A strong rural America starts with connectivity

Over the last several months, COVID-19 has changed our lives in a multitude of ways. Our routines were digitized almost overnight as business meetings transitioned to conference calls, classrooms became virtual meetings, and time spent with loved ones and friends became a luxury.

While we all depend on broadband connectivity every day, the global pandemic has underscored just how much we rely upon this technology.

In 21st century America, reliable connectivity is something many of us take for granted. Just like flipping the switch to turn on your lights, we’ve come to expect reliable, fast, uninterrupted access to the Internet.

However, more than 19 million Americans do not have access to a reliable broadband connection. As technology advances and the economy diversifies, keeping up with technological demands is necessary to compete in a modern marketplace.

When many schools closed their doors earlier this spring, millions of parents found themselves in an unexpected homeschooling situation. I’ve heard from families throughout my district that do not have access to reliable high-speed Internet; they were forced to drive to the local library parking lot in hopes of connecting to public Wi-Fi so their children could complete homework. In more extreme cases, some school have resorted to printing out hard copies of assignments and delivering them to students.

Nowhere has the digital divide been more obvious than in rural America.

In 2018, we ushered in a new farm bill that supported and underscored the importance of broadband development in rural America.

Despite these gains, tens of millions of American farmers do not have reliable Internet access, and as the agriculture industry continues to modernize, reliable connectivity is a must through all levels of production, from farm to table. By expanding broadband infrastructure and establishing reliable Internet access, rural businesses can better compete.

The value that dependable broadband connectivity brings expands far beyond our farms, reverberating throughout rural communities.

Many Americans are discovering the appeal of rural communities, which are a great place to plant roots, start a business, and raise a family. Even prior to the pandemic, the country experienced an undeniable exodus from some of our nation’s most expensive cities and suburbs.

In September 2019, the Census reported tens of thousands of millennials and Generation Xers had left large cities the year prior. The pandemic has accelerated this trend as more and more young people look for opportunities to trade in their studio apartments for wide open spaces.

When we invest in rural broadband connectivity, American families will invest in rural America.

The 2018 farm bill made tremendous improvements for rural broadband deployment, authorizing $350 million to the Rural Broadband Access Loan and Loan Guarantee program, which provides essential assistance to rural America to build out broadband infrastructure.

The USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have also taken great strides in improving and expanding broadband across the country. For example, this past January, the FCC adopted the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which dedicated more than $20 billion to fund high-speed broadband networks in rural America. Moreover, the ReConnect Program at RUS offers grants and loans for new or upgraded broadband service in areas where at least 90 percent of households do not have adequate broadband.

While these federal programs and resources continue to improve the lives of rural Americans, there is still more work to be done.

A great place to start is by extending the deadline for states and localities to spend their coronavirus relief funds. Despite the CARES Act appropriating $150 billion for states and localities, less than 25 percent of this money has been spent. The clock is ticking, and the deadline to spend these funds is currently set for Dec. 30, 2020.

In July, I introduced the LOCAL Act. This legislation would extend the deadline to spend these funds for an additional year. County commissioners in my district have told me repeatedly that they simply have not had enough time to complete the projects they need to invest in in the amount of time given. Chief among these projects? Broadband infrastructure.

In time, the coronavirus will be a thing of the past, but a national need for reliable broadband connectivity is not going anywhere. By continuing to encourage investments in rural broadband, we can empower farm families, better serve rural America, and fuel global economies.

Thompson represents the 15th District and is a member of the Agriculture Committee.

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