The Senate yesterday passed its version of a 2018 Farm Bill that would put new limits on broadband loans made through the USDA Rural Utilities service. The Senate Farm Bill RUS broadband loan limitations pertain to the percentage of a deployment project that can involve an overbuild of existing broadband facilities. The RUS broadband loan program provides low-interest loans for broadband network construction.

Before the Farm Bill becomes law, the senate version must be reconciled with a version previously passed by the House – a task that is likely to be undertaken later this summer, according to the Washington Post.

Senate Farm Bill RUS Broadband Loan Limitations
Currently as much as 85% of a project area can include homes that already receive broadband from another service provider. The Senate Farm Bill calls for that number to decrease to just 10%.

Some service providers argue that some broadband deployment projects may not be economically feasible unless they include more densely populated areas that are less costly to serve but which may already have broadband available to them. Competitive providers and fiscal conservatives argue that any government funding should only go toward bringing broadband to areas where it is not already available.

For example, NCTA – The Internet & Television Association issued a statement  praising the Senate Farm Bill,  which said “This legislation has important reforms to the USDA Rural Utilit[ies] Service’s broadband programs so federal funding will focus more appropriately on bringing connectivity to unserved areas, rather than overbuilding existing networks.”

Rural telcos have been the biggest beneficiaries of the current rules, but they generally share the goal of seeing broadband made available to as many Americans as possible and seem to have realized that defending the current policy would likely be a losing battle.

NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association, which represents rural telcos, issued a statement about the Senate Farm Bill passage that seemed to support the proposed limitations.

“NTCA appreciates the Senate’s work on vital programs needed for rural communities across America, and we appreciate the continued collaboration to ensure rural development programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture – including the Rural Utilities Service’s (RUS) Rural Broadband Program – are employed to their fullest potential,” said NTCA Chief Executive Shirley Bloomfield in the statement.