The Senate on Wednesday passed on a voice vote an amendment to the broadband section of the farm bill that changes the way broadband grants and loans are distributed by the Rural Utilities Service.
The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Mark Warner, D.-Vir, with a bipartisan group of co-sponsors including Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and the ailing Mark Kirk, R-Ill, sets up a competitive bidding process for broadband loans and grants, and eliminates the rolling application process that was previously in place.
The amendment requires a minimum level of grants for areas that are currently not reached by any broadband service, sets minimum broadband speeds for funded projects, encourages new entrants to the rural broadband sector and requires RUS loan recipients and grantees to map the reach of their broadband projects. Additionally, the amendment directs the Department of Agriculture to devote 1% of RUS appropriated funds to oversight and administration.
Farm bill sponsor Sen. Debbie Stabenow backed the change. "It's a bipartisan amendment and makes a tremendous amount of sense. It's real reform," she said in a statement.
The National Cable and Telecommunications Association put out a statement cheering the passage of the amendment. "Given the scarcity of federal dollars, it is critical that government use its resources efficiently by limiting subsidized overbuilds and focusing its efforts on extending access to the roughly 18 million Americans currently without broadband," the group said.
The National Telecommunications Cooperative Association, which represents rural telecoms, had mixed feelings about the measure. In an e-mailed statement, Tom Wacker, NTCA vice president for government affairs, said, "While we're grateful that Sen. Warner saw fit to address a few of the many concerns raised about his amendment, the fact remains that this initiative will have little effect on the deployment of rural broadband."