Ten years ago, President Bill Clinton declared a need to “bridge the digital divide” separating those with broadband high speed Internet service from those, predominantly in rural areas, with either no access or slow dial-up connections.

Today, unfortunately, “The divide remains,” says Lawrence Strickling, assistant secretary for communications and information for the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

At a hearing by a House agriculture subcommittee, he cited a Pew Internet and American Life Project study showing that only 38 percent of rural American households subscribe to broadband service at home. That compares to 57 percent for cities and 60 percent for suburbs.

But those figures are by no means definitive, Strickling notes, because “at this moment no federal agency has collected comprehensive and reliable data” on the current state of broadband in rural America.

Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, he said, plans call for mapping grants to every state and territory that will result in a national broadband map by February 2011. Congress also provided funds to accelerate deployment of broadband services to rural communities.

Depending on the source, U.S. broadband is a shabby, overpriced also-ran compared to other nations, or is actually pretty good in terms of service and value. Again, no definitive data.

Regardless, deployment of broadband is critical to the growth of rural communities, according to a report by USDA’s Economic Research Service, which concluded that high speed Internet access can boost the economic base, increase employment and off-farm earnings, broaden educational opportunities, and offer greater access to medical knowledge and providers.

“It is often the key factor that can level the economic playing field, provide rural businesses access to national and international markets, and allow new, small, and home-based businesses to thrive,” Jonathan Adelstein, administrator for USDA’s Rural Utilities Service, said at the House subcommittee hearing.

“We are now applying our technical skills, historical knowledge, and financial expertise gained over the past 75 years to meet the new challenge of deploying next-generation broadband capability in rural communities.” The Recovery Act includes $2.5 billion for rural broadband deployment.

Earlier, the Congressional Rural Caucus urged the Federal Communications Commission to address the needs of rural America as it develops a national broadband plan.

“In recent years, rural states have seen a brain drain, causing us to lose our most vital economic assets to more populated areas,” Co-Chair Adrian Smith of Nebraska said at a meeting of the caucus with FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. “Broadband is one of the tools we have to counter this brain drain.”

Co-Chair Travis Childers of Mississippi said, “Basic broadband service is no longer a luxury — it’s a necessity for strengthening our rural communities and fueling economic development. We look forward to continuing to work with the FCC in creating a broadband strategy that works for rural America.”

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com