New rules for federal broadband loans in rural areas don't change eastern bias

3 August 2015 by Steve Blum
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Most of the broadband blank zones are in the west, most of the money goes east. Go figure.

The Rural Utilities Service (RUS) is the arm of the federal agriculture department that runs broadband grant and loan programs. It’s just published new application rules for loans to build broadband infrastructure in poorly served rural areas. Highlights include…

  • The minimum acceptable broadband speed is set at 4 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up; any area with less than that is considered unserved by federal standards.
  • To be eligible, at least 15% of the homes in an area must be unserved.
  • Applications will be rated and loans approved on a priority basis. The higher the percentage of unserved homes, the higher the rating. No more first come, first served.
  • RUS will use more information sources when it decides whether an area is served or not, including the National Broadband Map.
  • Loan applications will be accepted twice a year, instead of just once.
  • Repayment terms could be eased – but by no means waived – for particularly difficult cases but only “to the extent…necessary to achieve financial feasibility and long-term sustainability of these projects”.
  • More information about proposed projects will be made public.
  • There are also several other housekeeping and technical changes to the rules – generally minor unless you’re affected. Then it’s major. If you’re interested, click here.

In a fine bit of bureaucratic double speak, the new rules allow for reserves to be set for particular states, but only if “appropriate”. Translation: despite having 10% of the nation’s rural population, California could still end up shut out completely, as we tend to be year in and year out, since the agency’s bias towards the midwest and south remains unchanged.

The new rules serve two purposes, governing loan applications in the current window, which closes the end of next month, and as a straw man for discussion regarding future rounds. Comments are also being accepted, if not taken to heart, until 28 September 2015.