The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need for federal assistance to expand high-speed internet connectivity to all parts of the country, members of a U.S. House subcommittee agreed this week while that they were looking at what provisions might be included in the next farm bill.
“I represent a mostly rural district in North Central and Northeast Florida, and we have kids doing homework in the parking lot of a Hardee,” said U.S. Rep. Kat Cammack, a Republican from Florida. .
Students across 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 speed of existing services.
Several members of the House Commodity Trade, Energy and Credit Subcommittee echoed such concerns about the so-called “overbuilding” of existing infrastructure during a Tuesday hearing that aimed to examine the rural development 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. This is a far-reaching piece of legislation that was expected to cost approximately $428 billion over five years. About three-quarters of that money goes to food aid for low-income residents, and most of the rest goes to crop insurance, commodity support and land conservation.
According to the Congressional Research Service, previous farm bills provided loans to expand internet infrastructure, but for the first time in 2018 lawmakers also established project grants and raised minimum speed thresholds that define whether an area has sufficiently fast access. The previous download speed considered sufficient was 4 megabits per second, which has been increased to 25.
Xochitl Torres Small, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s undersecretary for rural development, said establishing broadband access for as many rural residents as possible is a top priority that must be balanced with other priorities. projects that will enable speed improvements.
“We’ve certainly seen in the midst of COVID, with your kids sitting in the Hardee 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 Petit said.
Lawmakers also created the ReConnect program in 2018, which is separate from the Farm Bill’s Rural Broadband program but has similar goals, and states have implemented their own programs.
Iowa spends hundreds of millions on broadband subsidies
Iowa’s Empower Rural Iowa Broadband Grant program began about three years ago with a relatively modest $1.3 million in funding that was awarded for seven projects, but grants have ballooned largely due to federal pandemic relief money. Lawmakers also earmarked $100 million in public funds last year to fund the program and help Gov. Kim Reynolds reach the goal of universal broadband access for all residents by 2025.
Iowa has lagged nearly every other state in high-speed internet access and has “broadband wastelands” in a third of its counties, Reynolds said. These areas are more pronounced in the southwestern and far northeastern regions of the state.
In January, the state announced an additional $200 million in new grants for broadband projects, bringing the total amount of grants awarded over the past three years to about $880 million.
“Without the grant funds, we wouldn’t be able to spend the money to build these homes,” said Rachel Hamilton, general manager of the Marne Elk Horn Telephone Company in western Iowa.
The company recently received more than half a million dollars from the state program to connect 600 homes in rural Pottawattamie County to its high-speed fiber optic network. Without the grant money, the project would not be financially feasible due to its high cost per household, she said. It should be completed in 2024.
“People are leaving the city in droves and they want a rural lifestyle, but one thing that’s holding them back is rural broadband,” Hamilton said.
U.S. Representative Randy Feenstra, R-Iowa, told the subcommittee hearing that smaller telecom companies — similar to Marne Elk Horn, which has about 4,000 customers — should be given priority over larger regional companies. or national for federal aid.
U.S. Representative Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, said more should be done to coordinate with other government agencies to speed up infrastructure projects.
“Getting this done is so important,” she said. “Iowa is falling (at) bottom of the barrel when it comes to connectivity.”
Torres Small recognized the urgency and shared an anecdote from southwestern Iowa:
“I was in Lewis, Iowa the other day, and the mayor remembers the exact place on the hill where he had to go to make a call on his cell phone,” she said. declared. “A few months later, Rural Development brought fiber. A mobile phone company has erected a tower next door. Now he can call from his phone anywhere in Lewis, and he can also run his business from home. This is the kind of impact we want to have. »