At a time when it’s almost a cliché to lament our broken politics, one vital area of policy has the chance to break the partisan stranglehold that too often freezes Congress in place – solving the rural digital divide.
Nearly 10 percent of America lacks access to high-speed internet service, an affliction that keeps large swaths across the plains out of the digital age and cut off from the tidings of the digital age, from always-on music and video to the burgeoning world of digital assistants and the internet of things.
To be sure, America’s broadband system is a marvel. U.S. states and the District of Columbia account for 11 of the top 20 regions with the fastest internet in the world . The Economist reports we have the 3rd most inclusive, affordable, and accessible network of any country.
In just the last year, U.S. speeds have gone up 35 percent. And that doesn’t just mean better access to news and entertainment. It’s the oil in the engine speeding the development of next generation technologies – the internet of thing, green energy, blockchains, driverless cars, smart cities and just about everything else we need to compete locally and globally.
Most interesting is smart farming – a new generation of technologies designed to boost production of healthy foods while preserving the ecosystem with integrated production, harvesting and waste operations. The Chinese and Indians are investing heavily in it. America should too.
But these technologies depend on digital savvy. We can’t compete against wired connected farm operations with last generation tractors and pitchforks. And with the predictable blow of a burgeoning trade war, the urgency is greater than ever.
That’s why the rural digital divide is such a pressing problem that leaders of both parties should be stepping up to solve – especially since the afflicted areas tend to be in bipartisan, purple states, places like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where the majority of residents don’t have a fixed broadband provider at all or rural western Pennsylvania where 3.5 million residents live in areas with high speed service gaps.
But there is a glimmer of hope now as Congressional leaders are pushing a major reform in the farm bill to wire rural communities with broadband – especially those places universally believed to be impossible to wire because of their relatively small population and the huge land masses.
The Senate version of the Farm Bill has a plan to solve this problem. It reforms broadband loan and infrastructure programs to ensure funds are laser targeted on areas that are currently unserved by high speed internet. It enlists the the FCC and NTIA to map out and prioritize the unserved areas. And most importantly it puts an end to the wasteful practice where federal broadband funds are diverted to areas already served by the private sector, doubling up broadband for the “haves” while leaving the real “have nots” marooned in the analog past.
The Senate Farm Bill broadband provisions, led by Republican Pat Roberts from Kansas and Democrat Debbie Stabenow from Michigan, will not alone solve all of the problems for America’s farmers. But they are a start – availing the digital tools that are the minimal requirements for the next phase of global competition in farming. It would be one small step to fix our broken politics, and one giant step to modernize rural America.
Niel Ritchie is CEO of Main Street Project and past director of League of Rural Voters