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Viewpoint: To connect rural Delaware, Congress must focus on ‘First Things First’

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By Rick Wilkins
Guest Columnist

Rich Wilkins
President of the Delaware Farm Bureau

The Biden Administration’s $100 billion broadband plan is a once-in-a-decade opportunity to connect the 21,000 Delawareans in rural, agricultural areas of our state who still don’t have high-speed internet available on their doorsteps.

It’s a cornerstone of President Biden’s economic program, which he sums up with three words: “Build back better.”

Three simple words should also guide the Administration’s broadband strategy: “First things first.”

We need to focus first on bringing broadband to homes and communities where it’s not already available.  Thanks to private investment, 98 percent of Delaware is already wired with some of the fastest speeds in the country.  A simple subsidy program – laser-targeted to unserved areas, competitive and open to every broadband provider, with accountability and transparency to make sure the job gets done – is the simplest and quickest path to universal broadband access.

But the White House is under pressure from activists and special interests eager to undermine this core goal with unnecessary and unhelpful add-ons that would see the limited pool of federal infrastructure dollars instead drained by frivolous projects in already-wired towns and cities.

That’s a recipe for failure – and for repeating the mistakes of the 2009 stimulus, which promised to connect more than 7 million rural Americans and 400,000 businesses and institutions but failed to reach even 10 percent of this goal.

Those earlier programs were beset by waste, fraud, political favoritism, lax oversight and poor planning, leading billions to be spent on duplicative networks in areas which already had high-speed internet – while underserved rural areas were left behind, yet again.

Learning the painful lessons of these earlier debacles, Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and John Cornyn (R-TX) have crafted a smart, bipartisan plan to close the rural broadband gap.

It embraces the core principle of “first things first”:  Spend taxpayer dollars to help build broadband infrastructure – but only in areas where infrastructure doesn’t already exist!  And by eliminating favoritism and demanding a level playing field for all applicants, it will ensure dollars go to the network builders best equipped to connect rural America.

Just as importantly, their bipartisan framework also rejects speculative gambles – like diverting money to build new government-run broadband services in areas that already have fast broadband – that would only lead to a whole new set of mistakes and boondoggles.

For all their hype, research suggests that adding government-run networks in communities tends to lose taxpayers’ money– and doesn’t actually do that much to help get more unconnected Americans online.  All while diverting massive sums of taxpayer dollars that should instead be targeted to connect unserved areas.

Delaware is already seeing how smartly targeted federal support can make a difference.  With $20 million in funding from last year’s CARES Act, Delaware is extending broadband in the state’s “internet deserts” in farm communities such as Kent and Sussex Counties, where 5 to 7 percent of residents are still unserved. And the American Rescue Plan (ARP) just sent an additional $1.3 billion to Delaware, some of which can be used to build out broadband networks in unserved areas.

If targeted wisely, the Biden Administration’s infrastructure package can finally finish the job.

For Delaware’s agricultural and poultry industries – the backbone of the Downstate economy – the stakes couldn’t be higher. Dependable broadband access is critical for farmers who need to deploy the latest agricultural techniques like precision seeding, crop storage monitoring, weather modeling, smart irrigation, frost detection, and robotic milking. The American Farm Bureau estimates that these connected “precision agriculture” practices could generate an additional $65 billion a year for farmers nationwide, while leading to higher yields and less waste.

A well-designed broadband plan can offer help for cities and suburbs too – but in those communities the challenge is adoption, not infrastructure.  Even though broadband is available to 98% of our state, only 76 percent of residents subscribe to broadband at home.

Broadband providers have helped encourage adoption by offering discounted services to low-income families, while the federal government’s new Emergency Broadband Benefits offers needy families up to $50 a month to discounts.

Making this benefit permanent could be a lifeline for millions of low-income families, whether in our largest cities or our most remote rural communities. Digital literacy programs could also help unconnected families learn why and how to join the digital world.

As with rural infrastructure needs, the Administration and Congress should target the taxpayers’ hard-earned money to those who most need the help.   Proven programs offer a roadmap to follow.  And the First State’s farmers should be among those first in line for the funding that will get and keep them online.

Rich Wilkins is a farmer and the President of the Delaware Farmers Bureau.

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