Courier Newsroom: Rural America’s internet problem hurts farmers, students, and businesses

COURIER NEWSROOM, KEYA VAKIL

Six in 10 farmers say they do not have enough internet connectivity to run their businesses, according to an October 2019 report commissioned by the United Soybean Board.

The report, the latest in a long line of studies showing the economic importance of expanding high-speed broadband internet in rural areas, underscores the urgency of an issue that has become a focus for many congressional leaders.

Just last week, US Representatives Antonio Delgado (NY-19), Abigail Spanberger (VA-07), and Rodney Davis (IL-13) led 46 fellow House members in calling on Congress to prioritize funding to support broadband projects across rural America.

In a bipartisan letter to leaders of the Senate and House Appropriations Subcommittees on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies, the representatives urged appropriators to increase federal investment in the US Department of Agriculture’s Rural eConnectivity Pilot Program (ReConnect Program), a public-private partnership between businesses and local officials to expand rural broadband.

Delgado, Spanberger, and Davis urged appropriators to provide $605 million for the ReConnect program — the amount the House approved in legislation passed earlier this year.

“As the House and Senate work together to pass Fiscal Year 2020 appropriations, we write to urge you to support robust funding for rural broadband,” their letter states. “We are concerned to see that the current Senate Appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2020 does not provide any new funding for ReConnect.”

The lawmakers cited increased demand for funding in their letter:  “This year, USDA began accepting applications for the first round of ReConnect grant and loan awards. In this first application cycle, we saw approximately a three to one ratio in funding sought to funding available.”

Less than two-thirds of rural Americans have a broadband internet connection at home, making them 12 percent less likely than Americans overall to have home broadband, according to a May 2019 report from Pew Research.

This “digital divide” doesn’t just hurt farmers or prevent rural Americans from streaming endless Netflix shows, studies have shown that it also harms students, makes it harder to find a job or develop new skills, and limits business development.

“Kids have a tough time finishing homework, businesses can’t recruit the workers they need, and farmers forgo taking advantage of the latest technologies—simply due to their zip code,”

Spanberger cited many of these factors in her request for more funding.

“In Central Virginia and across the country, rural communities face similar challenges when it comes to a lack of high-speed internet access. Kids have a tough time finishing homework, businesses can’t recruit the workers they need, and farmers forgo taking advantage of the latest technologies—simply due to their zip code,” Spanberger said in an emailed statement to COURIER.

Spanberger, Delgado, and Davis hope to change that with their efforts. They all serve on the House Agriculture Committee and have bucked the increasingly polarized nature of Washington DC, working together to address the digital divide.

“This issue is not a partisan issue — it’s an issue of opportunity,” Spanberger said.

Whether their efforts pan out will become clear in the coming weeks, as the House and Senate continue to negotiate appropriations for Fiscal Year 2020 ahead of a Nov. 21 deadline. Both chambers previously passed a continuing resolution in September, funding the government through that date.

Those negotiations include appropriations for the entire federal government, but Spanberger emphasized the importance of increasing funding for the ReConnect Program.

“Without this much-needed investment, we risk seeing a widening of the digital gap,” Spanberger said. “And we risk the competitiveness of our rural communities in an increasingly digitally-based economy.”

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