Internet-provider companies and government at virtually every level continue to work to expand high-speed, broadband internet access in rural areas. It has been a long, gradual process, but local governments and providers are taking advantage of available funding to help make progress.
Kyle Wilkens, USDA state director for Missouri, says the USDA’s ReConnect program, which provides money for expanding broadband internet availability in rural areas, just completed its fourth round. He says the program, which began in 2018, has been popular in rural Midwestern areas.
“In Missouri and in Iowa as well, we’ve seen a lot of entities use the ReConnect program,” he says.
According to the USDA, 22.3% of Americans in rural areas lack coverage for fixed terrestrial broadband Internet access. Wilkens says ReConnect efforts have helped.
“As for the lay of the land, I think it’s much better, especially after rounds three and four,” he says.
The issue remains a key priority for many ag leaders and for the USDA. Wilkens says internet access is essential for agriculture and rural people to thrive.
“It helps farmers increase production and reduce costs through the use of precision ag technology,” he says. “It allows for telehealth. It expands rural student success.”
Building networks into rural areas comes with challenges.
“Building these broadband networks into rural areas can be difficult, often because there’s greater distances and challenging terrain,” Wilkens says. “It’s more time consuming.”
He says partnering with local internet providers and local towns or counties helps overcome these challenges, although it still takes time.
USDA undersecretary for farm production and conservation Robert Bonnie says extending broadband networks from existing coverage areas to those in the most rural areas is an obstacle.
“The challenge in agricultural landscapes, it’s that last mile,” he says.
Like Wilkens, Bonnie says partnering with local providers helps USDA dollars be most effective.
“There are some real opportunities to partner with some rural electric co-ops,” Bonnie says.
Missouri Director of Agriculture Chris Chinn farms with her family in rural northeast Missouri. She says she knows every connection in sparsely populated rural areas comes at a cost and can be expensive, but states have continued to work to make progress.
“We’ve come a long way in the last seven years,” she says. “… We’re making progress.”
States are also allocating funding for broadband expansion. Chinn says Missouri’s legislature has continued to fund the Office for Broadband Expansion, providing grants for those efforts. Iowa and Illinois have similar programs.
Chinn says broadband internet access is crucial for rural areas to thrive and have opportunities for future generations.
“That’s really important,” she says.
Wilkens says part of the USDA’s efforts include finding which areas are underserved or do not have high-speed internet access.
“Who do we have left out there?” he says. “Everyone is not covered yet.”
Wilkens says the recent federal infrastructure bill provided money to states for broadband internet expansion. He says even when the USDA Rural Development office and state broadband offices don’t have formal partnerships, they often work together and help identify areas where improvement is needed, in particular in “donut hole” areas that are between current areas of service.
“We work together to fill gaps in coverage,” Wilkens says. “It’s been helpful.”
He draws parallels with efforts to bring electricity to farms and rural areas generations ago.
“Much like with electricity, anybody that doesn’t have speeds high enough to get on the Internet, do work at home, or stream, I think they’re out of the game. I think we’re past the point of it being an option. Like electric, everyone has to have access to it.”
Wilkens says the job is not done until everyone has access to broadband internet.
“We’re working as hard as we can,” he says.