By Jason Llorenz
Last year, I wrote about the need for Congress to reform a decade-old program that has failed in its mission of bridging the Digital Divide in rural America:
A case in point is the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utility Service, whose Farm Bill-funded Broadband Loan program has come under fire for failing its core mission. This program is supposed to provide loans, over $300 million authorized this year alone, to build out broadband service in under-served and rural areas. But advocates and analysts say the loans have been misdirected to non-rural areas that already have a broadband provider – as illustrated by a report from the Department’s Inspector General.
Sadly, the Broadband Loan program has not been reformed in the year since, and Congress is considering whether to further fund the program in this year’s Farm Bill, which is being considered in the Senate this week. It’s a unique opportunity for Hispanic Digital Divide activists to speak up and advocate for real change.
The Broadband Loan program has not dispersed a new loan in almost three years, meaning that hundreds of millions of dollars more are sitting unused while 10 million households continue to go without even the option of subscribing to broadband service. Congress can dramatically improve the program by requiring the Department of Agriculture to specifically target these funds to areas without any broadband networks so that we are spending our resources in the areas in which they will have the most dramatic and immediate impact. Congress may also consider recasting the program as one that gives grants, not loans, to create more incentives for applicants to roll the dice on what would otherwise be a very expensive and risky gamble.
On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry will begin its mark-up of the 2012 Farm Bill. Click here to find Senators who are Committee members and to find contact information.
Jason A. Lorenz, Esq. is Executive Director, the Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership (HTTP). Follow on Twitter: @hispanicttp. www.httponline.org.