Many consider rural broadband access the key to rural economic growth. With it, small businesses harness the ability to take advantage of a global marketplace; without it, things like healthcare and education suffer, or at least that was the message during a recent field hearing.
Jim Crum of U.S. Wellness Meats, a panelist in the recent rural broadband access hearing and a beef producer, provides a great example of how broadband access in rural areas can boost the economy. His meat company, Grassland Beef, based in Monticello, Mo., has seen its online business grow remarkably since 2000, when the company started. Crum reported that Grassland Beef has grown 30% year over year, and he attributes this to unlimited access available online.
In his testimony, he cited that his local FedEx reported in 2009 that half of the volume it shipped was edible, indicating how consumers buy food online today. He also stated that 90% of his business is direct to the customer via FedEx and that the majority of his sales are centered on urban areas.
He admitted that many factors contribute to that, but cited a map of his sales which indicated that sales in the Midwest and other rural areas suffer because of lack of "decent Internet service."
Ray Schroeder, the director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois - Springfield, believes the following solutions will solve the problem and boost rural growth:
Expansion of 3G and 4G services to deep rural areas.
Support for telephone and cable companies -– as well as rural entrepreneurs -- to expand services to connect rural residents.
Expanded use of available microwave frequencies to serve areas where this distribution mode is practical.
Support for further expansion of satellite services in ways that enable asymmetric services that provide practical and useful service levels.
Support for school systems, libraries and related educational enterprises to offer broadband services for educational and, where appropriate, general access.
"The growth in demand for broadband can be seen all across rural America, and programs like those administered by USDA’s Rural Utilities Service will remain instrumental in not only expanding broadband access to rural areas, but in driving the economic growth that creates jobs and makes our rural communities livable and prosperous," said Jim Costa (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Rural Development, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Agriculture.
The subcommittee held the field hearing to review the role of broadband access in rural development this week in Springfield, Ill.
The panel of experts provided several examples of how access to rural broadband provides opportunities in healthcare, education and market access. Some witnesses also explained how a lack of infrastructure and financing are limiting the ability of broadband to drive economic growth in rural areas.
According to Costa, the USDA is to deliver a report before the subcommittee drafts the rural development portion of the 2012 farm bill.