Semo.net Disputes USDA Rules Preventing Rural Broadband Grant
Below is a press release describing semo.net’s attempts to secure USDA broadband stimulus funding to make high-speed access available in our area; an area which the USDA has decided is not remote enough to qualify.
USDA TILTING AT WINDMILLS: LITTLE GUY EXPOSES USDA STIMULUS BLUNDER
Brian Becker owns a small Internet Service in Southeast Missouri started in 1995. Becker has documents to show that the USDA, responsible for doling out billions for Rural Broadband, has contradicted both itself and Congress. Most are skeptical at first, but a few minutes with him and you realize that $7.2B stimulus dollars hinge on one word.
Becker’s company, Poplar Bluff Internet (d.b.a semo.net), submitted a grant application to the USDA’s Broadband Initiative Program, a $7.2B portion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In mid-January, Becker received notice from the USDA that his grant proposal was rejected because his proposed service area was too close to Paragould, Arkansas.
Becker realized why he and the USDA disagreed on Paragould: the USDA was incorrectly applying its own definition of Rural Area.
The rules under which applicants must submit grant requests represents a departure from past USDA definitions, and this departure completely changes the definitions of Rural and Non-Rural.
At the heart of the difference: use of the word OR rather than AND.
A good example as to the significance of this problem can be found 65 miles south of Paragould where the USDA designates Marion, Arkansas, as a Rural Area. Marion is actually part of the greater Memphis metropolitan area and only 8 miles from downtown Memphis. Becker chided, “Eight miles from Paragould are cattle and crops, not skyscrapers and minor league baseball stadiums.”
Many communities appear to have been cut out of the process unfairly because they were told they didn’t qualify for broadband stimulus funds and one can only assume that even more scrutiny will befall the funded USDA areas now.
On February 15th, Becker sent a formal letter to Administrator Adelstein of the USDA and Secretary Vilsack. The letter questioned the definition of Rural Area and the USDA’s interpretation of Paragould as a Non-Rural Area.
The USDA’s response (in Becker’s words): We’re the experts, we’re right. However, in the letter dated February 26th, Administrator Adelstein went so far as to contradict the 2008 Farm Bill definition of Rural Area.
Becker commented, “I couldn’t believe it when I read what the Administrator wrote, I actually did a double-take and thought ‘Are you kidding me?’”
Becker not only appears to have a legitimate argument, his proposal is unique as well. Many think his idea could change how wireless Internet services are rolled-out going forward. His idea caught the eye of the Missouri’s Governor’s office who pledged $195,000 toward the $1.5m grant proposal.
Becker’s 800 square mile service area was to be serviced by thirty-one 150’ towers. Becker engineered each of the towers to be capped with a 2.7KW SkyStream consumer-grade, wind-turbine tied to the smart grid. Becker also proposed a solar-powered battery system to power the wireless equipment and dubbed the project “200% Green” since each tower would generate more power than it used.
Becker offers the landowner all the power from the $35,000 windmill system plus free Internet service in exchange for a 20-year easement on the land. Becker explained, “Often times, putting a 150 foot tower in someone’s back yard is not only expensive but a hard sell. Mention a free windmill and everybody wants one.”
An added bonus of building windmills rather than wireless towers is a 30% IRS tax credit on all green technology expenditures.
Becker laughed, “I save at least over $20,000 on the land-lease and pick up a $10,500 tax credit by adding a $7000 windmill to my tower. Seems like a win- win situation to me!”
Becker came up with the idea in January 2009, but the stimulus funding limbo has kept him from moving forward with his idea.
When asked what will happen now that the USDA has refused his proposal, Becker smiled with the look of one who’s been knocked down but not out. “I guess I’ll start looking for the money another way.”