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U.S. Senate passes Farm Bill; Broadband Access an Economic Development Priority

Rural gigabit broadband pilot program and other amendments underscore importance of accurate and verified broadband mapping data

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate passed the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013, S. 954, by a vote of 66 – 27.  The Senate Farm Bill is the latest iteration of an omnibus authorization bill that is known as the “Farm Bill” that is reauthorized by Congress every five years.

The bill approved by the Senate yesterday would invest nearly $955 billion over the next ten years, and Title VI would continue support for rural economic development and infrastructure improvements, including notable changes to the rural broadband and economic development programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Senate Farm Bill would authorize USDA to provide combinations of grants and loans for the expansion of broadband service, telemedicine, and distance learning, expanding upon the current broadband loan guarantee program. In addition, the Senate Farm Bill would establish a pilot program to spur rural gigabit broadband networks. This pilot program was adopted yesterday in an amendment offered by Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT) to help create “ultra high-speed” broadband networks to all or part of rural communities that do not have them. 

The revised USDA broadband infrastructure program would rely and depend on verified, granular data on broadband availability and depends on the continued availability of accurate broadband maps. For instance, the Senate Farm Bill directs USDA to prioritize its broadband loan and grant programs to areas with less than 20,000 residents, those suffering population loss, those with high-numbers of low-income households, and those that are “isolated from other significant population centers.” The Leahy amendment also requires that these unserved communities be certified as such on a state’s broadband map, “if the map contains address-level data,” or on the National Broadband Map “if address-level data is unavailable.”

Several Senators offered significant broadband-related amendments to the Farm Bill that they wanted considered by the Senate. For instance, an amendment offered by Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) that would require any recipient of broadband grants or loans to participate in the broadband mapping process that forms the National Broadband Map, and to provide address-level data. With the reform of the Universal Service Fund’s High-Cost program, the importance of fresh, granular, and accurate data is becoming clear to policy-makers, and Sen. Warner’s amendment underscores that interest. In addition, amendments offered by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) would have required USDA broadband grants and loans to fund projects only in areas that do not have broadband service. Successful implementation of this amendment would require fresh, granular, and accurate broadband availability data, and the amendment also would require address-level broadband availability data in the future. An amendment offered by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) would have required USDA to study broadband adoption in rural areas prior to making any grant and loan.

The path to final passage and enactment of a Farm Bill this year is unclear, even with the current Farm Bill extension expiring on September 30, 2013. The House of Representatives still needs to consider and pass its own bill, and both the Senate and the House need to agree on specific text.  However, the important changes to the USDA broadband infrastructure program, the Leahy amendment, and the other broadband-related amendments demonstrate that the U.S. Congress is tracking broadband and rural economic development-related issues closely.

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