Just had a lively debate with Noah Kai Cherry, an attorney and advocate for rural broadband at WTA. At the crux of the discussion was high cost support for rural broadband deployment. My position on the matter is that high-cost support for rural broadband providers is no longer necessary. Residents of rural areas decided to live in rural areas; they are not necessarily poor; and if they are willing to live in the boon docks, they should be willing to pay a premium for services considered on par with those provided in urban and sub-urban areas.
Does this position mean that we don’t care about farmers? Of course not, but not every rural resident is a farmer and not every rural resident is poor. While I have a preference for direct subsidies to consumers versus broadband providers, I’d like to know how well farmers are faring under subsidies they already receive from the federal government.
According to the Environmental Working Group, from 1995 to 2012, American farmers received $256 billion in farm, disaster, and crop insurance. Unfortunately, most federal agricultural farm subsidies do not flow to smaller farmers. For example in Georgia, the farmers in the bottom 80% of earnings received on average $473 a year between 1995 and 2012. That amount doesn’t make much room for buying a broadband connection in rural Georgia.
But what about the stimulus spending from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act? That spending by-passed farmers, the anticipated end-users of broadband services. The Broadband Initiatives Program under the United States Department of Agriculture made 320 awards by the end of Fiscal Year 2009 with the intent of increasing broadband access. The awards totaled $3.529 billion with just over $3 billion going toward 285 last mile projects. Award recipients were in 45 states and one territory.
BIP should have made a supply-sider blush with the “build it and they will come” approach of the program. Almost three million households and 364,000 businesses were to benefit from the access to broadband BIP was supposed to enable, yet rural broadband advocates want to keep the public on the hook for more universal service subsidy spending.
We should be hearing that consumer adoption of broadband is increasing, after all this stimulus spending, but we are not. Why is that?