Matheson: Grant Rules Should Prioritize Quality Broadband for Rural Areas

New national programs are helping electric cooperatives continue to deliver first-class, affordable rural broadband, and federal agencies should ensure that their funding rules support co-op efforts, NRECA CEO Jim Matheson told an Axios virtual event.

Rural broadband deployments can be challenging and costly, so to make the economics work, policymakers may consider inferior technologies as “good enough for rural,” Matheson said.

“We reject that kind of thinking. Every American should have access to high-quality broadband,” he said. “NRECA is working to make sure investments in broadband are not just good for today, but good for the future.”

NRECA is encouraged that the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program supports scalable fiber networks as it gives tens of millions of dollars to states to aid communities lacking service, Matheson said.

“It’s really important that we have technology that can accommodate the increasing demands for bandwidth,” he said.

A minimum “build-to” standard of 100 megabits per second symmetrical for all federally funded projects also would go a long way, he said. Most co-op broadband is 100/100 Mbps or better, but co-ops often get outbid by large, for-profit competitors who install slower internet connections that leave rural families and businesses struggling.

“Congress can play a key role in establishing that higher standard, which will ensure quality affordability and quality speed,” he said.

Congress also needs to fund the Affordable Connectivity Program to keep broadband “affordable enough for people to use,” he said, noting that electric co-ops serve 92% of the country’s persistent-poverty counties.

More than 200 co-ops are making big investments and building broadband networks with state-of-the-art fiber optics that can be scaled up for greater speed and access. Most entered the broadband business because no other provider would serve their members.

Obstacles in rural areas make delivering broadband more expensive. They include sparse population where connections are miles apart, rugged terrain, harsh conditions, limited labor and chinks in the supply chain.

“Electric cooperatives have that can-do attitude; they know rural America and know how to make it work in hard-to-serve areas,” Matheson said.

“We are owned by the members we serve. Those members asked for broadband service because no one else is offering in those areas. So, the electric cooperative stepped up and said, ‘OK, we’re going to take care of this need.’ It’s a real exciting time in rural America.”

Cathy Cash is a staff writer for NRECA.