As many as 24 million Americans live in areas where there is no access to high-speed internet. Fortunately there is movement to try to bridge the gap between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots.' But for many, the movement is not moving fast enough.
A House Ag Subcommittee with jurisdiction over rural development, research and biotechnology held a field hearing last month to review the role of broadband access in rural economic development. Representative Tim Johnson, R-Ill., chair of the subcommittee presided over the hearing.
"We're focusing on broadband services but the bigger issue to all of us at this table, who represent predominantly rural areas or at least significant rural areas, is arresting the decline of rural America," Johnson says. "We want to do what we can to marry, so to speak, the private and public sector together so that rural America can realize its potential to rebound, because when rural America declines, America declines."
A panel of internet providers and users presented several examples of how access to broadband provides job-creating opportunities in healthcare, education, and market access. Some witnesses also explained how a lack of infrastructure and financing are limiting the ability of broadband to drive economic growth.
One of the challenges is USDA's use of conflicting definitions of rural in its rural development portfolio. That sometimes has the unintended consequence of restricting eligibility for loans and grants. Jim Costa, D-Calif., says USDA is already a year overdue in producing a report for Congress "that was required in the 2008 Farm Bill," he adds.
The report is supposed to provide definitions and recommendations on how the agency can provide more flexibility in administering Rural Development Programs, while still ensuring they are working for the benefit of rural America.
Costa says he and Chairman Johnson are pressuring USDA to deliver the report before their subcommittee drafts the Rural Development title of the 2012 Farm Bill.
But USDA is doing something about broadband. More than $103 million in funding through USDA's Community Connect program will go to 18 recipients for 23 projects designed to provide broadband services to un-served and underserved rural communities
"Broadband adoption and access continues to lag in rural areas behind that in urban areas," says USDA Rural Utilities Services Administrator Jonathan Adelstein. "Some of the reasons for that lag in access is so many rural areas lack population density, or have rugged terrain or are just too costly to serve for telecommunication providers."
In addition to the Community Connect grants, Adelstein says there is $90 million available for loans for five broadband infrastructure projects. These infrastructure loans are in addition to $192 million in loans Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced on July 27 through USDA Rural Development's Telecommunications Infrastructure Program.
"Access to fast, reliable, next generation mobile broadband is more than a mere abstract policy initiative," says U.S. Cattlemen's Association Executive Vice President Jess Peterson. "Here in rural America we desperately need it to enable America's farmers and ranchers to keep up with market conditions and to quickly and easily communicate with suppliers, customers, and food processors. It is a critical tool for those of us that help feed and clothe America and the world."