Coronavirus outbreak shining an even brighter light on internet disparities in rural America

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America’s response to the coronavirus outbreak is, in many cases, leaving rural America behind. Workers are being asked to log on remotely, students are now required to take classes online, and those who are sick are told to turn to telehealth services. While these solutions work for many in urban and suburban areas, this is simply out of reach for the millions of Americans in rural areas, like many parts of the district I represent. So many do not have access to high speed internet.

As we rely more and more on technology in our everyday lives, I’ve warned about the long-term impacts of millions of disconnected Americans who don’t enjoy standard internet access. According to the FCC’s most recent Broadband Deployment Report, 21.3 million rural Americans still lack adequate access to broadband. This public health emergency has magnified the burden of “internet insecurity” on rural Americans and the consequences of this lack of access.

With shuttered schools, rural students do not have the ability to skype with their teachers from home. In fact, if school age kids across rural America aren’t completing their lessons virtually, they aren’t completing them at all. If schools remain closed into the next academic year, school children in rural America will fall woefully behind.

Those who feel sick can’t download an app to receive instantaneous medical advice from their care provider, either. Telehealth isn’t a reality in rural America.

As Congress and President Trump begin to lay out bold plans to respond to the coronavirus outbreak, it is essential that we take steps to close the digital divide that isolates so many parts of rural America. That is why I wrote a letter to President Trump just days ago asking him to take this opportunity to ensure no American finds themselves without access to the technology that our modern-day society demands, especially during this public health emergency.

President Trump’s FCC’s “Keep America Connected” initiative is an important step and demonstrates the administration’s steadfast commitment to helping Americans stay connected during these extreme circumstances. This also demonstrates the will and capability of private sector companies to provide broadband connectivity and widespread internet service. I urge more businesses to not only sign this pledge to help Americans navigate these trying times but also rapidly accelerate investments to expand our nation’s broadband capabilities in rural areas.

In order to help Americans through this current crisis and beyond, we must leverage our best government programs, such as USDA’s ReConnect Program and FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), with private sector resources. Through public-private partnerships, we can make real strides to bridge the divide that hurts rural Americans.

So far, the ReConnect program has awarded over $600 million in 31 states and territories, helping to spread high-speed internet to over 150,000 households. The FCC’s RDOF promises up to $20 billion over ten years to finance high speed broadband networks in unserved rural areas, which has the potential to connect millions more American homes and businesses to quality broadband. We need to accelerate these successful programs.

The coronavirus outbreak is shining an even brighter light on internet disparity and the unique challenges rural Americans face because of it. This virus has the potential to profoundly affect our daily lives for many more months. As our nation grapples with this new reality and our government responds, we need a sense of great national urgency to ensure that rural America is not left behind.

Aderholt represents the 4th District of Alabama and is a member of the Agriculture and Rural Development Appropriations Subcommittee.

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