Rep. Glenn "GT" Thompson (PA-15), Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, delivered the following opening remarks at today's full committee hearing entitled, "Closing the Digital Divide in Rural America."
Remarks as prepared for delivery:
"Throughout this Congress, the House Committee on Agriculture has had countless discussions on ways we can empower our farm families and build a robust rural economy. A pillar of these discussions is providing rural communities with access to high-speed, affordable, and reliable broadband internet connectivity.
"The digital divide has left many Americans unable to access dependable, fast internet service. Disconnected Americans lose opportunities to their grow businesses, acquire new skills, or even engage in daily activities.
"While I am fortunate to live in an area which offers quality Internet service to my home, my district is not immune to these challenges.
"I represent 18 counties, totaling one-third of the landmass in rural Pennsylvania. I can tell you, there exists a checkerboard of connectivity.
"Americans without high-speed Internet access are slipping further behind as more and more aspects of American society are conducted online.
"Despite decades of effort and billions of dollars spent, too many communities are still on the wrong side of the divide.
"With its unique reach, expertise, and experience serving rural America, USDA’s Rural Utilities Service or RUS is well-positioned to serve as a leading role in our nation’s rural broadband strategy.
"Contrary to other federal agencies working to close the digital divide, USDA is the only federal agency that has offices and devoted staff in all 50 states, enabling constituents to have direct access to those who are reviewing, implementing, and managing connectivity programs to meet the needs of rural communities.
"The House Committee on Agriculture has worked hard on a bipartisan basis to close the connectivity gap, including through the 2018 Farm Bill. These modifications were the result of years of work to create policies and programs that address the difficulties faced by rural communities.
"Sadly, too many of those policies and programs remain dormant.
"These include programs and policies that address qualifying areas, long-term network viability, support for our most remote communities, and program integrity.
"However, last Congress, this Committee introduced, marked up, and passed unanimously bipartisan legislation, H.R. 4374, the Broadband Internet Connections for Rural America Act or BICRAA, which set the stage for a historic commitment and investment in rural broadband, and for us to finally close the digital divide.
"Specifically, the bill:
- Codified the ReConnect program and merged it with USDA’s existing retail rural broadband program;
- Provided last mile technical and financial assistance to rural communities seeking to improve their broadband service;
- Ensured accurate mapping of broadband connectivity in rural areas;
- Promoted borrower accountability and protecting taxpayers with new tools to ensure promised services are delivered to rural communities;
- Increased resources available to build out middle-mile infrastructure, and;
- Allocated funds to invest in distance learning and telemedicine capabilities.
"While this bill did not receive Floor consideration in the 117th Congress, it will be the foundation for the broadband subtitle in the 2023 Farm Bill.
"Which brings us to today, where we will hear directly from stakeholders about the importance of USDA broadband programs. It is also an opportunity to discuss important policy ideas, including minimum eligibility requirements, buildout speed requirements, workforce and supply chain issues, broadband mapping and agency coordination, as well as precision agriculture programs.
"I have always said the best policies come when we work together. I look forward to continuing to work with the Ranking Member on crafting the broadband provisions for the 2023 Farm Bill.
"Together, we can provide the Department of Agriculture the tools it needs to bring broadband connectivity to rural America quickly and responsibly, and with sustainability. Simply put, we must meet the current and future needs in rural America.
"We have a great panel of witnesses today who understand the challenges and complexity of rural broadband networks, bring innovative solutions to life, and most importantly, serve their communities.
"I appreciate each of them for making time to be with us today and look forward to the conversation."
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