Biden to bolster boondocks broadband with a billion bonus bucks (barely)

ISPs in 22 states and Marshall Islands get to split nine-figure pot

The Biden administration is ready to divvy up nearly $700 million more in funding for rural broadband expansion, with the US Department of Agriculture taking the helm to disburse the cash. 

The USDA said Monday it will distribute $667 million (£523 million) in 37 grants and loans to ISPs across 22 states and the Marshall Islands through its ReConnect program, the fourth such distribution of funds since the program started in 2018. The list of awards is here [PDF] if you're curious.

"Keeping the people of rural America connected with reliable, high-speed internet brings new and innovative ideas to the rest of our country and creates good-paying jobs along the way," said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. 

Cash for ReConnect, as is the case with similar rural broadband initiatives being spearheaded by other agencies, is coming from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law. Major funding projects for rural internet development elsewhere have included the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, which distributed $42.5 billion (£33 billion) in June, and the Federal Communication Commission's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which split $792 million (£621 million) across 19 states in September of last year.

Naturally, the qualifying conditions for such programs change from agency to agency. In the case of USDA's ReConnect, the ISPs that have successfully applied for a slice of the funding cake "serve a rural area that lacks access to service at speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 20 Mbps upload," a minimum desired standard FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced last year.

To bag their cash, the broadband providers promised Uncle Sam they will build "facilities capable of providing high-speed internet service with speeds of 100 Mbps (download and upload) to every location in the proposed service area," the USDA said. The ISPs must also participate in a program that knocks up to $30 a month off internet fees for low-income households and up to $75 per month in qualifying Tribal Lands.

Funds being distributed in this round are led by The Ponderosa Telephone Company, which is being awarded $45.5 million (£35.6m), split 50 percent grant and 50 percent loan, for the deployment of last-mile fiber and a wider hybrid-fiber-coax network in Fresno County, California. Once complete, the network will benefit approximately 1,280 people, 26 businesses, and 12 farms, the USDA said [PDF].

While California had the single largest fund recipient, Missouri was close behind with a large loan going to Aptitude Internet, which received a $42.3 million loan for a much larger fiber-to-premise network reaching 18,982 people, 480 businesses, 1,452 farms, and 15 educational facilities.

Alaska was the largest funded state by far: $99,850,251 in funding for three projects. And today's announcement was also good news for the Marshall Islands, an independent country in a Compact of Free Association with the US. It's getting $25 million to fiber up the capital city of Majuro and run a link to the nearby US naval base at Kwajalein Atoll.

Channeling FDR

The Biden administration has been selling its rural internet connectivity push as the equivalent of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Rural Electrification Act, describing today's efforts as "transforming the country," and "reaching communities in every corner of the US, including those that have too often been left behind." 

Whether such programs will be effective is another thing altogether: handing the telecom industry cash in exchange for fiber deployments isn't even a new idea and it has a very spotty history.

The broadbanding of America was first tried in the early 2000s and led to telcos being allowed to charge higher fees to roll out fast broadband networks. Instead a wave of telco consolidation followed, to ostensibly further fiber deployments. In many cases deployments were never completed, but many telcos continued to collect the fees. 

Even ReConnect isn't without its own problems: the year it launched in 2018 accusations were raised that maps used to split the country into zones were drawn by the telco themselves, were inaccurate, and lawmakers reportedly took no action when asked to correct them. 

We've reached out to the USDA with some questions about ReConnect and the status of its past funded projects, andhaven't heard back yet. ®

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