When nearly 300 Americans submitted comments this summer on the USDA's pilot plan to bring high speed broadband internet to rural America, they mentioned the great opportunities reliable internet connectivity could bring.
But they also voiced skepticism over the agency's proposed plans for the project, which has been in the works for nearly a year.
The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting compiled all the comments submitted during the public comment period and analyzed them for common themes in the text of the remarks using a text analysis tool.
Several themes emerged.
Comparisons to Rural Electrification Act of 1936
Many think the model for expanding rural broadband coverage can be found in the New Deal. The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 established electric cooperatives across the country which brought power to millions of Americans.
Many coops weighed in. Brian Zelenak of Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative in Aitkin, Minnesota, called it “history repeating itself.”
“As an electric cooperative who is beginning to provide fiber-to-the-home to our members, we know first-hand the importance of funding assistance,” said Zelenak. “Federal funding was necessary 80 years ago to energize the less densely populated areas and federal funding is necessary today to connect rural America to the e-commerce driven economy.”
Joseph Miller, who operates a wireless internet service provider in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, said in his comment that the REA is a model for providing local jobs to providers that will bring service to people on the fringe of existing coverage.
“The Rural Electrification Act of 1936, created jobs for rural Americans to do rural work in the areas in which they lived,” said Miller. “Instead of having large corporations push out the small local companies, provide the help to those small rural companies because they know where the service is needed the most. The large companies will use a shotgun approach like they are doing now and claiming everyone is served in those areas.”
Reading through an excerpt of the Yearbook of Agriculture, 1940, many themes present in today’s comments to the RUS are present - rural electricity was prohibitively expensive and only available to farmers along main routes or near cities.
Farmers saw electrification as a way toward a better quality of life and a main factor contributing to the gap between urban and rural prosperity.
In the four years after the Rural Electrification Act was adopted, the number of farms with electricity jumped from 11.6 percent to 25 percent.
Some Rural Electrical Cooperatives have begun offering internet to customers, most notably North Dakota. But there are some who warn against using rural electrification as a surefire model for bringing broadband internet to rural America.
Reliability of technology
One way broadband internet is different from rural electrification is that there are a lot of technologies available to bring internet to the people. Fiber optic is the gold standard and the comments reflect that. There were 1,389 mentions of wireless technologies and their reliability, including wireless internet companies, satellite internet providers and internet via cellular service.
The Agricultural Broadband Coalition, a group of agricultural organizations dedicated to bringing connectivity to rural America, commented that technologies like satellite and cellular are not sufficient to bring reliable internet to rural America.
“Focusing on investment in technologies that offer long-term sustainable, high-speed, low latency, quality services and affordable pricing will ensure that federal resources will be used wisely to fund forward looking networks. At present, this would exclude satellite.” said Jannine Miller, Senior Advisor for Rural Infrastructure at USDA.
Commenters noted challenges like weather knocking out satellite service and foliage or terrain making wireless and cellular connections unreliable. Randy Hoffman of Wheat State Telephone Inc. in Udall, Kansas, commented that wireless, like satellite, has its challenges.
“We feel that wireless is a quick fix for lower speeds and needs constant updating,” said Hoffman. “Issues with trees,weather and over selling have always been an issue which affects the speeds that these systems can provide.”
But USDA Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the USDA will consider all technologies for the program.
“We want to have the best solutions for the need. You may have heard that we are ‘technology neutral’ at USDA in our broadband programs,” said Perdue. “But we do want proven solutions, technologies that we all know will bring affordable and sufficient broadband access that rural Americans deserve.”
Commenters see rural broadband as a way to bring prosperity and opportunity to parts of the country still trying to recover from decades-old loss of manufacturing and a prolonged agricultural recession. About 1,700 references in the comments speak to hopes for greater investment, jobs, competition, and greater employment opportunities. Commenters also mention wanting to telecommute, but not having a good enough connection to work from home efficiently.
“For many companies and industries, transportation of data, images, voices and sound is at least as important as the transportation of goods by highway, rail and air,” said Sean Strickler of Montgomery, Alabama in a comment, quoting local expert Dr. Joe Sumner. “Communities without access to high-speed Internet cannot compete in the knowledge economy.”
After business, the biggest opportunity for improvement, in the eyes of commenters, was education. There were 1,048 mentions of education at every level - noting that rural students, from elementary to college, were at a disadvantage to their urban classmates because they can’t effectively use the internet for research or participate in online assignments.
Chip Byers, of the Missouri Research and Education Network in Columbia, Missouri, said in his comment that, as schools are faced with funding shortfalls, technology is a way to close the gap. But that only works if the connectivity is there.
“For schools, underfunding can increase pressures to do more with less. Textbooks are replaced with online resources. Local server-based applications are being replaced with “cloud” services. Teachers in advanced placement courses and foreign languages are being replaced by “shared” instructors in other districts using videoconferencing and other distance learning tools,” said Byers. “These trends are driving major increases in bandwidth requirements for the school building and require robust residential connectivity for students to complete homework assignments.”
Sluggish connections can impact other parts of the school system as well. Nadia Davis of the School Nutrition Association in National Harbor, Maryland, said in her comment that slow internet speeds make it harder for schools to provide meals programs to students.
“Whether it be processing applications for low income students and households that qualify for free and reduced price benefits, submitting reimbursement claims and reports to comply with FNS requirements, or the business of uploading a data file for food orders, access to readily available broadband is critical to serving students,” said Davis. “These programs are particularly critical in rural communities where many students struggle with food insecurity or inadequate access to the wide variety of healthy foods that school meals provide.”
Agricultural technology is rapidly expanding, but access to high speed internet makes it difficult for farmers to fully take advantage of the technology that’s being developed. Commenters made 791 mentions of agriculture, echoing sentiments of the ag industry before electrification became common across rural America.
Brenda Matherly of the Illinois Farm Bureau highlighted many of the ways in which reliable internet access could help the agriculture economy.
“Farmers that are unserved or underserved are facing significant efficiency challenges when considering the benefits broadband offers, including: Access to web-based only label information for the application of ag inputs, ability to electronically apply for and file business-related permits, online-only access to government programs such as USDA farm program and IDOT truck permit requests, receive up-to-date market and weather information, purchasing and ordering of farm supplies through online services, access to electronic systems for monitoring livestock, crop conditions, irrigation systems and stored commodities,” said Matherly.
Perdue said the USDA will ensure the pilot program’s funds will benefit farmers.
“It should address the needs of farmers in the coverage area. Not just at the homes, but across the fields with precision agriculture,” said Perdue.
Linda Thomas of Coalinga, California, commented on the benefits reliable internet will bring to her part of California’s agriculture industry.
“Ag technology is poised, from seed to shelf, from sky to beneath the soil, to resolve many on-farm problems and to create next generation jobs,” said Thomas. She pointed out that her part of California is both rich in agriculture and economically disadvantaged. “Ag technology is a powerful force with great potential in the valley, home of the ironic juxtaposition of the nation’s top five farm gate counties where two-thirds of residents are disadvantaged.”
Like the 1930s, farmers have weathered a weak economic situation for nearly half a decade and are looking for opportunities to be more profitable.
Nearly 90 rural hospitals have closed since 2010, disproportionately in the south. While primary care doctors have picked up some of the slack, telemedicine is one way to give rural Americans greater access to professional healthcare, even as the drive to a hospital becomes longer. 562 mentions of healthcare, including emergency care, psychiatry and addiction, speak to the hope that reliable broadband internet could bring better healthcare to more remote parts of the country.
Claire Deselle of EMHS, a consortium of hospitals and healthcare services in Maine, commented on how reliable internet could improve access to healthcare in rural America.
“With technology and home care/hospice support, many can stay or return home, where the patient and family want to receive care. Yet, we are fundamentally challenged with lack of rural broadband coverage and flawed Medicare policies that create unnecessary barriers to the provision of telemedicine services,” said Deselle.
She explains that spotty coverage makes it difficult to utilize remote healthcare technology.
“Lack of reliability and capacity in rural remote locations make it too risky for a healthcare system to responsibly use facility-to-home telemonitoring in many critical and chronic conditions,” Deselle said. She added that medicare doesn’t cover telemedicine services. “The home is expressly disqualified as an originating site for the patient to receive Medicare covered telemedicine services.”
Map: Rural hospital closures since 2010. The red icons represent closed hospitals, while the green and blue icons represent acute care hospitals and specialty hospitals.