Indeed, since the Broadband Loan Program was first
authorized in the 2002 Farm Bill, each subsequent Farm
Bill has made extensive reforms with the goal of greater
program accountability, efficiency and effectiveness. Two
rounds of program reforms in fewer than 15 years—the first
of which was significantly delayed by the American
Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) Broadband
Initiatives Program’s use of the Broadband Loan Program
mechanism—means that the Broadband Loan Program has
been almost continuously “under construction” since its
inception, rendering the program inaccessible to borrowers
for long periods of time.
We can expect further changes in the next Farm Bill
given that members of Congress are eager to leave a legacy
of furthering broadband deployment. Sens. Kirsten E.
Gillibrand (D–N. Y.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R– W.Va.)
have already introduced the Broadband Connections for
Rural Opportunities Program (B-CROP) Act, which would
add a grant component to the Broadband Loan Program
and adjust RUS’s priorities for making awards in an effort
to spur investment in the highest-cost areas. NTCA worked
closely with the senators on drafting the bill and endorsed
the final effort as a smart, carefully tailored package of
reforms to the program. It’s possible that B-CROP in all or
part could end up in the Farm Bill.
The RUS lending process could be improved in the Farm
Bill and made more user-friendly by allowing borrowers to
undertake reviews required by the National Historical
Preservation Act after funds are obligated but prior to disbursement. Some borrowers are currently deterred from
approaching RUS by the possibility of expending thousands
of dollars on the application process, only to be denied an
Remember that the 2008 Farm Bill expired in 2012 and
was extended for two years until the current Farm Bill was
finally passed in 2014. It’s possible that the current Congress
could face similar difficulties in an election year with a
packed schedule, though Agriculture Committee leaders
are committed to finishing the job and the White House has
an interest in doing so given the rural support for President
Donald Trump in 2016.
Of President Trump’s campaign pledges, none garnered
more bipartisan support than the prospect of a major infrastructure initiative. Like so many other ideas, it becomes
more difficult to accomplish as the election draws near.
But don’t rule out the possibility of Congress moving an
infrastructure bill given the bipartisan interest, demand
from state and local governments, and need for Republicans
to show voters they can produce results.
Young (R–Iowa). If one chamber will pass the other
chamber’s bill number, the legislation will go to the president’s desk. NTCA is working closely with the bill sponsors
to secure final passage as soon as possible.
FCC Reauthorization and Regulatory Reform
Much ink has been spilled in recent years over the possibility
and particulars of the first major Communications Act overhaul since 1996. What would’ve been difficult legislatively
was made even more challenging by sharp disagreements
over net neutrality, which would have to be addressed in a
big reform bill. Though Congress has little room this year to
do more than take small steps toward a Communications
Act update, work is already underway on regulatory reform
efforts, such as the effort to reauthorize the FCC for the
first time in 25 years. Legislative drafts for an FCC reauthorization include many process reforms, such as requiring
the agency to make circulated and adopted items public
and include a cost-benefit analysis of proposed rules that
may have an economically significant impact.
NTCA and several other associations representing small
carriers have expressly requested that Rep. Bob E. Latta
(R–Ohio) and Rep. Kurt Schrader’s (D–Ore.) Small Entity
Regulatory Relief Opportunity Act (SERRO) either move
alone or be included in any FCC reauthorization bill. SERRO
would dramatically improve the regulatory environment
for small, rural carriers by demanding streamlined procedures for small businesses seeking relief through petition
waivers and providing a one-year grace period before new
regulations apply to small entities after they become effective for larger businesses.
Recent Congresses have attempted to pass FCC process
reforms with limited success, but in the absence of a path
forward for more substantive telecom legislation, Republican
leaders are actively trying to win over Democrats to secure
bipartisan agreement on a bill.
Work is already underway on reauthorizing the Farm Bill,
which will expire at the end of September. That effort will
include reauthorizing the Farm Bill Broadband Loans &
Loan Guarantees program. Even though the program is
considerably smaller than RUS’s Telecom Infrastructure
Program and provides financing and not ongoing support
like the USF high-cost program that helps make the business case for securing loans, members of Congress often
see the program’s reauthorization in the Farm Bill as a
route to enacting new legislative language in hope of spurring further rural broadband deployment.