In rural America the internet crawls… and that’s if rural households have internet access at all. In some rural places broadband connections simply aren’t available, and in many areas the service that does exist is slow and expensive and delivered by the only internet service provider (ISP) available, so there’s no competition to drive improvement. The Trump Administration’s repeal of net neutrality only exacerbates the monopoly many rural internet service providers have and heightens the lack of access for farmers and rural residents.
As of 2016, 39 percent of rural communities lacked access to a true broadband internet connection with a minimum download speed of 25 Mbps (compare this to only 4% of urban households). That means more than 10 million households have no access to broadband, and more than 40 million households have only one provider offering a connection with broadband speeds. This monopoly allows rural providers to charge exceedingly high rates for marginal service.
Despite a huge investment in rural broadband infrastructure early in Obama’s presidency, the “digital divide” continues to plague rural areas and it will only be exacerbated by the demise of net neutrality.
The loss of net neutrality will further hinder competition. Service providers can now speed up the delivery of content from businesses that are willing to pay, and businesses are more likely to pay for this delivery in urban areas with higher population densities.
This will result in an increased investment in infrastructure in urban areas-- and decreased investment in rural places. And small businesses in rural areas are less likely to be able to pay a premium to market their products to potential customers--meaning they’ll lose important online exposure.
A decent broadband connection can be a lifeline for small, isolated rural communities. Access to the internet is vital for growing small businesses, for providing educational opportunities for rural students, for accessing medical care that is often unavailable in rural communities and for giving rural residents access to important government services which are increasingly being delivered online.
What other important rural constituency requires access to broadband internet and will be harmed by the repeal of net neutrality? Farmers.
According to a recent USDA study, only 71 percent of American farms are online. The vast majority of these are connecting through weak or unreliable methods like satellite or mobile hotspots. Only 8 percent of farms are connected through fiber.
From weather forecasting to product promotion to networking with other growers, broadband internet isn't a luxury-- it’s vital.
And this week, on the same day Trump’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted along party lines to dismantle net neutrality, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced online delivery of all new farm bill programs. A broadband connection was a necessity before, but it’s now become a lifeline for rural farmers to access government services like conservation programs.
Whether you’re a new farmer applying for a government loan, a disadvantaged or veteran farmer looking for training, or a community food project seeking assistance in addressing food insecurity, if you don’t have a reliable and affordable high speed internet connection, this policy change coupled with the demise of net neutrality will likely affect your ability to access USDA programs and services.
USDA’s announcement of online delivery of farm bill programs on the very same day Trump’s FCC dismantled net neutrality is a slap in the face of rural residents, farmers, and small business owners-- many of whom were among Trump’s most important constituencies.
Rural America paved Trump’s way to victory, and the repeal of net neutrality is yet another way his policies run counter to their best interests (we made a list of other ways Trump’s policies negatively impact rural Americans a few months ago, and sadly that list continues to grow).
In the race for equal access to the internet, rural America hasn’t even reached the starting line, and the Trump Administration has made clear it has no plans to fix the digital divide.