A House Ag Subcommittee with jurisdiction over rural development, research and biotechnology held a field hearing Saturday in Springfield, Ill. to review the role of broadband access in rural economic development. Representative Tim Johnson, R-Ill., chair of the subcommittee presided over the hearing.
"We're focusing today on broadband services but the bigger issue to all of us at this table, who represent predominantly rural areas or at least significant rural areas, is arresting the decline of rural America," Johnson said. "We want to do what we can to marry, so to speak, the private and public sector together so that rural America can realize its potential to rebound, because when rural America declines, America declines"
A panel of internet providers and users presented several examples of how access to broadband provides job-creating opportunities in healthcare, education, and market access. Some witnesses also explained how a lack of infrastructure and financing are limiting the ability of broadband to drive economic growth.
As many as 24 million Americans live in areas where there is no access to high-speed internet, prompting Ranking Member Jim Costa, D-Calif., to say that there is a lot of work to be done in bridging the gap between the haves and the have not's, especially in rural America. One of the challenges, he said, is USDA's use of conflicting definitions of rural in its rural development portfolio that sometimes have the unintended consequence of restricting eligibility for loans and grants. Costa complained that USDA was already a year overdue in producing a report for Congress.
"That was required in the 2008 Farm Bill," Costa said. "On various definitions and recommendations on how the agency can provide more flexibility in administering the Rural Development Programs, while still ensuring they are working for the benefit of rural America."
Costa said that he and Chairman Johnson are pressuring USDA to deliver the report before their subcommittee drafts the Rural Development title of the 2012 Farm Bill.