Rural broadband needs sustained focus from Congress, president
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WASHINGTON, July 30, 2014 - The head of the USDA's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) told a House Agriculture subcommittee Tuesday that just as in the 1930s with rural electrification, “it will take a sustained focus from Congress and the executive branch to ensure that rural residents have the same access to broadband as their urban and suburban counterparts.”
John Padalino pointed to significant progress toward providing rural America with high-speed Internet access. He noted that under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, taxpayers have paid out $3.4 billion to pay for installing about 60,000 miles of fiber and 1,281 wireless access points which now provide Internet service to “over 168,703 households, 12,539 businesses, and 1,786 critical community facilities across rural America.”
Impressive statistics. But witnesses and congressional questioning made it clear that the results still don't match up with federal promises and urgent rural needs.
Paladino explained that a major obstacle is that “private broadband entities, citing lack of end-users and profitability, have not fully-expanded broadband infrastructure into rural areas.” He said USDA provides a generous mix of grants and loans to improve rural broadband because “aside from enabling existing businesses to remain in their rural locations, broadband access could attract new business enterprises drawn by lower costs and a more desirable lifestyle.
“Essentially, broadband potentially allows businesses and individuals in rural America to live locally while competing globally in an online environment.”
Lang Zimmerman, vice president at Yelcot Communications of Mountain Home, Arkansas, who was representing the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association, said Digital Subscriber Line speeds had improved, but not enough. He said the challenge is “to upgrade these networks,” but too many networks are geographically isolated, limiting local providers' ability to serve rural areas.
Christopher Guttman-McCabe, executive vice president at CTIA - the Wireless Association, said deployment of new technology has been accelerating rapidly, and that the latest developments are “opening up the doors to a range of vital services” such as telemedicine.
But he said federal regulation hasn't kept pace. He and other witnesses stressed the need for “light-touch” regulation that would allow for rapidly evolving consumer preferences and market forces to guide developments affecting the full range of new “life-altering” services from agriculture apps to mobile health care and banking.
Guttman-McCabe concluded that “consumer preference, not government fiat, should guide network deployment decisions. Vibrant competition and regulatory humility will produce the best outcomes for consumers.”
Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., pointed out that “77 percent of rural counties face a serious shortage of health professionals,” creating hardships and higher costs for 51 million Americans. She said the answer is telemedicine - a technology that requires higher broadband speeds. She called for reducing the “digital divide” which she said currently means that although 94 percent of urban areas have 25 megabyte (MB) broadband download speeds, only 51 percent of rural areas have that fast a connection.
Rep. Richard Nolan, D-MN, said that expanding broadband is vital for rural areas because “it puts them in the same position that a big multi-national corporation would be in sitting in Manhattan or Minneapolis or Los Angeles.”
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