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Farm Bill and the expansion of rural broadband

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If you live in a rural area, chances are you have a strong opinion on broadband, and maybe a lack of it. Although, it was announced this week that the Farm Bill draft’s release date has been pushed back by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, due to bipartisan disagreements regarding the Nutrition Title, lawmakers for the upcoming bill have prioritized a rather small portion of the agricultural act that handles broadband, The Rural Development Title, and are hoping to see it approved when the final draft is voted on later this year. In the 2014 bill, this title was expected to cost $218 million in the five-year span. The total expected budget of the entire bill over five years was $490 billion.

Some 30 percent of rural community populations still don’t have access to quality broadband, according to Lenard G. Kruger, a specialist in science and technology policy. His report on the need for better funding for rural broadband can be found here. This is crucial in the ability for farmers and ranchers to participate in the ever-growing online agricultural market and improve economies, as well as provide virtual learning opportunities and better public safety. Modern farming relies heavily on technology, and broadband is no exception. As it is, the minimum speed of broadband is 4 MB per second download and 1 MB per second upload — lawmakers are writing policy that will increase this to 25 MB per second download and 3 MB per second upload.

According to the USDA’s Office of Rural Development, “broadband” refers to high-speed internet access and advanced telecommunications services for private homes, commercial establishments, schools, and public institutions. In the United States, residential broadband is primarily provided via cable modem (from the local provider of cable television service), fiber-optic cable, mobile wireless (e.g., smartphones), or over the copper telephone line (digital subscriber line or “DSL”). Other broadband technologies include fixed wireless and satellite. (To better understand these options, read Tim Durham’s AGDAILY column here.)

While there isn’t a perfect way to fund an expansion of rural broadband currently, many are looking to reauthorize a stronger program on the 2014 bill, which already offers business entities the Rural Broadband Access Loan and Loan Guarantee Program on the 2014 bill. “The Rural Broadband Access Loan and Loan Guarantee Program (Broadband Program) furnishes loans and loan guarantees to provide funds for the costs of construction, improvement, or acquisition of facilities and equipment needed to provide service at the broadband lending speed in eligible rural areas.” As stated on the USDA Rural Development website, there are also many other loan programs aimed to give broadband access to everyone, including the Telecommunications Infrastructure Loans, Community Connect Grants, and Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grants.

“The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association wants Congress to make a change in the farm bill that would allow electric co-ops to qualify for grants as well as loans for broadband expansion. Co-ops are currently limited to getting loans. Providing broadband to retail customers is simply too expensive to justify economically without grants, said NRECA CEO Jim Matheson.” According to Agri-Pulse, a top agricultural policy and politics publication operating out of Washington, D.C., a reauthorization of the loan program won’t be enough to provide access, and grants will be a much-needed supplement. The NTCA, which is the Rural Broadband Association, is supporting a bipartisan bill titled the Broadband Connections for Rural Opportunities Program Act, which would allow USDA Rural Utilities Service’s Broadband Loan Program to provide additional loans and grants. This would allow for 50 percent of a project’s cost to be covered, while the remaining cost for electric co-ops and other entities can be covered through other grants or loans. Funding for this could be tricky, as spending is limited on the upcoming bill; it would have to be taken from one of the three major titles, commodities, nutrition, or conservation.

U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) introduced her own bill this week in an effort to get better broadband in rural areas.

“The Expanding Rural Access to Broadband Act modifies existing RUS loan programs to include loan guarantees in addition to direct loans. H.R. 5213 also requires RUS to report back to Congress on ways to incentivize private investment via the loan guarantee program and streamline the cumbersome application process,” she said in a statement. She believes this is a necessary update to the Rural Utilities and Service telecommunications programs to ensure farmers and ranchers aren’t left behind digitally.

Some, such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, believe the Farm Bill isn’t strong enough to support this kind of expansion alone. The AFBF “supports using the Universal Service Fund to expand broadband deployment to rural areas. We also support using a combination of tax incentives, grants and/or regulation to increase the use of broadband access in rural areas.”

Furthermore, NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield stated, “The farm bill cannot begin to address some of the things that we see in terms of universal service” and helping with other factors “that actually create the business model for RUS to say ‘yes’ to a loan.”

Rural broadband must keep up with rural communities’ needs for health care, government services and educational opportunities, as well as farming and ranching needs to keep up with precision agriculture. The 2018 bill will be released in a matter of weeks and law makers are hoping to have a strong bipartisan support for this program.

 

Markie Hageman is a senior, majoring in agribusiness, at Fort Hays State University. She is actively involved in her state Cattlemen’s Association, Young Farmers chapter, and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Follow her series exploring various parts of the next Farm Bill.

Any views or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of AGDAILY. Comments on this article reflect the sole opinions of their writers.
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