July 5, 2021

Op-ed: Rural America doesn’t have good broadband — and needs it

Chicago, IL — The all-out push in Congress to pass a historic infrastructure bill offers an unprecedented opportunity to bring high-speed internet to unconnected rural areas. It’s a watershed moment for rural America, one that could turbocharge economic development and help reverse long-standing health and education challenges.

It’s also one of the clearest opportunities Congress has for true bipartisan cooperation — a chance for lawmakers to demonstrate that we can still work together across party lines to do big things.

The good news: After two decades of federal broadband programs, we now have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t. Congress can complete the job of wiring rural America if it sticks to a smart, targeted plan to subsidize network buildouts in unconnected communities — and resists the temptation to blow up bipartisan consensus with unnecessary diversions and ideological experiments that risk pushing rural families to the back of the line.

An estimated 96% of Americans already have access to world-class broadband. Speeds here are faster on average, and networks further deployed into rural areas, than in Europe.

But in rural communities with far fewer customers per square mile, it costs exponentially more to connect each home. One in four Americans living in rural areas — roughly 14.5 million people — lack access to the internet, according to the FCC. This is where we need to focus.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress are close to a $65 billion deal to do just that. Senators Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, have crafted a rarity in today’s political environment: a truly bipartisan package that is very likely to work.

The Manchin-Cornyn bill would surgically target our limited federal dollars to build out networks in communities that don’t have broadband. It calls for a truly competitive process to ensure taxpayers get the greatest bang for their buck and requires buildout projects to be completed within three years.

Transparency, competition, and accountability: it’s a common-sense approach offering the fastest pathway to universal broadband access. And one both parties should eagerly embrace.

But with $65 billion up for grabs, Congress is facing pressures to reroute a big slice of the pie to more heavily populated metro areas — even where high-speed broadband networks have already been built.

Some, for example, want to divert funds so that municipal governments can build and operate their own broadband networks to compete with existing high-speed options — a gamble that has previously produced a mostly unhappy win-loss track record.

Others want to redefine “broadband” to require 100 Mbps upload speeds — far in excess of what you would use, for example, even for 20 simultaneous Zoom calls from your house. The practical effect would be to reclassify almost 60% of the country as without broadband — including many well-heeled suburbs that already boast gigabit-speed networks. And that would mean that already well-wired communities can swoop in and divert federal funds otherwise intended for unconnected rural communities.

These sideshows risk snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. A laser-focused subsidy program to build networks in communities that don’t already have them is the best hope to solve the digital divide in rural America, and we should get that job before redirecting funds for duplicative projects elsewhere.

We also need parallel solutions for the digital divide in urban areas, where broadband is widely available but almost 25% of households don’t adopt. The emergency broadband benefit, passed last December by a bipartisan Congress, has connected over 2.5 million Americans. We can build on it by making it permanent at a cost of about $8 billion — well within the budget of the bipartisan framework under discussion.

Universal broadband access will be life changing for rural Americans who’ve spent too long cut off from the digital opportunities of the internet age. Farmers stand to reap billions of dollars in economic benefits from broadband-powered “precision agricultural” advances. Newly connected families will be able to share in the telehealth revolution, gaining access to world-class specialists without having to even leave home. Students won’t have to huddle in the library parking lot looking for a Wi-Fi signal to finish their homework.

We can get the job done if we just keep our discipline and make sure federal broadband dollars end up reaching the unconnected rural communities where they’re truly needed.

Dan Glickman is vice president of the Aspen Institute’s Congressional Program and the Chair of APCO Worldwide’s International Advisory Council.

Ann M. Veneman is co-chair of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Food and Nutrition Security Task Force.

Mike Espy served in the U.S. House of Representatives and as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under President Bill Clinton.