Broadband access in rural locations is a chief priority

When I was first elected to Congress in 1992, the Internet was still in its infancy. America Online was one year old, the White House did not have a website and Americans dialed for access to the Internet and paid by the minute.

My goal of expanding broadband access to rural Americans has driven much of my work on the Energy and Commerce Committee and as the co-chairman of the Congressional Rural Caucus’ Telecommunications Task Force. 

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My northern Michigan district is one of the largest geographic districts in the nation, comprising about one half of the landmass of Michigan, surrounded by three of the five Great Lakes, sharing a border with a foreign country and encompassing two time zones. In northern Michigan, a town of 5,000 is considered a “big city.”

I advocated for the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which created the Universal Service Fund (USF) to increase access to telecommunications services throughout the nation. Since its creation, the majority of northern Michigan residents, at a minimum, have access to dial-up Internet. This access has transformed how they communicate, learn and do business. It has also made it easier for people to communicate with elected officials. In 2003, I received 424 letters via email from my constituents, or less than two per day. Last year, my office received 45,968 letters via email, averaging 126 per day. 

Communities that lack broadband access in today’s world are at a disadvantage. Businesses without broadband cannot compete in a global economy, schools without broadband cannot properly prepare their students for college or for the workforce of tomorrow, and hospitals without broadband cannot access the latest advancements in tele-health. The lack of broadband access for the private and public sectors alike has far-reaching consequences for rural communities, reducing their opportunities for employment, degrading their quality of life and stifling their potential for economic development.

I have worked closely with businesses and institutions in northern Michigan to close the digital divide between rural and urban communities. For northern Michigan hospitals, what started in 1994 as a small effort to provide distance learning to physicians among five sites has now become the Upper Peninsula Tele-health Network, consisting of 42 sites that include 10 critical access hospitals, four community hospitals, a tribal health center, a summer camp for handicapped children, and many other healthcare facilities.  It is a model for the country for how to harness broadband to improve the quality and efficiency of health care services at lower costs in rural areas. 

In late 2007, I worked with Northern Michigan University (NMU) in Marquette, Mich., on an initiative to provide WiMax broadband access to its students in Marquette County. Through its Educational Broadband Service license, NMU has gone from providing its students with WiFi access in approximately 10 percent of the city to providing WiMax broadband service for every student within a 30-mile radius of campus, making it one of the first universities in the United States to provide such access. This is a truly significant milestone for a city with a population of fewer than 20,000 people. 

These examples demonstrate a close working relationship between local communities, the state and the federal government is essential to achieving universal broadband access in America.  Broadband access is no longer a luxury and is as important as water and electricity for a community to realize its full potential as a desirable, livable and vibrant community. 

Therefore, it is appropriate the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) is concentrating efforts by the federal government to spur the construction of rural broadband networks. Through its Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program and Broadband Initiatives Program, more than $7 billion is being invested to bring broadband access to un-served and underserved areas. The ARRA has also lead to the development of the National Broadband Plan by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This plan presents Congress and the FCC with an ambitious blueprint for expanding access to broadband that will be just as transformative as the 1996 Telecommunications Act was for voice services.

Increasing and improving access to rural broadband and telecommunications services has been a top priority of mine during my past 18 years in Congress. I encourage my colleagues to continue to be aggressive in implementing the National Broadband Plan and in investing in rural America.

Stupak is a member of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet.