By Jared Strong
The coronavirus pandemic highlighted the need for federal assistance to develop high-speed internet connectivity in all parts of the country, members of a U.S. House subcommittee agreed this week as they reviewed provisions that are likely to be included in the next farm bill.
“I represent a largely rural district in north-central, northeast Florida, and we have children who do their homework in a Hardee’s parking lot,” said U.S. Rep. Kat Cammack, a Florida Republican.
Students around the country scrambled to find internet access to participate in virtual learning when the pandemic limited in-person classes. It was a reminder that federal funds should be focused on providing broadband access to as many Americans as possible, Cammack said, rather than increasing the speeds of existing service.
Several members of the House’s Commodity Exchanges, Energy and Credit subcommittee echoed those concerns about so-called “overbuilding” of existing infrastructure during a Tuesday hearing that sought to review the rural development component of the next farm bill, which could be approved next year.
The current farm bill was last renewed in 2018 and partially expires next year. It’s a wide-ranging law that was expected to cost about $428 billion over the course of five years. About three-fourths of that money is devoted to food assistance for low-income residents, and most of the rest goes to crop insurance, commodity support and land conservation.
Previous farm bills provided loans to develop internet infrastructure, but for the first time in 2018, lawmakers also established grants for the projects and raised the minimum speed thresholds that define whether an area has sufficiently fast access, according to the Congressional Research Service. The previous download speed considered sufficient was 4 megabits per second, which was increased to 25.
Xochitl Torres Small, undersecretary for rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said establishing broadband access for as many rural residents as possible is a paramount priority that must be balanced with other projects that will allow for speed upgrades.
“We certainly saw in the midst of COVID, with your kids who are sitting in the Hardee’s parking lot, that 25 (megabits per second) isn’t enough for them to be able to listen to their teacher and learn from home,” Torres Small said.
Lawmakers also created the ReConnect Program in 2018 that is separate from the farm bill’s Rural Broadband Program but has similar goals, and states have implemented their own programs.
Last month, advocates across Pennsylvania stressed the need for rural broadband expansion, saying it was a necessity and not a luxury, the Capital-Star previously reported.
“On my channel, I provide people with resources to help them work through the issues, and more importantly, a place to share their stories,” “On my channel, I provide people with resources to help them work through the issues, and more importantly, a place to share their stories,” Danielle Kassander, a Twitch streamer and mental health advocate from western Pennsylvania, said during a press call organized by Pennsylvania Democrats.
A newly created bipartisan, bicameral broadband funding commission met for the first time in Harrisburg earlier this month to start figuring out how to spend the federal windfall and to process those applications for assistance.
“I think everybody, Republican and Democratic, rural and urban, recognizes we need to figure this out,” Gov. Tom Wolf told the Capital-Star after the authority’s inaugural gathering.
The Wolf administration had already created an office of broadband initiatives to help manage internet expansion. But the new authority will now have the force of law behind it.
Back on Capitol Hill
U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra, R-Iowa, said during subcommittee hearing that smaller telecommunications companies — similar to Marne Elk Horn, that has about 4,000 customers — should be prioritized over large regional or national companies for federal assistance.
U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, said more should be done to coordinate with other government agencies to expedite the infrastructure projects.
“Getting this done is so important,” she said. “Iowa falls (to the) bottom of the barrel when it comes to connectivity.”
Torres Small acknowledged the urgency and shared a southwest Iowa anecdote:
“I was in Lewis, Iowa the other day, and the mayor there remembers the exact spot on the hill that he used to have to go to make a cellphone call,” she said. “A few months later, Rural Development brought in some fiber. A cellphone company put up a tower right next to it. Now he can call from his phone anywhere in Lewis, and he can also operate his business from home. Those are the kinds of impacts we want to make.”
Jared Strong is a reporter for the Iowa Capital Dispatch, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared. Capital-Star Editor John L. Micek contributed additional reporting.
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