WASHINGTON, March 23, 2016 - About 18 percent more rural residents have basic Internet access today compared to 2008 when President Obama first took office, according to Federal Communication Commission (FCC) data. And while that’s progress, USDA Under Secretary of Rural Development Lisa Mensah isn’t satisfied.
In an exclusive interview Tuesday, Mensah told Agri-Pulse what she thinks is the biggest barrier to expanding rural broadband access and what her agency and Congress are doing about it.
“Broadband expansion is so essential to precision ag,” said Mensah, who’s been at her post for about 16 months. “I’m very proud that under the Obama administration we’ve made over $6 billion in investments in broadband” that, according to her, directly support the rural economy.
Half of that money came through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and ended up funding more than 250 rural broadband projects in 44 states. The other $3 billion went for about 240 projects through USDA loans and USDA Rural Development’s Community Connect grant program, she said.
Still, about 20 percent of rural residents don’t even have the slowest, most basic of broadband speeds – 4 megabits per second (Mbps) download speed and 1 Mbps upload speed – in their homes. And more than half – 53 percent, or 22 million rural residents – lack access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps speeds, FCC’s benchmark.
So what’s the holdup? Why hasn’t rural broadband expansion – so often likened to rural electrification by politicians and advocates – happened faster? “Funding, funding and funding,” Mensah said.
Rural areas often have difficult terrain that makes broadband construction tough and expensive. There are also fewer subscribers per mile, which means more infrastructure is needed, and even fewer users can pay for it.
“It makes for a more difficult business model,” the former banker and financial manager said. But “we know there’s much more work to do and we know we have to keep going – there’s really no options here other than to keep going.”
Mensah said that USDA gives out millions of dollars in loans to small rural broadband providers every year to build out broadband services. “The small rural providers,” she said, “those are our constituents, those are our borrowers.”
“I think no matter what the regulatory climate is… they are the providers that are going to go out and reach the subscribers, put down the fiber optic cable, figure out how to run systems that respond to consumer needs. That’s really our role here at USDA that no matter what the regulatory climate is, to work with our providers. Really we’re a part of an 80-year successful public-private partnership, since the days of Roosevelt and rural electrification, this is just a continuation of that.”
Mensah said rural broadband has the bipartisan support it needs in Congress, too.
From Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, to Rep. Sam Farr, a Democrat from California, “I think they get it,” she said. “I think they understand how crucial this is – what a digital divide means in rural areas.”
“Congress will make sure that we achieve” greater broadband access, she said. “And I can assure you that we’ll make sure that any funds they provide to the USDA will be used. We know how to do this. We’re ready to go.”
Mensah, who also serves as a co-chair of the White House Broadband Opportunity Council, said USDA is actively looking at ways to add “flexibility” to its existing regulations that would help support rural broadband, and is considering how it might utilize its housing programs to further broadband goals as well.
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