California shut out of rural community broadband grants, again

23 October 2014 by Steve Blum
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Can’t see California from here.

For the third year running, the U.S. department of agriculture passed over California while handing out Community Connect grants, a program run by the Rural Utilities Service. The agency released a list of 8 relatively small broadband projects that will be getting a total of $13.7 million. None of which are in California.

It’s possible, of course, that there were no applications submitted from here. I’ve been looking around on the web to see if that info has been published anywhere, but no joy so far. If you know where to find it, please post it in the comments below. I doubt that’s the case, but don’t have any hard facts to back up my opinion. Except that I do know that at least one proposal was submitted last year, because I worked on it.

Kentucky, on the other hand, which has less than 12% of the Golden State’s population received 3 grants this year, 2 last year and 1 in 2012. Since the program began in 2002, RUS has funded 18 Community Connect projects in Kentucky, more than twice the number (7) that have been approved in California over that time. Looking just at non-tribal lands, commercial providers in California received only 2 grants, while all 18 of Kentucky’s are private companies.

Ironically, Kentucky has been used by broadband advocates as an illustration of the extent of unserved territory here. From the California Emerging Technology Fund’s 2009 annual report

Although broadband infrastructure is available to 96% of California households, the 4% (or approximately 500,000 households and 1.4 million people) without access in rural and remote areas are spread out over about 25% of the state’s land area—equal to the size of the 37th largest state in land area, or about the size of Kentucky.

A major problem, shared by other Western states – no grants were given west of the Rockies this year – is that USDA in general and RUS in particular are set up to serve small counties with lots of small family farms, not big counties with big spreads that are often corporately owned. Demographics and population distributions are different. So are the economics and structure of the broadband business. Indian lands fall into a different category, so Californian tribes have done relatively well over the years.

Two ways to solve the problem: get RUS to better adapt its broadband development programs to Western realities and get to work on figuring out how to better fit our square pegs into their round holes. We need to do both. In the meantime, though, we can console ourselves with the thought that the California Advanced Services Fund has more than 10 times the money for broadband infrastructure grants just in this state, than Community Connect has for the entire country. It’s really not so bad here.