The House of Representatives and the Senate have reached a compromise on the 2018 Farm Bill that would raise the annual budget for USDA broadband loans, loan guarantees and grants to $350 million from 2019 to 2023 and allows funding to go toward grants as well as loans. Other compromise farm bill broadband provisions include raising the “minimum acceptable level of broadband service for a rural area” to 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream – up from a previous 4/1 Mbps.
The compromise farm bill also includes $50 million annually for Community Connect grants; $10 million annually for grants, loans and loan guarantees for middle mile infrastructure for rural areas; and $10 million annually for what was previously known as the “Rural Gigabit Network Pilot Program” but which would now be known as the “Innovative Broadband Advancement Program.” That program would provide grants, loans and loan guarantees with the goal of “demonstrating innovative broadband technologies or methods of broadband deployment that significantly decrease the cost of broadband deployment and provide substantially faster broadband speeds than are available in a rural area.”
The Community Connect, middle mile and innovative broadband budgets also are for 2019 to 2023.
Both houses will now need to vote on the compromise bill before it becomes law.
Compromise Farm Bill Broadband
In order to receive a grant through the main USDA broadband funding program, a project would have to target an area in which no more than 10% of the households can get broadband at speeds of 10/1 Mbps — a change from previous rules.
With some exceptions, grant funding parameters would be as follows:
- areas with a density of fewer than seven people per square mile would receive 75% of the total project cost
- areas with a density of seven to 12 people per square mile would receive 50% of the total project cost
- areas with a density of 12 to 20 people per square mile would receive 25% of the total project cost
The middle mile program targets broadband infrastructure “that does not connect directly to end user locations, including anchor institutions, and may include interoffice transport, backhaul, internet connectivity, data centers or special access transport to rural areas.”
At least 75% of interconnection points would have to be in rural areas and the network would have to be capable of supporting retail broadband service meeting the maximum broadband buildout requirements. Grants would be available only to projects serving areas where population density or geographic characteristics make it infeasible to construct middle mile networks without grant assistance. The value of the grant would not exceed 20% of total project cost.
The Community Connect program would continue to provide broadband to community facilities and include at least two free computer access points for free broadband service.
Additional details about compromise farm bill broadband provisions can be found at this link.