Your guess is as good as mine about whether Congress will ever pass the draft annual Agriculture Reauthorization Bill as written. It’s my understanding that the legislation includes new money for the ReConnect grant program that is administered by the Rural Utility Service (RUS), which is part of the Department of Agriculture.
This has been a successful grant program, and I know of quite a few rural projects that have been funded through these grants. The ReConnect grants only fund areas that are remote and include a test that gives priorities to grant areas that are the farthest distance from towns and cities.
There have been changes in the broadband industry that have made it harder each year to define a ReConnect grant area. The RUS grant rules favor grant requests that cover large contiguous areas. You can cobble together grant service areas that include multiple different geographic pockets of homes and businesses, but this involves a lot more paperwork.
It’s getting quickly harder to find big contiguous unserved areas. This started with the CAF II reverse auction and really came to fruition with the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). That subsidy program awarded subsidies by Census blocks, often widely scattered across a county. When I saw the first RDOF map, I quickly started thinking of RDOF as the Swiss cheese program. RDOF often chops rural areas into small pieces and leaves behind scattered pockets of homes that are not easy to aggregate into a grant like ReConnect.
This chopping up of grant areas continued as States and counties have been awarding broadband grants, often for grant areas that cherry pick the densest pockets of homes. This not only breaks the remaining unserved areas into more Swiss cheese, but it also makes it harder to justify somebody asking for a grant to serve the areas that are left over.
It’s going to get hard to find grant areas after BEAD grants start being awarded. The BEAD grants are supposed to bring broadband to all unserved locations in each state and hopefully also to the underserved. But I think everybody who understands the industry knows this will not happen as planned. There are already states that are saying that BEAD funding won’t cover everybody. There will be ISPs that don’t build everything they promised. There will be ISPs using technologies that won’t reach everybody as promised. There will be ISPs that financially fail and don’t finish the grant projects. And this won’t just be for BEAD – there are going to be plenty of areas supposedly covered by RDOF that won’t get the broadband they have been promised.
The biggest pile of places that won’t get broadband from BEAD are the millions of places that are still incorrectly identified on the FCC maps as served but which aren’t. These places won’t start to become apparent until after the BEAD grants are awarded and mapped and people living in areas with no good broadband start to make noise.
It’s very unlikely that the locations that get missed by RDOF and BEAD will easily fit into the current ReConnect grant template. ReConnect might be the only major ongoing grant program, and if ReConnect is going to reach the places left over from other federal grants, the RUS is going to have to make some significant changes.
First, it has to become easier to ask for funding for small pockets of homes. The RUS has purposefully given out a small number of large grants in each grant cycle to reduce its burden of monitoring the grant construction. But there are even more significant changes needed. For example, the RUS requires a substantial pledge of other assets to get an RUS grant. Unless somebody is already an RUS borrower, they are not likely to accept draconian collateral pledges for small grants.
Currently, the ReConnect grant is totally reliant on the FCC maps, and that has to change as well – because many of the places that will be missed with broadband will be incorrectly labeled as served by the FCC. The ReConnect process is complicated, it’s a challenge to input grant requests that must tie to penny while doing so in financial formats that nobody outside of the RUS understands.
In a post-BEAD world, any future grants are going to have to be creative, nimble, and able to bring solutions to small grant areas without a huge amount of paperwork. Unless the RUS is willing or able to change how it awards grants, this could be a grant program with very few future takers – and that would be a shame.