In-Depth: Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) introduced this bill to streamline management of federal broadband resources across multiple agencies and simplify the process for small businesses and local economic developers to access federal funds for broadband deployment projects:
“Broadband Internet access is often the difference between success and failure for students doing homework, job seekers training for a new career, doctors reading a medical scan or entrepreneurs starting a small business. However, to date the federal government has done a poor job of tracking broadband deployment. Investments are made with little accountability and oversight on behalf of the taxpayer. This bill will simplify the process for private and public sector leaders to tap into existing federal broadband resources and help ensure that a zip code does not define the economic potential of our students, doctors, entrepreneurs and the communities they call home.”
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) believes that this bill is limited on substance, and falls short of giving the NTIA the resources it needs.
There are 17 cosponsors of this bill, including 10 Democrats and seven Republicans. The Fiber Broadband Association and USTelecom both support this bill.
Of Note: Rural broadband is a critical pathway to global markets for agriculture and other industries. Farmers and ranchers depend on broadband just as much as they do on highways, railways, and waterways in order to access buyers for their products. Additionally, high-speed internet access has become a requirement for tapping into healthcare, educational services, government agencies, and new business opportunities.
Despite this, according to the Federal Communications Commission, 39% of rural Americans lack access to broadband service, compared to only 4% of urban Americans. Across the country, 23 million Americans live in rural areas where there’s no broadband internet. And these numbers are likely to be significant understatements of the issue, due to to the way that connectivity statistics are compiled.
Without broadband, many rural residents must either rely on expensive, slow connections that may cost into the hundreds of dollars per month or go without internet access at all. This digital divide affects not only residents’ online pastimes, but also their chances at better living.
Areas without modern internet connections can’t attract new businesses, and their isolation discourages the enterprises they do have: ranchers who want to buy and sell cattle in online auctions, or farmers who could use the internet to monitor crops. Lack of broadband also disrupts businesses that use high-speed data transmission, including banks, insurance firms, and factories.
As rural America struggles to keep people and ideas in their communities, the quality of technology that’s available makes a difference to residents’ opportunities and willingness — and ability — to stay. The ability to participate in the digital economy, and even to gain digital know-how to enter the workplace, are critical to rural workers’ employability.
The economic difference that broadband makes is tangible: a 2015 study by university researchers in Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Texas who compared rural counties before and after getting high-speed internet services found that rural counties with more household connected to broadband had higher incomes and lower unemployment than those with fewer connections.
Roberto Gallardo, assistant director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development, likens broadband today to the railroad and highway infrastructure projects of the past:
“What we know off the bat is that if you don’t have broadband you will be left out. If you do have it, it really is analogous to the installation of a railroad 100 years ago or a highway 50 years ago. Broadband has that same potential to connect communities.”
Today, the rural broadband landscape is spotty at best. In some states, such as North and South Dakota, officials have done their best to give their residents fiber-optic network services. There are some states, such as Minnesota, where providers have come together to build infrastructure in the name of economic development. In Minnesota, 117 providers and state governments have worked together to provide grants and a flexible network of local not-for-profit organizations to slowly build out coverage. Then, in some other areas, there is broadband built out by rural electric cooperatives. Finally, there are some areas with nothing to connect them to the modern world at all, such as in Oregon, where 43 school districts in 10 counties still lack a fiber-optic connection.
Some experts, looking at the patchwork of needs across the country today, believe that a federal mandate like the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 is needed to bring the all areas to the same service level.
With that said, past federal efforts to expand rural broadband efforts haven’t been particularly successful. In 2009, the Obama administration earmarked $7 billion from the 2009 stimulus package for expanding rural broadband service. Half of the money — $3.5 billion — went to a program that the administration estimated would reach 840,000 households and businesses.
Nine years later, there still isn’t a tally of how many people were connected, and at what speeds. However, limited data suggests the program was not particularly successful. In Missouri, where broadband providers received $261 million of the stimulus money, the program was unsuccessful, and did not have the impact that was projected. Similarly, Big River Communications, a St. Louis-based telecommunications provider that collected $20 million in stimulus money to connect parts of southeast Missouri, initially set up a $14.99/month plan for students, seniors, and low-income households — but then brought its prices up to $49.99/month on a limited data plan and $99.99 for unlimited use for connections with a paltry two to seven Mbps per hour speed. Moreover, Big River’s current customer base of 4,000 subscribers in seven counties is far short of the 52,000 it estimated it would reach.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: deepblue4you / iStock)