The Community Reinvestment Act and Broadband

The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) is a federal law that’s been on the books since 1977. The law encourages banks to reinvest some portion of their portfolio in their local communities. The law specifically wants banks to make loans that benefit low and moderate-income neighborhoods. Over the years banks have met the CRA thresholds by investing in assets like low-income housing.

Recently the Federal Reserve, which monitors CRA lending at member banks has suggested that improving local broadband would qualify as CRA investment as long as the projects benefit the target parts of the community. This decision will make it easier for banks to make loans to local broadband providers in their community.

It’s worth looking at the history of bank lending for infrastructure to put this announcement into perspective. There was a time when banks were a major lender for infrastructure projects. If you look  more than 50 years local banks lent to projects to build community infrastructure like cable TV networks, water systems, electric power grids, city halls, etc. These are considered as infrastructure loans if they have long loan terms of 20 to 30 years, much like home mortgages. Even then banks didn’t loan much for really long-life assets like roads, bridges and dams – but they were still a major lender to things we would consider as basic infrastructure.

But for various reasons banks stopped lending for infrastructure. Part of this was due to the turbulence in interest rates in the early 70s. All interest rates bounced around for a while and at one short period of time home mortgage rates were four times higher than today. While interest rates eventually settled back down, the swings in interest rates scared many banks from tying up high dollar loans for 25 or 30 years.

This same time period also saw requirements from the federal government for banks to hold more cash in reserve. Many local banks before then would loan out most of their cash, with the hope that most of the loans were solid. But there were enough loan failures in the 70s to shake the confidence of the banking system and to dissuade banks from lending most of their cash.

What really put the cap on this kind of lending was the massive bank consolidation that saw a significant portion of local banks get gobbled up by larger banks. Before all of the consolidation there was hardly a town or county in the country that didn’t have a local bank that was interested in making local loans. But as those banks disappeared, borrowing for local businesses of all types became harder.

What might this change by the Federal Reserve mean for broadband projects? At a minimum it means that local banks are a lot likelier to listen to the story of somebody that wants to borrow. Now that loans for broadband infrastructure will meet banks CRA obligations they are going to pay particular attention to such loans.

But this is unlikely to open up the floodgates of bank investment in broadband infrastructure. Even if it’s easier to talk about loans borrowers still need to deal with the fact that most banks have a lending limit for an individual loan, particularly for somebody who hasn’t borrowed from them before. Building fiber is expensive and if the bank’s maximum loan size is something under $1 M (could be a lot less), then such loans won’t go very far if trying to expand a fiber network. This is not to say it’s impossible. I know small ISPs that have a revolving line of credit that they can borrow for expansion as they pay off existing loan amounts. But this is almost the opposite of infrastructure financing since such loans generally are paid off in a few years, at most.

It’s probably going to become a lot easier, though for borrowing for smaller broadband projects. This might be building wireless networks to serve parts of a town. These loans might support public hot spots or broadband to low-income housing, as long as there is a revenue stream sufficient to repay the loans. Such loans might also fund small fiber builds needed to connect to a business park, to cellular towers or to a small segment of the community.

There is another avenue that borrowers ought to consider, which is a bank consortium. This is where a group of banks go together to make a loan that is larger than what any of them would tackle alone. This generally requires a bank that is local to the borrower to act as the broker and leader of the deal. This is a lot of work for the primary local bank, and so it takes a sympathetic and willing local bank partner. But the changes in the CRA rules means that it might now be easier to talk banks into joining a consortium. It’s worth a try for somebody that don’t have another path for borrowing.

Be a little bit leery of anybody that tells you that this a world changing decision. Banks are still incredibly conservative and this won’t change their expectation for the metrics they will want a borrower to meet or the collateral they will expect to support a loan. But it ought to open the doors to have conversations with bankers that might not have been possible a few years ago.