High speed internet access is a key ingredient to a healthy 21st century rural economy. Not only is broadband important to the people who live in rural America, it is also vital to the electric co-ops that serve them.
The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 34 million Americans lack access to high-speed internet. The vast majority call rural America home and live in electric co-op service territories.
For more than 75 years, America’s electric cooperatives have powered local economies across 56 percent of the nation. As times and technology change, broadband has become an indispensable part of electric utility operations – extending beyond the electric meter and into household energy management. These state-of-the-art energy efficiency services increasingly require access to high speed internet.
Now, nearly 100 electric co-ops are reinvesting in rural America by bringing high speed internet access to rural homes, businesses and schools. This connectivity serves two key purposes: bridging the digital divide for co-op members and enhancing the co-op business operation network, allowing the co-op and members to adopt emerging energy management technology. These newly connected co-op communities are proven to create jobs, attract new employers, and directly jump start local economies.
The convergence of new technology and partnerships has made rural broadband deployment more achievable than ever. As electric cooperatives work to bring broadband to rural America, some have formed innovative partnerships with local telecom companies and others. Yet despite these advances, the high cost of rural broadband deployment remains the biggest obstacle to successfully closing the digital divide. Rural service territory is often rugged and remote, which drives up the cost of deployment. At the same time, there are fewer customers to defray the costs.
In order to close the digital divide for the 34 million Americans who lack broadband internet access, an expanded combination of federal grant and loan funding through USDA programs is essential. President Trump’s infrastructure proposal and the Farm Bill present two opportunities to secure that necessary financial backstop.