On May 11, 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 7037, which created the Rural Electrification Administration. In 1936, Congress endorsed Roosevelt’s action by passing the Rural Electrification Act. Electric power was common in most cities at the beginning of the Great Depression, but rural America was still in the dark. A technological revolution took place over the next decade as, slowly but surely, electric power came to farms and small town across the country. Hang around the Pioneer Village exhibit at the Indiana State Fair and you can hear the old timers talk about the day the lights came on. Mauri Williamson told me he got an electric train for Christmas, but it was a year before he could run it because they did not have electric power. Today as the cities become high speed digital highways, once again rural America is being left behind.
It is almost impossible to do anything today without having access to the internet. From business to education to agriculture to entertainment, life in these United States requires a high speed internet connection. You cannot even drive your car without having it needing an internet connection. Most people today take this connection for granted. Yet, for a large number of those who live and work in rural areas, this connection is hit and miss at best and extremely costly, too. While there are many rural communities that enjoy very quick and reliable broadband service, this is not universal. It is estimated that 14% of Indiana has no high speed, broadband service. The Hoosier State is one of the better states as far as coverage is concerned. Many western and southern states are in far worse shape. According to FCC Chair Tom Wheeler, 39% of rural Americans lacks access to broadband connectivity. “While the nation continues to make progress in broadband deployment, advanced telecommunications capability is not being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion to all Americans,” he concluded in a report released in early 2016. According to the FCC report, the U.S. lags behind other developed nations in the avaiblity of broadband connectivity ranking 16 out of 34 developed nations.
Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the FCC to determine whether “advanced
telecommunications capability” — broadband — is being deployed to all Americans in a “reasonable and
timely fashion.” If the answer is negative, the Act requires the FCC to “take immediate action”
Having worked in the broadcast media for over 30 years, I am all too familiar with just what “immediate action” by the FCC means. The one federal government agency that has actually been taking action on the broadband issue is the USDA. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has been an outspoken advocate for rural broadband, and his agency has made millions of dollars available for loan and grant programs to foster faster broadband deployment in rural areas.
The problems facing internet service on the farm are the same that faced electric service in the 1930: low population density and wide open spaces. In the 30s, a higher voltage level of electric power had to be used to power rural areas than in cities because of the long distances involved. New technology is also helping to solve the rural broadband issue. Advances of wireless technology may make the need for running copper or fiber cables across rural areas unnecessary. RS Fiber is a co-op located in southern Minnesota established by 17 towns and townships. Their customers have used only wireless access for five years.
But technology alone will not solve the problem. It is going to take forcing the big telecom companies to make reaching rural areas a priority. This will require pressure and money from both state and federal governments. Earlier this year, the FCC announced deals with 10 Internet service providers, including Verizon and AT&T, to spend a total of $1.5 billion each year over the course of six years to improve rural broadband service in 45 states and one U.S. territory. During the Indiana Lt. Governor candidates’ debate, GOP candidate Suzanne Crouch suggested the state, which regulates these service provides, should get tough with the telcoms on their commitment to reach the last mile in rural America. This kind of get tough attitude is welcomed by farmers who have waited long enough for access to this technology. From 2012 to 2014, the lack of broadband access in urban areas fell from 11% to 4%, while in rural areas it fell from 55% to 39%. It is time rural America demand a faster rate of coverage.
By Gary Truitt