USDA broadband initiative provides hope

By Cody Smith - Center for Rural Affairs

Rural communities are increasingly depending on hi-speed internet to complete an education and talk to their doctors. Meanwhile, connecting to broadband internet has become a necessity in today’s digital economy. As we advance deeper into the 21st century, broadband access will grow as an important indicator of quality of life for communities across the nation.

In December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced their Reconnect Program to supply broadband to communities with less than 20,000 people. This program is a step in the right direction to bring rural areas on an equal footing, but it willfully ignores a major barrier to broadband development.

Under current rules, internet service providers report their broadband service information twice per year through Form 477 based on the Census blocks they serve. There are 11,078,297 Census blocks nationwide, and if one household is reported as “served,” the whole block is reported as having access to broadband—even if their neighbors have no hope of connecting.

Census blocks can span for miles—there are more than 3,200 in the U.S. that are larger than the District of Columbia and 8 are larger than Connecticut.

If a household miles away has access to broadband, it makes no difference to rural Americans who are unable to grow their small business or complete a school assignment—they are considered “served” if on the same Census block.

While not all states rely on this data, those that do must take action to ensure this flawed information is corrected before applying for USDA Reconnect Program funds for broadband expansion.

Established in 1973, the Center for Rural Affairs is a private, non-profit organization working to strengthen small businesses, family farms and ranches, and rural communities through action oriented programs addressing social, economic, and environmental issues.

By Cody Smith

Center for Rural Affairs