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Rural broadband emerging as early theme for 2019

January 03, 2019

Action toward improving the availability and speed of broadband in rural areas is emerging as an early theme in 2019, continuing activity from 2018. Oregon, Washington and the USDA all announced new initiatives last month. In mid-December, the USDA announced the availability of $600 million in grants and loans to support improvement of broadband accessibility across rural America. Funding is split into three equal pools. Up to $200 million may be awarded as grants (deadline for proposals is April 29); $200 million may be awarded as low-interest loans (applications due June 28); and $200 million may be distributed in a mix of grants and loans (proposals are due May 29).  Projects funded through this initiative must serve communities with fewer than 20,000 people with no broadband service or where service is slower than 10 megabits per second (mbps) download and 1 mbps upload.

In December, governors in Oregon and Washington also expressed greater commitments to rural broadband for the coming year. 

One day after the USDA announcement, recently reelected Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issued an executive order establishing the Oregon Broadband Office within Business Oregon, the state’s lead economic development agency. While her next budget request is expected to include funding for the office, by creating it through executive order, Business Oregon theoretically could direct increased resources immediately to the effort to help rural Oregon communities prepare proposals and applications to USDA.

Last August, Indiana created a similar position to guide rural broadband investments within the lieutenant governor’s office; Missouri launched an office within the department of economic development by legislative authorization in July. Both of these efforts are without a supporting state grant/loan fund to assist communities in developing broadband capacity.

On a longer time horizon, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee included in his December-released budget request for the 2019-2021 biennium $1.2 million in funding to create a Statewide Broadband Office. The office, to be part of the State’s Department of Commerce, would provide central planning and coordinating support for broadband policy and initiatives across Washington. The governor’s capital budget request for the next biennium also includes an additional $25 million in state funds for competitive grants and loans to be administered by the Public Works Board and replace a pilot broadband loan program currently run by the Community Economic Revitalization Board within the Department of Commerce.

Indiana, Missouri, Oregon, Washingtonbroadband, policy