Federal lawmakers should seize opportunities to work together and find common ground on policies to advance shared interests and spur growth in rural America.
Although Democrats won the U.S. House of Representatives in the midterm elections, their thin majority and Republican control of the Senate make collaboration essential in the new Congress.
Pursuing policies to expand rural broadband access and close the digital divide present an opportunity for congressional Republicans and Democrats to work together for the benefit of rural America.
Twenty-three million rural Americans lack access to broadband, according to the Federal Communications Commission, and millions of them are electric co-op members. That’s why more than 100 electric cooperatives are working to close the digital divide by bringing broadband to their communities. Even more are exploring the option.
In southern Minnesota, MiEnergy Cooperative has partnered with two telecommunications cooperatives to create MiBroadband to deliver fixed wireless broadband across its electric service territory. This broadband partnership will directly benefit local communities and help Minnesota’s rural businesses engage and grow in the modern economy.
As an electric cooperative, MiEnergy needs a high-speed data network to operate a modern electric distribution system. MiEnergy members and area residents need broadband to run their farms and businesses and enhance educational opportunities for their children. In addition, broadband access opens up opportunities for members to use smart appliances, implement energy management solutions, and enhance their quality of life. Broadband is as important today as rural electrification was in the 1930s.
Some important strides have been made in the past year to promote rural broadband deployment. Congress last year approved a $600 million U.S. Department of Agriculture rural broadband pilot program, and 35 electric co-ops will receive $225 million over 10 years through an FCC broadband funding auction.
In addition, the 2018 Farm Bill establishes a new federal program to finance the development of retail broadband in rural areas. The program authorizes $350 million a year for a combination of grants and loans.
These are positive steps, but there’s more work to be done to make broadband available across the nation.
Congress should explore an expanded combination of grants and loans that build on these pilot programs and allow rural communities access to telelearning, telemedicine and a 21st-century economy. Equally important is the need for Congress to support more accurate reporting of broadband coverage data, and ensure a realistic picture of service gaps. Current coverage data is self-reported by providers and unverified.
Expanded rural broadband is a key ingredient to promote the economic well-being of rural America. Both Democrats and Republicans should work together on solutions to effectively expand rural broadband access.