Low USDA broadband grant standards dig a deeper digital divide

29 December 2014 by Steve Blum
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Rural broadband projects have another shot at getting funding from the U.S. department of agriculture. The rural utilities service (RUS) has opened another grant application window for its Community Connect program (h/t to Tom Glegola at CPUC for the heads up).

The key eligibility parameters are…

  • The project must be in an area “where Broadband Service does not currently exist”. That’s defined as a combined – down plus up – speed of 3 Mbps. For example, if there’s service available at 1.5 Mbps up and 1.5 Mbps down, fixed or mobile, then the area isn’t eligible for a grant.
  • The minimum combined speed for projects funded by the grants is 5 Mbps. So 4 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up would qualify, for example.
  • The minimum grant is $100,000, the max is $3 million.
  • Deadline to apply is 15 February 2015.
  • Application rules can be downloaded here.

RUS hasn’t adopted the new FCC standard of 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up, and has always lagged behind the California Public Utilities Commission’s 6 down/1.5 up minimums.

Subsidising systems that deliver less than that will only perpetuate the digital divide that plagues rural communities. It’ll have the same perverse effect that the CPUC’s lower standard for broadband in public housing will have: the communities that most need subsidised broadband upgrades get infrastructure that’s obsolete from the moment it’s installed, and will have to wait years before getting anything better. Which, given past performance, will likewise be substandard.

The people who benefit will be those who have inefficient and ineffective business models to protect – private companies, co-ops, non-profits and public agencies alike. Doing it at the expense of taxpayers and to the detriment of the communities that need broadband upgrades the most is wrong.