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Bipartisan bill will change checkerboard of broadband connectivity in rural America

The Hill
By Republican Leader Glenn "GT" Thompson (PA-15)

Millions of Americans lack access to reliable, high-speed internet service, and the inequality is particularly striking in rural America. The rural broadband gap results in lost opportunities to expand businesses, learn new skills, educate our children or even participate in daily activities.

I represent a sprawling rural district that encompasses nearly 25 percent of the landmass of Pennsylvania. While I am fortunate to live in an area with high-quality internet service to my home, just a few miles away, my neighbors are on the wrong side of the digital divide. It is like this across my district and across this country, with digital haves and have-nots on the same road creating a checkerboard of connectivity.

The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the urgency of rural broadband as so much of American life shifted online — from work to education to medicine. But the connectivity struggles in rural communities predate this pandemic, and Americans without high-speed internet access are being left behind. As the Republican leader on the House Agriculture Committee and senior member of the House Education and Labor Committee, I have seen rural residents marginalized without access to e-commerce or commercial shared services, which are increasingly relevant today.

This is a story we have seen before. For more than 200 years, America has built communication and transportation networks, each of which has helped bring this vast nation closer and bridge the divides of their eras. Canals and the post office gave way to railroads and telegraphs, which, in turn, gave way to highways and telephones. Today, we continue these efforts by expanding our modern communications network, the internet.

Congress has tried to tackle rural broadband development and deployment for years. In 2018, we passed a farm bill that addressed rural and regional development issues across the country. The farm bill established a minimum standard broadband connection for rural service areas and imposed rigorous new buildout requirements to ensure broadband networks financed through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) meet the long-term needs of rural residents. The bill also targets limited resources, so assistance focuses on the most rural and least-connected residents, which are often the most expensive to connect.

While the farm bill was a step in the right direction, we must continue to look for ways to bring rural America into the 21st century. That’s why in July, the House Agriculture Committee passed bipartisan legislation to expand the USDA’s rural broadband programs to meet the needs of every rural community, nationwide. The Broadband Internet Connections for Rural America Act is a plan to invest $43.2 billion in the USDA’s Rural Development broadband programs by:

  • Providing last mile technical and financial assistance to rural communities seeking to improve their broadband service
  • Ensuring accurate mapping of broadband connectivity in rural areas
  • Increasing resources available to build out middle-mile infrastructure
  • Authorizing grant funding to small rural communities
  • Allocating funds to invest in distance learning and telemedicine capabilities

USDA has the expertise, experience and resources to bring these investments to rural America quickly and responsibly. Together with chairman David Scott (D-Ga.), our committee set the stage for this historic investment. This bill recognizes the tremendous work USDA continues to do in fostering the development and deployment of broadband connectivity.

Like networks of previous generations, universally available broadband will tie the farthest reaches of our country together. And like those previous networks, it will bring untold economic, social and cultural prosperity to every American, rural and urban alike.

Now is the time for Congress to be serious about solutions to close the digital divide in rural America. Our bipartisan bill passed unanimously out of the House Agriculture Committee because it is good policy and proves we can overcome our greatest challenges when we work together. 

Rep. Glenn Thompson is the Republican leader on the House Agriculture Committee and represents Pennsylvania’s 15th District.