Farm Bill Boosts Broadband Funding

The House and Senate have both passed a Farm Bill that provides funding to speed rural high-speed broadband build-outs, one of the Trump Administration's and FCC's prime directives.

“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 USTelecom President Jonathan Spalter. "More work remains to ensure scarce federal dollars are reaching truly unserved areas, and we look forward to working with the new Congress to make this happen."

Spalter called the bill "an important, but still partial, down payment" on connecting rural America to broadband.

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The bill incorporates the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act (H.R. 4881), which charges the FCC with working with the Department of Agriculture to boost broadband deployment and adoption in rural areas.

House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said the bill will improve coordination of funding among the Rural Utilities Service (RUS), the FCC and the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA).

The committee will also get increased oversight of the spending of federal dollars to make sure they go to communities in need and "barring finite dollars from being sent to cities already served," the committee said. Those agencies also have to report to Congress on the challenges rural providers face.

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“Continuing the Energy and Commerce Committee’s record of promoting broadband infrastructure, the legislation passed today by the House will ease the regulatory barriers to broadband deployment, help America’s farmers embrace next-generation technologies, and ensure federal resources target the communities most in need of assistance with infrastructure buildout," said Walden. "Together, these key priorities will help expand high-speed internet access to the approximately 23 million Americans who lack it, bringing us closer to shrinking the digital divide. I applaud the Senate for passing this vital legislation and urge President Trump to sign it into law soon."

“The Administration is taking an important step to help close the broadband coverage gap for the millions of rural Americans who lack access to broadband connectivity with the launch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s $600 million grant and loan program," said NTIA administrator David Redl. "NTIA looks forward to providing technical assistance to potential applicants through its partnership with USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS). NTIA’s BroadbandUSA team has extensive experience working in the telecommunications industry, building broadband networks and consulting with service providers and local governments. Using this expertise, our team will be supporting educational materials and workshops to help applicants with the grant and loan process.”

“Extending high-speed internet service to unserved communities is critical to boosting local economies and giving consumers access to jobs, health care, education and loved ones," said NCTA-The Internet & Television Association. "We applaud Congress in passing the Farm Bill, including provisions that will make meaningful reforms to the administration of USDA RUS broadband loan programs, better directing federal funds to areas most in need of assistance and guarding against government-subsidized overbuilding. The Farm Bill also includes important transparency and notice provisions to ensure RUS has accurate and complete market data to make smart funding decisions, and a requirement for the RUS to coordinate with the FCC and NTIA so that the different government broadband programs will work more cooperatively and efficiently. As was done with the Omnibus’ USDA Pilot Broadband Program passed earlier this year, requiring government programs to better target broadband funds to areas most in need of assistance can make federal dollars more effective and better advance the goal of universal broadband access.”

Rural broadband group WTA was pleased. “WTA has long advocated for broadband grant-making authority for RUS,” said Derrick Owens, WTA senior VP, in a statement. "Grants will complement the existing low-interest loan programs to get broadband out to those rural areas where additional assistance is needed."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.