Millions of Americans do not have access to reliable broadband Internet service, and the inequality is particularly striking in rural America. The rural broadband gap translates into lost opportunities to develop businesses, learn new skills, educate our children or even participate in daily activities.
I represent a sprawling rural district that encompasses nearly 25% of the Pennsylvania landmass. While I am fortunate to live in an area with high quality internet service all the way to my house a few miles away, my neighbors are on the wrong side of the digital divide. It’s like that in my district and across the country, with the digital haves and have-nots on the same road creating a checkerboard of connectivity.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the rural broadband emergency as much of American life has moved online – from work to education to medicine. But connectivity challenges in rural communities predate this pandemic, and Americans without high-speed internet access are being left behind. As the Republican leader of the House Agriculture Committee and a senior member of the House Education and Labor Committee, I have seen marginalized rural residents without access to e-commerce or shared commercial services, who are increasingly relevant today.
But it’s not just about goods and services. Horror stories of home schooling are very common, as many families can go to the nearest library, grocery store or fast food restaurant to sit in the parking lot, connect to the Public Wi-Fi and attempt to complete homework. Virtual learning is almost impossible when students do not have access to a reliable internet connection.
It’s a story we’ve seen before. For more than 200 years America has built communications and transportation networks, each of which has helped bring this vast nation together and bridge the gaps of their times. Canals and the post office gave way to railways and telegraphs, which in turn gave way to highways and telephones. Today, we are continuing these efforts by developing our modern communication network, the Internet.
Congress has tried to tackle the development and deployment of rural broadband for years. In 2018, we passed an agricultural bill that addressed rural and regional development issues across the country. The Farm Act established a minimum standard broadband connection for rural service areas and imposed stringent new construction requirements to ensure that broadband networks funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) meet the needs. long-term rural residents. The bill also targets limited resources, so aid is focused on the most rural and least connected residents, who are often the most expensive to connect.
While the Farm Bill was a step in the right direction, we must continue to look for ways to bring rural America into the 21st century. That’s why, in July, the House Agriculture Committee passed bipartisan legislation to expand USDA’s rural broadband programs to meet the needs of every rural community, nationwide. The Broadband Internet Connections for Rural America Act is a plan to invest $ 43.2 billion in USDA broadband rural development programs by:
â¢ Provide last mile technical and financial assistance to rural communities seeking to improve their broadband service.
â¢ Ensure accurate mapping of broadband connectivity in rural areas.
â¢ Increase the resources available to build intermediate infrastructure.
â¢ Authorize the funding of grants to small rural communities.
â¢ Allocate funds to invest in distance learning and telemedicine capabilities.
USDA has the expertise, experience, and resources to bring these investments to rural America quickly and responsibly. Together with President David Scott, D-Ga., Our committee paved the way for this historic investment. This bill recognizes the tremendous work the USDA continues to do to foster the development and deployment of broadband connectivity.
Like the networks of previous generations, universally available broadband will connect the furthest reaches of our country. And like those previous networks, it will bring untold economic, social, and cultural prosperity to all Americans, rural and urban.
Now is the time for Congress to take seriously solutions to bridge the digital divide in rural America. Our bipartisan bill was passed unanimously by the House Agriculture Committee because it is good policy and proves that we can overcome our greatest challenges when we work together.
(Thompson, R-Center, is the Republican leader of the House agriculture committee and represents the 15th District of Pennsylvania. This comment was originally posted online in The hill October 11.)