rural broadbandThe U.S. Department of Agriculture is seeking stakeholder input on how to implement the $600 million E-Connectivity broadband loan and grant pilot authorized in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018.  The USDA E-Connectivity pilot will target rural areas with populations of 20,000 or less in which at least 90% of the households to be served do not have broadband of at least 10 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream available to them.

A wide range of entities can be eligible for funding, including incumbent and competitive rural telecom and broadband providers, rural electric cooperatives, non-profits, governmental bodies and private firms (but not sole proprietors or partnerships), the USDA notes.

The comments the USDA has requested are due no later than 5:00 pm ET on Monday, Sept. 10.

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USDA E-Connectivity Pilot
The USDA has yet to determine the minimum speeds that funding recipients would be required to build out, but I would expect them to receive recommendations on that as part of the comments they have requested.

Other areas the USDA wants input on include:

  • How to evaluate a rural household’s “sufficient access” to 10/1 Mbps broadband
  • How broadband service affordability should be factored in
  • Best options for verifying broadband service speeds
  • Best “leading indicators” of potential project benefits for rural industries such as agriculture, manufacturing, e-commerce, transportation, health care and education, using readily available public data

The decision to target areas in which 90% of homes do not have broadband available to them is a key change, as the existing USDA broadband loan program targets homes in which as little as 15% of a project area lacks 10/1 Mbps connectivity. The 2018 Farm Bill passed by the Senate would change that to 90%, matching the parameters of the E-connectivity pilot.

Other details of the E-connectivity pilot outlined in the appropriations act adopted in March:

  • Not more than 4% of the funds can be used for administrative costs to carry out the pilot program
  • Up to 3% may be used for technical assistance and pre-development planning activities to support “the most rural communities.”

Details about how to submit comments about the USDA E-Connectivity pilot can be found in this press release.

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