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Amendment supports rural broadband

BY CHELYEN DAVIS

If you live in the city or a well-populated county, Internet access is probably something you take for granted.

But if you’re in a rural area, it may be nearly impossible to get.

State and federal programs exist to help bring broadband Internet to rural areas—in part because broadband access is nearly a must for businesses these days, so broadband is a potential economic development tool.

But those programs could work better.

Last week, Sen. Mark Warner and others successfully inserted an amendment into the 2012 Farm Bill to help focus the federal government’s existing rural broadband program on truly rural areas.

The Rural Utility Service, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, works on rural broadband issues and provides grants to those seeking to establish broadband connections in rural areas.

But many of those loans and grants haven’t gone to rural areas. According to Warner’s press release, the USDA’s inspector general found in 2009 that a number had gone to projects in nonrural areas, or places already served by private broadband providers.

Between 2005 and 2009, the report said, fewer than 33 percent of the RUS broadband loans and grants went to truly rural areas.

Warner’s amendment tightens the restrictions on what’s considered rural for RUS purposes.

It requires that for a project to get a loan or grant, at least 25 percent of the households in the project area be considered unserved or underserved. The government can reduce that percentage to 18 percent if the project area covers 7,500 or fewer people, or 15 percent if it covers 5,000 or fewer people.

“Building out a nationwide broadband network will strengthen our economy and put more people back to work,” Warner said in the press release.

He said that 70 percent of urban households have broadband, but only 57 percent of rural households have broadband. Just a third of rural farms have broadband access.

“At a time when federal, state and local support for economic development is shrinking, we should more closely target these limited resources to close the digital divide in rural communities in Virginia and across the country,” Warner said.

The amendment also has provisions that require the RUS to better report on who’s receiving funding for broadband programs and how many houses and businesses are served. Those reports will include information on broadband speeds, along with information on broadband access for educational, health care and other organizations.

Finally, the amendment requires the government to do a better job mapping broadband access. A map exists—the National Broadband Map was launched in 2010. But it’s not specific enough, Warner said, and his amendment requires loan and grant recipients to provide more build-out data to RUS.

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028

cdavis@freelancestar.com

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