By ZANDON BRAY
As a rancher and hunting guide in Redvale, Colorado, I know first-hand how frustrating it can be without access to adequate broadband capabilities. We live in a digital world where my business relies heavily on access to the internet to market, communicate with customers, integrate vital technology and keep operations running. In many ways, those of us in rural Colorado rely even more on broadband to stay in contact and conduct business that would otherwise require hours of driving to accomplish. Unfortunately, I’m not alone in my frustration.
A decade after Washington promised big on rural broadband as part of a major economic stimulus package, more than 150,000 rural Coloradans are still waiting to get connected.
This time, we better get it right.
The American Rescue Plan (ARP) passed by Congress last month will send more than $6 billion to Colorado’s state and local governments to fill budget holes and fund new infrastructure. President Biden’s proposed infrastructure package would commit billions more, including to rural broadband. That’s significant: 14% of rural Coloradans are still without access to high-speed internet.
But when President Obama’s 2009 stimulus pledged $7.2 billion to connect rural homes, businesses, farms and schools, most of what we got was a case study in what can go wrong.
Leaders in Washington and here in Colorado should learn those lessons so as to not repeat them.
First things first: We should commit our limited federal dollars to wiring unserved rural communities where the needs are more urgent. The 2009 effort failed in large part because federal dollars went to areas that already had high-speed networks, stiffing the many unserved rural areas that should have been at the top of the list.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Broadband Initiatives Program promised to bring broadband service to 7 million unconnected rural Americans, but only reached a small fraction of this goal.
The Government Accountability Office summed it up: “We are left with a program that spent $3 billion and we really don’t know what became of it.”
Here in Colorado, the now-infamous EAGLE-Net boondoggle is an iconic example of how these well-intentioned rural broadband programs can go off the rails. The program received a $100.6 million grant from the U.S. Commerce Department in 2010 to connect every rural school district, but instead focused first on urban areas where high-speed broadband was already available.
The project was suspended after connecting a mere 39 of the more than 220 school districts and libraries originally promised.
The American Farm Bureau highlights studies estimating that universal broadband access — and the widespread adoption of connected, intelligent “precision farming” technologies it would enable — could generate an additional $65 billion each year for the agricultural sector. That’s on top of the critical benefits conferred to online education, telemedicine and related businesses that broadband brings.
The failures of the 2009 programs should guide our approach this time. We badly need more broadband infrastructure in rural America. And the public is behind it. When government succeeds, like with rural electrification, it builds credibility and political capital for other big goals. But when it fails, all it delivers is broken promises and cynicism. That’s why we need to get the safeguards in place now to make sure this new funding gets the job done.
We should start by requiring that unserved areas get fully wired before any taxpayer funding gets diverted to other broadband projects. And we should eliminate all the patronage rules that drive the buildout projects to favored contractors, vendors and technologies. We have many technologies — fixed broadband, wireless and new satellite vendors — who can get high-speed connectivity to areas that need it. They should all be encouraged to apply and compete.
New experiments — like requiring newly constructed broadband networks have the same upstream capacity as downstream capacity, even though over 90% of all internet usage is downstream — should be put aside at least until job No. 1 is done.
The new Biden administration has an opportunity to rewrite the ending to this story with a smarter, more business-like approach, setting clear priorities and demanding stronger oversight. Done right, we can deliver on the promise of universal connectivity.
Zandon Bray is a board member of the Colorado Farm Bureau.