In today’s world, internet connectivity is no longer a luxury—it is a necessity. Access to affordable internet, broadband, wireless, and cellular services is an essential component of a county’s economic development and the socio-economic advancements of its residents.
Residents benefit from increased economic growth, improved labor market access and outcomes, access to better health care, enhanced civic participation, enriched education opportunities, improved quality of life, and overall competitive and vibrant communities.
And while there is more assistance available than ever before, the partial federal government shutdown is stymying efforts to expand broadband access to rural America.
Through its Rural Utilities Service program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides rural development grants to counties and municipalities applying to expand or construct broadband infrastructure, and the agency invested $228 million last year across 22 states. But until the federal government emerges from a shutdown that has so far lasted 32 days, the “provision of new rural development loans and grants” under the program will remain unfunded in 2019.
According to StateScoop:
“USDA funds a lot of rural broadband investment, so that’s a challenge there for places trying to get guidance on programs, figuring out if they’re eligible for grants or loans,” [broadband policy expert Chris] Mitchell said. “That’s a challenge for places that are trying to build a new network.”
The USDA is planning to spend $600 million this year on a pilot program to expand rural broadband, and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told reporters before the shutdown on Dec. 13 that the country can’t afford a digital divide. But until the shutdown is lifted, any project that might have relied on this funding will likely remain on ice.
“[The grants] would be for any entity, so cooperatives as well would be impacted, but basically anyone trying to invest in rural areas with federal broadband subsidies from the USDA, they would all be more or less stuck right now,” Mitchell said.