Broadband projects should compete for more federal money, report recommends

22 September 2015 by Steve Blum
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Broadband gets a swing at it too.

There’s not a lot new in the recommendations released yesterday by the federal Broadband Opportunity Council, an interagency talking shop launched earlier this year as part of U.S. president Barack Obama’s community broadband initiative. But it is useful source for information about existing federal broadband programs and it at least gets some commitments, and even a few deadlines, down on paper.

The big question, of course, is where’s the money? No one is proposing to appropriate any new money for broadband, but at least there’s vague guidance to include broadband as something eligible for funding in existing programs…

Recommendation: All relevant Federal programs, especially those supporting economic development, infrastructure and housing programs, will use rulemakings or guidance to open financing resources for broadband investments.

According to the report, there’s $10 billion spread over 13 programs and/or agencies that can be tapped for broadband projects. That’s not the same thing as saying that there’s $10 billion newly available for broadband infrastructure construction, though. Plenty of uses for most of those grants and loans are eligible as well, and will compete with broadband projects for funding. And some of the money is already allocated for broadband development, as with the Rural Utilities Service’s programs, or available for broadband projects, such as Economic Development Administration grants.

But there’s the hope that more money will eventually flow towards broadband infrastructure. The federal agriculture department has a rural community facility development program, with $2.3 billion earmarked for the coming fiscal year. The report says that the department will “develop and promote new funding guidance making broadband projects eligible”. That won’t happen for another year, though, even if the report’s schedule is met. Similar promises are made for public housing, education, health and law enforcement programs.

For anything to happen, though, the federal agencies involved have to come up with new rules that make money available for broadband projects in a useful way. The report is very thin when it comes to specifics and timeframes are best looked at as aspirational rather than mandatory, leaving a lot of discretion to the agencies themselves. The clock could run down on the Obama administration before anything tangible happens. For now, it’s just watch and wait.