Tag Archives: usda

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.

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

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

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

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).

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

by Steve Blum • , , ,

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

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

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

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

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

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

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.