In what it described as its biggest step yet to close the digital divide, the Federal Communications Commission voted on Thursday to establish a “rural digital opportunity fund” to provide up to $20 billion over 10 years for high-speed internet networks in rural America.
More than half of U.S. farm operators say they do business over the internet, a 13-point increase in six years, as ownership of computers and access to the internet blossomed, according to USDA. Nonetheless, the Pew Research Center says rural Americans are much less likely than their city counterparts to have a smartphone or broadband service at home.
Rural Americans are on the wrong side of the digital divide, with persistently lower rates of access to broadband service than their metropolitan counterparts. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue discussed the gap during an Axios interview this week, saying, “One of the things we’re really focusing on at USDA for rural development is broadband.”
President Trump will express support during a speech to the largest U.S. farm group today for a dramatic expansion of high-speed internet service in rural America. The strategy will be a springboard for economic growth for a segment of the population dogged by lower wages and higher poverty rates than the rest of the nation, said a White House adviser. The president also is expected to call for greater use of federal forests and fewer hurdles to agricultural biotechnology, two areas that may be lightning rods for controversy.
Software giant Microsoft is part of the Connect Americans Now coalition, which has “a plan to eliminate the digital divide by 2022” by persuading the FCC and other regulators to set aside low-band spectrum across the country to provide a broadband connection for everyone.
Farmers, especially big operators, may be slightly more wired into the internet than rural Americans overall, and the urban-rural digital divide is narrowing, says a USDA report that provides a comparison with other measurements of the United States online. Based on a biennial survey of farmers, the USDA said 71 percent of U.S. farms have internet access.