Last year, I wrote about the struggles of the 4.2 million Latinos living in rural areas to connect to high-speed Internet networks. It’s no secret that the FCC found the majority of 10 million households that don’t have access are in rural areas, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that Latinos are the fastest-growing non-urban population. That means the lack of rural broadband access impacts a growing number of Latinos: from farmers and ranchers to small business owners to anyone trying to get state-of-the-art health care services.
Unfortunately, I can’t report that much progress has been made on this front. I hoped that Congress and the USDA could work to fix some of the problems that have rendered rural broadband programs ineffective, much like the FCC did last year when it overhauled parts of the Universal Service program that deal with remote, high-cost rural areas. The FCC eliminated much of the waste in that subsidy program, ensuring that the money targets unserved rural areas rather than building additional networks in areas that already have them. It is a common-sense solution that Congress and the USDA should emulate.
But the USDA’s Farm Bill Broadband Loan Program continues to commit the same errors that it has since its creation in 2002. The program has made loans to more than 100 projects since 2002, totaling close to $2 billion in funding that Congress intended for unserved rural areas. And yet an eye-opening internal audit in 2005 showed that many of these projects were neither unserved nor rural. Despite these findings, the USDA has not reformed the program to reduce waste.
When I last wrote, I noted that USDA had some $300+ million that it has been authorized to loan under the same careless rules. Because the agency has not issued a rural broadband loan in nearly three years, there is likely closer to $500 million sitting in its accounts unused. That’s nothing short of a travesty for rural residents eager to join the Digital Age.
I’m urging Congress to use this year’s Farm Bill to make the reforms that the USDA seems unwilling to make: specify that Farm Bill Broadband funds be targeted exclusively to the areas identified as unserved by broadband, and consider converting future loans to grants that would entice more businesses to take a chance on building high-speed data networks in remote, sparsely-populated areas. The FCC recognized in its National Broadband Plan that investing in infrastructure is a risky and expensive venture and that loans would be tough to repay; in fact, many previous Farm Bill Broadband Loan recipients have relied on Universal Service Fund subsidies to pay back the loans. Why not skip the middle man and give grants in unserved areas?
Improving access to broadband in rural America is crucial both economically and socially. The benefits of distance learning for our children in rural areas will pay dividends for generations. Providing telehealth capabilities to rural doctors and hospitals will not only save lives but create countless health IT business opportunities for Latino entrepreneurs. But in order to achieve these goals, we need to ensure that infrastructure funds reach the areas where no broadband exists. Once again, LISTA calls on Congress to get this right.