Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the keynote speaker at NRECA’s 2018 Legislative Conference, underscored a “seismic shift” in technology taking place where broadband internet access will bring new levels of productivity to rural America.
“Rural broadband is not just a luxury—it’s essential,” Perdue told more than 2,000 electric cooperative leaders attending the conference in Washington on April 9.
Broadband has the greatest potential to drive the U.S. economy, yet 24 million American households lack reliable, affordable high-speed internet access, he said.
Perdue likened the challenge of providing broadband to unserved and underserved parts of the country to how co-ops delivered electricity to remote communities nationwide under the Rural Electrification Act (REA) in 1936.
“You got the potential to do the same thing in the 21st century” with rural broadband, he said, adding that co-ops will play “an integral role.”
“I don’t believe that America would ever reach the productivity we have today across our nation without abundant flow of electricity everywhere,” said Perdue. “In the same way, we cannot make America great again without high speed e-connectivity available to every American.”
Broadband access will improve rural education, medical care, communication and business, including farming, he said. Perdue described how smart technology can drive precision fertilization and seeding at large farms.
“You can’t do that without broadband e-connectivity,” he said.
Perdue said USDA is working on how to distribute $600 million in rural broadband grants and loans. He said he welcomed co-op contributions as the department works through the parameters of distributing the funds, part of the fiscal year 2018 budget.
NRECA, CoBank and CFC will participate in forums to highlight the need for rural broadband beginning April 18 in Washington and in states this summer.
Perdue, the former governor of Georgia, grew up on co-op lines. He recalled how Flint Energies in Reynolds, Georgia, sponsored the local baseball field, where he played Little League, and provided the power for refrigeration of the family dairy farm.
“My connections to co-ops run deep,” said Perdue. “I appreciate what you’ve done to serve rural America.”
He also lauded the new head of the Rural Utilities Service, Ken Johnson, the former CEO/general manager of Co-Mo Electric in Tipton, Missouri. Under Johnson, Co-Mo pioneered co-op broadband and built 3,000 miles of broadband fiber to serve every member with high-speed internet.
“I’m excited about having Ken Johnson on our team at USDA,” Perdue said. “He brings real world experience to the federal government.”
More on rural broadband: Check out this NRECA case study series on co-op broadband initiatives on cooperative.com.