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Co-ops to Congress: Fund Rural Broadband

Congress has a good opportunity this year—actually, more than one—to jump-start rural economies and promote rural broadband deployment. The Trump administration and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed support for funding rural broadband to help bridge the digital divide, so the political climate is right for striking a deal that makes a significant down payment toward this goal.

The Bipartisan Budget Agreement enacted in February contained a $20 billion “infrastructure initiative” for fiscal years 2018 and 2019. House and Senate appropriators could set aside some of this funding for broadband in spending bills for either of the two years.

In order to maximize the impact of those funds, America’s electric cooperatives urged Congress to dedicate some of this funding to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Utilities Service for rural broadband deployment, disbursing the funds through loans and grants to qualified organizations, including electric co-ops.

Another piece of legislation to be considered by Congress this year is the Farm Bill, which is reauthorized every five years. The bill sets the nation’s food and agriculture policy, affecting everything from what crops are grown to funding for food nutrition programs. But the bill also sets funding levels for many programs important to electric co-ops run by USDA—again, a possible source of broadband funding.

Finally, there has been plenty of discussions on Capitol Hill and within the administration on moving legislation to deal with the nation’s aging infrastructure. Roads and bridges are often the first topic of any infrastructure conversation. But in the modern economy, gleaming roads and bridges are irrelevant if they lead to rural communities that lack high-speed internet access. Quality broadband service is a necessity, not a luxury, in the 21st century economy and should be addressed by any proposed infrastructure package.

Whichever path Congress chooses, the imperative of funding rural broadband can’t be understated.

Rural America faces stiff economic challenges. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, less than 15 percent of American businesses are located in rural areas and small towns. Inadequate broadband access is making this problem worse and contributing to the exodus of talented, young people.

Access to broadband also is essential for modern education, health care and business. But at least 23 million rural Americans lack access to high-speed internet. We can’t turn our backs on this digital divide.

For more than 75 years, America’s electric cooperatives have powered local economies across 56 percent of the nation’s landmass. As times and technology change, broadband has become an indispensable part of electric utility operations – extending beyond the electric meter and into household energy management. These state-of-the-art energy efficiency services increasingly require access to high speed internet.

Now, nearly 100 electric co-ops are reinvesting in rural America by bringing high-speed internet access to rural homes, businesses and schools. This connectivity serves two key purposes: bridging the digital divide for co-op members and enhancing the co-op business operation network, allowing the co-op and members to adopt emerging energy management technology. These newly connected co-op communities are proven to create jobs, attract new employers and directly jump-start local economies.

Southern Rivers Energy has been closely following this issue and urging legislators consider their rural constituents and help level the playing field in education, economic development and healthcare by creating a path for affordable broadband in rural America.

The convergence of new technology and partnerships has made rural broadband deployment more achievable than ever. As electric cooperatives work to bring broadband to rural America, some have formed innovative partnerships with local telecom companies and others.

Yet despite these advances, the high cost of rural broadband deployment remains the biggest obstacle to successfully closing the digital divide. Rural service territory is often rugged and remote, which drives up the cost of deployment. At the same time, there are fewer customers to defray the costs.

That’s why an expanded combination of federal grant and loan funding is essential. An infrastructure package, the Farm Bill and annual appropriations bills present opportunities to secure that necessary financial backstop.

What’s good for rural America is good for the entire nation. We can’t afford to leave our rural communities behind. Now it is time for Congress to allocate the necessary funding so that all Americans can enjoy quality broadband service.

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