The Livestock, Rural Development and Credit subcommittee of the U.S. House Ag Committee on Tuesday held a hearing to examine ways to improve and expand broadband in rural areas and how to better coordinate future investments in rural internet between the USDA and the Federal Communications Commission.
The committee invited John Padalino, administrator of the USDA Rural Utilities Service, and other rural broadband stakeholders, to testify on the situation at hand for broadband customers and broadband providers.
Padalino's testimony explained USDA's efforts following passage of the 2014 Farm Bill and its funding for Rural Utilities Service broadband programs that also set minimum acceptable speed for service and require greater transparency and reporting in the program.
According to Padalino, 14. 5million people in 6.5 million rural households in 2012 lacked access to broadband. But it's costly, requiring an estimated $13.4 billion to complete access projects, he said.
That lack of access is having an impact on rural America, according to Padalino's written testimony; an economic study from Oregon State University in 2014 found that increased broadband access can provide a positive impact on median household income and total employment, it said.
Padalino addressed the panel's concerns regarding a Government Accountability Office report earlier this year that cited several instances of USDA broadband funding either not being used after appropriated to a specific project or being used, but not repaid.
"This is a new program," Padalino commented, noting that the funding that is not used is returned, and more oversight is in place to ensure organizations completing projects have appropriate capital.
Christopher Guttman-McCabe, executive vice president, CTIA-The Wireless Association, and also a panelist at the hearing, said wireless access as a portion of broadband service is especially critical for farmers as technological advances expand farming capabilities.
"Wireless is helping to provide farmers real-time feedback on a number of different sites and variables," he said. "This data helps to drive efficiency and improve yields."
Guttman-McCabe says agriculture professionals are also relying on apps to perform a variety of tasks, including checking market prices and accessing field and farm information.
Though mobile broadband service demand is expanding, doubling for the fourth year in a row, Guttman-McCabe said part of his concern is that Federal Communications Commission funding is not taking that expansion into consideration, even while many customers' main access to the internet is through a smart phone.
He suggested having a technology-neutral program to address the concerns of wireless providers.
The subcommittee also addressed the FCC's direct support to offset the costs of providing service in rural areas through the Universal Service Fund.
Although the USF was not designed to support broadband investments, the FCC has undertaken a number of reforms to fund broadband services that can support data, video, and voice service together. Members of the Subcommittee discussed how these efforts between USDA and FCC can be better coordinated so that rural communities have greater access to services that are readily available in larger communities and urban areas.
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Chairman Rick Crawford, R-Ark., commented that funding for rural access to high-speed internet – and challenges of finding that funding – should continue to be a focus for lawmakers.
"I believe that the information provided at today's hearing will serve as a springboard to more discussions about how to increase broadband access to the area that needs it most – rural America," Crawford said.
"Where you live should not determine the kinds of services that are available to you," added Ranking Member Jim Costa, D-Calif. "Federal programs and private service providers have made great strides in deploying broadband but I believe that the federal government, broadband providers and public institutions still have a lot of work to do in bridging the divide between the haves and have-nots when it comes to broadband in rural America."
Watch the webcast of the hearing, Coordinating Future Investments in Broadband, on the House Ag Committee website.