The Delta Grassroots Caucus (DGC) is a broad coalition of grassroots leaders in the eight-state Delta region. DGC is also a founding partner of the Economic Equality Caucus,
which advocates for economic equality across the USA.

Broadband Expansion Provisions in Economic Stimulus--More Information

Posted on November 03, 2009 at 06:42 PM

Expanding broadband access to underserved areas of the Delta is a vital issue for the region’s advancement, and the economic stimulus package of 2009 has $7.2 billion in funding for that purpose. This provision in the stimulus has tremendous potential for improving the economy in the Delta and other impoverished areas, but how the funding is spent is always crucial, and we would like to convey information about how some of the funding is being used.

One development involved $2 million in funding recently announced from the Dept. of Commerce to a nonprofit organization to map how much of Arkansas has access to broadband, and this appears to be a useful step in discerning which areas most need the funding. All 50 states are expected to get similar preliminary grants for mapping out where the needs are greatest.

A second key issue involves USDA requirements regarding eligibility for the grants to actually roll out the broadband services, and the first round of this expenditure is scheduled to begin this month. At a recent Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing, Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas raised legitimate questions about USDA’s definition of what areas are “remote” in making decisions regarding the grants. Currently areas are viewed as “remote” and thus meet a key requirement for the grants only if they are at least 50 miles from an urban center.

Sen. Pryor developed a map demonstrating that only two small areas in Arkansas would meet that definition: Baxter, Fulton, Izard, and Marion counties and parts of 11 other counties. If this definition is rigidly applied it could mean that substantial areas of the underserved Delta would not be eligible for the funding to expand broadband access.

In a comment at the hearing that was quoted in an article by Alex Daniels published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Sen. Pryor said to USDA Rural Development officials “I hope you’ll take into consideration the situation on the ground and not just use an arbitrary ‘x number of miles’ in determining what is remote.”

The Delta Caucus wholeheartedly agrees with Sen. Pryor’s position. A rural area that happens to be 40 miles or so from a city in many cases could be suffering from lack of access to broadband. The Delta Caucus has conveyed our concerns and our support for Sen. Pryor’s position to high-level USDA Rural Development officials, several of whom recently spoke at our annual conference in Washington, DC.

The Administrator of the Rural Utilities Service and other Rural Development officials are considering our views. RUS Administrator Jonathan Adelstein said “We’re going to completely revisit that in the next round of funding.” The Rural Utilities Service and the Dept. of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration are the two agencies running the broadband expansion program.

Desha County Judge Mark McElroy was also quoted in the Democrat-Gazette article, saying that high-speed internet service is not available in many areas of his county, and that broadband can act as a tool to improve the local economy. McElroy was quoted in the article as saying that “The Internet can put us on Main Street with New York” and allow Delta residents to sell goods and services worldwide.

The Delta unfortunately lags far behind the rest of the country in broadband access, which in today’s world is often described as just as essential as the Rural Electrification Administration’s work in the 1930s in bringing electricity to remote areas throughout the country.

The $2 million in Dept. of Commerce funding to map out Arkansas’ underserved areas will go to a nonprofit organization, Connect Arkansas, and is a preliminary grant that all 50 states are eventually expected to receive. This mapping of underserved areas is important in the process of discerning which areas most need the funding, so it is an important step in monitoring how the funding is being used.

The grant to Connect Arkansas will include $1.6 million to collect data and develop a map of where broadband service is available in the state, and also approximately $500,000 to do a high-speed Internet plan. It is clear that the Delta lags far behind in this key area. For example, the 2008 State New Economy Index that measures how the states rank on technological and entrepreneurship issues, ranked Arkansas 49th in the country. Mississippi, Alabama, and other states in the Delta Regional Authority area also unfortunately had low rankings.

We applaud the leadership of people like Sen. Pryor, Desha County Judge McElroy, and Bob Dansby, head of the Edgenics Corporation, a national company that is doing extensive work now in expanding broadband access in the Greater Delta Region. Thanks very much–Lee Powell, executive director, MDGC (202) 360-6347