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Buttering up broadband: Farmers, ranchers lobby for rural networks

Land O'Lakes – a major member-owned cooperative agribusiness best known for making butter – is now turning its sights on rural broadband. A new coalition led by Land O'Lakes is petitioning the Trump administration for billions of dollars in new rural broadband funding.

"We write you today to call for immediate action from Congress and the Administration to enact groundbreaking broadband connectivity legislation that includes the necessary resources to close the digital divide in this country," writes the new American Connection Project Broadband Coalition in a letter to Trump and top members of Congress. The coalition comprises almost 50 companies and trade associations ranging from tech companies like Microsoft and Hewlett Packard Enterprises to Internet companies like CenturyLink and Ciena to food companies like Nestle and Cargill. "A bold investment will be essential for the near-term and long-term well-being of our nation. As we make this investment, we must recognize the higher costs of operating in rural areas and ensure that the solution accounts for the costs to sustain these systems while maintaining affordability."

Members of the coalition acknowledge that it's no small ask. A Land O'Lakes release notes that crossing the digital divide could cost anywhere from $80 billion to $150 billion. "The coalition recognizes that bridging America's digital divide is a costly goal, but firmly believes it is worth the investment," the coalition companies noted.

As with most broadband discussions in recent months, the coalition's petition stems from the COVID-19 pandemic. "As millions shifted to work from home; school districts closed and resorted to distance learning platforms; and increasingly, patients sought healthcare through telemedicine platforms to reduce pressure on the healthcare system and reduce risk of unnecessary exposure, Internet access has become essential to everyday life," the companies noted.

The coalition's arguments were further underscored this week with the announcement by two of the largest school districts in the country that they will go completely virtual this fall and avoid in-person schooling.

"As we look to help our nation recover from this global pandemic, let's make a smart investment in the future competitiveness of this country and ensure that all Americans, in both rural and urban areas, are able to access the internet," the American Connection Project Broadband Coalition wrote.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, such funding proposals have been breeding like rabbits, thus pushing the concept of universal broadband in the US closer to reality than it has ever been before. As noted by Telecompetitor, there are roughly half a dozen different proposals – ranging from Accelerating Broadband Connectivity legislation to the Rural Broadband Acceleration Act – wending through Congress with the goal of financing rural broadband.

Further, President Trump has reportedly been mulling a $1 trillion economic stimulus proposal that would include a focus on rural broadband and 5G. Separately, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden announced a $1.3 trillion infrastructure bill last fall that included $20 billion for rural broadband.

Already billions of dollars are headed to providers in rural areas. The FCC's upcoming Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction – set to initially allocate up to $16 billion for rural broadband – starts one month before the November presidential election.

The issue is key for network operators and network equipment suppliers that could gain billions of additional dollars in federal funding for the construction of telecom networks in rural areas. Already cable company Charter Communications has signaled it will seek RDOF money.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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