U.S. Senate committee hears from broadband leaders about rural access challenges

Broadband vital, Senate panel told

Cables connecting phone, cable and Internet service come out of a wall connector in the home office of Mike Loucks of Friday Harbor, Wash., in this March 2015 file photo.
Cables connecting phone, cable and Internet service come out of a wall connector in the home office of Mike Loucks of Friday Harbor, Wash., in this March 2015 file photo.

WASHINGTON -- A U.S. Senate subcommittee recently heard from broadband leaders regarding the challenges facing broadband in rural communities, with lawmakers and industry representatives acknowledging access is essential for economic development and individual needs.

Members of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee discussed internet access in rural communities as the central topic of its May 17 hearing. Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who leads the Subcommittee on Rural Development and Energy, said debates among lawmakers surrounding the need to expand services ended amid the coronavirus pandemic as communities struggled with poor and unavailable connections.

"When our communities lack access to quality internet, they're locked out of the global economy and cut off from critical services, and we want to change that," Welch said during the hearing. "Workers have fewer opportunities, farmers and small businesses are isolated from new markets, and our kids are really limited in their education opportunities."

Welch said broadband services must be "future-proofed" so rural residents can compete with urban counterparts. He added that federal programs must ensure adequate services in communities, and federal agencies need tools to evaluate long-term needs in underserved communities.

"Anything short of that, we'll be back here doing this all over again," he said.

Christa Shute, executive director of NEK Broadband in Vermont, contended broadband is "fundamentally an equity issue."

"Rural areas, and particularly low-income residents, need access to broadband for the basics of education and telehealth," she said.

Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, who serves as the full committee's top Republican, said broadband is an important tool for economic development, recognizing growth is limited without adequate internet.

"With the loss of population in rural America ... not only do we need it, but we need it at strengths that we can actually do something with it," the senator from Rogers said.

One issue raised by Boozman involves the ReConnect Loan and Grant Program, a Department of Agriculture effort concentrating on loans and grants for rural systems. According to Boozman, providers have raised concerns regarding the time for completing the program's application.

"It simply is very difficult for private capital," Justin Forde, an official with the North Dakota-based Midco company, told Boozman.

Shute informed Boozman that NEK Broadband recently applied for funding through the ReConnect Program. She mentioned companies have to submit different information to agencies depending on the application.

"We just need to streamline the data that we're using -- the mapping, the household premises -- but most importantly, let's do a two-step application process for all of these grant programs," she said.

Arkansas, like other states, has communities currently underserved by internet service providers. Broadband Development Group submitted a report to state officials in April 2022 identifying 251,000 Arkansas households without adequate broadband access.

Philip Powell, the Arkansas Farm Bureau's director for local affairs and rural development, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette an issue regarding broadband access involves the state's topography; expanding services is challenging in mountainous areas like the Ozarks.

"If you want to lay fiber, you have to cut through rocky areas, so that makes it more expensive," he said.

Another problem relates to the spread of residents in some communities. While workers can more easily install services in flatter terrain, Powell said companies may not want to make investments in farming communities -- such as areas in the Mississippi Delta -- where potential consumers do not live close to one another.

"You can be 5 miles from your nearest neighbor," he said. "From a cost standpoint, it's harder for the ISPs to justify that cost per mile."

Broadband development and related federal investments will be part of this year's farm bill, a sweeping agricultural measure supporting programs concerning rural development, nutrition, commodities and conservation.

The legislation will replace the current agriculture law that expires Sept. 30.

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