BILLINGS, Mt. — As the country continues to confront the numerous challenges associated with the spread of COVID-19, we must acknowledge some of the persistent inequities imposing additional hardships on rural communities; the lack of access to high-speed, reliable internet access is chief among them. Expanding connectivity among agricultural producers, small businesses owners, and individuals in unserved and underserved areas has always been an important issue. Considering the current public health and economic crisis, broadband expansion initiatives must be examined with a renewed sense of urgency by Congress, in partnership with local, state, and other federal officials.
The more prolonged the COVID-19 crisis, the more all Americans have come to realize how important digital tools are to modern life. In this time of physical distancing and extended business closures, several routine activities have shifted to online platforms to minimize risk and comply with new statewide public health and safety precautions. Rural communities should be able to use social media to keep in touch with friends and loved ones – especially over video. Rural Americans need connectivity that can also reliably support distance learning tools for students of all ages, increased work from home demands, and the desire for digital entertainment and leisure activities.
Unlike workers in some industries, agricultural producers cannot sit on their products until their supply chains begin to normalize. Simply put, dairy spoils and fruits and vegetables rot whether they make it to market or not. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, entrepreneurial ranchers in some communities were already conducting livestock sales online. Unfortunately, the opportunity to conduct e-commerce and benefit from those sales during this time is not available to everyone. Closing the digital divide is not just about weathering the current crisis, it’s about investing in rural America so that these communities can emerge more resilient and prosperous.
We are encouraged by recent actions taken by Members of the House and State Commerce Committees to bring attention to the importance of expanding access to high-speed broadband. Increasingly, there is bipartisan consensus that investing in broadband will be fundamental to getting our country back on the road to economic recovery and creating new opportunities for economic renewal in today’s unserved and underserved communities. Some data suggests that younger generations and early to mid-career professionals are increasingly interested in life outside of urban centers. Reliable internet access will be essential to retaining today’s top talent and attracting future innovators to rural America.
The COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented, and now is not the time to shy away from bold and transformative action. Congress must prioritize investing in broadband because strengthening our national digital infrastructure will generate positive, second-order effects with respect to improved access to health, educational, and professional opportunities for the residents of today and future generations.
Despite widespread concern that rural Americans are getting left behind in digital economy, it is not too late. Congress must meet this momentum and deliver the kind of quality connectivity that all Americans deserve to improve their quality of life and reach their fullest potential.
— Michelle Erickson-Jones, Telecommunications Committee, Rural & Agriculture Council of America (RACA)