WASHINGTON, Nov. 25, 2015 - Members of the NTCA-Rural Broadband Association gathered with government officials and a set of lawmakers last Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol to discuss existing interdependencies between urban and rural areas and how expanding broadband access in rural America is critical to the success of the nation as a whole.

As USDA under secretary for rural development, Lisa Mensah oversees several of the federal programs that support rural broadband expansion, which in the last six years, she said, received $6.7 billion in USDA investments. In her keynote speech, she stressed the importance of these programs, crediting them with helping to close the gap in broadband access between rural America – where only 47 percent of residents have access to minimum broadband speeds set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – and urban and suburban America – where 92 percent of residents have broadband access at the same level of service.

“We know there are too many rural Americans who are deprived of the opportunities to use broadband, to transform their lives in limitless ways as it has for others. And we know that without adequate broadband service, rural communities will never be able to reach their full potential and compete in the global marketplace,” Mensah said. “But it’s really not just about rural well-being,” she continued, “because we know there is an inextricable link between rural and urban economies.”

Republican Bill Johnson, who was raised on a family farm and now represents Appalachian Ohio in the House, agreed with Mensah and touted some of the most impactful ways “broadband access is key” to realizing the benefits of economic, social and political connectivity between urban and rural areas.

·       Telemedicine: Many rural residents have 30 or more miles to drive in order to see a doctor or be admitted into a hospital, Johnson said. In an emergency, 30 minutes of wait time could mean the difference between life and death; at other times, it deters rural residents from obtaining preventative care, ultimately increasing the nation’s healthcare costs, he said. Telehealth programs help bring advanced medical care to remote areas, but in most cases, aren’t viable without broadband.

·       Business: Rural businesses “lack the ability to grow” without connections to urban America through the Internet, he argued. In addition to providing access to specialized goods and services, broadband access saves rural commuters – and their employers – time and money, and makes living and working in rural America more attractive to young professionals.

·       Education: “Internet access allows students of all ages to discover the world around them and grow in knowledge, whether it’s catching up on the news, researching a topic of interest, taking college classes online, or studying for a certification to further their employment opportunities,” Johnson said.

·       Food, Fuel, Fiber: The benefits of rural broadband are felt in urban America, too, he argued. America’s food and fiber is grown, processed and packaged largely in rural areas, and with enhanced broadband access, farmers can use precision agriculture tools to maximize their yields and can communicate with markets at a distance with greater ease. Urban America depends on its rural cousins for fuel, as well, and rural utility and energy networks in many cases depend on broadband for system operations, he said.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., concluded the meeting by urging Congress “to acknowledge that in the 21st century, our commerce, our connectivity, the livelihoods of millions of Americans, is dependent on… broadband.”

“People in rural areas are entitled, just as much as everybody else, to high-speed Internet,” he continued. “This really is an issue of national concern. This to me is rural electrification. It’s just a basic need.”

One of the ways NTCA says rural broadband expansion should be incentivized is through requiring broadband providers to contribute to the Universal Service Fund (USF) – as telecommunications companies have done since 1996, under the Telecommunications Act – to support infrastructure expansion and deployment of broadband in high-cost areas.

In February, the FCC released a net neutrality rule classifying broadband providers as telecommunications utilities, subject to the Telecommunications Act. However, the commission “forbore” a provision that would have required broadband providers to contribute to the USF, meaning they declined to include the provision in the rule, but could reinstate it in the future. The net neutrality rule is being challenged in court, and it could take up to a year before a decision is delivered and the status of USF is clear.

Mike Romano, NTCA’s senior vice president of policy, told Agri-Pulse Tuesday that oral arguments on the lawsuit are scheduled to start “as early as next month,” and in the meantime, NTCA would be making “a big push” to protect the net neutrality rule with the USF included, because “there are no other ports in the storm here. This is the only way” to get the needed investment in rural broadband, he said.


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