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e-Connectivity: A Foundation for Rural Prosperity

Posted by Anne Hazlett, Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development in Rural Technology
Aug 13, 2018
Mike Pauley of AgriTrails Coop
Rural business leaders like Mike Pauley of AgriTrails Coop in Hope, Kansas rely on modern high-speed e-Connectivity to keep the doors open. USDA photo by Preston Keres

In small towns from Maine to California, access to reliable, high-speed internet is a foundation for rural prosperity. From quality health care to advanced education and precision ag technology at the local farm equipment dealer, e-connectivity is a lifeline to the modern economy. And, yet we know that a significant number of rural Americans are not connected.

Under the leadership of Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, our core mission at USDA is to do the Federal government’s part to increase prosperity in America’s rural communities. To fulfill this mission, we know that there are significant infrastructure gaps in rural places which must be addressed, including gaps in broadband e-connectivity. Rural communities need broadband infrastructure to thrive just as much as urban and suburban communities do, and if we address this need together, many of the other challenges in rural places become much more manageable.

I recently saw this firsthand during a visit to south central Kansas where nearly the entire county uses a dial-up connection. During a gathering at the county courthouse, I listened to many challenges that community leaders face: the need for new business investment, lack of advanced educational opportunity for students, and safety risk for first responders who have to rely on outdated technology. After talking with the sheriff and local officials, I realized that expanding access to broadband would remedy virtually 90 percent of the concerns we discussed. For example, with modern high-speed internet service, small business owners on Main Street could open the door to new a world of new customers through e-commerce. With that impact, my visit was a powerful reminder that much more is at stake in this e-connectivity gap than inconvenience.

USDA is taking action on a number of fronts, through infrastructure, partnerships, and innovation. First, we are driving greater collaboration between agencies in the federal family. Last year, Secretary Perdue chaired a task force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity that brought together more than 20 different federal agencies with resources for rural America. As we move forward in implementing their recommendations, we are centered on closer coordination in funding, policy and deployment of other resources such as mapping and outreach.

Second, we are improving the delivery of our programs within USDA through innovation. Earlier this month, we took important steps to streamline our loan and grant process so that the agency can make a conditional funding commitment before the historic preservation review is complete -- thereby easing the application burden for already financially challenging projects. We also are encouraging the development of new partnerships to serve communities that have insufficient broadband access -- such as a new venture between a telecom company and an electric cooperative or a municipality.

Finally, we are creating new tools. Earlier this year, Congress provided $600 million for a new broadband pilot program. This funding is a significant increase in our resources to build rural broadband infrastructure -- however, it is much more. With the flexibility that this authority provides, we have a unique opportunity to innovate the way the federal government invests in broadband infrastructure, for effective e-connectivity where it’s most needed in rural America for 21st Century productivity and quality of life. We will accomplish this while also being good stewards of taxpayer money and relying on proven, longstanding business models that been delivering telecommunications services to rural America for decades. Last month, we opened an important public comment period that will gather critical stakeholder input for the parameters of this new tool. With this information, we are working with speed, not haste, to design a program that will maximize the impact of these resources in connecting rural America.

Secretary Perdue recently described broadband e-connectivity as a “game changer” for our entire nation. With that importance, we are committed to partnering with local leaders to ensure that every rural community has an on-ramp to the “digital superhighway”. Working together, we can build strong, healthy and prosperous communities now and for generations to come.

People standing near a Tri-County Telephone Association truck
Tri-County Telephone Association brings broadband service to businesses and homes throughout the Flint Hills region of Kansas. USDA photo by Preston Keres
Category/Topic: Rural Technology