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House Committee on Agriculture Stresses the Need for Rural Broadband

Jennifer Otwell testified in front of the committee on behalf of the Rural Broadband Association.

The House Committee on Agriculture held a public hearing on the state of rural infrastructure on Wednesday. The word “infrastructure” may bring roads and bridges to mind, but a large part of the hearing focused on rural broadband.

Texas Representative Mike Conaway chairs the committee. His district stretches east from Midland out past Abilene and includes rural areas in the state.

"Here in this room, we take for granted the awesome power of smartphones, " he said. "As communication technology races ahead, we need to ensure that rural Americans are not left behind.”

The core of the problem, said Conaway, is a lack of funding.

"...our shifting population, moving out of rural communities and into urban and suburban counties is also shifting the tax base, making it difficult for small communities to finance the upgrades they need to continue to be competitive in the modern economy."

Those testifying spoke about a range of infrastructure needs, from electricity to roads. But lawmakers repeatedly returned the conversation to the latent demand for rural broadband.

Tom Halverson, who testified on behalf of the Farm Credit System, described the convergence of modern agriculture and the internet.

"If you get into your combine or your tractor, sometimes you need a USB chip with a bunch of data in it, and you need wireless communication, otherwise you can’t actually operate your technology," he explained.

In addition to operating equipment, farmers are relying on real time data about weather and soil conditions to make a profit.

Conaway called for the federal government to invest in broadband the same way it invested in telephone lines under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Increasing federal investment in rural broadband will likely be a major topic of discussion for the 2018 Farm Bill.