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CONNECT THE COUNTRY: A USDA Rural Development loan will help deliver high-speed internet to rural customers.

More good news for rural broadband expansion

A USDA loan to a rural Indiana co-op will bring “connectivity to the country.”

Technology that you never dreamed possible is here today. Someone told my parents in the 1970s that scientists predicted someday people would be able to see people they talked with on the telephone. I remember them glancing at the black, standard-issue, rotary dial phone on the desk and just laughing. Yet today, our daughter in Atlanta, Ga., watches her 3-year-old niece on the phone at least once a week. It’s called FaceTime. Anyone with a smartphone can do this.

You don’t need broadband for that innovation, but you do need it to accomplish many tasks the digital revolution has brought to agriculture. To upload aerial images from unmanned aerial vehicle flights quickly, for example, you need a fast broadband connection. Try explaining that technology to someone from the “greatest generation.”

When I grew up in the 1960s, an often-repeated jingle on FM radio was in an ad from the local Rural Electric Membership Cooperative. It went like this: “Who brought lights to the country? REMC!” In fact, one of Fred Whitford’s books about the early days of Purdue University Extension features a picture of the first electric pole erected for the Johnson County REMC, circa 1937. Dignitaries gathered on a rural road to watch. It was a big deal.

Today, the big deal is bringing high-speed broadband internet service to rural areas. The same paradigm exists. Large companies found it profitable to deliver electricity to cities and towns with lots of people. That’s why farmers banded together to form co-ops to serve areas the “big guys” didn’t want to serve.

New day

Fast-forward 80-plus years. The “big guys” brag about super-fast internet service, but I struggle to get service in my home, and I live 25 miles from the state capital. Once again, companies are first serving areas where they can reap the quickest return on their investment.

That’s why Gov. Eric Holcomb’s pledge to invest $100 million in rural broadband announced in 2018 was so crucial. The 2019 Legislature made it part of the state budget. Grant programs to turn that commitment and funding into high-speed signals in rural homes and farmsteads are underway.

Meanwhile, Michael Dora, a Rushville farmer and state director of Rural Development for USDA, recently announced an investment of over $14.3 million to improve and extend rural broadband in Indiana. Specifically, it’s a loan from USDA Rural Development to the Washington County Rural Telephone Cooperative based in Pekin.  

The co-op wants to convert a legacy-copper system to an active ethernet fiber-to-the-premises network. FTTP networks allow connection from a central office or remote terminal via dedicated home-run fiber to rural customers, including farm families. Once completed, this voice-and-internet system will provide rural residents with download and upload speeds of 1 Gb. Translated, even if you’re farming in the backwoods of south-central Indiana, you will be “connected” to the digital revolution.

This loan was part of a $152 million investment in 20 projects across the U.S. by USDA, Dora notes. Some projects received grants; others could access loans, as in this case.

It’s more good news for those who strongly believe in “internet to the last mile” in Indiana. Someday you may hear your kids or grandkids say, “Who brought connectivity to the country? Co-ops and state and federal agencies who invested in them.”

Comments? Email tom.bechman@farmprogress.com.

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