As we continue to move into the information age, it's more important than ever that South Dakota families, businesses and schools have access to the high-speed, broadband Internet service that has become necessary to do business, stay in touch, and stay informed.
Unfortunately, parts of South Dakota and rural America remain underserved or wholly unserved when it comes to high-speed, high bandwidth Internet access.
There already exists an important program that provides loans to provide broadband service in rural communities – the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) Broadband Loan Program. However, the current law contains a number of flaws that hinder its goals, and recently, I introduced legislation to improve and re-focus the program to ensure rural America really receives the help that it is supposed to.
The current law is designed to provide loans to areas of rural America that do not currently have service. Unfortunately, due to a loophole in that law, some areas that are neither rural nor suffer a lack of service are eating up scarce resources, and preventing the program's focus from being where it should.
The problem arises because the definition RUS uses to identify "rural" areas is too broad to distinguish between rural communities and suburbs near cities. As a result, many loans are being granted to applicants proposing to serve areas that already have broadband providers. I am concerned that RUS is too often being used to subsidize Internet access to suburban and affluent communities that already have multiple high-speed internet providers.
My bill does a couple of things to address these flaws and improve the program. First, it better defines "rural" and "urban" areas to ensure loans are being used in truly rural communities and not suburbs. Second, my bill ensures that loans are not going to applicants proposing to serve areas that already have a broadband provider.
I believe my bill will ensure that the original intent of the program is realized: ensuring broadband access to underserved areas of rural America. Passage of the recommendations put forth in my bill will ensure that truly rural providers are not denied loans because resources are funneled to providers serving urban areas.
This bill will be discussed in the context of the Farm Bill reauthorization, so as a member of the House Agriculture Committee, I will take the lead on ensuring that these improvements are made.
Access to broadband service is critical to the quality of life in rural America. It has the potential to be an unprecedented catalyst for economic growth and improvements in education and health care. After five years since this program's inception, precious dollars that could be used to bring high-speed Internet access to rural homes, businesses and schoolhouses across America continue to be misspent and I am hopeful we can right that wrong as we refocus the program.