In this age of advanced internet products and services, many rural communities are still struggling to access even the most basic internet broadband services; putting them at a disadvantage compared to their urban and suburban counterparts. The need to address this growing “digital divide” has become only more urgent by the public health and economic challenges associated with COVID-19.
Even as rural residents struggle to adapt to their soaring demand for internet access in this difficult time, I remain optimistic about the future of digital services in rural America. Recently, national leaders took a series of important steps that – if fully funded and realized – would put us on the road to universal access for many more Americans.
The Federal Communications Commission has long acknowledged that the digital divide disproportionately burdens rural residents and businesses, and the FCC is an important partner for rural communities that have waited for too long to get connected. We’ve especially appreciated the concerted outreach by Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioner Brendan Carr to truly understand the challenges facing both rural residents and agricultural producers. To achieve the goal of universal access, the FCC’s commitment to rural communities must be matched by bold action in the halls of Congress.
In February, Congress passed the bipartisan Broadband DATA Act, which aims to help prevent rural Americans from falling further behind with respect to internet access. This legislation seeks to remedy a problem that has stifled previous efforts at extending internet coverage to rural areas: the government simply does not have reliable data on high-speed broadband coverage in rural America.
Historically, the FCC has only had census block data available from which to make policy and resource allocation decisions. Unfortunately – as the relatively-low levels of reliable, high-speed connectivity in rural America demonstrate – this approach is imperfect and falls short of the rates of connectivity that new tools and technologies can enable.
The Broadband DATA Act addresses this obstacle by directing the FCC to create more precise and accurate broadband coverage maps. New mapping technology can help identify each unique residence or physical structure in rural America, meaning the specific areas which are still unserved can be accurately highlighted. For rural communities to fully overcome the digital divide, policymakers and broadband providers must first be able to accurately and uniformly identify areas that currently do, and do not, lack connectivity.
The Broadband DATA Act is consequential not just for its potential to mitigate existing broadband deployment challenges, but to lay the foundation for a more connected and prosperous future for rural America. The newly generated data sets will take the form of flexible, accurately geocoded digital maps that can be used to tailor modern products and services that may improve the lives Americans not currently locatable by internet technologies.
Updated and accurate broadband coverage maps are also an investment in the public. These maps should be accessible and easy to interpret. Allowing the public to view these maps gives ample opportunities to small business owners, non-profits and other organizations accurate information upon which to allocate funds or best serve consumers and other constituents.
We can applaud programs like the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and celebrate the legislative progress to date while recognizing that there is still much work to be done. To that end, the Rural Agricultural Council of America calls on Congress to act without haste to fully fund the Broadband DATA Act.
Optimism is high for rural Americans, but there needs to be a continued drive to put policy measures into action and see the needle move to close the digital divide.
We have an opportunity to be ambitious – not cut corners. It is time to continue collaborating to build a more promising future.
Jack Alexander serves as the president and chairman of the Rural & Agriculture Council of America – a consortium of mayors, county commissioners, ranchers, farmers, producers, main street business owners and leaders in rural America.
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