Ajit Pai's digital empowerment agenda is good news for rural America
© Greg Nash

Whether we like it or not, staying connected to the rest of the world through the Internet is vital to both our daily personal lives and to running our farms, ranches, orchards, and other businesses. That’s why it is so important that people who live in rural areas and small towns have access to the same kind of powerful high-speed internet that is now taken for granted in most urban and suburban communities. Unfortunately, connectivity in rural America continues to trail behind.

According to the Pew Research Center, only 55 percent of rural Americans use broadband at home. Hopefully this is about to change, as the FCC’s new Chairman Ajit Pai has some very big ideas about how to bring broadband access to rural America. Pai has expressed a longstanding commitment to rural internet connectivity, as clearly outlined through his Digital Empowerment Agenda, which he unveiled in September 2016 while serving as an FCC commissioner. He believes that “every American who wants high-speed Internet access should be able to get it.” Needless to say, the National Grange is pleased to have someone at the helm who recognizes that broadband is still lacking in some parts of our country.

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To help fix this problem, Pai is promoting programs to expand both wireline and mobile broadband deployment in rural areas. One proposal is the creation of “Gigabit Opportunity Zones,” which would encourage broadband network deployment by streamlining state and local policies, creating financial incentives for broadband providers to build in rural areas, and offering a tax credit for entrepreneurs to take advantage of these networks and to create new jobs.

 

Even when wireline broadband is made available, there’s no guarantee that people would use it. Pai has recognized this and noted that special attention is needed to “empower consumers throughout our nation with 21st Century digital opportunities.” One way to encourage adoption is through smartphones, which are becoming the primary gateway to the internet for many Americans. 

Thankfully, Pai’s Digital Empowerment Agenda proposes a three-step plan to improve high-speed mobile broadband throughout rural America. The plan includes increasing the buildout obligations that apply to wireless providers; moving forward with the second phase of the FCC’s Mobility Fund; and authorizing a “rural dividend” from the sale of wireless spectrum

Pai believes this plan will “deliver high-speed wireless broadband to rural America” and “give rural Americans the access they need and want.” For our members in rural and small town America, this will allow the increased utilization of “smart” technologies that have already begun to benefit our businesses and stand to improve our quality of life as well.

We are already seeing tremendous improvements in productivity and resource management (like water and pesticides) through precision agriculture techniques. As the next generation of broadband networks comes along, including 5G wireless networks, we are encouraged to see the FCC considering new and innovative ways to approach the persistent issue of rural broadband expansion.

With Chairman Pai’s leadership, we look forward to working with him and the rest of the FCC to find ways to bring broadband to more rural and small town Americans, to the benefit of many new innovations in areas of agriculture, healthcare and education. We couldn’t agree more with Pai’s bottom line is that rural Americans deserve the same digital access as those living in more urban areas and we look forward to the day when all of our members have engagement in today’s digital economy and society. 

Betsy Huber is the president of the National Grange, an organization that strives to provide opportunities for individuals and families to develop to their highest potential to build stronger communities and states as well as a stronger nation.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.