Using USDA’s New $600 Million

Earlier this year Congress passed an Omnibus Budget bill that okayed the US budget until this September. Buried in that bill was $600 million for rural broadband expansion, to be administered by the USDA. The USDA has dressed this up as an ‘E-Connectivity pilot program’ and is asking current borrowers and others for feedback on how to use the money. Comments are due to them by September 10.

This new program will be allowed to supply grants for up to 85% of the cost of building in an area. That might create a viable business case in rural areas if the loan recipient only has to come up with 15% matching funds.

However, Congress made it challenging for the USDA to use the money. Normal USDA programs broadband loans can be used to cover areas where as few as 15% of the homes in the coverage area don’t have access today to 10/1 Mbps broadband. It looks like big ISP lobbyists got to the author of the bill and this new $600 million flips that around and can only be used in areas where 90% of homes don’t have access to 10/1 Mbps.

That’s a difficult hurdle to overcome for a number of reasons. First, the big cellular companies report widespread coverage of cellular broadband that meets that threshold. Many such areas don’t really have that speed, and in many cases can’t even get a cell signal, but the presumption will be that such areas can get broadband. Second, the big telcos are supposedly busy implementing the CAF II program which will bring 10/1 Mbps speeds to millions of rural homes. Those homes will be counted as having sufficient broadband.

The CAF II reverse auction is underway and it’s going to fund building in the most remote places that were not covered by the CAF II program. Most of the reverse auction census blocks will not pass the 90% no-broadband test.

In most places in the country it’s going to be challenging to draw a contiguous study area that meets the 90% test. It doesn’t take too many homes with good cellular broadband or with a CAF II upgrade to fail the eligibility test. I’m sure such areas exist, but almost by definition somebody is going to have to ask for funding for small pockets of homes, or else jerry-rig a service footprint to try to meet the 90% test.

I have a hard time even seeing the big incumbent telcos meeting the 90% test in many places. There might be small telcos that didn’t accept ACAM money that might still have such pockets – but most small telcos upgraded to speeds greater than 10.1 Mbps many years ago.

The USDA is asking for the following feedback:

  • How to evaluate if rural homes have sufficient access to 10/1 Mbps speeds today. I think this gets at the heart of the FCC databases where homes are incorrectly shown to have broadband availability.
  • How to consider affordability and pricing.
  • How to demonstrate the benefits of projects using publicly available data.

The USDA didn’t ask about the speeds that must be provided to customers and I’d be surprised if they exceed the 10/1 Mbps speeds required by CAF II.

It’s possible I’m being pessimistic. It’s possible that this funding will make sense for building to small pockets of rural homes that meet the 90% no-broadband test. Perhaps the right strategy for an applicant is to apply for the funds for small clusters of ten or twenty homes – although that makes it hard to justify the overwhelming paperwork that must accompany a federal funding request.

Anybody that knows of areas that will meet this test ought to consider asking for the funds. I imagine the USDA will issue the rules near the end of this year. Getting what is effectively an 85% grant sounds attractive – but anybody who has asked for federal funding knows there will be nothing easy about the application process.

Taking Federal Broadband Funding

USDAThe USDA recently announced a new round of loan financing for the Rural Broadband Loan and Loan Guarantee Program as authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill. The loans are administered by the Rural Utility Service (RUS), a part of USDA.

The loans are available to bring or improve broadband in areas where at least 15% of the households do not have broadband today. The loans can be used to build technologies that are as slow as the old FCC definition of broadband – 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload, although the RUS will strongly encourage building technology capable of meeting the new broadband definition of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. The projects can range between $100,000 and $20 million.

Over the years I have helped numerous clients acquire these loans, but I have seen more and more reluctance to use them in recent years for a variety of reasons. Following are some of the issues my various clients have with this loan program:

Slow Response Time. I don’t know what the current backlog is, but there have been times over the last five years when a loan application might wait 18 months or more for a decision from the RUS. Those kinds of wait times might have been acceptable back in the days of all-regulated telephony, when companies worked slowly on five and ten year capital plans. But the world has gotten more competitive for everybody and nobody is willing to wait that long for a yes or no answer on a major capital program.

Paperwork. The loans take a lot of paperwork. The application itself is like writing a book and my firm has historically charged up to $20k for writing one of these applications – it’s that much work. And the paperwork doesn’t stop with the application. Once you’ve taken the loan there is major annual compliance paperwork that can overwhelm the staff of smaller borrowers.

Engineering. The loan applications for larger projects must be signed by a professional engineer, and this means that projects must be nearly fully engineered just to apply for funding. That differs from the rest of the industry where projects typically are done with ‘pre-engineering,’ which means that an engineer has made a very good estimate of the cost of the project, and in my experience those pre-engineered estimates are usually pretty reliable.

Extra Costs. Sometimes the loans require extra steps that are not required for other financing. For example, I’ve seen federally-funded loans require an expensive environmental study. Nobody else ever does this because fiber is almost always built into existing public rights-of-way, which by definition have already been cleared for these purposes. Depending on the size of the loan there can also be some kind of customer survey required.

Mostly Still for Regulated LECs. Most of the loans still go to regulated telephone companies for a variety of reasons. For instance, the projects usually require 10% to 20% equity from the borrower and also first lien against the assets built with the loan. These requirements have largely stopped government entities from using these loans. Another issue that these loans entail is that they have loan covenants that can be burdensome. As an example, there might be limits on dividends that can be paid to company owners while one of these loans is outstanding.

Rates are Not that Attractive. There have been times in the past when the RUS interest rates were significantly lower than commercial bank rates and thus were very attractive. But with today’s low interest rates there is currently not a lot of difference between the government rates and commercial rates. By the time you factor in all of the extra costs of applying for and complying with these loans, the RUS loans might be more expensive.

At times in recent years the RUS has built up billions of uncommitted funds because not enough borrowers have been interested in the money. Over the last decade I have helped more clients refinance RUS loans with other lenders than I have helped people get new RUS loans. I’ve read other articles that say that the RUS is too conservative. That may or may not be true, because for the carriers I know it’s generally one or more of the above factors that have turned them off government money.

I don’t want to sound like I am trashing the program, because RUS loans have helped to fund many worthwhile projects. But a lender needs to weigh all of their options and consider all of the costs of borrowing money from different sources. Borrowing money is about a whole lot more than just the interest rate and you need to take all of the other aspects of any loan into consideration.