The USDA’s expansion of rural broadband appears to be on the chopping block, according to information contained in the newest budget deal out of Congress. Republican members of the House Appropriations Committee seek to cut the full $700 million in funding USDA had allocated to use this year on rural broadband expansion projects. The $700 million represents the upper limit of allowed program spending, and is not a hard amount already allocated to USDA. As such, its unlikely that this amount will be funded in 2011 if the budget deal goes forward as it currently stands.
Under the original terms of the program, USDA would provide federally backed loans to rural telecom carriers that applied for funds to expand their service offerings. USDA secured the program through a $68 million appropriation in the 2008 Farm Bill. However, $29 million of that appropriation was cut in the February 25 continuing resolution and the other $39 million was cut in the most recent continuing resolution.
In February, CivSource reported on debates underway at the FCC about potential changes to the Universal Service Fund as a means of increasing rural broadband access. This loan program would’ve served to supplement those efforts. The FCC also lowered pole fees as a means of trying to expand broadband. But all of these measures have faced some level of opposition from either Congress or the private sector.
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