MOST AMERICANS TODAY rely on the internet to carry out everyday tasks. Whether they are balancing their checkbooks through online banking platforms or sending emails, access to high-speed broadband has become essential.
When you woke up this morning, you likely opened your smartphone to read through the morning news or scroll through your social media. Well, for nearly 40 percent of Americans living in rural areas, these everyday conveniences are unavailable due to a lack of access to high-speed internet.
More than 23 million people throughout the country have little to no access to high-speed internet and therefore cannot fully experience the benefits of the digital age, such as telemedicine, online education and applications that help small businesses compete in the 21st century.
By giving millions more people access to high-speed broadband, the United States can move Americans in rural areas off the sidelines into the digital world. I, along with my colleagues in Congress and President Donald Trump, have taken great steps to closing the digital divide between urban and rural America.
In February, President Donald Trump announced $50 billion in dedicated funding to rural infrastructure as part of his infrastructure proposal. His plan would award funds directly to states, giving them full flexibility to prioritize their own infrastructure needs. This would allow states the option of spending up to 100 percent of that funding on building and expanding rural broadband access.
In March, Congress passed and the president signed into law a government funding bill that greatly expanded federal support for broadband services. After I sought more funding for rural broadband, the legislation provided upwards of $685 million for the expansion of broadband deployment.
This will create more economic, educational and technology opportunities across the 1st Congressional District and the commonwealth. More specifically, the bill includes $52 million for distance learning and telemedicine grants to help rural communities connect to educational and health care services. Additionally, it created a new broadband grant program, to be implemented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that will be focused on bringing high-speed internet to the truly unserved areas.
While these actions have the potential to greatly improve access to high-speed internet for rural Americans, we cannot stop here. We must continue building on these efforts.
Congress must continue to work alongside the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Federal Communications Commission, the leading agencies with jurisdiction over telecommunications policy, to develop and enact policies that eliminate barriers and encourage broadband investments in rural areas. Last October, I hosted FCC Chairman Ajit Pai at a meeting of state, local and industry stakeholders in my district. At this meeting, we discussed how states and localities can partner with the federal government on policies that bring investments in quality high-speed broadband to rural areas of the commonwealth and the nation at large.
Moving forward, our efforts must take a technologically neutral approach. Many people in rural areas are faced with two or fewer internet service providers, as the providers face challenges to deployment such as government regulations, cost of service and geographic obstacles. An approach that considers all forms of technology creates more service options and allows for new technologies to rapidly connect rural Americans to the digital economy.
Also, we must consider eliminating the labyrinth of red tape and regulations, streamlining the permitting process, and strengthening public-private partnerships. These policies would help spur investments from states, localities and the private sector.
There is no better time to help bring millions of people into the digital world. However, we must ensure that these policies target the truly underserved areas of America. Too often, misguided policies have denied access to those who remain stuck in the dial-up age.
It is no longer acceptable for families to be spending late nights in the parking lot of the local library or McDonald’s as their children use Wi-Fi to finish their homework. With the coordination of Congress and the president, there is a real opportunity to bring underserved regions of Virginia and America into the digital revolution. Achieving this will expand economic opportunity, improve the lives of millions and fuel our economy.
U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman represents Virginia’s 1st Congressional District.