 3. I could expect no help from USDA.

Since the only computer operating systems I use are Mac and Linux, the “note” did not strike me as particularly “friendly”.

The latest rev of LiveMeeting is a 2007 release that Microsoft discontinued five years ago, replacing it with a Skype-based platform. In fact, you can use it on a Mac, if you’re willing to install a runtime version of Java and do some command line tinkering via Terminal. That might be a fun project for a rainy weekend, but it’s a waste of time during business hours. And a significant security risk.

The USDA is simply incapable of dealing with technological change. It’s not unique in that regard – federal agencies have a tremendous problem maintaining IT infrastructure, as the continuing stream of major security breaches and iPhone fumbling demonstrate. But ag tech is booming in California, and will change food production forever. If the USDA can’t keep up, its particular clients in the midwest and south will fall even further behind California and the rest of the world.

That’s the general problem. The specific problem is that the USDA unit entrusted with developing telecommunications infrastructure lives in the past, isolated from the technological pressure that’s driving the ever increasing demand for bandwidth in rural communities.

Faster broadband standard set by federal agriculture department

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It’ll get there eventually.

Minimum speeds for guaranteed broadband infrastructure loans from the federal agriculture department have been raised. The Rural Utilities Service (RUS) opened another round of loans earlier this month, and upped the benchmark speed for both area eligibility and funded infrastructure from 4 Mbps download/1 Mbps upload to 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up, for wireline and fixed and mobile wireless projects.

That brings the RUS minimum speeds in line with other federal broadband subsidy programs, particularly the Connect America Fund program run by the Federal Communications Commission, which will be giving more than half a billion dollars to incumbent telephone companies in California alone.

On the whole, the RUS loan program is also tilted toward incumbents – the nature of the beast is that it’s a lot easier for an existing business to borrow money than a start up. That’s true whether you’re applying to a bank or a subsidised rural loan guarantee program. Like all RUS programs, it’s also designed to serve rural areas that fit midwestern and southern conditions: small counties with small farms and small populations.

California is different. Our state has large agricultural operations, and workers who commute to the fields from towns that federal agencies consider too large to help. Standards are also different here – the minimum set by the California Public Utilities Commission is 6 Mbps down and 1.5 Mbps up. Slower download speeds, but higher on the upload side, which is more critical for businesses than for consumer applications. But federal rules are moving in the right direction, and make the case, if not the requirement for even better speeds…

With the development of new applications and the need for greater bandwidth, [RUS] strongly suggests that applicants applying for funding under this program consider system designs that will allow for 25 megabits downstream and 3 megabits upstream. Building to these requirements will ensure that facilities that are constructed today will also be able to handle the needs of the future.

It’s the direction that California should be heading towards too.