Fiber-optic installation in Norton, Vertmont.(AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

The Biden Administration has promised to spend up to twenty billion dollars to increase broadband infrastructure in rural America. Without question, high-speed broadband is essential to participation in the 21st Century economy as well as access to many educational and healthcare services. Yet, today, a significant percentage of rural communities do not have broadband access and, even when they do, it is often of inferior quality.

To get the most out of the Biden Administration’s promised investment in broadband, the nation should make sure that it provides rural and small town Americans with the necessary means to utilize the Internet to create economic opportunity.  With such a purpose in mind, a group of us presented to the Obama Administration in 2009 a proposal for a new tool (which we called the Rural Development Network-RDN) expressly focused on providing information on economic development to rural and small town America. The Obama Administration rejected the proposal on the ground that it was unnecessary given USDA’s existing programing.  Now, given the continued economic barriers being faced by those living outside urban areas and the current significant urban-rural political divide, we hope that the Biden Administration will revisit the issue and consider creating RDN. 

Under our proposal RDN would provide a suite of cross-platform applications to disseminate information to and from rural America—Internet, television, radio,  mobile and press. It could be operated by USDA (Rural Development), the Department of  Commerce (Economic Development Administration), a non-profit corporation created by Congress (something like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) or by a private non-profit organization funded in part through Federal grants.

The “Broadcast” module would be in the nature of a traditional television/radio network blending aspects of C-Span and the former Pentagon Channel but with a rural economic development focus.  The module would be available over the Internet, television apps (through Fire Stick, Roku, etc.), cable systems, satellite providers, and through traditional broadcast stations (particularly subchannels).  Similarly, the content would be available over free and subscriber radio.

The Website Module of RDN would feature indexed and archived educational programming available for easy viewing, a platform for the exchange of rural development ideas, “ask the expert” programming whereby users could obtain immediate advice from USDA and the Economic Development Administration (and their state counterparts), a rural development “Wikipedia” component, a “Craig’s List” type platform and marketing tools to assist rural and small-town companies in advertising their products nationally and internationally.    

The Mobile Module would allow users to interactively participate in governmental and non-governmental events, download podcasts, and receive instant rural development news updates.  It would also incorporate a rural development “Twitter” component and mobile phone application limited to rural economic development news and comments.

The Press Module would support the distribution of news and information at a hyper-local level as well as through regional publications.  It would also be a platform for local journalists to publish stories on economic development in their communities.   

RDN’s anchor program would be a two hour daily news show broadcast from USDA and/or the Department of Commerce and would focus on rural economic development issues. Content would include: (i) promotion and coverage of USDA, Commerce and  Congressional events, (ii) in-depth interviews with USDA’s and Commerce’s leadership and other experts in rural development, (iii) programs focusing on each of USDA’s mission areas and the Economic Development Administration, (iv) coverage of non-profit educational events, (v)  programs highlighting rural development success stories, (vi) programs on rural tourism (nature, history, recreational, entertainment, restaurants), (vii) programs marketing rural America goods and services, (viii) minority outreach programming, and (ix) programming focusing on rural colleges. 

RDN’s content would highlight programing created by rural educational institutions (including community colleges) as well as land grant universities. It would also work closely with state and local economic development agencies in creating new content.   

Finally, a key component of RDN would be to help create a “Rural and Small Town  America” brand for purposes of both domestic and international marketing of goods and services from the heartland. Part of this branding initiative would be highlighting successful manufacturers and service providers located in rural and small town America.

By supporting the creation of RDN the Biden Administration would demonstrate its commitment to rural America and help ensure that there will be an economic return on the nation’s investment in rural broadband.  We hope the Biden Administration will consider such an initiative.

Gary Marx has practiced law in Washington D.C. for four decades. He is the managing partner of Marx and Lieberman, PLLC and is corporate counsel at the governmental affairs firm of Van Scoyoc Associates, Inc.

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