After nearly two decades of advocating for the deployment of broadband broadband in rural America, National Grange’s dream is within reach. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the United States Department of Agriculture, and now Congress, through the infrastructure package, have committed to providing significant funding for rural broadband. There is hope of finally reaching rural America’s last mile with high-speed Internet access. With billions of dollars in funding available, it’s time to put Grange’s dream into action on the ground.
Project funds should prioritize unserved communities first and underserved communities second. With limited funding for these essential projects, we need to avoid overbuilding in some areas while other regions lack fundamental connectivity. It is not necessary to have two or more suppliers in one zone and no construction in other zones. We can coordinate our efforts faster by working with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the FCC, and the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) to advance ongoing broadband projects.
A crucial tool for developing connectivity will be accurate broadband maps. Updating broadband availability maps from the FCC will ensure that we understand which areas are already served. Not only is the management of these projects important, but accurate maps are needed to determine where the real digital deserts are. Without these maps, real changes cannot be made.
The other key to reaching the last mile is having strong public-private partnerships. Private providers have the expertise and experience to deliver effective and efficient project results. State governments and the federal government can help establish working relationships with their utilities to help accurately target broadband funds to local needs within that state. Once these digital deserts are identified, private providers are then experienced in discerning what types of networks will establish connectivity in the most efficient and affordable way and in deploying these networks effectively. What works for the high plains of Kansas may not work for the mountains of West Virginia. Providers can use any existing ‘middle mile’ network, providing a head start in many areas. We must also ensure fair and equitable access to rights of way and utility poles for all broadband providers. In many rural areas, addressing this critical issue will determine whether residents get broadband. If all else fails, Congress may have to come up with a legislative fix — bad news for communities looking for a quick fix to their problems.
Americans are at a crossroads. We need to achieve widespread connectivity to function in our modern society. Congress provided the funding to achieve this goal, but we need to ensure smart allocation, accurate maps, public-private partnerships, and not let this opportunity be wasted. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Let’s do it right the first time.
Betsy Huber is president of the National Barn.
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