Connecting Rural America

March 17, 2008

WASHINGTON (Mar. 17, 2008)—Any farmer can tell you that thriving in rural America is more than just having the right equipment and an available workforce.

One of the most important tools available to America’s farmers and ranchers—among the smartest and savviest businessmen and women anywhere in the world—is education and access to information. But for education to flourish, you need the right tools.

Alarmingly, a series of recent studies and analyses show that rural America is being left behind in a key area: high-speed broadband Internet access.

Newly appointed Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer recognizes the need for increasing broadband access to rural communities across the Unites States. In recent remarks the former governor of North Dakota and businessman clearly expressed his views: “bringing adequate broadband access to rural areas…it’s something that I feel very strongly about…

The Secretary also recognizes the financial, geographical and policy barriers that continue to stand in the way—barriers that the U.S. has overcome before.

And this is an area where our rural areas continue to lag behind the more densely populated areas of our nation. In fact our whole nation continues to lag behind the connectivity opportunities that most other countries in the world are providing… The reason for that is the same one that slowed electricity and slowed telephone services to our rural areas is just the high cost of building out an infrastructure faced with a lot of geography and not very many people. But if we’re going to continue to enhance our rural lifestyle, we need to do that.

There are many ways to deliver infrastructure. Existing telephone or cable TV lines, fiber optic cables, power cables, cellular towers, satellites, even weather balloons. When you fly over the land at night and look down, you see the twinkling lights of farmsteads all over this country, and it was a public policy decision that made that happen. And I believe now our challenge is finding the best strategy for making sure that broadband reaches deeply into our rural areas as does the telephone, electric service of today. Otherwise, the great economic opportunities and the growth that the new merging of energy and agriculture is providing won’t be fully realized.

A recent study produced by the US Internet Industry Association—Deployment of Broadband To Rural America —underscored one of the critical elements necessary to make ubiquitous rural broadband a reality:

Broadband deployment is a local investment issue, and broadband adoption is largely a local education issue. The best and most effective federal programs are therefore more likely to be those that support efforts that can be tailored to the unique needs of each community rather than a single, one-size-fits-all national program. Appropriate programs would thereby include federal grants and loans for infrastructure investments; educational programs for computer literacy and use; financial support for additional research at the state and local levels.

Thankfully, Congress and other decision-makers recognize this problem and there are many vehicles that can make the rural broadband dream a reality—including the pending farm bill which includes critical seed money to help build the necessary infrastructure.

At a time when our economy needs new and innovative thinking and tools to jump-start the economy, expanding rural broadband is a viable and important option.

The national non-profit organization Connected Nation recently found that the U.S. could realize an economic impact of $134 billion annually from a modest increase in broadband adoption.

At a time when our policy-makers are looking for ways to stimulate the economy, $134 billion is certainly a great place to start. They can take the first step by passing the farm bill.