Speaking this week to farmers, President Trump called for the extension of high-speed internet into underserved areas of the country. It was a good way to appeal to stalwart members of his political base, and for reasons of commerce and quality of life, it is the right thing to do. But talk is cheap, while broadband development – particularly those miles through forests, mountains and farmland – is not.

It is going to take a sizable investment to bridge the country’s technological gap – akin to the building of the highway system, or rural electrification – and for the sake of rural America, it has to come now.

According to a 2016 Congressional Research Service report, just 55 percent of rural Americans have access to high-speed internet as defined by the government, compared to 94 percent in urban areas. That has enormous implications not only for residents who want to participate fully in our internet-centered world, but also for businesses that need fast connections to interact with customers and vendors. Our world depends on sharing information quickly and without hassle; without that ability, rural areas just won’t be able to compete for people or investment, and they will continue to suffer in the wake of the loss of jobs in traditional industries.

More than new roads and bridges, the tools of 21st-century commerce are what the struggling parts of America need.

Why they don’t have it now is a matter of economics: There are simply not enough customers in many rural areas to justify for telecommunication companies the building of infrastructure necessary to supply high-speed internet.

Maine, where an estimated 45,000 residents lack access to internet at broadband speeds, has its own experience with the so-called “last-mile” problem, with many residents unable to connect to the 1,100-mile system of fiber optic cable built in 2012.

The Legislature this session will deal with a number of bills related to this topic, including L.D. 250, from state Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, which would issue $100 million in bonds to provide high-speed internet to unserved and underserved areas.

As part of the 2009 stimulus, the Obama administration began offering incentives to companies to expand into these areas, but the investment – and the results – were minimal. The Trump administration has previously suggested spending $25 billion over 10 years to help overcome the last-mile problem, but a report this week from a task force chaired by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue doesn’t suggest a funding level, and focuses more on deregulation.

The president on Monday signed a memorandum allowing telecom companies to access federal lands for the placement of broadband infrastructure, but that’s never really been the problem. The companies haven’t expanded into many parts of rural America because it doesn’t make economic sense, not because they don’t have places to put their lines.

So what will it take? Telecom analyst Paul de Sa estimates it will cost $80 billion to extend broadband to all corners of the country. However, according to de Sa, a $40 billion investment could cover 98 percent of the country.

What do we get in return? An Information Technology and Innovation Foundation study found that an investment in broadband of $10 billion would create or retain hundreds of thousands of jobs – imagine what that could do for the areas of the country that are treading water. It’s time to think big for rural America.

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