Opinion | We Need A National Rural Broadband Plan
I recently traveled to the Midwest to find out where and how federal broadband policies have failed rural America. I spoke with residents, business owners, broadband providers, farmers and officials, and they all told me about the need for high-speed connectivity and a renewed federal strategy.
On the trip, I learned how high-speed broadband keeps professionals living and working in rural America, like the insurance agent I met in Rock County, Minn., who no longer has to lease a second office to digitally file paperwork. It keeps rural businesses competitive, like the radio station in Rock County that no longer needs to subscribe to two Verizon accounts, paying over $1,000 per month for internet service. And it keeps rural students studying, since around 70 percent of teachers assign homework that requires an internet connection. Rock County is one example of how communities in rural America can take advantage of the opportunities afforded by broadband.
Almost every state has a broadband deployment plan, Minnesota foremost among them. With so many plans, however, come as many definitions of broadband, target speeds, eligibility requirements for grants and a host of unique priorities. To ensure that high-speed broadband is available for all rural Americans, regardless of state, we need a national rural broadband plan. Standardizing state rural broadband policies isn’t enough: We need a plan to identify and galvanize stakeholders — not just the major telecommunications companies — to inspire change in our current policy approach and democratize the funding process, and to champion the cause of rural broadband across the country. President Franklin Roosevelt and the Rural Electrification Administration did it in 1936 with electricity. We can do the same today.
A national rural broadband plan would designate a single agency — preferably the Rural Utilities Service, with its century-long relationship with rural communities and offices in every state — as the primary coordinator for rural broadband. Today we have two agencies — the F.C.C. and the Rural Utilities Service — with two different, and sometimes conflicting, agendas controlling a lot of money. A designated point agency is crucial to coordinate federal expenditures and to encourage more data sharing, collaboration and coordination between the F.C.C. and the Rural Utilities Service.
This plan would mandate the creation of a new national broadband map, using granular and testable data rather than what we have now, where broadband providers report advertised rather than actual speeds to the F.C.C., and where broadband deployment is calculated by census block rather than by household. The F.C.C., which manages the current national broadband map, has grossly overestimated broadband deployment throughout the country because when a single building in a census block is reported to have broadband, the entire block is considered “served.”