Bridging the Digital Divide in Rural America

Friday, September 12, 2014 - 1:18pm

RJ Karney

American Farm Bureau Federation

Current and future generations of rural Americans will be left behind in today’s global economy if they remain unable to access affordable broadband services.

Farmers and ranchers in rural America rely on broadband access to manage and operate successful businesses, the same way business owners do in urban America. With so many farmers and ranchers conducting their business operations from their homes, access to broadband service in rural America today is equivalent to electricity access in rural America in the 1930s. According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, nine out of 10 rural homes were without electric service in the mid-1930s. Today, 33 percent of America’s farmers and ranchers remain without Internet access – a now crucial component to keeping their businesses competitive both here and abroad.

Broadband access enhances farming operations as farmers and ranchers are able to use precision agriculture equipment, follow commodity markets, communicate with their customers and gain access to new markets around the world. High-speed broadband access is not only key for production agriculture, it strengthens all rural Americans through new business opportunities, improved health care and educational services, enhanced public safety and increased participation in government.

To help get rural America connected, the Federal Communications Commission created the Connect America Fund under the first phase of Universal Service Fund reform to replace the current high-cost program that subsidizes telephone service. It is designed to preserve and advance voice and robust broadband services, both fixed and mobile, in high-cost areas of the country that would not otherwise be served.    

The FCC’s key performance goals for the CAF include: preserve and advance universal availability of voice service; ensure universal availability of modern networks capable of providing voice and broadband service to homes, businesses and community anchor institutions; and ensure universal availability of modern networks capable of providing advanced mobile voice and broadband service.

Along with the creation of the CAF, increased downstream and upstream speeds and opportunities for new entities to participate in the CAF will be essential to helping rural America thrive. The FCC must also ensure the broadband infrastructure supported by the CAF has the ability to increase that minimum speed in future years. The digital divide will only broaden if the proper infrastructure is not able to meet the needs of the future.

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