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Rural broadband is the gateway to better politics

At a time when it’s almost a cliché to lament our broken politics, one vital area of policy has the chance to break the partisan stranglehold that too often freezes Congress in place – solving the rural digital divide.

Nearly 10 percent of America – and 19 percent of households in New Mexico – lack access to high-speed internet service, an affliction that keeps large swaths of the country cut off from the tidings of the digital age, from always-on music and video to the burgeoning world of digital assistants and the internet of things.

To be sure, America’s broadband system is a marvel and overall continues to lead the world. U.S. states and the District of Columbia account for 11 of the top 20 regions with the fastest internet in the world. The Economist reports we have the third-most inclusive, affordable and accessible network of any country. In just the past year, U.S. speeds have gone up 35 percent.

And that doesn’t just mean better access to news and entertainment. It’s the oil in the engine speeding the development of next-generation technologies – the internet of things, green energy, blockchains, driverless cars, smart cities and just about everything else we need to compete locally and globally.

Most interesting is smart farming – a new generation of technologies designed to boost production of healthy foods while preserving the ecosystem with integrated production, harvesting and waste operations. Sustainable agriculture, vertical farming and climate smart agriculture are the wave of our food security future – and the Chinese and Indians are investing heavily in it. America should, too.

But these technologies – and the efficiency of American agriculture, both traditional and next generation, depend on digital savvy. We can’t compete against wired connected farm operations with last-generation tractors and pitchforks. And with the predictable blow of a burgeoning trade war where American farmers appear to be the sacrificial lamb, the urgency is greater than ever.

That’s why the rural digital divide is such a pressing problem that leaders of both parties should be stepping up to solve – especially since the afflicted areas tend to be in bipartisan, purple states, places like Luce and Troy counties in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where the majority of residents don’t have a fixed broadband provider at all, or rural western Pennsylvania, where 3.5 million residents live in areas with high-speed service gaps.

But just as sure as the darkest moment is before the dawn, there is a glimmer of hope now as Congressional leaders on a bipartisan basis are pushing a major reform in the farm bill to wire rural communities with broadband – especially those places (such as much of New Mexico) universally believed to be impossible to wire because of their relatively small population, and the huge land masses and distances between users.

The Senate version of the farm bill pending now in Congress has a plan to solve this problem.

It reforms broadband loan and infrastructure programs to ensure funds are laser targeted on areas that are currently unserved by high-speed internet. It enlists the two federal agencies with the most experience in broadband deployment – the FCC and the NTIA – to map out and prioritize the unserved areas.

And most importantly, it puts a stop to corporate manipulation that would divert funds needed to wire unserved rural areas into areas where broadband service is already available – putting an end to the wasteful practice where federal broadband funds are diverted to areas already served by the private sector, doubling up broadband for the “haves,” while leaving the real “have nots” marooned in the analog past.

The Senate farm bill’s broadband provisions, led by Republican Pat Roberts from Kansas and Democrat Debbie Stabenow from Michigan, will not alone solve all of the problems for America’s farmers. But they are a start, and an important one. And it’s a start in the right place – availing the digital tools that are the minimal requirements for the next phase of global competition in farming.

It would be one small step to fix our broken politics and one giant step to modernize rural America.