Broadband expert says USDA shutdown is hurting rural internet expansion

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For municipalities looking to start their own broadband services, 2019 hasn’t gotten off to a great start. While there is more technical assistance available than ever before, the federal government’s partial shutdown has been a hindrance, Chris Mitchell, a broadband policy expert said on Wednesday.

Through its Rural Utilities Service program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides rural development grants to municipalities and local governments applying to expand or construct broadband infrastructure, and the agency invested $228 million last year across 22 states. But until the federal government emerges from a shutdown that has so far lasted 27 days, the “provision of new rural development loans and grants” under the program will remain unfunded in 2019. And communities without broadband will remain cut off from assistance provided through the USDA.

Mitchell, the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self Reliance, made the remarks after moderating an event broadband access — hosted by Next Century Cities, a nonprofit that supports local governments’ broadband expansion projects — telling StateScoop that the USDA’s shutdown status impacts municipalities seeking to expand their internet connectivity far more than a stagnant Federal Communications Commission, which is also closed. 

“USDA funds a lot of rural broadband investment, so that’s a challenge there for places trying to get guidance on programs, figuring out if they’re eligible for grants or loans,” Mitchell said. “That’s a challenge for places that are trying to build a new network.”

The USDA is planning to spend $600 million this year on a pilot program to expand rural broadband, and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told reporters before the shutdown on Dec. 13 that the country can’t afford a digital divide. But until the shutdown is lifted, any project that might have relied on this funding will likely remain on ice.

“[The grants] would be for any entity, so cooperatives as well would be impacted, but basically anyone trying to invest in rural areas with federal broadband subsidies from the USDA, they would all be more or less stuck right now,” Mitchell said.

‘Keep asking’

Rural communities struggle with internet access even with the USDA’s help — a recent Microsoft study found that of 34 million Americans who lack broadband access, 22.4 million live in rural areas. Municipalities that have gone without high-speed internet for years know that they can’t rely on large telecom companies to provide adequate service and in some cases must fight their own state governments to secure the right to provide broadband as a public utility.

Mitchell, who spoke at the unveiling of Next Century Cities’ “Becoming Broadband Ready” toolkit, was joined on stage by community broadband stakeholders who dissected the best strategies for communities taking broadband into their own hands — with or without the assistance of a private partner or USDA funding.

The toolkit contains best practices and strategies for communities trying to connect their residents, with sections on identifying legislative barriers, building community support and instructions on measuring success. The 26-page guide also offers tips for community leaders, many of which were echoed by Mitchell’s co-panelists:

  • McClain Bryant Macklin, the director of policy and research on the Greater Kansas City Civic Council
  • Don Patten, the general manager of MINET, a municipal telecommunication network in northwestern Oregon
  • Robert Wack, city council president of Westminster, Maryland

Each of their communities took a different approach to establishing a broadband network, and they agreed that there is no single solution to connect a community.

Wack, whose city uses a public-private partnership model, emphasized the importance of collaboration and the sophisticated language game a local government must sometimes play with its private partner.

“Yes often means maybe. Maybe often means no. No often means keep asking,” he said.

Macklin said Kansas City was not dense enough to justify investment in a city-owned broadband network, with its 500,000 residents spread over 319 square miles, and this spurred interest in a partnership with Google Fiber.

Macklin said she played a key role in establishing Google Fiber’s presence in Kansas City, Missouri, which became one of the first cities to be selected for the service in 2011. But she said that despite that many residents lacked internet service before Google moved in, many residents, particularly those in poorer communities, took some convincing before they would sign up for the service.

The MINET network, which serves as a public utility in northwestern Oregon to serve two adjacent 10,000 person towns, had the opposite experience, said Patten. He said the region’s existing internet service provider had been reluctant to provide high-speed service, so a municipal network was deemed the best alternative.

“It wasn’t acceptable for the companies to tell the community when they would need broadband,” Patten said.

Patten and Macklin agreed that their networks are yielding economic benefits. In some cases, Patten said, college students are coming back home on the weekends just to use the internet in their homes.

“Having broadband in our communities is going to create an environment where our young people aren’t leaving the communities,” Patten said.

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Broadband, rural broadband, Rural Utilities Service, USDA
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