Today’s Rural News in 3 Words: Broadband, Broadband, and Broadband

Rural connectivity is having a moment in the U.S. media spotlight. Is it just current events, or is something else going on?

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Something is cooking in the rural broadband kitchen this week.

A steady stream of media reports about rural broadband is flowing around the internet. Of the 40-some rural American stories in my regular news searches today, a third (14) are about rural broadband.

I’ve never seen the like of it, and I’ve been watching these headlines for more years than I care to admit. (Let’s just say, when I started monitoring rural news, I had more hair on my head and less on my ears).

There’s no single national event or controversy that explains the uptick in coverage. There was last month’s Federal Communications Commission’s action on rural broadband subsidies. And the FCC is also looking at spectrum issues that could involve rural areas. Last month President Trump signed a couple of executive orders that, while they didn’t hurt rural access, didn’t do much to help it either.

President Trump did not so much as utter the word “rural” in his State of the Union Address, but his comments about infrastructure investment have many folks assuming (hoping?) that his plans include a shot in the arm for rural broadband.

And, finally, there are legislative proponents at federal and state levels. Those folks are pushing their constituents’ agenda or jumping out in front of the parade, or both.

Add it all up, and the top rural headline of the day is definitely the B word.

Some examples:

  • Roll Call reports on federal legislative efforts to increase rural broadband funding. The push has created high expectations with the communications industry because of President Trump’s plans for infrastructure investment. (This story quotes Daily Yonder contributing writer Brian Whitacre of Oklahoma State University.)
  • Some members of Congress are treating rural broadband like the “apple pie” issue it is with a series of endorsements and letters. One example comes from the Oregon delegation. 
  • Nebraska legislators are considering a law that sets a statewide broadband goal, gives the state Public Service Commission more leverage to promote broadband, and (hold on to your hat) establishes a “rural broadband study task force.” (Two out of three ain’t bad.)
  • Kansas is considering a bill that would use a fee on internet service providers and some content producers to build a fund for rural broadband expansion.  ISPs are organized to oppose the legislation.
  • An Oklahoma TV station follows up on the FCC vote to start letting bids for the Connect America Fund. The fund will subsidize some large internet companies to support expansion in service to rural areas.
  • USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue says he hopes the next farm bill will have more broadband funding in it (although President Trump’s first budget outline calls for serious cuts in Rural Development, the office that contains the programs that fund broadband in rural areas.)
  • Secretary Perdue also praised President Trump’s selection of Kenneth Johnson to lead the USDA Rural Utility Service, which includes broadband funding among its programs.  Johnson is head of Co-Mo Electric Cooperative in Tipton, Missouri.
  • At a more local level, Internet provider Windstream touts its efforts to connect another 751 rural locations in Western New York with the help of a state program that awarded Windstream $2.7 million.
  • And finally, Politico has a package of several stories about the digital divide, including a look at the shockingly low access rates on tribal lands.

News coverage doesn’t mean any policies will change or money will be invested. It does mean that rural broadband is enjoying a moment. Will that mean good news for the 39% of rural Americans who lack broadband at home?

Tim Marema is editor of the Daily Yonder.

 

 

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