September 2021 Vol. 76 No. 9

Editor's Log

Editor's Log: An Investment in Rural America

The pursuit of increased infrastructure spending received new hope recently when the political impasse in the U.S. House of Representatives was temporarily bypassed. A working compromise within the Democratic Party allowed a vote on the divisive and partisan $3.5-billion reconciliation spending bill in exchange for a vote on a separate infrastructure investment bill set for late September. This vote would be on the final version that passed the Senate in August. 

If the House passes, intact, the infrastructure bill that the Senate approved earlier in August, stimulus spending will suddenly become a reality after months of maneuvering on political issues that have very little to do with infrastructure. The even better news is that this additional spending will be pumped into markets already experiencing strong bill demand. 

The infrastructure covers everything from airports to underground. Supposedly, the reconciliation bill will even add additional funds for lead waterline replacement, along with more fiber network funding for rural or underserved areas. This is in addition to billions earmarked for broadband in late 2020 and what that market will receive if the infrastructure vote goes forward as expected this month. 

I recently read comments by an “expert” pundit questioning the need for even more investment in fiber optics with these new potential spending bonanzas. All I could figure out is he must be a city slicker. In fact, the current and proposed billions for underserved areas (primarily rural) is the only way these essential areas of America will be able to experience the benefits of modern communications, while continuing to be the backbone of our country. 

Growing up in rural Oklahoma, it occurs to me now how similar, federally backed programs literally turned the lights on for millions of citizens in rural regions. The original Rural Electric Cooperative (REC) program became a staple of progress for small towns, farmers and ranchers. REC diligently constructed utility lines and supplied vital electricity to those citizens in an affordable and practical manner. 

It’s hard to believe, but many farmers and ranchers have monthly electric bills similar to large factories. The reality is that powering all kinds of equipment, such as massive irrigation and pumping systems, requires enormous amounts of power. In return, farmers and ranchers have made the United States a land of plenty and the leading breadbasket for the world. 

I view broadband communications in a similar light. No way would Verizon, AT&T, Comcast or any of the dozens of fiber companies be willing to run fiber to less populated regions – they just can’t cost-justify a business scenario to make that happen. During the early fiber construction days of mad dashes across the countryside, it was common for cities of 50,000 people or less to be left at the highway waving at construction crews as they rushed down the road. They were targeting the next big city, replete with businesses, factories and high population density, and would frequently bypass smaller, less profitable communities. 

A number of small towns took matters into their own hands. Local sewer and water utilities went into the broadband business for themselves and in many instances, met with great success providing affordable broadband with high-quality service. But that solution wasn’t practical for all areas, and certainly not for a resident living miles from the nearest fiber trunkline. 

Already a strong business segment, fiber construction is about to become red hot. Broadband has the potential to lead a renewal of rural American culture. Increasingly, people are tired of the rat race, whether it be the hectic pace, traffic or unsatisfactory jobs. Fiber makes practical a movement for people to relocate to the suburbs or further into the countryside. 

We have learned – and COVID-19 drove this point home – that for many jobs, we can work anywhere, as long as we have good internet and cell service. Modern communications have allowed small businesses to develop and effectively market products when, in the past, such a dream was impossible. Fast internet and reliable phone service are key components of this resurgence in rural Americana. It’s a different way a life for most; a slower pace perhaps, maybe even considered dull for those who are used to a wild and fast-paced world. 

Nonetheless, rural America is critical to our nation and for it to survive in this modern age, the need for broadband communications is essential. From the couple selling canned peaches and quilts online to rural hospitals needing access to life-saving medical records, advanced telecommunications are essential to rural America. 

And rural America is essential to the rest of the country, as well. It’s a symbiotic relationship and one well-worth the investment.

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