The 2018 Farm Bill, which passed Congress this week, has gotten good reviews from trade groups involved in bringing broadband to rural areas. Farm Bill broadband provisions include increasing funding to bring broadband to rural areas currently lacking service. With passage complete, the only remaining step before the bill becomes law is for President Trump to sign it, which he is expected to do.
A compromise version of the five-year, $867 billion farm bill passed the Senate 87-13 on Tuesday and the House of Representatives 369-47 yesterday.
The Farm Bill contains many points of interest to the rural broadband community. Telecompetitor reported earlier this week that the bill would raise the annual budget for USDA broadband loans, loan guarantees and grants to $350 million from next year to 2023 and enable use for both grants and loans. If signed into law, the bill would raise the increase the minimum acceptable level of broadband service for a rural area” from 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream to 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream.
Farm Bill Broadband
The bill includes various grants and financing options to rural areas, according to the Telecompetitor report: “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.'”
USTelecom gave the bill a sound vote of confidence. “The bill expands the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service loan and grant programs, bolsters coordination among federal agencies to prevent wasteful overbuilding, and prioritizes projects that extend connectivity to families that lack access,” said President and CEO Jonathan Spalter in a written statement. He cautioned, however, that “more work remains to ensure scarce federal dollars are reaching truly unserved areas” and said USTelecom looks forward to working with the new Congress to make that happen.
The WTA – Advocates for Rural Broadband called attention to the financial elements of the bill. “A number of WTA’s members received RUS Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP) loan/grant combinations provided under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that extended broadband to unserved rural communities,” Derrick Owens, WTA’s Senior Vice President of Government & Industry Affairs said in a written statement. “We’re pleased to see Congress follow up on that success by creating a more permanent grant program.”
In comments released after negotiations ended but before the votes, NTCA — The Rural Broadband Association also reacted positively. “The nearly 850 members of NTCA–all of whom offer fixed broadband in the nation’s highest-cost areas–especially appreciate the substantial new grant program in the bill and the pains drafters took to ensure those resources won’t duplicate the work of other federal programs and private deployment efforts,” NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield said in a press statement.