As Congress considers a new five-year Farm Bill, lawmakers should ensure that rural Americans have access to high-speed internet service that will meet their needs well into the future, the leader of a Pennsylvania electric cooperative told a House committee Friday.
“The Farm Bill provides an opportunity to continue to support lasting, scalable, ‘future-proof’ broadband network deployment in rural areas,” said Aaron Young, president and co-CEO of Mansfield-based Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative, which serves nearly 17,000 consumer-members.
“To connect every rural home, business and community with reliable internet service, federal support programs should prioritize technologies and speeds that can meet the needs of today as well as tomorrow.”
Young, who is also the co-CEO of the co-op’s broadband subsidiary, Tri-Co Connections, compared today’s demand for rural broadband service to the push for the electrification of rural America in the 1930s.
“Rural areas are hard to reach and expensive to serve,” he said at a Farm Bill listening session held by the House Agriculture Committee at the 2023 Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg.
“Electric cooperatives, owned by the members that we serve, are increasingly getting into the broadband business to provide these essential connections for everyday life. Without high-speed internet, people move elsewhere.”
The 2023 Farm Bill will authorize funding for a variety of programs run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including broadband programs, which offer loans and grants to electric co-ops and other organizations to deploy high-speed internet in rural areas that lack sufficient access. The goal is to help fuel long-term economic development in those communities.
Federal support for broadband helps Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative “bridge the digital divide ensuring that rural northwestern Pennsylvanian families and businesses have access to the fastest internet available,” Young said.
The bill will also include programs to help co-ops continue “to deliver affordable, reliable electric service to rural America and to foster rural economic development,” he said.
“USDA programs like the RUS Electric Loan Program, Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant Program, Rural Energy Savings Program and Rural Energy for America Program are all critical programs for electric cooperatives around the country.”
Co-ops would like to collaborate with House Agriculture Committee members to help craft the Farm Bill this year, Young said.
“Electric cooperatives across the country look forward to working together with you in our shared goal of improving life in rural America.”
Erin Kelly is a staff writer for NRECA.