Opinion

It’s Time to Bring Rural Communities into the 21st Century

In the age of highly advanced internet products and services, rural communities are still struggling to access even the most basic internet broadband. Millions of Americans in rural communities experience this lack of connectivity, putting them at a disadvantage compared to their urban and suburban counterparts. This phenomenon is often referred to as a “digital divide” and is well-documented by the Federal Communications Commission.

Despite bipartisan consensus in Congress and a renewed commitment from the administration to improve rural broadband access, many rural Americans are still falling through cracks. Currently the government simply does not have reliable data on high-speed broadband coverage in rural America. In order for unserved or underserved communities to benefit from the digital services of the future, policymakers and broadband providers must first be able to accurately and uniformly identify areas that currently lack connectivity.

The FCC acknowledges the connectivity challenges rural America consistently face, but historically have only had census block data available from which to make policy and resource allocation decisions. As alternative approaches are being discussed, a quick fix polygon approach has surfaced, but we urge the FCC to closely evaluate a more innovative solution. We believe the “geocoding” approach set forth by the US Telecom Broadband Mapping Initiative is well worth any extra time it might take to get the data rural American’s need and deserve.

Rather than using the faster and seemingly easier polygon method to cast a wide net and creating false positives, the US Telecom Broadband Mapping Initiative is deploying cutting-edge data analytic and geocoding techniques to precisely pinpoint latitude and longitudinal coordinates. This strategy will identify each residence or small business in rural America, meaning the specific areas which are still unserved can be accurately highlighted.

Today, government and private sector leaders in Virginia and Missouri are taking the first steps to prepare their communities for the future of work, education, health care, and transportation by launching the US Telecom Broadband Mapping Initiative pilot programs. They understand that the potential impact of this ambitious and cooperative effort will be felt nationally.

This data will ultimately take the form of a flexible, accurately geocoded digital map that innovators and entrepreneurs can use to tailor modern products and services to key sectors and industries to improve the lives of all Americans. Rural areas should be afforded the opportunities associated with technological progress, especially when a cost-effective, scalable solution is readily available.

For rural communities, the benefits of this technological progress can be expected to emerge in numerous forms. For example, the time and resource savings associated with precision agriculture will be amplified if technology companies are able to use a modernized broadband map with accurate geocoding. This data access would drive key research and development, ultimately resulting in the development of new agricultural technologies.

It would also improve producer confidence in aerial drones and ground-based sensors. These technologies allow agricultural producers and innovators to collect weather data, monitor groundwater, and test for soil quality. However, just as consistency and accuracy in the growing cycle are key for the success of agricultural production, these traits are equally as important for wireless connectivity.

Health care delivery is also expected to be transformed as wireless connectivity improves, directly benefiting communities across rural America. The unfortunate reality is that many rural areas that lack access to broadband also lack access to a regional hospital and specialized health care services. Remote consultations with physicians, procedures and other forms of health care are routine services in urban and suburban areas but are currently unavailable to the rural communities that need them most. Precise broadband mapping will help rural areas attract new health services and research centers, enabling health care providers to treat existing diseases, identify new cures, and improve health outcomes for rural Americans.

Additionally, transportation and mobility is vital to the modern quality of life on a day-to-day basis. Navigation apps, common in other regions of the country, depend on latitude/longitude coordinates which are highly unreliable in rural areas. As our society transitions to the next generation of mobility, geocoding will serve to create a larger, smarter infrastructure grid which goes beyond transportation to also improve energy, waste management, financial services, and other forms of critical infrastructure.

Before we can bring these many benefits to fruition, we must first understand the scope of the challenges many Americans – particularly those in rural areas – face when accessing digital services. The US Telecom Broadband Mapping Initiative would help lay the groundwork for a future where rural America is healthier, more connected and more prosperous. We have a shining opportunity to be ambitious – not cut corners. It is time to be forward-thinking and continue collaborate to build a more promising future.

Jack Alexander is the founder and president of Synergy Resource Solutions Inc. and currently serves as the president and chairman of the Rural and Agriculture Council of America.

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