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Commentary: Farm Bill opportunity to connect all Americans

Bob Goodlatte

Roughly every five years, Congress passes a Farm Bill – legislation that affects every aspect of America’s agricultural industry. From programs for farmers and ranchers and shifts in trade policy to conservation efforts and nutrition assistance, the Farm Bill is a vital piece of legislation that touches every single American. But an often glanced-over title in this legislation is rural development, and this year’s bill puts an emphasis on improving access to broadband in rural America, including critical measures that would make great strides right here in the Shenandoah Valley. The Farm Bill is an opportunity to connect all Americans to high-speed broadband.

America is in the midst of a technological revolution, but some parts of the country are being left behind when it comes to one crucial component – the internet. Broadband technology is more than 50 times faster than the old modems used for internet access. But it is not a given. There are still parts of the country that do not have access to this technology. High-speed internet is essential to rural communities in improving education opportunities, accessing innovative health care, and utilizing precision farming methods. Rural America would benefit greatly from enhanced broadband access.

Thankfully, the Farm Bill (H.R. 2) makes two significant updates to the Rural Broadband Access Loans and Loan Guarantees Program, which provides funding for the construction, improvement, and acquisition of facilities and equipment needed to provide broadband service in eligible rural areas. The bill requires applicants to the program to look beyond today’s standards and plan for quality service for the entirety of their loan. As broadband technology evolves, so must the network infrastructure. Too often, broadband projects funded by the government are sufficient for a few years, but soon residents and businesses find themselves connected to outdated networks. This provision ensures broadband speeds will continuously be upgraded to meet the current standards.

The bill also incentivizes applicants to reach deeper into rural communities. Many providers claim that some areas are too expensive to reach and that they will never recuperate the cost of their loans in certain locations. To encourage providers to service these often ignored areas, additional capital will be provided based on a new density test. Less dense areas are in need of this technology most. Proposed networks that will reach subscribers spread over the largest distances will be able to receive grant funding that will help bring modern broadband technology to underserved areas.

With the passage of this bill, Congress will expand on its work to improve rural broadband across the country. Earlier this year, the House and Senate passed and President Trump signed into law a funding bill that provided $625 million for rural broadband. This investment increases, expedites, and expands rural broadband projects within the Department of Agriculture as part of a larger commitment to improving America’s infrastructure. The provisions in this year’s Farm Bill are another opportunity to keep that commitment.

It is time we connect all Americans and businesses, including our nation’s rural communities, to the latest broadband technology. Just a few days ago, the House Agriculture Committee approved the Farm Bill, and it will soon come before the full House of Representatives for consideration. We have a major opportunity to increase access for areas that have long been underserved and overlooked. Bringing this technology to rural America is of the utmost importance, and Congress must work together to ensure we do not become a digitally divided nation. This year’s Farm Bill will do just that.

Congressman Bob Goodlatte represents the Sixth Congressional District of Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives and is a member, and former chair, of the House Agriculture Committee.