Senate Farm Bill Sets New RUS Broadband Finance Standards

The Senate has passed a Farm Bill whose broadband section reins in potential overbuilding of commercial broadband operators with government broadband subsidies.

The bill, which passed overwhelmingly (86 to 11), "establishes new broadband standards for projects financed through USDA. That translates to reforms to the USDA's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) broadband funding program to better target the funds to unserved areas where there is no high-speed broadband, rather than to underserved areas where the money could be used to overbuild existing commercial providers.

ISPs have long argued that government broadband funds should go to build out broadband, not overbuild it, and pushed the agriculture committees to square the RUS funds with that philosophy. Fans of the program argued that some overbuilding was necessary to make the more expensive unserved buildout portions sustainable.

"This legislation has important reforms to the USDA Rural Utility Service’s broadband programs so federal funding will focus more appropriately on bringing connectivity to unserved areas, rather than overbuilding existing networks," said NCTA-The Internet Television Association. "In addition, the legislation also directs the RUS to confer with the FCC and NTIA and includes transparency and notice processes, all of which will help provide the USDA with the latest information about broadband availability and guard against waste, fraud and abuse. We encourage the House and Senate to come together and produce a combined Farm Bill that includes these important reforms.”

The Senate Farm Bill must still be reconciled with a House-passed version, which won't happen until after the July 4 break.

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.