State, Federal Officials Consider Ways to Expand Broadband into Rural Areas

Expanding broadband access in rural areas would have impacts reaching far beyond those communities. That’s according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It points out that the lack of rural broadband infrastructure makes it harder for farms to incorporate new technologies that can substantially increase food production. That affects people throughout the country and around the world, no matter where they live.

The State of Indiana has recognized the need for broadband, not just for economic development but also for community development, according to Gerry White with the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs. “So they have taken some of the funds that were received as a result of the rate increase on the tolls on the Toll Road and are transforming some of those dollars with a first phase of what’s known as Next Level Communications,” White said during last month’s Pulaski County Economic Development Summit.

He added that the program will provide a total of $100 million to Internet service providers looking to expand broadband to places that currently don’t have it. The problem is that many of those places end up being missed in the Federal Communications Commission’s maps. “What we’ve found is that when you dig into the data, if you have a census tract where one home is receiving one [megabyte] up, 10 down service, then the entire census tract has that service,” White explained. “So we’ve got a definition issue that we’re dealing with.”

White noted that rural electrification took 50 years, and that we’re still only about 15 years into the Internet age. But the USDA report says that attempts to expand rural broadband haven’t been able to replicate last century’s electrification effort.

One thing influencing broadband roll-out in Indiana, according to White, is the state’s decision to deregulate telecommunications. “I am not going to say the deregulation was a bad decision. I am not going to say it was a good decision, but we have seen impacts on it,” he said. “What it has said to providers is they’re in control of where it is that they’re going to be spreading Internet, and with that being the case, they’re not going to go somewhere where they don’t get a return on their investment.”

The USDA report says that deploying rural broadband in conjunction with “Next Generation Precision Agriculture Technology” could lead to more than $47 billion in economic benefits nationwide every year. But it also points out that there may be impacts that can’t even be predicted yet, just as electrification enabled the use of refrigeration, which in turn, changed the way Americans bought food.