Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and FCC chair Ajit Pai joined a coalition of stakeholders on Wednesday to launch a series of listening sessions on the challenges – and opportunities -- in expanding broadband services in rural America.

“This can be one of the most transformative things we can do” to make sure rural communities keep pace with the rest of the country, Perdue told the small crowd gathered at USDA headquarters on the National Mall. Among the benefits he listed from e-connectivity are precision agriculture, telemedicine, distance education, and improvements to public safety. Pai, meanwhile, assured the audience that expanding e-connectivity to the entire country remains one of his top priorities.

Representatives from five partner organizations in the initiative -- Farm Foundation, NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), CoBank, and the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation (CFC) -- joined Perdue and Pai in kicking off the listening sessions, the next of which will be in June in Minnesota, followed by others over the next six months.

"Broadband is vital to the rural economy in what is now a highly interconnected global marketplace," said Tom Halverson, president and CEO of CoBank. "We need leaders on both sides of the aisle in Washington to work together to facilitate broadband investment and ensure that rural America remains competitive and strong."

Achieving e-connectivity across rural America, where about 20 million people lack an affordable and reliable broadband connection, is not a simple task. "Actions needed to improve e-connectivity vary widely by community and region," noted Farm Foundation President and CEO Constance Cullman. "These listening sessions will serve to highlight common issues, success stories to build strong broadband systems, and challenges that are yet to be met."

Stakeholders emphasized the need for collaborative efforts to enhance broadband services in rural America. "Leveraging additional investment in rural broadband infrastructure will require a team effort," said Sheldon Petersen, CEO of CFC. "Local partnerships can be a wonderful way to leverage resources, expertise and efficiencies to ensure that rural communities can fully participate in today's 21st century economy."

One of the speakers, Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA -- The Rural Broadband Association, said fast and reliable broadband service in rural areas is necessary to make sure millennials from those communities stay around to live and work. She cited a study that showed 53 percent of millennials would rather give up their sense of smell than technology, drawing laughter from the attendees. “This is a connected generation,” she said.

Mel Coleman, former president of NRECA and the CEO of the North Arkansas Electric Cooperative, said the situation in many areas now “is so much like we faced in rural America 80 years ago, when we didn’t have electricity.” He said everywhere he goes, people are literally “begging” him to be connected.

“When are you going to bring broadband to my home?” they say.