Opinion

Expanding Rural Broadband Access Is a Start, but Congress has More Work to Do

The National Grange applauds recent efforts by the U.S. government to prioritize broadband deployment to our nation’s rural, farming, and agricultural communities with the announcement of the American Broadband Initiative. In a report released earlier this year, more than 20 federal agencies have outlined a comprehensive and collaborative approach to address the barriers standing in the way of bridging the urban-rural digital divide.

The goal of the ABI is one that the National Grange has long called for — increased investment in and accelerated expansion of our nation’s broadband networks to reach the tens of millions of rural Americans who currently lack reliable, high-speed internet service. Agriculture and Commerce Secretaries Sonny Perdue and Wilber Ross note, importantly, that “This is more than a technology problem; without access to broadband, entire communities are increasingly left behind in today’s information-driven economy.”

The thoughtful intragovernmental approach ABI has mapped out is a significant step forward in expanding rural access. However, this progress could be overshadowed if internet openness and competition—which spurs investment needed for network buildout—is not properly protected. This is where Congress must step in.

Net neutrality has been caught up in endless political and policy debates that have volleyed the issue back and forth over the better part of two decades. It is time to take legislative action to resolve this matter once and for all.

The concept of net neutrality — that is, a free and open internet in which no one’s content or data is unfairly slowed down, blocked, or otherwise compromised — is far from controversial. It’s the various means by which differing federal approaches to ensuring net neutrality over the years that have caused their fair share of well-deserved criticism.

However, last week, House and Senate Democrats introduced bills that take the issue too far. We need a better legislative solution than the overly prescriptive regulations that have been tried — and proven ineffective — in the past.

For example, the broad-based net neutrality rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in 2015 had a direct, debilitating effect on our nation’s efforts to deploy broadband networks to rural towns and communities across the country. There was an immediate drop in broadband investment for two consecutive years while these rules were in effect — the only decrease in such investment that our nation has ever seen outside of a major economic recession. That should tell lawmakers and regulators something: this approach does not work, especially for rural America.

Moreover, these antiquated regulations — written decades before the advent of the internet — do nothing to ensure a truly free and open internet because they only apply to internet service providers. What about the enormous influence other internet companies — from search engines to social media sites to major online retailers — have over our experiences online? Shouldn’t consumer protection rules apply to all the major internet players evenly?

What we really need from Congress is to codify one set of formal, standardized rules that protect and ensure a free and open internet for all consumers no matter where they live or how they get online. These rules should apply consistently to all companies operating in the internet ecosystem. This is the only way to ensure net neutrality, and protect the innovation and competition that encourages the investment needed to grow our broadband networks to reach more rural Americans.

The American Broadband Initiative makes it clear that expanding broadband access to all corners of the country is a priority. But new legislative efforts may threaten this progress with burdensome regulations that threaten to hamper investment to rural areas. We must instead focus on passing bipartisan legislation that protects a free, open internet while still encouraging robust broadband expansion.

Betsy Huber is president of National Grange.

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