WASHINGTON, DC - At a House Agriculture subcommittee hearing Thursday, both Republicans and Democrats agreed broadband internet access is key to revitalizing struggling rural communities.
"Broadband is the gateway to rural schools, businesses and healthcare providers," said Rep. Angie Craig, a Democrat from Minnesota.
Lawmakers raised concerns about the dwindling number of hospitals in rural areas and the need to be competitive when recruiting corporations to do business.
"Just the ability in rural America for a physician to pull up an x-ray at their home instead of having to drive to the hospital to look at a patient to know if that is something that’s an emergency," said Rep. Austin Scott, a Republican from Georgia.
"One of the biggest needs is tele-psychiatry and tele-mental health," said Dr. David Hess, of the Medical College of Georgia.
"They look to access talent, quality of life and the availability of high-speed broadband," said David Hengel, an economic development advocate who works to court businesses.
The 2018 Farm Bill included roughly $350 million dollars for broadband related rural development services over five years but many of the programs are still working their way through the appropriations process.
"Our rural communities and farmers are not sitting around watching TV. Many of the latest farming technologies require connections for data access and analysis of their fields," said Rep. Cindy Axne, a Democrat from Iowa.
Governor Matt Bevin and Congressman Hal Rogers say government investment coupled with private innovation as part of Kentucky Wired will lead to an open-access fiber optic cable network in every county by 2020 but the project has been riddled with challenges from the start, at times running behind schedule.
A Pro-Publica report suggests the state is assuming most of the risk of the public-private partnership, $1.2 billion over 30 years. Small towns also face other challenges in the race to get connected.
"Internet providers won’t extend into the areas that they don't see as profitable, often stopping right at county lines or just outside of the business district, leaving rural communities to either foot the bill or not be able to compete in a 21st-century economy," said Axne.