By TIM ALEXANDER
PEORIA, Ill. — Time will tell if President Donald Trump’s decision to include rural broadband connectivity in his ambitious proposal to upgrade all facets of America’s infrastructure will be a blessing to farmers.
While plans for rural broadband upgrades, including USDA-backed loans for rural communities announced in June and individually sponsored legislative measures, are still active, Trump’s infrastructure plan remains stalled in a Congress that has been, so far, unable to advance any of his signature campaign promises.
“Too many rural areas still lack access to robust, affordable broadband services that can create jobs and boost rural economies,” USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said on June 8, while announcing the award of $43 million in USDA loans to help provide broadband service to rural portions of Illinois, Iowa, Texas and California.
Perdue made the announcement after helping Trump celebrate “Infrastructure Week” in Cincinnati, where the President promoted his public-private infrastructure agenda.
Momentum for rural broadband infrastructure improvement has gained traction in 2017. In February, Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.) co-sponsored the New Deal Rural Broadband Act, a bill to invest in broadband infrastructure across the country. He said access to reliable, high-speed internet is critical to the economic livelihood of rural communities in his home state of Arizona and across the nation.
“This bill would expand access to education opportunities for our children and encourage innovation in our business community,” according to O’Halleran.
The bill was referred to the House Subcommittee on Commodity Exchanges, Energy and Credit on Feb. 24.
On August 3, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took steps to “close the digital divide in rural America,” according to a Wall Street Journal report, by reshaping two federal subsidy programs through regulatory actions.
“Some are expecting the Trump administration to include broadband expansion in a detailed infrastructure proposal in early September,” WSJ writer John McKinnon reported. “Efforts to move an infrastructure bill through Congress have stalled so far this year.”
In addition, Agriculture Committee member Sen. Karen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) announced she is cosponsoring the Broadband Connections for Rural Opportunities Program (B-CROP) Act. The bill, also sponsored by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), would make grant funding available for rural broadband projects in high-need areas, in combination with current loan funding available through USDA.
While 97 percent of Americans have access to high-speed internet, just 65 percent of rural dwellers enjoy highspeed fixed service and only 60 percent of Americans on tribal lands are connected, the FCC estimates. According to data compiled by USDA issued in its biennial Farm Computer Usage and Ownership report, fiber-optic connectivity was used by 8 percent of U.S. farms, while mobile internet service was used by 17 percent.
The most common method of internet connection among rural denizens remained with DSL (Digital Subscriber Line), with 29 percent of farms subscribing. Satellite connectivity is used by 21 percent of rural citizens, according to USDA.
The report indicated 71 percent of U.S. farms have access to the internet in some fashion, including dial-up and cable modem service. It showed that farms in the western part of the nation had a larger percentage of farms accessing the internet than other geographical regions.
Perdue noted that broadband infrastructure investments will “connect rural communities to a digital future and will help to expand access to high-speed internet, health care, educational and business service in rural communities,” in his June announcement.
“Broadband connectivity today is that water and sewer of the 20th century, and it’s become a necessity,” he said recently. For a current and comprehensive overview of rural broadband issues, read Keith Good’s “Rural Broadband Issues – Farms Connecting to the Internet,” available online at his popular FarmPolicy. com news summary. Good is also social media manager for the farmdoc project at the University of Illinois.