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From Site Selection magazine, September 2018

The Human Smart Grid

Electricity signaled progress a century ago. Broadband sparks it today.


Fiber to the premises could be the key to making the premise of rural prosperity a reality.

In August, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue — a former governor and native son of Georgia who was raised by a farmer and a teacher in the rural town of Perry — announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), through its Electric Infrastructure Loan Program, would invest $345.5 million in 20 infrastructure projects across 14 states. The projects include nearly $8 million for smart grid technology along those new miles of power line.

Those improvements mean a lot to rural territories and electric cooperatives that serve them in parts of southern Illinois, Florida, Colorado, California and Minnesota, among other states. But a separate $97-million investment the USDA announced five days previously could mean just as much in today's tech- and entrepreneur-driven economy. 

The investment supports 12 projects to install or upgrade broadband communications in rural areas from far western Maryland to Native American reservations in the Southwest, establishing the sort of crucial connectivity that in a global internet economy can mean reaching critical mass in terms of business viability.

"A person's location should not determine whether he or she has access to modern communications infrastructure," Secretary Perdue said. "These investments will expand access to educational, social and business opportunities for 22,000 subscribers to help grow their rural communities and America's economy."

"In today's digital age, access to the internet is a necessity for growth in almost any industry," Rob Dixon, now director of the Missouri Department of Economic Development, said in January when the state announced its own new initiative to expand broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas. "This will help ensure that all of Missouri will have the infrastructure needed to support job creation." A northeast Missouri telecommunications firm received a $13.7-million to convert six exchanges from copper to fiber and install nearly 500 route miles of fiber in and around Green City, population 657, located in a spot almost equally remote from Kansas City, Des Moines and St. Louis.

Many states are pursuing programs to connect the countryside to internet-fueled opportunity, based on the rationale that it's just the newest infrastructure requirement for companies and residents alike.

"Business Oregon's infrastructure financing programs are critical to updating water, wastewater, industrial land, and multimodal transportation infrastructure statewide, but particularly in rural communities to advance economic development and community health priorities," said Business Oregon Director Chris Harder in announcing in January the agency's acceptance of proposals from communities for up to $500,000 in funding that can be used for planning, engineering, infrastructure, or as matching funds for rural broadband development. "But to ensure long-term growth thought the state, we must also address 21st century infrastructure needs, and broadband access is critical to rural economic opportunity."

Global Main Street

USDA is making its investments through the Telecommunications Infrastructure Loan Program and the Community Connect Grant Program. The actions come on the heels of the U.S. Congress allotting $600 million for a broadband pilot program. Assistant to the USDA Secretary for Rural Development Anne Hazlett described why the push is so urgent and necessary in an August 2018 post on the USDA website after visiting a south-central Kansas community where everyone is still on dial-up:

"During a gathering at the county courthouse, I listened to many challenges that community leaders face: the need for new business investment, lack of advanced educational opportunity for students, and safety risk for first responders who have to rely on outdated technology," she wrote. "After talking with the sheriff and local officials, I realized that expanding access to broadband would remedy virtually 90 percent of the concerns we discussed. For example, with modern high-speed internet service, small business owners on Main Street could open the door to new a world of new customers through e-commerce. With that impact, my visit was a powerful reminder that much more is at stake in this e-connectivity gap than inconvenience."

In July the USDA opened a public comment period for that new pilot program.

"Secretary Perdue recently described broadband e-connectivity as a 'game changer' for our entire nation," Hazlett wrote. "With that importance, we are committed to partnering with local leaders to ensure that every rural community has an on-ramp to the 'digital superhighway.' Working together, we can build strong, healthy and prosperous communities now and for generations to come."

"Rural business leaders like Mike Pauley of AgriTrails Coop in Hope, Kansas, rely on modern high-speed e-connectivity to keep the doors open," the USDA noted in August after a delegation visited an area still mostly served by dial-up service.
USDA photo by Preston Keres

Adam Bruns
Editor in Chief of Site Selection magazine

Adam Bruns

Adam Bruns is editor in chief and head of publications for Site Selection, and before that has served as managing editor beginning in February 2002. In the course of reporting hundreds of stories for Site Selection, Adam has visited companies and communities around the globe. A St. Louis native who grew up in the Kansas City suburbs, Adam is a 1986 alumnus of Knox College, and resided in Chicago; Midcoast Maine; Savannah, Georgia; and Lexington, Kentucky, before settling in the Greater Atlanta community of Peachtree Corners, where he lives with his wife and daughter.


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