Bill boosts rural broadband, energy | TSLN.com

Bill boosts rural broadband, energy

Chris Clayton

WASHINGTON (DTN) – People in rural areas would be assured at least $3.5 billion in investment for expanding broadband Internet access under the economic stimulus bill passed by the Senate Tuesday.

Under the package, the Senate provides $7 billion for broadband Internet access. Most of the money would be split between programs overseen by the U.S. Department of Commerce and USDA, including $3.25 billion for USDA’s Rural Utility Services programs. Another $350 million would be invested in a national broadband “inventory map” to determine areas served and underserved by broadband Internet. The bill also includes funding set aside for distance learning, telemedicine and upgrading computer capacity at community colleges.

Internet accessibility has been a major push for President Barack Obama who, since taking office last month, has spoken repeatedly about the potential boon of expanding high-speed Internet throughout the country.

The House of Representatives stimulus bill, which was passed last month, included $6 billion for broadband programs.

The Senate voted 61-37 to approve its $838 billion stimulus package. Now the House and Senate will go into conference negotiations to hammer out differences in their bills.

To put into context $3.5 billion for rural broadband investment in one bill, throughout the past eight years, USDA Rural Development spent roughly $6.2 billion in broadband Internet programs.

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The Senate bill does not hit the mark that inland waterway and commodity groups were pushing for to upgrade locks and dams along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, but it does improve funding over the House bill. Agricultural groups had been pushing for up to $2 billion in lock and dam investment along the Mississippi. The Senate sets aside $500 million for those projects, but the House had funded $250 million.

Energy investment in the Senate bill is about $43 billion, which includes a long list of projects from modernizing the nation’s electrical grid to research that would improve energy efficiency for solar and wind power. The Senate specifically sets aside $400 billion in rural business energy initiatives, including $200 million in loans and grants for new technologies in the development of advanced biofuels. Another $150 million will be used to support $3 billion in loans and grants to businesses in rural areas through both USDA and the Small Business Administration.

Further, the bill has $50 million for the Rural Energy for America Program, which will involve loans and grants to improve energy efficiency for farmers, ranchers and small rural businesses. These funds will be used to help spur small projects in renewable energy.

The Senate bill also boosts funding for USDA nutrition programs, including $16.5 billion for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Another $150 million will be directed toward boosting USDA purchases for food banks.

Rural communities also would receive $1.37 billion to help spur more loans and grants for water and wastewater projects. USDA has a backlog in Rural Development programs for these projects. The funding is comparable to that set aside in the House bill.

The Senate bill also has about $385 billion in various tax credits for individuals and businesses. That would include extending the renewable energy production credit for wind and solar, as well as boosting bonus depreciation for business purchases.

chris clayton can be reached at chris.clayton@dtn.com