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Expanded rural broadband likely to be a focus of federal farm bill

The coronavirus pandemic highlighted the need for federal assistance to develop high-speed internet connectivity in all parts of the country, members of a U.S. House subcommittee agreed this week as they reviewed provisions that are likely to be included in the next farm bill.

“I represent a largely rural district in north-central, northeast Florida, and we have children who do their homework in a Hardee’s parking lot,” said U.S. Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla.

Students around the country scrambled to find internet access to participate in virtual learning when the pandemic limited in-person classes. It was a reminder that federal funds should be focused on providing broadband access to as many Americans as possible, Cammack said, rather than increasing the speeds of existing service.

Several members of the House’s Commodity Exchanges, Energy and Credit subcommittee echoed those concerns about so-called “overbuilding” of current infrastructure during a hearing that sought to review the rural development component of the next farm bill, which could be approved next year.

The current farm bill was last renewed in 2018 and partially expires next year. It’s a wide-ranging law that was expected to cost about $428 billion over the course of five years. About three-fourths of that money is devoted to food assistance for low-income residents, and most of the rest goes to crop insurance, commodity support and land conservation.

Previous farm bills provided loans to develop internet infrastructure, but for the first time in 2018, lawmakers also established grants for the projects and raised the minimum speed thresholds that define whether an area has sufficiently fast access, according to the Congressional Research Service. The previous download speed considered sufficient was 4 megabits per second, which was increased to 25.

Xochitl Torres Small, undersecretary for rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said establishing broadband access for as many rural residents as possible is a paramount priority that must be balanced with other projects that will allow for speed upgrades.

“We certainly saw in the midst of COVID, with your kids who are sitting in the Hardee’s parking lot, that 25 [megabits per second] isn’t enough for them to be able to listen to their teacher and learn from home,” Torres Small said.

Lawmakers also created the ReConnect Program in 2018 that is separate from the farm bill’s Rural Broadband Program but has similar goals, and states have implemented their own programs.

Gov. Mike Parson has made expanded rural broadband a priority of his administration, proposing in his State of the State address this year $400 million for broadband access, with $250 million to reach approximately 75,000 households without access to even moderately fast internet connections.

This article by Jared Strong is published from The Missouri Independent via a Creative Commons license.

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