Rural broadband wins a round in the battle of the Beltway swamp

23 August 2017 by Steve Blum
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I might have been wrong about Sonny Perdue. He’s the former governor of Georgia and lifelong agribusinessman that is now the Trump administration’s agriculture secretary. At the least, my critique of his background didn’t take agribusiness-as-usual into account.

The Rural Utilities Service (RUS) is part of his domain – it’s an agency within the federal agriculture department that, among other things, gives out loans and some grants to pay for broadband service upgrades and expansion in rural areas. California misses out on the most of that money, but it’s an important source of money for rural broadband projects in other states. For its latest round of broadband loans, RUS raised its minimum broadband service standard to 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds. If a community doesn’t have Internet access available at that level, then RUS considers it “unserved”.

That decision runs completely counter to the Federal Communications Commission’s effort to dumb down its standard for advanced telecommunications service, which is currently also 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up, but might be lowered to 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up.

There are a couple of potential explanations for why RUS is bucking the trend. The simplest is that the agriculture department’s wheels grind slowly and nobody at headquarters was paying much attention yet to technical changes already in the works for a relatively obscure program – Perdue has been on the job less than four months.

But another possible reason is that Perdue, who has his own priorities, isn’t getting the same level of attention from the white house that the FCC enjoys – The Donald is far more likely to be engaged with his Twitter audience and his own coverage on cable news channels than, say, hog husbandry. Perdue grew up on a farm and has spent his private sector career in agriculture. As a politician, he’s run things strictly along good old boy lines and was expected by some to do the same in Washington, D.C..

If those expectations have become reality, then Perdue likely isn’t worrying so much about pleasing big telephone and cable companies, or their amen corner on Trump’s policy team. His focus will be on making it easier for his friends and his natural ag industry constituency to tap federal subsidies. That might not be the most noble of motives for becoming a rural broadband champion, but it’s certainly a reliable one.