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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Broadband Loan and Grant Programs in the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service

Lennard G. Kruger
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy

Given the large potential impact broadband access may have on the economic development of rural America, concern has been raised over a “digital divide” between rural and urban or suburban areas with respect to broadband deployment. While there are many examples of rural communities with state of the art telecommunications facilities, recent surveys and studies have indicated that, in general, rural areas tend to lag behind urban and suburban areas in broadband deployment.

Citing the lagging deployment of broadband in many rural areas, Congress and the Administration acted in 2001 and 2002 to initiate pilot broadband loan and grant programs within the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Subsequently, Section 6103 of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-171) amended the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 to authorize a loan and loan guarantee program to provide funds for the costs of the construction, improvement, and acquisition of facilities and equipment for broadband service in eligible rural communities. The RUS/USDA houses two assistance programs exclusively dedicated to financing broadband deployment: the Rural Broadband Access Loan and Loan Guarantee Program and the Community Connect Grant Program.

The 110
th Congress considered reauthorization and modification of the loan and loan guarantee program as part of the farm bill. The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 became law on June 18, 2008 (P.L. 110-246). Title VI (Rural Development) contains authorizing language for the broadband loan program.

Meanwhile, on May 11, 2007, RUS released a Proposed Rule seeking to revise the broadband loan program rules and regulations. Some key issues pertinent to a consideration of the RUS broadband programs include restrictions on applicant eligibility, how “rural” is defined with respect to eligible rural communities, how to address assistance to areas with preexisting broadband service, technological neutrality, funding levels and mechanisms, and the appropriateness of federal assistance. The final rule—not yet released by USDA—will reflect language in the enacted 2008 farm bill statute (P.L. 110-246). Ultimately, modification of rules, regulations, or criteria associated with the RUS broadband program will likely result in “winners and losers” in terms of which companies, communities, regions of the country, and technologies are eligible or more likely to receive broadband loans and grants.

With the September 30, 2009 completion of awards distributed by the stimulus broadband grants and loans at USDA and the Department of Commerce, the Rural Broadband Access Loan and Loan Guarantee Program and the Community Connect Grant Program at RUS remain the only ongoing federal funding programs exclusively and specifically dedicated to financing the deployment of broadband infrastructure. With the final rule implementing the 2008 farm bill’s broadband loan program due to be released, the 112
th Congress may focus on how effectively the RUS broadband programs are addressing the lack of adequate broadband service in underserved rural communities.

Date of Report: January 4, 2011
Number of Pages: 24
Order Number: RL33816
Price: $29.95

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