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Rural Utilities Service

USDA’s Rural Utilities Service Says it Finances the Most Utility Construction Programs in a Decade

Jericho Casper

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Photo of Chadd Rupe from Agri-Pulse

December 23, 2020 — The last five years have boasted massive strides towards closing the urban-rural broadband and utilities divide, according to individuals speaking at Fiber Connect in December.

In the last fiscal year alone, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service delivered almost $10 billion worth of capital financing in rural America for broadband deployments, rural electricity and electrical efficiency projects, water projects, wastewater projects, and more, said Chad Rupe, Administrator for Rural Utilities Service, during a keynote speech which aired as part of the Fiber Connect 2020 virtual conference.

According to Rupe, in the last 18 months, RUS averaged $900 million each month in investments, loans and grants to utilities in rural America.

RUS has been around since the 1930s, when rural communities, farmers, and ranchers came together to solve the rural electricity industrialization gap that was a major problem of the day. Today the agency provides a broad array of things to rural communities with 20,000 or less inhabitants. The agency has adapted overtime to provide funding for additional utilities, such as, rural broadband and rural drinking water.

Rupe discussed the current state of rural broadband and the strong role RUS plays in making rural utility investments, saying “RUS is equivalent to some of the largest banks in United States,” and is currently financing the most production its water, broadband, and electric programs have collectively seen in a decade.

According to Rupe, the USDA’s RUS offers one of the cheapest, most reliable sources of capital. Further, the interest on loans taken out with the agency are locked at treasury rates, which are currently at historic lows.

President and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association Gary Bolton, who moderated the conversation, commended the agency on its ReConnect Loan and Grant Program, which is currently driving broadband investment across rural America, providing loans and grants to over 1,100 service providers.

Chad Rupe during the Fiber Connect session

“The ReConnect Program is having a positive impact on rural communities,” said Rupe, “through the program RUS has invested in 83 infrastructure projects in 42 states, to date.“ Due to the success the agency has had, Congress has really supported the initiative. “We received a lot of support from Congress through COVID relief legislation,” said Rupe.

“The ReConnect Program offers three major funding options,” he said, detailing that the agency offers grants large enough to finance entire construction projects, loans that cover the entirety of projects, as well as, 50/50 combinations of grants and loans to finance projects.

“The loan is a very good, low-cast rate of financing to utilize for build outs, especially for Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and Connect America Fund winners,” said Rupe.

Broadband Mapping

In Discussing ‘Broadband and the Biden Administration,’ Trump and Obama Transition Workers Praise Auctions

Liana Sowa

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Screenshot from the November 2 Broadband Breakfast Live Online webcast

November 22, 2020 – In the event that the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden seeks substantial funding for broadband infrastructure, there is a strong likelihood that such monies would be channeled through a reverse-auction mechanism, said panelists at the Broadband Breakfast Live Online event on November 11.

See more from Broadband Breakfast Live Online, including “Broadband and the Biden Administration, Part II,” on December 2, 2020.

In a discussion with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark, two broadband policy experts who served on the transition teams for Donald Trump and Barack Obama, respectively, championed the role of such a mechanism as efficient and fair.

Previous attempts to run funding through other selection processes provided funds only to the well connected, claimed to Mark Jamison, research and education director at the University of Florida, and who served on then President-elect Trump’s 2016 transition team.

Places with a Democratic governor or a congressman of either party that sat on a powerful committee were funded more often compared to other regions, Jamison said.

Whether or not funding mechanisms were in fact biased in that way, both Jamison and Technology Policy Institute President Scott Wallsten both praised the transparency and economic efficiency of the Federal Communications Commission’s reverse-auction funding mechanism.

Wallsten, an economist who was involved in the transition for then President-elect Obama, and who also served on the National Broadband Plan implemented in the first year of the Obama administration, criticized the Rural Utility Service and the old funding process of Universal Service Fund. Both said under these mechanism, a lot of money is spent without good information about how such funds are awarded or distributed.

Wallsten and Jamison agreed that more data would help make broadband funding more effective, they also said that the FCC was right to move forward with its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction on October 29 – part of the new auction-based approach to the Universal Service Fund – despite imperfect mapping.

In part, this was because any inadequacy of mapping data can be resolved in the challenge process, said Wallsten. Additionally, it is not clear that auctions like RDOF, or the Connect American Fund auction in 2018, would have yielded better results had the FCC waited to update their maps.

Jamison and Wallston also projected how the Biden administration might tackle net neutrality, Section 230 and antitrust regulation.

Jamison said that if the Biden administration reinstitutes net neutrality, it will quickly see that that won’t work very well.

Wallsten said that if it’s reinstituted the debate will be different than in the past. A large part of net neutrality is paid prioritization where third parties can pay ISP’s to put their content “at the front of the line.” He said that the pandemic has demonstrated why no paid prioritization may be a mistake, as many people need guarantees of stable connection for their schooling and telehealth applications.

Wallsten also noted that many made doom and gloom forecasts when the Trump administration FCC removed net neutrality protections in December 2017. None of those predictions came to pass, he said.

Both also agreed that the FCC should not be involved the regulation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects tech platforms from liability for user-generated comments.

They also were wary of changes to the consumer welfare standard governing antitrust because, said Jamison, “If you’re not regulating for consumers, who are we regulating for?”

See “Broadband Breakfast Live Online on Wednesday, November 11: Broadband and the Biden Administration,” Broadband Breakfast

“Broadband and the Biden Administration” is sponsored by:

As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.

SUBSCRIBE to the Broadband Breakfast YouTube channel. That way, you will be notified when events go live. Watch on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

See a complete list of upcoming and past Broadband Breakfast Live Online events.

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Autonomous Vehicles

Broadband Roundup: Tesla Cars Ain’t Driverless, Suspicious Bernie Sanders Facebook Posts, ReConnect Awards

David Jelke

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Photo of NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt by the National Transportation Safety Board

According to a Forbes article by Alan Ohnsman, U.S. safety investigators are calling for greater regulation of Teslas following the release of several investigative reports detailing several Tesla crashes due to the cars faulty autopilot mode.

In March 2018 in Mountain View, California, Walter Huang was playing a game on his phone as his Tesla Model X barreled down the highway. His car’s autopilot mode failed to detect a traffic barrier and crashed head-on into the concrete, killing Huang and trapping two other cars in a vortex of metal.

Investigators of the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent government body, have found fault with the company’s ’partially automated” label  in light of the accidents. They have also proposed pro-active steps Tesla and the Transportation Department should take to save lives from faulty technology.

NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said at the conclusion of a hearing on Tuesday in Washington: “We urge Tesla to work on improving its Autopilot technology and for NHTSA to fulfill its oversight responsibility to ensure that corrective action is taken when necessary. It’s time to stop enabling drivers in any partially automated vehicle to pretend that they have driverless cars. Because they don’t have driverless cars.”

Facebook investigating suspicious posts linked to Bernie Sanders supporters

Facebook is investigating accounts linked to suspicious posts that support Bernie Sanders, according to an article on The Wall Street Journal by Emily Glazer and Dustin Voz.

This news comes after U.S. Intelligence has confirmed that Russian operatives are using information to try to get Bernie Sanders nominated by the Democratic primary.

Facebook has yet to substantiate these claims.

“We investigate each credible claim we receive, just as we did in this instance when an outside researcher contacted us,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone told the Journal. “To date, we have not been able to substantiate the researcher’s claims and we have not been notified by the intelligence community.”

USDA’s ReConnect grant program makes more awards

The Agriculture Department this week announced the awarding of $9.1 million, $3.3 million, and $2.2 million for broadband in rural communities in South Carolina, Montana, and Nevada, respectively.

The funds were dispersed via USDA’s ReConnect program attempting to shrink the digital divide between rural and non-rural communities.

“High-speed broadband e-Connectivity is critical to increasing access to health care and educational opportunities and strengthening economic development efforts in rural communities,” South Carolina Rural Development State Director Debbie Turbeville said.

“Under the leadership of President Trump and Agriculture Secretary Perdue, USDA is committed to being a strong partner to rural communities in deploying this critical infrastructure, because we know that when rural America thrives, all of America thrives.”

The Reconnect program was passed in 2018. It allocated $600 million to USDA to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural America. Since last summer, the department has received applications requesting a total of $1.4 billion in funding.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

Broadband Roundup: More on the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, 5G National Advocacy, and Policy Hackers

Adrienne Patton

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Photo of Mike Rogers in May 2015 by the Hudson Institute used with permission

In advance of a Federal Communications Commission vote on the proposed Rural Digital Opportunity Fund on January 30, the agency released an analysis of areas eligible for the new federal subsidies. The new fund, a crafted version of the Connect America Fund, is expected to disperse $20.4 billion in broadband deployment and will carry out in two phases.

See “FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Announces Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, Highlighting 25 Mbps Download Speed Requirement,” in Broadband Breakfast.

During Phase I, the fund will target census blocks that are unserved by broadband delivered at download speeds of less than 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) / and upload speeds of less 3 Mbps. The agency said that $16 billion would be made available in this first phase.

In Phase II, the FCC would use a new granular broadband mapping approach, unveiled in August as the proposed Digital Opportunity Data Collection, to target unserved households in partially served census blocks. These census blocks are those in which some locations have access to fixed broadband at speeds of 25/3 Mbps, but others do not.

Phase II would also include funding for any areas not awarded during the Phase I reverse auction.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said, “Our staff’s initial estimate shows that in 25 states there would be more than 100,000 locations that would be eligible for Phase I of the Fund, and the benefits would be felt from the Pacific Coast to the Great Plains, and from Appalachia to the Gulf Coast.”

Broadband funding coming to Western Massachusetts

Broadband funding of $10.2 million is coming to western Massachusetts through a grant to Westfield Gas & Electric from Phase II of the Connect America Fund.

The funds will bridge the rural broadband divide in counties in western Massachusetts with $10.2 million in funding, according to the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Gov. Charlie Baker praised the deployment of funds, which will enable more than 12,400 households to obtain access to high-speed internet, and helping rural areas.

Although the FCC minimum for Connect America Fund is 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up, the Massachusetts towns receiving fiber broadband will also receive 1 Gigabit-per-second (Gbps) speeds for both downloads and uploads.

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said “Reliable high-speed internet is an essential service that everyone should have access to.” With additional government funding, rural communities are gaining the access they need to services possible through broadband.

Former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers moves to 5G advocacy group

Former Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, is spearheading an advocacy group, 5G Action Now, for 5G deployment. The group says that 5G has the capacity to boost the United State’s economy with 22 million jobs and trillions in revenue.

As the previous chairman for the House Intelligence Committee, Rogers framed his new efforts as winning a 5G race against China, with significant national security implications.

“Ensuring American leadership in 5G is not about that next killer app or faster download speeds. It is about securing and strengthening our country’s economic future,” said Rogers.

Because China is concerned with deploying 5G first, Beijing “poured massive subsidies into Huawei, worked to undercut international competition, and waged a campaign of unprecedented economic espionage to dominate 5G,” stated Rogers.

Rogers believes the race in 5G is “not a Republican or a Democratic issue, it’s an American issue.”

Lincoln Network announces ‘policy hackers’ fellowship

The free market Lincoln Network is offering a year-long “policy hackers” fellowship for professionals in the tech industry. Participants will collaborate and learn from experts and policymakers.

The non-resident program is designed to accommodate the busy schedules of industry leaders, and teach practical skills about how to navigate government and public policy.

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