By WRAL Tech Wire

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) annual appropriation for rural broadband projects could jump to $50 million from $25 million if the Farm Bill becomes law.

A recent amendment to the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012, or Farm Bill, approved by the senate would allow the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) to continue giving out grants as well as loans and loan guarantees through the existing Broadband Initiatives Program, or BIP.

Grants would be allowed to constitute up to 50 percent of development costs of individual projects – and up to 75 percent with approval from the Secretary of Agriculture.

These numbers are a drop in the bucket when compared to the $7.2 billion in broadband investments made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which directed both the RUS and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) to expand broadband access to unserved and underserved communities across the country.

As a result of the Recovery Act, RUS received $2.5 billion to disperse through BIP, and the NTIA created the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) with $4.7 billion in the pot.

Research Triangle Park non-profit MCNC received $104 million in two rounds of BTOP money in 2010 to fund the Golden LEAF Rural Broadband Initiative that will significantly expand the North Carolina Research and Education Network, or NCREN, to reach about 89 of North Carolina’s 100 counties. That project will be complete in 2013.

According to the RUS, there were several BIP awardees in North Carolina who also received funding through the Recovery Act for a total of about $34.31 million federal award loans and $71 million federal award grants.

Those projects included the French Broad Electric BPL Project; Lumbee River EMC Broadband Economic Development Initiative; High Country Fiber project; Utopian Riegelwood WiMax Project, Wilkes Telephone Membership Corporation’s Stimulus Project, Yadkin Valley Rural FTTH, and the Tri-County Telecom FTTP Project.

The broadband amendment approved in the senate version of the Farm Bill was proposed by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). The House Agriculture Committee intends to consider its version of the bill on July 11.

“Building out a nationwide broadband network will strengthen our economy and put more people back to work,” said Warner. “At a time when federal, state and local support for economic development is shrinking, we should more closely target these limited resources to close the digital divide in rural communities in Virginia and across the country.”

The senate bill will provide new tools to extend high-speed Internet service to rural America. It supplies grants and loans for broadband access in rural communities where at least one-fourth of the households qualify as underserved. It also improves government accountability by changing reporting requirements to include metrics about the number of new broadband recipients as well as the progress of broadband value and access. All grant recipients also must ensure that data flows into the National Broadband Map.

The senate bill also would mandate that broadband providers deliver minimum download speeds of 4 megabits per second and upload speeds of 1 megabit per second. Finally, the amendment would create a new competitive application system for RUS, instead of distributing grants on a case-by-case basis.

Congressman Mike McIntyre (D-NC) is a member of the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture supporting the Farm Bill.

He said that in the 19th century, the railroad was the engine that brought growth, economic development, and tied communities together – the same can be said for broadband today.

“In Eastern North Carolina, we know that broadband means better access to high quality education for our schools and community colleges, critical services like telemedicine for rural hospitals and health clinics, and growth opportunities for small business,” he explained. “Broadband means jobs, innovation and opportunity, and it is critical that we work together to strengthen the commitment to broadband in this year’s Farm Bill.”

The Farm Bill is a package of federal legislation typically enacted every five years or so that sets the general direction for America’s farm and food policy. Congress enacted the first Farm Bill in the wake of the Great Depression with the dual goals of supporting America’s farmers and ranchers and helping them to maintain their land.

Over the years, the legislation also has become known for being weighted down with amendments – such as the case again this year.

Senate leaders negotiated an agreement on June 18 to vote on 73 of the more than 300 amendments introduced to the bill. Senators spent three days taking votes on those amendments before passing the bill on a bipartisan 64-35 vote.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) voted against the bill. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) voted in favor of it.

“Expanding broadband access to all North Carolinians, and particularly those living in rural areas, is vital to the state’s long-term economic growth,” Hagan said. “I am very pleased that the senate Farm Bill includes policies that will help make this goal a reality, and I urge the house to include similar provisions in their Farm Bill.”

The five-year bill would authorize farm subsidies, conservation programs, crop insurance and food stamp spending and is expected to be scored as costing nearly a trillion dollars over the next decade. Last Thursday, leaders of the House Agriculture Committee released their draft version of the 2012 Farm Bill that cuts direct spending by $35 billion, about $11 billion more than the Senate-passed bill.

Now, the two chambers are in a race to reach a compromise before Sept. 30, when the 2008 Farm Bill expires.

The House Agriculture Committee plans to markup the bill over three days this week, starting on Wednesday.