Subcommittee focuses on broadband to help Rural America rebound

By Stewart Doan

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill.,  Sept. 24 - The House Agriculture Subcommittee on Rural Development, Research, Biotechnology, chaired by Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Ill., held a field hearing on the campus of the University of Illinois at Springfield (UIS) to review the role of broadband access in rural economic development.

“While we're focusing today on broadband services, the bigger issue to all of us at this table, who represent significant rural areas, is arresting the decline in rural America by doing what we can to marry, so to speak, the public and private sector together so that rural America can realize its potential to rebound, because when rural America declines, America declines,” said Johnson.

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A panel of internet providers and users presented several examples of how access to rural broadband provides opportunities in healthcare, education and market access. Some witnesses also explained how a lack of infrastructure and financing are limiting the ability of broadband to drive economic growth.

As many as 24 million Americans live in areas where there is no access to any high-speed network.

Jay Bartlett, president and CEO of Prairie Power, Inc., a non-profit energy cooperative, testified that despite funding opportunities offered through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the programs offered through USDA Rural Development (RD), the telecommunications systems “needed for our communities to thrive have not materialized. So, we have elected to “go it on our own.”

“Rural electric cooperatives and rural telecommunication cooperatives have stood the test of time, and serve as a proven example of how to accomplish essentially the same task now at hand,” he said.

Sue Campbell, CEO of Community Memorial Hospital in Staunton, Ill., estimated three-fourths of the state's 51 Critical Access hospitals practice tele-medicine. But she warned that additional bandwidth will be needed in order for small town medical providers to reap the benefits of state-of-the-art digital imagery equipment and to comply with electronic recordkeeping provisions of the recently-passed healthcare reform law.

“The demand for access to this connectivity does not come without a price, and many rural and remote healthcare providers will be hard-pressed to find the money to invest in certified computer systems that meet the requirements of meaningful use as well as the access to broadband connectivity to carry their data. This is indeed a challenging time,” said Campbell.

Thirty percent of the nation's 20 million college students took at least one online class in the past year, Ray Schroeder, director of online affairs at UIS, informed lawmakers. While students located in 49 states are enrolled in the university's internet courses, Schroeder lamented that online learning does not provide access to all Americans.

“Many of those Americans who reside and work in rural areas of our country are disenfranchised from the 21st century delivery mode because they are not served by the affordable broadband connectivity required to fully participate in online learning,” he testified. 

According to the Federal Communications Commission's National Broadband Plan, 14 million people do not have access to broadband capable of download speeds that can support today's and tomorrow's applications, and such housing units are more common in rural areas.

“We still have a lot of work to do in terms of bridging the divide between the ‘haves' and the ‘have-nots,' especially in rural America,” said Ranking Member Jim Costa of California.

One of the challenges, he contended, is USDA's use of various definitions of “rural” in its RD portfolio that have the unintended effect of limiting program participation. Costa complained that USDA was already a year overdue in producing a report for Congress clarifying USDA's “rural” and “rural area” definitions, effects on USDA programs, and recommendations on how to better target funds for rural development.

Costa said that he and Johnson were “pressuring” the Department to deliver the report before their subcommittee drafts the Rural Development title of the 2012 Farm Bill. 

Other members of the subcommittee participating in the hearing were Reps. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa.; Larry Kissell, D-N.C.; Bobby Schilling, R-Ill.; and Randy Hultgren, R-Ill.  

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