Rural broadband on the table as farm bill negotiations resume

27 October 2013 by Steve Blum
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Talks resume in Washington this week.

The future of rural broadband subsidies in the U.S. could be decided at a meeting, currently scheduled for Wednesday, between senators and members of the house of representatives in Washington. The house and senate have passed two very different versions of a bill to reauthorise a trillion dollars worth of farm-related programs. Broadband spending amounts to a small fraction of the total, in either version, so the main attention will be on the big money issues, like food stamps, crop insurance and direct farm subsidies.

The senate’s bill expands rural broadband spending in a couple of interesting ways, allowing the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service to give out direct grants as well as loans and establishing pilot projects to build gigabit networks in rural areas. Broadband providers in rural California would likely benefit from those changes, which are more in tune with broadband business models here, even given the potential problems with implementation.

The house version of the bill makes more radical changes to farm and food stamp policy, but it’s relatively status quo when it comes to broadband. Funding for the loan program would continue at $25 million annually – not much when you consider that’s how much California puts aside for broadband programs every year – and eligibility rules would be tweaked, also similar to changes made here last month.

Cable and telco lobbyists are working as hard in Washington as they did in Sacramento to hamstring funding that might go to potential competitors, so nothing is safe. Another danger is that rural broadband subsidies are small change but often high profile, which could draw the attention of lawmakers looking for symbolic cuts.