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Opinion Pieces by Rob

Rob Wittman column: We can't leave rural America behind

As it has for most Americans, the coronavirus has significantly disrupted my daily life. As we adhere to social distancing practices, I am holding telephone town halls and virtual meetings, and I hear from folks in Virginia’s First District about how this crisis is affecting their health and financial independence. As Americans have been adapting to a new way of life during the coronavirus outbreak, high-speed internet access has become a necessity, now more than ever.

In Virginia, our schools have been shuttered and our health care facilities have limited space and access. With the increased dependence on telework, distance learning and telehealth, our telecommunications infrastructure must be able to handle increased capacity and build out connectivity to our most vulnerable. While high-speed internet access is easily available to our urban areas, our rural — and some of our suburban — communities have been caught at a standstill.

According to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), 21.3 million rural Americans still lack access to adequate high-speed internet. Moreover, an estimated 600,000 Virginians lack adequate internet access, according to the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. Reliable high-speed internet connectivity is critical to economic development, education, quality telemedicine and the ability of state and local officials to communicate with their constituencies.

The coronavirus emergency has only exacerbated the burden of internet insecurity on rural Americans and the consequences of this inadequate access. During this unprecedented time, our schools, students and teachers are grappling with the unique challenges that come with turning to online learning. Additionally, rural students who don’t have access to high-speed broadband face a steeper uphill climb. In order to complete assignments, they might have to travel to a classmate’s or friend’s house, or sit in a McDonald’s parking lot miles away to access needed educational materials. This expands the “homework gap” effect many rural students experience and it could be devastating, with long-term implications.

As our health care system is overloaded with coronavirus patients, it is key that people with illnesses not related to the coronavirus have access to telehealth services. Telehealth can prevent patients from attending a brick-and-mortar health care provider. That eliminates person-to-person contact in a facility that might increase a patient’s risk of spreading the coronavirus while reducing the practitioner’s risk of contracting the virus. Unfortunately, telehealth is not a reality for millions of rural American households due to inadequate broadband access.

As the federal government continues to negotiate plans to respond to the coronavirus outbreak, it is vital that Congress take steps to close the digital divide for rural Americans and make certain that Americans in every region are prepared if a similar emergency arrives in the future.

That is why I introduced the Serving Rural America Act. The legislation would create a pilot grant program at the FCC, authorizing $500 million over five years to expand broadband service to unserved areas of the country. Under the act, grants will be awarded to eligible applicants that will consist of a partnership between an internet service provider and a locality (such as a county or planning district commission). Moreover, the program prioritizes the funding to areas without 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload capabilities.

The program will help bring high-speed internet to approximately 19 million Americans, many of whom are in rural communities — thus, bringing them into the 21st-century economy. As America relies increasingly on technology in everyday life, I will continue to work to make sure that rural communities don’t suffer the long-term impacts of the digital divide.

The Serving Rural America Act also looks to achieve improvements in our national broadband mapping accuracy by including site-specific testing in service areas and periodic testing to monitor whether awarded applicants are meeting the service buildout requirements obligated in the project description. Moreover, this act would allow members of the public to submit a challenge to the FCC to determine whether the project would duplicate existing broadband service in the proposed service area.

As we all work together to overcome this pandemic, we must not forget the unique challenges of connectivity in rural America. This virus has changed every aspect of our lives and has the potential to transform the way we work, learn and receive medical treatment. I will work vigorously to pass the Serving Rural America Act as it can impact millions of Americans. And, as we move forward with legislation to combat the coronavirus crisis, we must make sure not to leave rural America behind.