Back when the upcoming BEAD grants were announced in November 2021, many of my clients had access to loans with interest rates in the range of 3% to 4%. The higher interest rates we are now seeing will clearly have a huge impact on the ability to afford accepting a grants to build in a rural area. Almost by definition, rural areas are sparsely populated and so it is always a challenge to cover any debt payments on grant matching funds.
Consider the following table that shows the annual debt payments that would be due for a $10 million loan for terms of 20, 25, and 30 years, at interest rates varying from 3% to 8%. This might be a loan for a $40 million BEAD grant where the grant applicant must cover the 25% matching cost for a 75% grant. The second set of numbers shows the percentage difference for each loan compared to a 20-year loan at 3%.
The table demonstrates several things. First, big interest rate increases are a massive disincentive for an ISP to make new investments. If an ISP had a business plan last year to build a new project with a 3% loan, the debt cost has climbed 40% to 52% with a 7% or 8% interest rate. Since debt costs are one of the major expenses for building fiber, this kind of increase could easily kill expansion plans.
I know a lot of ISPs who are putting expansion plans on hold due to the interest rates. If an ISP decides to accept a high interest rate, it would only be due to a belief that the loan could be refinanced if interest rates drop. But many loans don’t allow refinancing for some fixed number of years. This is also gambling. In the past, when interest rates spiked like they are now, the rates have usually dropped back down – but there is never any guarantee that rates will drop back to the low levels of just a year ago.
This is a bigger dilemma when borrowing to match grants. Grant projects have completion requirements, and ISPs might be forced to accept a high interest rate loan due to the timing of construction. Building a grant project is different than normal planned expansion, where a project can be delayed waiting for more favorable interest rates.
One of the ways to offset higher interest rates is through longer loan terms. But that’s not always easily achievable. Many lenders don’t like making loans for more than twelve or fifteen years. It might not be easy to get a longer loan term. It’s also worth noting that one of the main consequences of banks raising interest rates is that banks start to pull back from making new loans. This may be counterintuitive, but the underlying interest rates that banks have to pay also increases when retail interest rates are higher. Higher underlying rates increase the risk and financial consequences of loan defaults. Just like home mortgages are harder to find when interest rates are higher, it’s possible that the banks that were willing to loan to grant projects might also back off.
The retraction of new debt is exactly what the Federal Reserve intends when it raises interest rates. The whole point of raising the rates is cool off an overheated economy – without going too far and causing a recession. It’s going to be a shock to at any ISP to find out that the bank it was counting on is less interested in lending to them.