Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) succeeded in attaching an amendment to the 2012 Farm Bill that would target loans and grants to continue extending broadband services to unserved and underserved rural communities.

The amendment was hailed by broadband providers, but political handicappers believe there is little assurance the full Congress will pass any farm bill before the election.

The government estimates that more than 18 million Americans – many of them residing in rural regions – still do not have access to broadband service at all. The Rural Utilities Service (RUS) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was established to eliminate the “digital divide” between rural and urban areas. The RUS has been one of the agencies involved in the Broadband Initiative created by the Recovery Act. Warner’s amendment would in essence continue the loans and grants under that program.

Warner’s amendment was cosponsored by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Jim Webb (D-Va.). It passed by voice vote this afternoon, and final Senate passage of the 2012 Farm Bill is expected later today.

The amendment also enhances broadband mapping. The National Broadband Map, launched in 2010, is a necessary first step in assessing the availability of broadband services across the country. Unfortunately, the map is not specific enough, Warner’s office said. The amendment requires RUS loan and grant recipients to provide broadband build-out data for use in the National Broadband Map so that RUS can better utilize more specific data in future funding decisions.

NCTA President Michael Powell said: “We applaud U.S. Senate approval of the Warner-Kirk-Shaheen amendment to the Farm Bill, which makes significant improvements to the RUS broadband program. Specifically, the amendment establishes new provisions that will improve program transparency and better target funding to projects that will extend broadband service to unserved areas. Given the scarcity of federal dollars, it is critical that government use its resources efficiently by limiting subsidized overbuilds and focusing its efforts on extending access to the roughly 18 million Americans currently without broadband.”

RCA President Steven Berry said: “All Americans, no matter where they live, must have access to high-speed broadband services, which will benefit the economy and create jobs. Many RCA members service hard-to-reach, rural areas, and additional funding to these much-needed areas is certainly a step in the right direction.”

Berry continued: “While Senator Warner’s amendment is a positive step to ensuring all Americans have access to broadband, there are many outstanding policy issues, such as interoperability, data roaming and access to LTE-ready spectrum, that still must be addressed to fully achieve this goal. I hope the FCC, like Senator Warner, will act on behalf of American taxpayers and implement policies like an interoperability requirement that will restore competition to the wireless market and benefit consumers.”