When it comes to rural high-speed internet, federal funding should not impose restrictions on where broadband can be built nor limit who can provide that service.
That’s the message NRECA CEO Jim Matheson delivered to the Senate Agriculture Committee that is drafting the 2018 Farm Bill.
“Expanding access to high-speed internet service should be one of the most important elements of the Senate Farm Bill,” Matheson said in a letter to Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the committee chairman and ranking member, respectfully.
Matheson voiced strong opposition to adding provisions that would prevent the use of Rural Utilities Service funds to deploy broadband in areas that have received support from the Federal Communications Commission’s Universal Service Fund, even in areas where systems deliver substandard internet service.
“Unfortunately, there are policy proposals being disseminated that are designed to simply protect the status quo and will leave parts of rural America with second-class broadband service for decades to come,” he told the senators.
NRECA is urging the bill drafters instead to create a grant-loan combination program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture that is technology-neutral to help build broadband networks in remote parts of the country.
“A new approach to broadband deployment is needed to ensure that rural America does not continue to be relegated to ‘good enough for rural’ service standards,” Matheson said, noting that some systems only provide download/upload speeds of 10/1 or 4/1 megabits per second. The Federal Communications Commission benchmarks fixed broadband at 25 Mbps/3Mbps.
“The people we serve in rural America recognize that without access to modern, high-speed broadband on par with their urban counterparts, rural competitiveness, productivity and quality of life will suffer.”
The fate of multiyear legislation to address agriculture is uncertain this year as Congress nears its August recess. The Senate committee is expected to finish writing a farm bill in June. The U.S. House of Representatives failed to pass its own version of the bill May 18.
Cathy Cash is a staff writer at NRECA.