Friday, May 19, 2017
Billy Long: I will advocate for broadband access for rural communities
The importance and necessity of high speed Internet can’t be overstated. Unfortunately, the rollout of broadband networks has been disproportionate and there is a great digital divide between urban and rural America. It is imperative that we continue to work on closing that divide in rural areas. The economic, healthcare, education and public safety benefits of broadband are endless.
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 2016 Broadband Progress Report, 20 percent of Missouri's population and 61 percent of its rural population is without access to fixed broadband Internet. Compared to urban areas in Missouri where only 5 percent of the population is without access to fixed broadband Internet. This gap is unacceptable.
In 2017, it is unacceptable that students would be required to attend a school that can’t offer online access. Just recently, Gov. Greitens announced that he wants every school in Missouri to have access to broadband Internet. Though I am happy to hear that Gov. Greitens is pushing for increased access to Internet for schools, the digital divide remains when students go home. Parents shouldn’t have to drive their kids to the nearest McDonalds or Starbucks to access Wi-Fi for class assignments. As technology continues to change, outdated laws need to be updated.
One of our neighbors from Kansas, Ajit Pai, was recently appointed Chairman of the FCC. One of his core goals is to expand broadband access to rural areas that still don’t have it. In April, the FCC announced that it would be amending a rule known as the Rate-of-Return Reform Order to help increase access to rural broadband in underserved communities. Under the previous guidelines, what was intended to make projects more efficient in providing high-speed Internet to rural communities ended up hurting them. While this amending of the rule is great news, there is still a lot of work to be done.
With discussion of a potential infrastructure package, it will be crucial that we include rural broadband deployment. Any new broadband investment program must ensure sufficient resources to meet the challenges of delivering broadband in rural America.
In a recent Pew Research study, 69 percent of Americans said that having access to high-speed Internet is crucial and that not having access to it would be a disadvantage. Without it, finding a job and accessing important information is more challenging and increases an unnecessary divide.
As a member of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, and a member of the Rural Telecommunications Working Group, I will continue to be a strong advocate for underserved communities. With Missouri’s 7th Congressional District being predominantly rural, this issue hits home for me.