Bridging the digital divide for rural communities more critical than ever
Life in the age of COVID-19 is something Americans have had to quickly learn how to navigate. Schools and many businesses remain shut down, much of our commerce is now taking place online, and doctors, nurses, first responders, and transportation workers have rightly assumed heroic status for their service on the front lines of this battle.
We are also learning what tools are essential to the continued well-being of our communities and the survival of our economy. One of the most vital tools is access to broadband internet service. Broadband access was a concerning issue in many rural North Missouri communities and elsewhere throughout the country before the pandemic, but now the problem is even more pressing.
With Americans everywhere being asked to stay at home in recent weeks, reliable high-speed internet has become the primary connection to the outside world for many. It provides a means to more safely get food and supplies, connect our children to their teachers and peers, and communicate with doctors and medical services from the safe confines of our own homes. Most importantly, it allows us to stay in touch with family and friends, even when we can’t do so in person. These connections are especially critical for our most vulnerable citizens.
Unfortunately, there are still many in our country who do not have broadband access. According to the Federal Communications Commission, this includes 35 percent of people who live in rural areas and nearly 40 percent of those living on Tribal lands. In all, 30 million U.S. residents live on the wrong side of this digital divide.
These millions of Americans need a bridge to the modern world, especially now that we know that world can entail extended periods of physical isolation.
As Congress continues to respond to this pandemic, bridging this digital divide should be a key focal point. I serve as the Republican leader of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which oversees the development programs that build these types of economic bridges – in addition to programs that build actual bridges out of steel and concrete.
One such program, under the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA), provides grants and assistance to grow and retain jobs in economically distressed communities. In recent years, our committee investigated development issues facing these communities and learned of barriers to broadband deployment that impede individuals’ access to telehealth services and pose hurdles for communities in attracting doctors and potential employers.
These same impediments facing economically distressed regions are especially prominent during the current pandemic, which is why Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) and I introduced the Eliminating Barriers to Rural Internet Development Grant Eligibility (E-BRIDGE) Act.
The E-BRIDGE Act (H.R. 6491) removes hurdles for completing projects under existing EDA programs. For example, giving local communities more opportunities to partner with the private sector in carrying out broadband projects is a challenge the EDA faces, often making last-mile efforts difficult to complete. Our bill ensures that communities can leverage private sector expertise without disqualifying them from EDA assistance. Furthermore, for many small and rural communities with extremely limited budgets, meeting local funding match requirements can be difficult. Our bill gives local authorities the flexibility to use properly-valued in-kind donations, such as real property, to meet their match requirements.
By spurring broadband projects that bring jobs to distressed communities, the E-BRIDGE Act achieves multiple goals: it supports solutions for the challenges of and economic recovery from the current health emergency while also seeding job growth and preparing communities for future emergencies.
As we collectively work to contend with this unprecedented and isolating pandemic, removing unnecessary barriers to completing broadband projects for small and rural communities is an effective way for Congress to promote their development and help more Americans access critical health care services and education resources, conduct business, put food on their tables, and stay connected to their loved ones.
Sam Graves represents Missouri’s 6th District and is ranking member on the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.