Small internet service providers in Illinois are optimistic after the farm bill – which President Trump recently signed – included more money for expanding high-speed internet access in sparsely populated areas.
The law earmarks $350 million annually for loans and grants for broadband projects. That’s on top of $600 million set aside earlier this year for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Re-Connect program.
“This is going to be not only at the federal level, but at the state level, a focal point,” said Josh Shallenberger, president of the Shelby Electric Cooperative, based in Shelbyville. “We certainly recognize the economic development and the continued prosperity of rural America is really dependent on it.”
More than a third of Illinoisans living in rural areas don’t have broadband access, according to the Federal Communications Commission, though critics say their numbers often underestimate the problem.
The farm bill money targets areas of the country where residents need it the most, said Shirley Bloomfield, chief executive officer of the Rural Broadband Association.
“I think there could have been probably a clearer delineation about making sure that federal programs don't compete against other federal programs in this space,” she said. The FCC also offers grants and loans to improve rural internet access. “They were able to work out a compromise that really identified the areas of need.”
The farm bill prioritizes places where less than 10 percent of residents have consistent and reliable internet service, typically defined as having a connection at or above 10 megabytes (Mbps) per second.
It also raises the minimum speed internet service providers would have to meet in order to qualify for the federal funds to 25 Mbps, way up from 4.
Supporters say the increased speed will ensure new broadband infrastructure can meet the needs of an economy that’s increasingly dependent on the internet.
“Twenty-five is a really realistic speed to be aiming for for rural America,” Bloomfield said. “As folks find over the holiday season, when families come home, and everybody's bringing their devices with them, honestly, our desire for bandwidth only continues to grow.”
The requirements will now be the same for both the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which will disburse farm bill funds, and the FCC, a move which Bloomfield says will help with coordination between the two agencies.
At the same time that lawmakers were reaching a final compromise on the farm bill, the USDA released rules for its $600 million pilot ReConnect Program - another effort to expand rural broadband. The money will be split evenly between loans, grants and a hybrid grant and loan option, and begin taking applications in 2019.
Shallenberger, with the electric co-op, says the program criteria address concerns he had about federal money being used to subsidize competitors in areas he serves.
“We just didn't want to see someone with the same technology overbuilding us and receiving grant funding to do this, when we employed the latest and greatest technology in that space,” he said.
The co-op has 1,600 customers in central Illinois and offers broadband service using fixed wireless, which beams internet connection from a tower typically within eyesight of the house or business. He, and other small telecom companies, worried support from the federal government would allow competitors with the same technology to set up shop where they are.
He said they may be allowed to apply for funding to expand and upgrade their service with fiber optic cables - buried glass wires that offer a fast internet connection.
On the state government level, Governor-elect J.B. Pritzker has said he plans to include expanding broadband access as part of a state infrastructure plan.