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We are about to have two stimulus plans — one from the House and the other from the Senate. The House has passed its plan while the Senate is still debating. Both contain money for extending Internet broadband to rural communities.
But they aren’t the same.
The Senate compromise stimulus plan spends a bit more than the House version on Internet broadband deployment to rural communities. But the big difference between the two bills lies in who does the spending.
The Senate bill allocates $6.65 billion for broadband investment and requires that half of that amount be spent in rural areas. The House bill has $6 billion for broadband, and sets aside $2.85 billion for rural communities.
In other words, the Senate version appears to allocate about half a billion more for rural broadband deployment.
A bigger difference between the House and Senate, however, is which government agency is designed to carry out the broadband program.
The House would allow the Secretary of Agriculture to direct the entire amount to be used for loans or loan guarantees in rural areas. The House also requires that the “priority for awarding funds” should be “given to projects that provide service to the most rural residents that do not have access to broadband service.” (The House specifies that 75% of the grants must go to exclusively rural communities.)
Moreover, the House version gives priority to “borrowers and former borrowers” under the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, the New Deal-era legislation that established the nation’s system of rural electric cooperatives. The House requires that the Secretary of Agriculture award half the money by September 30 of this year.
The Senate version deletes the House’s designation that half the broadband money be shipped to the Department of Agriculture. The Senate sends its $6.65 billion broadband allocation to the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration where it is to be spent through the “Broadband Technology Opportunities Program.”
The Senate requires that the full amount be allocated by September 30, 2010.
The Senate requires that half of the $6.65 billion be used to “support projects in rural communities.” The Senate would allow transfers of this funding to the “Department of Agriculture for administration through the Rural Utilities Service if deemed necessary and appropriate by the Secretary of Commerce….”
(To see the wording of these provisions go to readthestimulus.org. The broadband provisions in the Senate bill begin on page 37. In the House bill, go to page 42.)
Some Senators prefer the House’s decision to the allow USDA to administer the rural portion of the broadband kitty. Since the House and Senate bills still must be reconciled, there is no way to know how the differences between the two will settle out.
The Senate version of the bill also requires the Commerce Department to develop a “comprehensive nationwide inventory map of existing broadband service capability and availability in the United States.”
There is currently no reliable way to know how many U.S. residents are without access to broadband connections.