D.C. Must Help Close Rural Digital Divide

"What began as connecting the country via telephone lines — which were, in those early days, sometimes fashioned from cattle wire — has evolved into the innovative broadband and fiber networks of the digital age." —Jonathan Spalter, USTelecom 

In a recent spending bill, Congress made $600 million available for additional broadband deployment to America’s rural areas. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) has been tapped to administer these funds through a new pilot program.

Jonathan Spalter, president/CEO, USTelecom

Jonathan Spalter, president/CEO, USTelecom

Without question, this funding is a welcome and needed addition to the growing arsenal now aimed squarely at closing the digital divide to rural Americans once and for all. USTelecom members have led the way on connecting these communities for more than a century, through companies often run by generations of the same family. 

What began as connecting the country via telephone lines — which were, in those early days, sometimes fashioned from cattle wire — has evolved into the innovative broadband and fiber networks of the digital age.

Private investment from our nation’s broadband providers has placed them among the leading investors in the U.S. economy, putting, since 1996, more than $1.6 trillion of their own capital on the line to upgrade and expand the nation’s digital infrastructure. As a result, over the past 10 years, broadband in rural homes has risen 117%.

This private investment, paired with dedicated federal programs, will connect millions more in the coming years. That’s why great care must be taken to maximize the RUS program’s effectiveness.

Coordination Is Key

Unquestionably, coordination with existing rural broadband programs and guidance from agencies with a proven track record of supporting successful deployment are critical to ensuring broadband gets deployed to the communities and households that actually need it.

Related: FCC Rural Broadband Office Bill Introduced

I emphasize this point because some prior funding efforts have resulted in duplicative construction rather than maximizing coverage across truly unserved areas. Lack of coordination between agencies and existing programs not only led to the overbuilding of broadband networks, but also to the distortion of competition in the ongoing efforts to deploy broadband.

In a blog published in April, Federal Communications Commission member Michael O’Rielly made a reasoned argument for such collaboration, encouraging RUS to coordinate with the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to ensure the funding prioritizes unserved areas and avoids overbuilding and duplicative construction.

Related: ISPs to Senate: Limit RUS Overbuilds

The smart coordination of RUS with existing programs we know already work, such as the Universal Service Fund, can best help providers extend and sustain broadband into our most rural communities. If this coordination doesn’t happen, projects selected by RUS could risk hollowing out the “Main Streets” of small communities, leaving another program, such as USF, to pick up the surrounding portions at much greater costs. 

New RUS funding should instead focus on areas not already reached, or not likely to be reached through programs such as the FCC’s High Cost and Remote Areas Funds, intended to bring service to many of the hardest-to-reach portions of the United States.

To that end, along with NCTA–The Internet & Television Association, the American Cable Association and ITTA (Independent Telephone and Telecommunications Alliance), we submitted a letter this week to the Senate Agriculture Committee which is considering the Farm Bill, asking them to modify the RUS Broadband Loan Program to better achieve its goal of helping truly unserved areas.

In a strapped budget climate, it is imperative that federal agencies work in lockstep to ensure that taxpayer dollars are stretched to their full potential. Rural Americans who are still waiting on fast and reliable broadband service to reach their front door can’t afford anything less.

Jonathan Spalter is president and CEO of USTelecom, the telecommunications industry trade association.