Federal ag department looks to co-ops to lead broadband development

by Steve Blum • , , ,

At least one member of the Trump administration isn’t trying to smack local broadband initiatives with a preemption sledgehammer. Agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue spoke to a gathering of representatives of rural electric cooperatives. Those are (usually) small electric systems that are organised as buyer cooperatives – electric customers are the owners. The federal agriculture department has been subsidising them for more than 80 years. Many of those co-ops have branched off into the broadband business, also with subsidies from the agriculture department’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS).

Perdue likes that idea. He said the expansion of broadband infrastructure and service is “rural electrification of the 21st century”…

We are at the beginning, I think, of a seismic shift in technology and when you think just the beginning, you said, well, the Internet’s been around for how many years? Well, only 15 or so. When you think about that – how quickly it comes upon us, how quickly we become dependent on these technological advances. The partnership between rural electric cooperatives and the federal, state and local communities, I believe, can be, must be revolutionary in the change. I think it will be literally transformative around our country as we participate with you, as you participate with local, state and federal authorities to make sure this happens, just like it happened beginning in 1936 with the [rural electrification] act. You got the potential to do the very same thing in the 21st century.

The big question on the table now is what will he do with the $600 million that congress set aside for new broadband grants and loans. Perdue said his department is working on it. He didn’t offer any details, although he encouraged rural cooperatives to offer ideas on how the money should be spent.

Looked at one way, Perdue’s speech is a genuine plus for independent broadband development in the U.S. His good words and encouragement for rural cooperatives are 100% in line with federal agriculture department policy and practice. Which is great if you live in the midwest or south, where rural cooperatives are thick on the ground – RUS broadband programs are custom tailored to serve them.

That’s not so good for California, or many western states, where the utility cooperative model didn’t take hold with the same enthusiasm. There are only three in California – in Riverside, Modoc and Plumas and Sierra counties – and as a result, RUS broadband money tends to go to other states. Perdue is right about the valuable role cooperatives play, where they exist, but he needs to expand his department’s thinking about how to get the same results where they don’t.