Guest column/Rural America needs broadband to survive
During the last six months, the United States has seen various forms of lockdown as we have worked to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. These uncertain times have led many of us to make changes in the way we work, learn and communicate. Many of these changes have been facilitated by the Internet, as applications like Zoom have become invaluable tools for teaching our kids, business collaboration with co-workers, getting health care advice from medical experts and social interaction with friends and family. But for the surprising number of rural Americans who have no reliable Internet connection at home, these past few months have posed unprecedented challenges, and with every passing day, these Americans are falling behind in access to health care, education, and economic opportunity.
I have been a longtime advocate for expanding access to the Internet because we know a lack of coverage remains a problem in parts of Ohio. While 99.3 percent of Ohioans in urban areas have access to Internet, in Ohio’s nine largest cities, there remain 190,000 people with no such access. In rural Ohio, things are much worse. According to the Federal Communications Commission, only 78.3 percent of rural Ohioans have Internet access. In all, more than 615,000 Ohioans and 18 million Americans nationwide are still unable to access high-speed Internet on a regular basis. Some of these individuals do reside in urban areas, and expanding broadband access for all Americans should be an important priority. But while many of the problems posed by the lack of widespread rural broadband infrastructure predate this crisis, the pandemic has either cut off or limited access that many rural Americans have to a few sources of speedy Internet, like public libraries and schools.
This is an unsustainable situation, and the urgency of the moment means that now is the time to remove as much bureaucratic red tape as possible and incentivize Internet service providers to build out their networks in the countryside. As part of our commitment to ensuring Americans have the resources they need to weather the storm of the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government must invest in expanding broadband access to rural parts of America, so that no American is unable to speak to a doctor, attend an online class or order medicine for a loved one for simple lack of a stable Internet connection.
Recently, I introduced the bipartisan, bicameral legislation called the Rural Broadband Acceleration Act to do just that. This fall, the FCC will begin implementing its $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to go toward building rural broadband networks. The Rural Broadband Acceleration Act will speed up the spread of Internet access by authorizing the FCC to quickly get this money to ISPs that commit to building out infrastructure within six months and start providing service within a year.
By speeding up the distribution of rural broadband funds, the Rural Broadband Acceleration Act provides immediate and lasting benefits to our rural areas. It will quicken the development of about 130 existing rural broadband projects that combined will provide more than 3 million households with high-speed Internet across more than 400,000 miles of Internet fiber cables and employ thousands of workers.
In Ohio, it stands to provide hundreds of thousands of rural households with the same level of high-speed Internet access as enjoyed by those in cities. It will also enable new projects proposed by trusted and reliable ISPs to be green-lit and funded, meaning that our rural broadband network will continue to expand at this accelerated rate into the future. And, once in place, the economic, educational, and social benefits of broadband are immeasurable. While this legislation was prompted by the immediate needs of the coronavirus pandemic, the positive changes it will bring to our rural communities will last for generations.
We can make other changes to existing laws to promote rural broadband as well. Some heavily rural Ohio counties have sought to use the state and local funding provided by the bipartisan C.A.R.E.S. Act that Congress passed in March to invest in large-scale broadband projects, only to learn that these funds must be spent by the end of the year — far too soon for a broadband project to be completed. I believe we should fix this by putting in place an extension for C.A.R.E.S. Act funds that are being used on rural broadband projects.
Crises bring with them challenges and opportunities. While many rural Americans are struggling to adapt to the increasingly online COVID-19 era, the unprecedented steps Congress has taken to respond to this crisis means that the time is now to push for a rapid and comprehensive expansion of rural broadband access. As Congress works to negotiate a new coronavirus rescue package, I believe the Rural Broadband Acceleration Act should be included as part of any new legislation.
This bipartisan bill will directly respond to a major challenge facing our rural communities and put millions of Americans on a path toward a more prosperous future. COVID-19 has underscored how the Internet plays a role in everything from business to health care. Let’s pass the Rural Broadband Acceleration Act so that all Americans can stay connected during this crisis.
(Portman, a Republican, represents Ohio in the U.S. Senate.)