The Senate/House conference committee report on the stimulus bill splits broadband funding between Commerce and Agriculture.
Money to extend Internet broadband connections into unserved rural communities survived the Senate/House conference committee yesterday, according to reports from Washington, D.C. The compromise between the House and Senate appears to set aside between $6.65 and $6.8 billion for broadband, mainly in rural areas, according to the New York Times.
But who will hand out the money? In the conference committee report, according to the Washington Post, “about $1.5 billion would fall under the oversight of the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service, a program launched in 2002 to connect farming towns to high-speed, or broadband Internet…” The remaining amount would be parceled out by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in the Commerce Department.
According to the Times from last night, however, Commerce would give out $4 billion while the Agriculture Department would get $2.5 billion to disperse.
According to the Times, “Many technology groups had favored giving all money to the Commerce Department, which they said was more tech-savvy. But Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who heads the agriculture committee, had fought for the split, saying the Rural Utility Service is more familiar with the needs of farming communities.”
The Washington Post cites similar objections, citing earlier reports finding that USDA’s Rural Utilities Service had issued a quarter of its loans to projects that were “either not used as intended, not used at all, or did not provide the expected return of service.”
“Critics of the rural utilities service fund said the president’s goal could be derailed by lax oversight at the USDA,” writes the Post’s Cecilia King. “They argue that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the tech-policy making arm of the White House, has expertise in administering large grants and is better suited to deal with wireless, fiber optics and cable modem service. ‘Putting broadband funds into the RUS is just a bad idea. You don’t see the Federal Communications Commission putting dairy farms near telephone lines. It’s just bad policy,’ said Ben Scott, policy director of public interest group Free Press.
Local broadband providers have told the Daily Yonder that they have experienced long delays and interminable red tape in dealing with USDA’s utilities branch. Indeed, the Post reports that of the 68 projects funded over the last six years by USDA, only 21 are near completion while about have have not yet broken ground. “An Agriculture spokesman could not confirm whether the rural utilities service program has completed any projects,” King reported.