COLUMBUS, Ohio—As the long wait for broadband continues across much of rural America, an Agriculture Department official told co-op leaders that high-speed internet "is not a luxury."

"It is the digital superhighway of the future that, unless it is available to all Americans, there will be people in this country who are left behind," Jannine Miller, USDA senior advisor for rural infrastructure, told the NRECA Regions 1 & 4 meeting on Sept. 7.

"There is a rebirth of manufacturing going on in this country, and it's very exciting. Where do companies want to put their new plants and want to grow and expand their factories? It happens to be in rural areas," said Miller, adding one caveat: "Broadband is required."

That's just one of many reasons to wire the heartland, Miller said.

"Broadband is vital for education," she said, telling stories of students who have to download their homework to tablets before leaving school or go to fast-food restaurants to use the Wi-Fi.

"This is happening all over the country and it's unacceptable," said Miller, adding that all rural youngsters deserve "the same education benefits that suburban and urban schoolchildren have."

Miller said USDA understands that providing broadband is different from the electricity business, but she stressed that electric co-ops who opt to take up the challenge wouldn't have to go it alone.

"We've seen partnerships formed...where electric cooperatives will work with rural telephone companies, rural telephone cooperatives," she said. "I know that's a new paradigm. It sometimes might be difficult and challenging to do. But the telephone cooperatives and telephone companies understand the industry and are also getting this same call to action to expand broadband, and they're going to need your help and your partnership."

And Miller reiterated how concerned USDA is about broadband.

"Our call-to-action No. 1," she said, "is to connect rural America."

NRECA, NRTC and Ericsson partnered on "The Value of a Broadband Backbone for America's Electric Cooperatives: A Benefit Assessment Study," available on cooperative.com. Also check out several co-op broadband case studies.

Read more news on rural broadband:

Indiana Broadband: State Commits $100M; New Study Shows Value of High-Speed Access

Electric Co-ops Get a Big Boost for Rural Broadband Efforts in FCC Auction

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