Every day in cities across the nation people are having groceries delivered to their front doors after they have ordered online or through an app on their phone. Others are logging on each night to connect with friends, get an education or catch up with the news of the day. But in rural America, the picture is not the same. This difference has been dubbed the “digital divide.”
While shopping, going to school and reading the news online may seem like ordinary tasks to many of you, imagine if you had to physically go to the store, sit for hours in class or wait for a regularly scheduled news program. Now imagine if you lived 15 miles from your nearest neighbor and had to do that. This is the reality for millions of Americans living in rural areas because they do not have access to broadband internet. Not limited access no access.
We live in a time where broadband access is considered an essential service — a critical access service as important as a four-lane highway and other projects that make up the traditional definition of “infrastructure.” But as times change and how we work, study and access health care changes, so do definitions. As we move toward a more internet-connected world, we would be doing ourselves a disservice to leave broadband out of any discussion on infrastructure.
Studies have shown that broadband access creates jobs within a community, fosters innovation and promotes educational and health care opportunities. A recent Accenture report estimates the economic impact of “smart cities” could be as much as $500 billion over 10 years. Further, according to a study conducted by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, broadband enabled 43 percent of all net new jobs and 66 percent of revenues.
Administrations since former President Clinton’s have attempted to spur broadband deployment. Billions of dollars have been spent by the private sector to establish broadband networks in our country. Wireless networks are on the verge of 5G technology, bringing even faster connections to their customers, and recent auctions have unleashed more spectrum for wireless purposes. Yet, in rural parts of my district, constituents tell me stories of driving to a public library — sometimes miles out of the way — just to access the Wi-Fi in the parking lot so their children can do homework. It’s still slow, but something is better than nothing.
In the past, there have been two primary approaches to addressing this issue: deregulation and investing. Now, President Trump has put forward a positive, aggressive agenda for revitalizing American infrastructure, including broadband infrastructure. Going forward, we need a combination of both thoughtful deregulation and responsible investment.
The regulatory burden of the past eight years has suffocated innovation and hard-working taxpayers. It is our job in Washington to create an environment that will spur broadband deployment, not restrict potential by caging companies in with oppressive rules and regulations.
A prime example of this is the regulatory prison in which Title II places our nation’s broadband providers. Reclassifying broadband under rules written for 1930s-era public utilities was the wrong idea, and that decision is well on its way to being overturned. We also need to revise regulatory processes to keep pace with the technology of today. I was pleased to see President Trump’s Executive Order last month calling for “discipline and accountability in the environmental review and permitting process for infrastructure” — including broadband. We should continue accelerating reviews, streamlining processes and eliminating redundant requirements to encourage the creation of new, and the expansion of existing networks and technology.
We must also commit ourselves to responsible investments to stimulate growth. Existing programs across the federal government award over $10 billion in grants and loans annually, yet broadband penetration remains stagnant. Instead of allowing federal dollars to be spent based on out-of-date and flawed models, for instance, we should invest in making sure public and private entities have reliable and up-to-date information on broadband coverage — which is why my subcommittee has been focused on updating the National Broadband Map, which was last done in 2014. This would help ensure that federal funding goes toward unserved, rural America where it’s not economically viable for private companies to deploy.
The economic, educational and health care opportunities that come with unleashing broadband are undeniable, but the digital divide is not going to close itself. And with the speed at which technology evolves, action is needed now more than ever. It will take a concerted effort to create a broadband infrastructure that serves today’s needs and sets the stage for greater expansion and opportunity tomorrow.
• Rep. Marsha Blackburn is Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. She represents Tennessee’s 7th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.
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