Second round of RUS broadband subsidies opens, as California waits for something – anything – from the first round

3 February 2020 by Steve Blum
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Usda eligibility map 31jan2020

Correction: The yellow blobs on the map above are not pending ReConnect grants, they are pending rural telco applications, which are also administered by RUS. So California is still a great big zero for ReConnect grants and/or loans. Thank you to a Gentle Reader for gently pointing that out. The text below has been updated accordingly.

The federal agriculture department’s Rural Utilities Service began accepting applications on Friday for $600 million in broadband infrastructure subsidies, via its ReConnect program. The money is split three ways – $200 million each for grants, loans and grant/loan combinations. To be eligible, a community (or any geographic area, large or small) has to 1. lack broadband service at a minimum of 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds, and 2. be rural, as the term is defined by the federal government. Subsidised infrastructure has to be capable of delivering at least 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up speeds.

Those speed benchmarks are below the ones adopted on Thursday by the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund program sets 25 down/3 up as the threshold for subsidy eligibility, and offers significant incentives for building infrastructure that supports service above that level, all the way up to gigabit class speeds.

Applications for the first round of ReConnect grants and loans, submitted last year, are still being evaluated. There are a couple of rural telephone companies with pending applications from another RUS program in California – Sierra Telephone, east of Merced and Ponderosa Telephone, north and east of Fresno, both in the Sierra. Ponderosa is also applying for an area in eastern San Bernardino County, along the Nevada border.

But so far, the ReConnect program hasn’t done anything for California. The federal agriculture department has been sending out press releases trumpeting broadband subsidies awarded in other states, but no mention of California. A spokesman for the department said that none are imminent.

Part of the reason is the way the federal government defines “rural”. The definition is largely based on proximity to population centers, of a size – 20,000 to 50,000 people – that would be a major city in, say, Kansas but a smallish town in rural California. That problem is compounded by the crude way the federal agriculture department cuts and maps eligibility data – both broadband availability and population clusters.