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Infrastructure Needs of Rural Communities

Infrastructure Needs of Rural Communities

At a recent panel discussion in Washington, DC, four representatives from companies that provide vital infrastructure services to America’s rural communities addressed infrastructure issues important to their missions. The panel was hosted by Farm Credit in collaboration with U.S. Representative Austin Scott (R-GA), Chairman of the Commodity Exchanges, Energy and Credit Subcommittee and U.S. Representative David Scott (D-GA), the subcommittee’s Ranking Member.

The panel members agreed that delivering infrastructure services in rural areas proves more difficult for providers given the sparse population base. At the same time, rural citizens deserve the same access to services as those living in urban areas. As moderator Bob Engel, President and CEO of CoBank, said, “Access to affordable power, reliable broadband, safe drinking water and adequate community facilities, especially surrounding healthcare, should not be determined by ZIP code.”

With an aging population, healthcare is of paramount concern, in rural areas as much as urban. Kelly Arduino, a Partner with Wipfli LLP said, “The density issue is real and it needs to be faced. We need to provide rural healthcare to prevent emergency care, with more of a wellness focus rather than triage. The USDA is helpful in supporting infrastructure needs, but we need a balance between government and private funding.”

Providing such access presents a challenge to rural communications providers. Mike McClain, Chief Strategy Officer for ComSouth, said, “The end customer can’t afford to pay his pro rata share of costs, and rural providers can’t afford to make a $50,000 investment for a $50 a month customer.” However, McClain added, “A farmer three miles down a dirt road needs the same robust broadband connectivity that a Wall Street banker needs. It is an extremely information intensive business these days.” ComSouth is one company working to deliver such high-speed access, and provides phone, internet and cable to 15,000 customers in Georgia.

Disperse populations are also a challenge for water providers. John Glenn, General Manager & COO of Rathbun Rural Water Association in Iowa, pointed out, “Smaller communities, many of which are dwindling in population, can’t afford to upgrade their systems.” However, the need is great: many rural water systems are outdated and are using antiquated material. In Iowa alone, Glenn said, “It’s estimated that it will take $6 billion to improve the water infrastructure; Rathbun serves towns as small as 15 citizens, so the question becomes how to fund the necessary improvements to ensure safe drinking water.

Meeting infrastructure needs in rural areas sometimes requires new approaches. Recognizing the demand for high-speed connectivity within its service territory, Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative (GVEC), which has provided electricity to its member-owners since 1938, diversified into communications services in 1998. “We got into it because no one else in our area would,” said Darren Schauer, General Manager/CEO for GVEC. “In the more rural areas, the needs become evident. As technology evolved and demands for faster internet speeds increased, we started to look into high speed wireless.” GVEC now covers all 3,500 square miles of its territory with high-speed wireless.

The panel discussion underscored the need to implement, improve and modernize internet connectivity as well as the need for communication and collaboration to identify funding solutions to ensure that rural communities receive the same access as their urban friends.

More than 100 congressional leaders and staff, Farm Credit representatives and other interested parties attended the panel.