President Biden plans to announce a plan to modernize U.S. infrastructure on Wednesday in Pittsburgh, with a dramatic expansion of rural broadband expected to be part of the package. Broadband service increasingly is seen as essential to rural prosperity and even survival. The pandemic amplified the value of digital networks for school, medicine, and commerce.
“Currently, one in three Americans does not have access to broadband and those who do often have connections so slow as to be useless,” said Mike Stranz, vice president of the National Farmers Union. “Even as we move back toward in-person interactions, internet connectivity will continue to be nearly as essential as other basic utilities and should be treated as such.”
Groups such as the Rebuild Rural coalition of farm groups and rural businesses include broadband along with traditional projects such as roads, bridges, railroads, water mains, and sewer lines to a wish list that extends to affordable housing and a reliable power supply. “The scope of the investment needed is staggering,” said the coalition in a letter to Biden last month. “Clearly, the federal government must continue to play an important role in providing funding and those federal investments should increase.”
During his campaign, Biden said he would “expand broadband, or wireless broadband via 5G, to every American.” Steps would include $20 billion for rural broadband infrastructure, more grant money for broadband projects in rural areas, and federal support for communities that want to to build municipally owned broadband networks.
Rural broadband has remained on the president’s radar. Biden’s list for infrastructure and economic growth includes “rural broadband expansion, which would be transformative for those communities,” reported Axios last week.
Biden’s proposals could cost trillions of dollars. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday the president would propose a method to pay for the infrastructure improvements. “But he, of course, believes that investing in our infrastructure, continuing to create good-paying union jobs is front and center, but he also believes that we have an opportunity to rebalance, to take — to address our tax code that is out of date, and — and some could pay more in our country that are not currently.”
House Agriculture chairman David Scott is planning a stand-alone bill on rural broadband and infrastructure. “We’ve got to be smart and develop rural broadband as a centerpiece of our rural development because if you don’t have rural broadband there, you’re not going to have the growth, (the) development, that we need,” Scott said last week at the Ag and Food Policy Summit. He said the committee would hold a hearing on rural broadband in early April.