BROADBAND PUSH: Sen. Peter Welch might be new to the upper chamber, but he’s no stranger to the challenges facing rural America, and especially the fight for broadband internet access.
Welch, who co-founded the bipartisan rural broadband caucus in the House, now heads the Senate Ag subcommittee on rural development and energy.
In an interview with MA, the Vermont Democrat told us he’s teaming up with Sen. Tommy Tuberville (Ala.), the top Republican on the panel, to “revitalize rural America” and ensure those communities aren’t left out of the digital economy.
“In order to have a rural economy in addition to an agricultural sector, everything else depends on broadband,” Welch said, especially after the pandemic hit.
Welch said he’s focused on both the need for funding and “flexibility” in implementation programs to build out better and higher speeds of broadband across rural areas, especially those hardest to reach.
As far as funding goes, there are now billions in federal broadband dollars available through the bipartisan infrastructure law and other spending bills, which Welch said he wants to make sure rural communities get their fair share.
On implementation: Welch said he’s focused on ensuring complex mapping for new broadband projects is carried out efficiently and fairly for rural communities.
Some of the biggest criticism by Republicans, and some Democrats, about broadband implementation is that there are too many USDA programs that touch the topic, and they should be streamlined.
“Anything that would make the deployment of broadband quicker and more effective, we want to do,” Welch said. “I’m totally open to looking at the various programs to see where there’s overlap and where it can be streamlined.”
“We should be constantly assessing how we’re doing and how we can do it better,” he added.
Hearing: That oversight focus will be a key theme of Welch’s 3 p.m. hearing Wednesday entitled: “Rural Broadband: Connecting our Communities to the Digital Economy.”
Witnesses: Roger Nishi of Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom in Vermont; Christa Shute of NEK Broadband in Vermont; Jesse Shekleton of Jo-Carroll Energy Inc. in Illinois; James Frederick Johnson of Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative Inc. in Alabama and Justin Forde of Midco in North Dakota.
Written by Garrett Downs & Meredith Hill