Rural Broadband Plan Detours to the Suburbs

Thursday, April 16, 2009

President Barack Obama has said repeatedly that his administration is committed to shrinking the digital divide and getting rural America on the Internet through broadband services in order to help small businesses and improve access to health care and distance learning programs. But that effort, and its $2.5 billion dollar price tag, is in danger of crashing unless the federal office in charge redefines the word “rural” and starts doing a better job of spending its money.

According to a new federal report, the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) has spent 90% of its grants for broadband expansion in areas of the country that not only are near big cities, but already have high-speed Internet service. The inspector general for the US Department of Agriculture reported that 148 communities that received RUS grants were within 30 miles of cities with more than 200,000 people, including communities outside Chicago and Las Vegas. The bad news about RUS was nothing new, A report in 2005 criticized the RUS for using an unusually broad definition of “rural” and found problems with approximately 25% of the funds it had distributed, including a $45 million loan to bring broadband to the affluent suburbs of Houston.
-Noel Brinkerhoff
Broadband Internet Access and the Digital Divide: Federal Assistance Programs (Lennard G. Kruger and Angele A. Gilroy, Congressional Research Service) (PDF)


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