Vermont Senator Peter Welch led a hearing Wednesday in Washington on the challenges of expanding rural broadband. Testimony from providers across the country included those working to deploy high-speed internet throughout the Green Mountain State.
Welch, a Democrat, is serving his first term in the Senate after eight terms in the House. As Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee’s Rural Development and Energy Subcommittee, he convened a hearing on broadband expansion to rural communities. Welch says rural America is under stress and one of its key challenges is access to high-quality and high-speed internet.
“It’s obvious that you can’t be in the 21st century without high-speed internet any more than you can be in rural America without electricity,” Welch said. “So we need rural broadband that will do three things. One, it will have the high speeds. It has to be future-proofed in the build out so that five or ten years from now we’re not in the same position lagging behind urban America. Second, we’ve got to make federal broadband efforts more effective and efficient. Finally, USDA needs the tools and flexibilities to address the long term scalable broadband needs of underserved rural communities.”
The hearing looked at the need for broadband access nationally. Subcommittee Ranking Member Republican Tommy Tuberville of Alabama noted that even the agriculture sector needs high-speed internet access.
“In today’s day and age access to reliable internet service is not a want, it is a need,” Tuberville said. “Americans need reliable and fast internet to work, take online classes and complete homework, have virtual meetings through Zoom and participate in telemedicine. Additionally, our farmers rely on the internet access to operate their equipment and operations. Modern farming utilizes precision agriculture technologies and equipment that can be managed remotely. Without internet access our farmers cannot farm and our rural communities will get left behind. How are we supposed to close the digital divide if we are leaving our rural communities in the dust?”
Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom is a rural broadband provider serving Vermont’s Mad River and Champlain valleys. Vice President Roger Nishi says as it continues to connect customers, there are several ways the USDA can help advance rural broadband deployment.
“Future proof the networks in rural America by building fiber. Other technologies have limitations, do not have the future capacity of fiber and cannot keep pace with the ever-expanding demands of our customers,” Nishi said. “Number two, experience matters and track records of success should be taken into consideration. Further we need to limit project delays due to permitting.”
NEK Broadband serves Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, one of the most rural areas of Vermont. On Wednesday the company received more than $17.5 million in USDA ReConnect grant funds. Executive Director Christa Shute says the ReConnect program is necessary because the $42 billion BEAD program – Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment – funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law won’t be enough to achieve universal service.
“BEAD is going to go to rural America but it’s going to go to the more populated areas,” Shute said. “This is going to exacerbate the issue in the most rural of rural America. The competition for ReConnect funds on the other hand is based on characteristics that support our most rural communities and addresses the true cost to get to some of these sparsely populated areas. My top recommendations for the existing ReConnect program include the definition of rurality, the importance of public infrastructure and the application process.”
Senator Welch has introduced the Reconnecting Rural America Act to reauthorize and strengthen the ReConnect program.
Written by Pat Bradley, WAMC