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Federal Task Force Makes Broadband a Priority in Helping Rural Economic Revival

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FILE/GRANT GERLOCK / HARVEST PUBLIC MEDIA
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U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue (center) chaired a task force of Trump cabinet members looking into how to improve the rural economy.

Shoring up rural America's economy must start with broadband access and technology, a federal task force said in a report released Monday.

The group, chaired by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and made up of other Cabinet members, said doing so will bring rural areas increased health care access, better job training, smart electrical grids, and more precision farming technology. Little of that can be accomplished, the report said, without closing the broadband gap between urban and rural residents.

As of 2014, 61% of rural residents had access to high-speed Internet compared to 96% of urban people, according the task force report. The federal government defines broadband by a download speed of at least 25 mbs.

“We envision a rural America with world-class resources, tools and support to build a robust sustainable community for generations to come,” Perdue told the American Farm Bureau Federation conference in Nashville, Tennessee.

Just hours after the report was released, President Donald Trump spoke to the conference and signed two executive orders: one to streamline approval of broadband projects and the other allowing towers to be built on federal land.

The task force also calls for more research on where broadband gaps remain and what it would cost to bring those areas up to speed.

The call for broadband access has been around for a while, said Jonathan Chambers, a former Federal Communications official who worked on rural issues. He said he backs the report’s “objectives” but “I don’t find much meat on the bones.”

Chambers said the development of rural broadband has been hampered in part because federal funding still pays for slower networks in rural areas.

“By that, I mean 4 megabits per second or 10 megabits per second services,” Chambers said. “So the government pays for something that consumers don’t want.”

Chambers added that the FCC could broaden the range of businesses that are eligible for broadband funding to possibly include electric companies, cable providers, and tech firms.

“If Google believes in balloons and Facebook believes in drones and OneWeb believes in satellites and every other type of technology, let them all compete,” Chambers said.

Besides broadband, the rural task force suggested boosting rural economies by improving services to veterans, expanding trade, and rebuilding infrastructure such as roads, bridges and small-town water systems.

Read the full report here.

Follow Grant on Twitter: @ggerlock