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Opinion Pieces by Rob

Rep. Rob Wittman: Working to make the buildout of rural broadband a reality

I want to respond to a recent letter to the editor published in The Free Lance–Star on June 3 regarding efforts to address rural broadband [“When is rural internet access coming?’].

First, I want to thank the writer for his comments and concerns on this issue facing rural Virginia. Furthermore, the coronavirus pandemic has emphasized the increased importance of addressing it.

As Virginians 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.

I have been a steadfast leader for high-speed rural broadband buildout for more than 20 years, dating back to my time on the Westmoreland County Board of Supervisors. Expanding high-speed broadband to the unserved and underserved of Virginia’s First Congressional District has been a benchmark priority during my time in Congress.

This is emphasized by my co-chairmanship on the House Rural Broadband Caucus and the creation of the First District Broadband Taskforce, which has hosted key local, state, and federal broadband leaders, such as Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, former Assistant Secretary for Rural Development of USDA Joel Baxley, and Gov. Ralph Northam’s chief broadband advisor, Evan Feinman.

The coronavirus emergency has only exacerbated the burden of internet insecurity and the consequences of inadequate access for rural Americans.

That is why, in April, I wrote a letter to House and Senate leadership advocating for the inclusion of rural connectivity capabilities in future coronavirus stimulus packages, including key legislation that I have put forward in Congress.

In March, 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 would be awarded to eligible applicants that would consist of a partnership between an internet service provider and a locality—such as a county or planning district commission.

The program will help bring high-speed internet to approximately 19 million Americans—many of whom are in rural communities—bringing them into the 21st-century economy.

As America relies increasingly on technology in everyday life, I will continue to work to make sure rural communities don’t suffer the long-term impacts of the digital divide.

As part of the COVID-19 response, Congress passed the CARES Act, with my support, which provides relief to Americans in many ways.

The law allocates funds specifically to help rural communities connect to broadband internet. In conjunction with providing additional funding to connect underserved populations to the internet, the legislation also appropriates specific funding for remote education, telemedicine, and telework.

As we adhere to proper social distancing practices, I have been holding virtual town halls and meetings on rural broadband expansion.

On June 1, as part of my First District Broadband Task Force, I hosted a virtual fireside chat with FCC Chairman Pai and local government leaders, tribal leaders and key Virginia broadband stakeholders to discuss the FCC’s work on rural broadband buildout, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which provides $20.4 billion for rural broadband, and what we can do to help close the digital divide.

As we all work together to overcome this pandemic, we must not forget the unique challenges of connectivity in rural America.

I have and will continue to work vigorously to pass the Serving Rural America Act as well as facilitate the many other measures to bring greater service to the underserved in our region.

Congressman Rob Wittman represents the First District of Virginia in the U,S. House of Representatives.