The divide between urban and rural America seems to be growing, but U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue sees an opportunity to bridge that divide, with counties’ help.
Like residents of many rural counties, he sees that bridge to be broadband internet access, and he sees himself as a proponent in the Trump administration for a “moonshot” effort to get ubiquitous broadband access across America.
While speaking to the General Session March 5, he encouraged county officials to spread the use of NACo’s TestIt app, which evaluates the strength of internet connectivity and sends it to a central map, to help give NACo and USDA tangible numbers with which to work as the government seeks to spread broadband internet access.
“These data maps we have basically from the incumbent carriers I don’t think are quite accurate,” he said. “I think you all can be very, very helpful with the data nationwide to report in.
“Those unserved areas, those underserved areas are exactly what we’re looking for.”
He also promoted USDA’s ReConnect program, which is offering $600 million evenly divided among grants, loans and loan-grants combinations to help build rural broadband infrastructure. Grant applications are due April 29, loan and grant combination applications are due May 29 and low-interest loan applications are due June 28.
“Ubiquitous broadband from the major cities to the smallest hamlets is the rural electrification of the 21st century,” he said. “If we’re going to connect one another — rural, urban, suburban — for the benefit of our great country, I think it’s going to require connectivity.”
In some places, he added, “You’ve got kids in your county driving to town 10 to 20 miles to do their homework in a parking lot. Think about the creativity and ingenuity if we could get broadband to every home, every hamlet, every field across America. We need it now, sooner rather than later.”
He sees a lot of common mission and customers with the Small Business Administration and other executive departments, including Housing and Urban Development, particularly as some rural counties transition to become suburban and urban areas.
“Those lines blur, you’ve seen some or your counties transition,” he said. “We’re working together on common policies and protocols and rules and regulations when those things change, how do we work together. Clarity leads to compliance.”
Underlying all of those efforts, though, is a strong connection among the federal, state and local levels, which Perdue thinks, particularly after inviting county elected officials to the White House, the Trump administration is building.
“We want to be on your side, our building doesn’t get bigger or better without a strong foundation,” he said.
Perdue reflected on his own service in county government, as a Houston County, Ga. Planning & Zoning Commission member in the 1980s.
“It was the best experience I could have for a public official — it taught me how to listen,” he said. “We saw the right to own property colliding with the tension for the community good — that I can do with my property most everything I want as long as it doesn’t affect my neighbors. It taught me how proud we were of our communities, our neighborhoods and our properties.”
He also remarked that he only worked in an advisory role for the county, and that the big decisions were left to the elected officials.