Rural Infrastructure, Broadband Needs Highlighted – DTN

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is taking a lead in making the case for President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package in rural America.

Buttigieg spoke Tuesday to DTN/Progressive Farmer about the American Jobs Plan, pointing to more funding for roads and bridges, electric vehicles and biofuels, and broadband access.

The secretary affirmed that biofuels would play an important role in the rural economy, pointing to his home area of northern Indiana. Buttigieg said the infrastructure plan would drive more support toward “all forms of advanced renewable energy, including biofuels, which has to be part of how we can get to that net-zero goal by the middle of the century.”

The secretary added he expected to see greater investments in research and development around biofuels and an aggressive push to increase biofuels use in aviation.

“There’s a lot of work to be done here that we want to be led by America, recognizing that if America doesn’t lead, then somebody else may, and that would be to our disadvantage.”

Buttigieg said the president’s infrastructure plan “is going to be critically important to rural America and for agriculture, specifically.” The secretary stressed the importance of focusing on roads and bridges in rural areas.

“We know that a lot of the bridges that need work are in rural areas,” he said, “and we know what happens to a community if the bridge is out or the road infrastructure is inadequate.”

Biden’s package also includes discretionary grants that would be run by the Transportation Department that Buttigieg said would commit at least $3 billion in rural projects such as water treatment and protecting against drought.

The Biden administration is locked into a public campaign as Republicans in Congress push back on the $2.2 trillion infrastructure package. Lawmakers are challenging how items related to areas such as elderly care or child care would be considered as “infrastructure.” At least some Senate Republicans are expected to propose a more scaled-back infrastructure bill possibly by the end of this week, according to the Washington Post.

Citing a World Economic Forum study putting U.S. infrastructure 13th in the world — and falling — Buttigieg said the U.S. needs to move quickly to upgrade.

“We see competitors like China making investments that are positioning them to pull ahead of us,” Buttigieg said. “Even today, a Chinese citizen can expect to have better access to some rail and transit options than an American citizen. We want American citizens to have the best infrastructure in the world.”

RURAL BROADBAND

Like most people these days, Buttigieg immediately turned attention in the discussion about infrastructure and rural America to broadband.

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“We recognize that being connected to the internet is just as important as being connected to the interstate highway system,” Buttigieg said.

The secretary emphasized that the president’s proposal calls for $100 billion in broadband expansion. “Getting to that 100% coverage is going to require a lot of work, but it’s worth it.”

Investing in greater broadband service seems to be an area of bipartisan support. The House Agriculture Committee also held a hearing on rural broadband issues Tuesday. Lawmakers from both parties emphasized the importance of increasing access as more than 24 million Americans have poor or no access.

The hearing included testimony from a private community broadband provider, a rural cooperative offering internet service, Microsoft’s Global Airband Initiative and a group advocating for rapid deployment of different technologies in rural areas. All agreed that areas with low population density are going to need government funding and support to receive better broadband access.

Witnesses gave multiple estimates on solving broadband needs that ranged from $60 billion to $150 billion. They also stressed the importance of deploying networks in rural areas that will stand through time — because they may not get another funding shot anytime soon. Services will need to be maintained, as well, said Jennifer Prather, vice president and general manager of Totelcom Communications in De Leon, Texas.

“If it has taken this long to get broadband, we want to put something in the ground that will last many, many decades because I don’t know when we would get back to them to upgrade,” Prather said, saying a government program should help sustain service once it’s installed.

The witnesses had criticisms as well, though. More effort is needed to avoid duplication in government programs, they said. At the same time, receiving government aid from one agency program in a particular area shouldn’t exclude service providers from taking part in a separate government program in another geographic area. Companies or cooperatives seeking government support need to show they can provide the actual services under contract.

Those who testified also said the Federal Communications Commission or other government entities need to provide better maps of just where the gaps in service are located.

Lawmakers had various stories about the technical loopholes that stop broadband expansion in some areas. Rep. Rick Allen, R-Ga., said exclusivity rights are effectively shutting communities out of broadband expansion.

“All AT&T has to prove is one single household has internet service at 1 to 10 (megabits per second) upload/download speed, and they continue to have exclusive service rights and the county remains living with less Internet access,” Allen said, highlighting examples in his district.

ELECTRIC VEHICLES AND BIOFUELS

Buttigieg, though, also said he saw value in rural America in Biden’s plan to spend as much as $174 billion on electric vehicles, which would include building as many as 500,000 charging stations across the country. The focus on electric vehicles is viewed as a “big city sort of thing,” Buttigieg said, but he plugged them for rural residents, pointing to new pickups about to hit the market.

“It’s really more as you’re in a rural area and you’re driving longer distances and using more fuel that you stand to gain the most from some of the fuel savings that come with that,” the secretary said. “If we can just make sure it’s more affordable, and the charging stations are there, which is another big part of the jobs plan.”

GMC could roll out its electric Hummer next year, priced at around $112,000 fully loaded. As of now, most EV pickups are slated to come out after 2022.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, on Tuesday told reporters electric vehicles are less than 2% of the market right now, and “only the rich can afford them. And we’re subsidizing the rich” with tax credits. Grassley said an infrastructure package would have to champion greater use of biofuels in autos and in aviation fuels.

“It’s going to be a long time before they get what they want to do on EVs, so biofuels have to play a dominate role because it is so environmentally positive compared to petroleum products,” Grassley said.

Late last week, the Renewable Fuels Association laid out some infrastructure goals that could boost biofuel demand (here).

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

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