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OP-ED: In the Growing Digital Divide, Rural Missouri is Getting Left Behind

April 10, 2018
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Highspeed internet is a critical component of our twenty-first century economy, affecting virtually every aspect of American life. It is unfortunate that rural communities are all too often left behind from the promise and prosperity of this modern technology. The FCC reports that less than half of rural Missourians have access to high-speed internet (defined as a minimum of 25 Megabits per second or Mbps download speed). Without broadband access, Missouri localities have difficulty attracting new businesses, police and emergency services sometimes lose their connection to state networks and students are disadvantaged compared to those in cities and suburbs. A recent study found that rural counties with less rural broadband connectivity had lower incomes and higher unemployment than counties that had it. As Sharon Strover from the University of Texas told the Wall Street Journal, “Having access to broadband is simply keeping up. Not having it means sinking.”

More than three-quarters of Americans now own a smartphone. When I was growing up, we only had three major broadcast networks. Now, 55 million Americans are Netflix subscribers – and entertainment companies are rushing to develop and grow their own streaming services. At the same time, the “Internet of Things,” the devices and systems in our everyday lives which connect to the web and communicate with each other, may expand to as many as 200 billion devices by 2020.

As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, the extraordinary broadband revolution will only continue to remake every aspect of how we live, learn, and work. Therefore, it is imperative that rural communities in Missouri can share the same opportunities as those in major cities.

We have to do better. Being connected is not a luxury; it is a necessity. Rural Americans cannot be treated as second-class citizens. Our economies, livelihoods, and future relies on high-speed internet access just as much as those of our fellow Americans from cities and suburbs.  However, expanding internet access to rural communities has large up-front costs for internet service providers because of the need to physically lay fiber or cable across large areas with low populations. The federal government can and should play an important role in lowering these barriers.

To that end, I have introduced legislation in Congress to incentivize private investment in broadband deployment – H.R. 5213, the Expanding Rural Access to Broadband Act.  If a private business seeks a loan to expand highspeed internet access into rural communities, my legislation will allow the federal government to guarantee that loan up to 80%.  My legislation also raises the minimum standard for new lines from the current 4 Mbpsbs download speed to 25 Mbps. I hope that these important provisions will be included as part of the forthcoming Farm Bill, which the House of Representatives is expected to vote on soon.

In addition, this year the Federal Communications Commission will begin deploying $2 billion, over the next decade, in the second round of its Connecting America Fund reverse auction to support rural broadband development. This means that hundreds of millions of dollars could be coming to Missouri to help deploy broadband in areas that need it most. Congress also recently passed a government funding bill that includes an additional $600 million specifically for the expansion of broadband in rural American.

While these efforts will go a long way to help bridge the digital divide, the United States should not stop here. Last year, I joined 70 of my colleagues in urging President Trump to include dedicated rural broadband connectivity investments as part of his infrastructure plan.  The president’s newly-released proposal includes as much as $50 billion in funds for rural development which includes broadband. As Congress considers this request, it is vital that broadband connectivity receive an appropriate share of funds to put rural communities on an equal footing with our cities and suburbs.

Just as electricity, telephones, radio, and television fundamentally transformed American life in the 20th century, highspeed internet is the foundation of the 21st century economy. As your representative, I am working to ensure that Missourians have equal access to the promise and prosperity of the Information Age now and into the future.

By Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler (MO-04)