broadband speed testFour U.S. senators have written a letter to Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, asking him to raise the Community Connect broadband speed definition. The Community Connect grant program pays the majority of the costs of bringing broadband to extremely rural lower-income communities that currently lack broadband service. The program’s budget for fiscal year 2016 is $11.7 million.

According to the letter, the USDA upped broadband speed requirements for the Broadband Access Loan Program to 10 Mbps but the Community Connect broadband speed definition was only upped to 4 Mbps. (Although not explicitly stated, those numbers represent downstream speeds, with upstream minimum speeds set at a lower level.)

According to a press release, the letter was spearheaded by U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Caputo (R-W. Va.) and Angus King (I- Maine). Also signing the letter were Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)

“[F]ederal policymakers must ensure that taxpayer-supported infrastructure is sufficiently robust to handle demand,” the senators wrote in the letter. The letter also argues that “It is not only a matter of fairness that rural Americans can fully utilize broadband-enabled resources, but also a matter of ensuring that taxpayers are receiving the full economic development return on their investment.”

Community Connect Broadband Speed Definition
The filing requirements for the Community Connect grant program published in the Federal Register are confusing – so confusing, in fact, that it’s possible the requirements are not way off from what the senators are seeking.

The requirements include a “minimum broadband service” definition and a “minimum broadband grant speed” definition. The former is set at 4 Mbps downstream/ 1 Mbps upstream while the latter is set at 10 Mbps downstream/ 1 Mbps upstream.

The material in the Federal Register does not explicitly define the two terms. But each term is used several times in the six pages of the Federal Register dedicated to the Community Connect grant program filing requirements.

“Broadband service” is something that “applicants will provide . . . to currently unserved, lower-income and extremely rural areas,” the material states.

The “minimum broadband grant speed” applies to community centers featuring free Internet access, which are an important requirement of the program. The requirement also applies to “Computer Access Points.”

The material in the Federal Register also states that grant funds may be used to finance the construction of facilities to deploy service at the Broadband Grant Speed to all participating Critical Community Facilities or “all required facilities needed to offer such service to all residential and business customers located within the Proposed Funded Service Area.”

It’s not clear how the words in quotation marks are meant to be interpreted. On one hand, it appears to contradict the verbiage about “broadband service.” On the other, perhaps the phrase means that funding recipients have to deploy infrastructure that can support 10 Mbps/ 1 Mbps service but they only have to offer 4 Mbps/ 1 Mbps service for now.

It will be interesting to see Secretary Vilsack’s response on this. It will be important for potential applicants to know what the USDA intended in the filing requirements soon, as applications are due next month.

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