Bringing broadband to rural America

Today, driven by the incredible pace of innovation and the pressures of global commerce, demand for broadband, or high-speed Internet access, is sweeping the nation and changing the way we live. Small businesses that once relied solely on walk-up business and local customers may now offer their goods and services in the worldwide marketplace through the Internet. Students whose learning opportunities were once confined to their local schools and libraries today can access information from all over the world. Families once separated from loved ones by hundreds or thousands of miles can stay connected through the many communication portals available online. And, communities that previously lacked critical specialty care and diagnostic services can now access these services through telemedicine made possible by advanced communications networks.

Unfortunately, too many of our communities and small businesses still lack access to broadband infrastructure, and many that have access do not subscribe to the services that are offered. In both cases, communities lacking adequate broadband availability face the prospect of lagging behind other areas in education, economic growth and even healthcare delivery. Rural communities are particularly susceptible to falling into the technology gap because broadband infrastructure simply doesn’t reach them. This has serious ramifications for a state like Texas, which is 80 percent rural.

In Congress, there is a bipartisan consensus that we must encourage nationwide broadband deployment. But, exactly how we implement this remains a point of contention. Recently, the Obama administration committed more than $7 billion in taxpayer funding for the deployment of broadband services to areas of the country lacking basic infrastructure. Yet, this money was put forward without a completed comprehensive map of broadband availability and before the Federal Communications Commission established a national broadband strategy. So much of the money allocated through these grants will be awarded before we know where the funds are needed most.

There is a role for public resources in bringing broadband to our unserved communities, but requiring additional taxpayer funding without a plan is the wrong approach. With that said, the stimulus funding has been allotted. This taxpayer investment will be maximized if grants are directed to unserved areas and focus on infrastructure for anchor institutions like schools, hospitals and libraries that can function as access points for many who currently lack broadband access. Doing so will make the stimulus funding for broadband an effective down payment on this national priority, which, moving forward, must be guided by a careful strategy.

Looking ahead, Congress must establish a comprehensive plan with three key components. First, we must complete a national broadband map so we can target and prioritize our efforts. Second, we must encourage broadband deployment in unserved areas and enhance existing broadband services through additional investment. To be successful, we must engage the private sector through investment incentives. Finally, we need to improve broadband adoption in communities across the country because of the power of this technology to expand education, improve healthcare delivery, and open global markets for small and businesses.

To help implement this strategy, on Tuesday I introduced the Connecting America Act. This legislation is designed to stimulate investment and economic development activity over the next five years. The legislation would create limited duration tax credits that will encourage companies to make investments that they might otherwise delay due to the economic downturn. Targeted incentives will provide companies immediate access to capital and encourage broadband investment to maintain and improve infrastructure where we need it most. The bill would also create a technology-neutral bond program that will allow communities, rather than Washington bureaucrats, to raise funds for construction, assess their own infrastructure needs, and adopt the broadband technologies that are most appropriate. Under the legislation, we would also reform and streamline the numerous federal programs supporting broadband to focus the funding in a coordinated manner.

For many, broadband may be as familiar a technology as cable television. Others may not be aware of the advantages high-speed Internet service offers. It can place adults in a virtual classroom and allow them to get a college or graduate degree — from their own homes. It gives physicians and hospitals instant access to medical records and enables remote diagnostic medicine, which can help enhance healthcare delivery in rural areas. It can allow a rancher in West Texas to sell every head of cattle in an online auction, expanding the reach of his business and raising his earning potential without the need to leave his ranch.

More than any other technology this century, broadband has the potential to truly transform our lives. We cannot leave half of America behind in the process. We must work now and work smart to deploy broadband from coast to coast.

Hutchison is the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.