The Senate agriculture committee is considering Farm Bill proposals that would make it harder for rural communities to get funding for internet and favors Big Telecom.
Big Telecom lobbyists have urged the committee to block funding for any community where more than 10 percent of the population has internet access, and any area that has received funding through the Federal Communication Commission’s Universal Service Fund, even if people in those area still have poor access. Though we don’t know yet if these limitations are in the Senate’s draft of the Farm Bill, a bipartisan bill introduced in May would bring about similar limits.
These measures are promoted as a way to ensure that the communities most in need get funding first, which is not a bad idea, but it also gives incumbent ISPs an advantage because even their subpar networks in rural areas won’t be challenged by competition armed with government grants.
“Some of these [existing] systems were designed to provide speeds of only 10/1 Mbps, 4/1 or less, and that’s when they’re operating at full capacity,” Jim Matheson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, said in a letter to the ag committee. “We don’t believe that’s fast enough to sustain a household, much less attract and run a modern business.”
In the past, Big Telecom companies have received the lion’s share of federal funding for broadband expansion. This helps preserve their monopoly in many communities and disincentivizes them to make the money go as far as possible in improving connectivity. By blocking any area where more than just 10 percent of homes have access, or areas where older funds were previously used for out-of-date systems, the proposals will actually make it harder for Americans in rural communities to get the infrastructure needed for high speed connections.
The Farm Bill is renewed once every five years, and the House’s version of the bill failed to pass last month. The Senate’s draft is expected in the next couple of weeks.
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