Rural America needs internet access

Rural America needs internet access
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We need to bring the internet to all of rural America. The pandemic which brought forward social distancing and public health measures made clear what we knew before 2020, which is that having the internet is a critical connection for people to access the economy, receive medical care, stay in touch with family, and feel like they are part of our country.

President Biden and his administration are rightly focused on the current needs in the coronavirus pandemic, such getting people vaccinated and addressing the economic crisis. However, he has also spoken about an infrastructure bill that would soon follow this initial burst of legislative activity. This is a perfect vehicle to provide the intense political capital needed to bring vital internet connectivity to rural America.

At least 20 million people in the country, and possibly as many as double that number, do not have access to broadband internet. An extension of internet connectivity to rural America would have social and economic effects for vast areas of the country that feel left out and have lost trust in the federal government. There is a need for Washington, in collaboration with private service providers and state regulatory agencies, to examine the data to identify the true gaps in service. This collaboration is key as a national updating of the map needs to be done right now.

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But that should only be a first step to bring broadband internet to rural and underserved areas. Lack of service in these areas leaves the people who live there behind. It also means insufficient education, inconsistent health care, and negative effects on labor and economic development. It further creates a demonstrable distrust in the federal government as an institution. People without internet access often feel alone and alienated from each other and also the rest of the country. This sort of distrust and isolation can lead to extremism and domestic terrorism.

This is a problem that can and must be solved within the next five years. It will take public sector support and private sector mobilization. The federal government needs to work with the private sector and the states to stop fighting turf battles and start getting people the internet service that they need. Biden should remove barriers and let taxpayer resources to support private sector firms to extend coverage at reasonable rates. Many states have their own offices focused on rural broadband, and there is very little coordination with the federal agencies tasked with elements of internet connectivity. The administration can include language to ensure better coordination and faster deployment of rural broadband.

Everyone needs internet access for education and health care through telemedicine. The private sector believes the government should target funds where people lack service to remove several regulatory barriers to deployment. That is what our leaders should do now. Washington should encourage broadband providers to bolster rural broadband development if they can offer service and reduce barriers to access. Federal programs should also provide subsidies for internet providers to ensure it is worth their while to deploy broadband to the underserved areas.

It is not as if there has been no work done on this to date. The Federal Communications Commission has tackled this issue for years, and some progress has been made. But like anything in the government, the White House and Congress need to push this or it will continue to move along slowly and never reach the goal. This is not difficult to do. It just takes a serious commitment by the administration and lawmakers.

As Biden seeks to invest in the future, give everyone a chance to achieve their dreams, and rebuild a country that is torn apart by politics and the pandemic, he should lead with a significant plan like national broadband. History is on his side. Franklin Roosevelt electrified rural America on the heels of the Great Depression and the tremendous social and economic turbulence it caused. We did it then, and we can do it now.

Dan Glickman served as secretary of the Department of Agriculture under Bill Clinton and is a former Democratic member of Congress from Kansas.