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Rural broadband gets potential boost as Congress passes farm bill

The bill, which provides billions in subsidies to American farmers, will also pave the way for more-coordinated efforts among federal agencies to deploy broadband in hard to reach areas.

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Many parts of rural America, including sections of Iowa, lack reliable, fast internet connections.

Shara Tibken/CNET

The $867 billion farm bill that just passed the US House and Senate on Wednesday has provisions designed to spur broadband deployment.

Though the bulk of the spending in the bill will go toward subsidies for American farmers and support for programs to feed the poor, the bill also expands the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service loan and grant program and provides more oversight on how and where that money is spent. That's good news for the millions of Americans living in rural parts of the US who don't have access to high speed internet service.

The president of USTelecom, the main lobby group for rural telecom companies, called the bill "an important, but still partial down payment" on providing high-speed internet to rural Americans.

"More work remains to ensure scarce federal dollars are reaching truly unserved areas," Jonathan Spalter said in a statement. "And we look forward to working with the new Congress to make this happen."

In spite of the billions of dollars in private investment and government subsidies over multiple decades, millions of rural Americans still don't have access to broadband in homes or at farms and other businesses. Roughly 39 percent of rural Americans lack access to high-speed broadband, compared with just 4 percent of urban Americans, according to a report from the Federal Communications Commission that uses 2016 figures.

With broadband now as essential as running water and electricity for improving people's daily lives and providing a standard of living equal to that in urban and suburban parts of the country, policy makers are working together to close the connectivity gap.

Building networks in rural America is incredibly expensive, and in some places it's nearly impossible, thanks to tough terrain. But the biggest barrier to getting broadband in certain areas of the country is low population density. Broadband providers simply won't offer service if they can't get enough customers to pay for it.

This is where federal programs have come in to help subsidize the cost of deploying and running these networks.

The comprehensive farm bill that will soon be law incorporates the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act (H.R. 4881), which requires the FCC to work with the Department of Agriculture to boost broadband deployment and adoption in rural areas.

The bill is meant to improve coordination in funding between the FCC, the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA), and the Rural Utilities Service (RUS.) It also ensures more congressional oversight of spending to make sure money is being spent in communities that really need it. The Rural Utilities Service has been criticized for using stimulus funds provided under President Barack Obama's administration to subsidize deployment in areas where broadband already existed.

The digital divide is one of the few issues Republicans and Democrats can agree on. Since Obama pledged in his 2011 State of the Union address that high-speed wireless would be available to 98 percent of Americans, there have been fervent discussions about how to get broadband into rural communities.

The issue has also been taken up by President Donald Trump, who's gotten much of his political support in areas where broadband is hard to come by. His infrastructure proposal this year called for $50 billion in rural spending, including on broadband, but so far neither his budget nor the Republican Congress have allocated additional funds for rural broadband deployment.

The farm bill managed to gain strong bipartisan support, largely because American farmers facing stiff Chinese tariffs needed relief. The House of Representatives passed it in a 386-47 vote, while it passed the Senate on Tuesday 87-13. Trump is expected to sign it into law.

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