Shoring up rural America’s economy must start with broadband access and technology, a federal task force says in a report released Monday.
The group, chaired by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and made up of other Cabinet members, says doing so will bring rural areas increased health care access, better job training, smart electrical grids and more precision farming technology. Little of that can be accomplished, the report says, without closing the broadband gap between urban and rural residents.
As of 2014, 61 percent of rural residents had access to high-speed internet compared to 96 percent of urban people, according to the task force report. The federal government defines broadband by a download speed of at least 25 Mbps.
"We envision a rural America with world-class resources, tools and support to build a robust sustainable community for generations to come," Perdue told the American Farm Bureau Federation conference in Nashville, Tennessee.
Just hours after the report was released, President Donald Trump spoke to the conference and signed two executive orders: one to streamline approval of broadband projects and the other allowing towers to be built on federal land.
The task force also calls for more research on where broadband gaps remain and what it would cost to bring those areas up to speed.
The call for broadband access has been around for a while, says Jonathan Chambers, a former Federal Communications official who worked on rural issues. He says he backs the report’s "objectives," but he doesn't "find much meat on the bones."
Chambers says the development of rural broadband has been hampered in part because federal funding still pays for slower networks in rural areas.
"By that, I mean four megabits per second or 10 megabits per second services," Chambers says. "So the government pays for something that consumers don’t want."
Chambers adds that the FCC could broaden the range of businesses that are eligible for broadband funding to possibly include electric companies, cable providers and tech firms.
"If Google believes in balloons and Facebook believes in drones and OneWeb believes in satellites and every other type of technology, let them all compete," Chambers says.
Besides broadband, the rural task force suggests boosting rural economies by improving services to veterans, expanding trade and rebuilding infrastructure like roads, bridges and small-town water systems.
Follow Grant Gerlock on Twitter @ggerlock.
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