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USDA’s rural broadband plan met with criticism, concerns

Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

Slow speeds, bad coverage and expensive service.

These are just some of the causes for complaint mentioned in nearly 300 public comments on the Rural Broadband Pilot Program proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a review by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found.

The proposal follows on a promise President Donald Trump made to farmers in January 2017 to deliver a faster, more reliable internet to rural areas.

Trump quickly issued an executive order meant to encourage broadband expansion in regions of the U.S. where connections are spotty at best.

But little has been done since. The public comments that began in July contain at least 3,600 references to criticisms of the standards, some saying that the speed offered would still not be fast enough or that the policy should do more to increase bandwidth.

Stilley Bryon of Chariton Valley Electric Cooperative Inc. in Albion, Iowa, commented about the need for greater minimum speeds.

“(Rural Utilities Service) should consider input from communities, consumers, large and small businesses, and local leaders on the level of service or broadband speed they deem as sufficient for their community and their satisfaction with existing service,” Bryon said. “25/3 Mbps should be the absolute minimum build speed, but we feel that it should be 50/10 Mbps as a standard for broadband speeds.”

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission set the standard definition of “broadband” at 25/3 Mbps.

But the current plan calls for download speeds of 10mbps and upload speeds of 1mbps.

The president’s announcement was welcome news to many rural Americans who often pay high fees for sluggish internet connections for their cellular, satellite or wireless service. Rural Americans can pay as much as $155 a month for service that is nonetheless slower than what the Federal Communications Commission would deem “high speed internet.”

But after the president’s executive orders, there was little action on what some considered a pressing need. The policy, which had a $600 million budget in 2018, was promised another $425 million by the 2019 Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill.

The public comment period opened in July and closed on Sept. 10.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, speaking at a USTelecom Broadband Investment Forum on October 18, said the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service is still deciding how internet providers in different parts of rural American will get money for the policy.

“We are moving as expeditiously as possible,” he said. “I’ve challenged our people to have a good, solid plan in place by the end of the year.”

Yet it remains unclear exactly where the money will come from.

On June 4, Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, sent a letter to the chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, calling into question several provisions in the broadband bill. Mulvaney pushed back against the request for more funding, pointing out that the agency hadn’t yet used money allocated in 2018.

“This funding is premature, as the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018 recently provided $600 million for a “pilot” grant/loan program, which USDA is still working to implement,” said Mulvaney in the letter.

The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting compiled all the comments submitted during the public comment period and analyzed them for common themes in the text of the remarks.

Although nearly all the comments submitted on the broadband policy were in favor of the Rural Utilities Service’s work to expand internet services, there were 3,659 complaints that the policy’s standards either did not call for fast enough speeds, did not set a high enough priority on bandwidth or called for speeds that would be left obsolete in just a few years by advances in technology.

The policy tries to define which parts of the country should receive expanded broadband coverage.

But 2,114 references mentioned words relating to who should receive coverage, words such as “unserved,” ”underserved,” ”density” and “eligibility.”

Many spoke of living on the edge of coverage, with high speed internet available just down the road from them, but not where they lived.

Sarah Sorrell of Fredericksburg, Virginia, commented that, although she lives within five miles of a high school, she doesn’t have reliable internet service, which she needs for college.

“No cable company wants to run cable out to us,” she said. “The map says that we have cable wireline coverage, and it also says that down the road there is fiber optic coverage. This information is false.”

Cost was also a concern for many commenters. More than 1,800 references were made to current costs, fears that adequate speeds will come with big price tags and hopes that reliable internet service could help rural communities that are fighting poverty and seeking new opportunities for growth.

Mary Stough, from Spencer, Indiana, said in her comment that when she moved to rural Indiana, she found the only internet connection on offer came from mobile hotspot.

“The speed is not fast and it’s prohibitively expensive but it’s something,” Stough said.

Debra Hansen, commenting on behalf of Stevens County, Washington, called for a cheaper option.

“Especially where there are higher levels of poverty, lower levels of education attainment, limited jobs, etc., having at least one provider that offers discounted service is critical,” said Hansen.

Sean Markis of Tempe, Arizona lays out a scenario in his comment that highlights the need for keeping costs down.

“If I as a WISP (Wireless Internet Service Provider) say that I can get you 25/3 speeds to your house and get thousands of grant dollars to build up my infrastructure to support those speeds. Then charge you the customer ridiculous amounts of money that make it unaffordable for that speed,” Markis said. “Does paying hundreds, thousands of dollars a month for FCC required 25/3 speed make much sense when customers can’t afford it? How exactly did we solve anything?”

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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