Tuesday, November 19, 2019


The idea of “unplugging” for a country getaway has a certain appeal. It is an escape, an opportunity to feel a little smug about selecting a destination that informs guests they shouldn’t expect WiFi — free, or otherwise.

How long that pastoral bliss lasts depends entirely on your tolerance for not knowing what’s going on in your inbox; but eventually, any digitally addicted creature worth their smartphone will recede into her screens, searching for a signal and declaring to unimpressed locals, I don’t know how y’all do it!

Friend, they do it because they don’t have a choice.

These days, encountering a spotty cell phone signal or internet connection causes concern in Americans used to basking in the glow of 5G. They’re living in stark contrast to the millions of rural Americans for whom a broadband connection (or even the pop and hiss of agonizingly slow dial up) is out of reach.

In a world where even simple digital interactions are supported by top-of-the-line equipment and lightning-fast connections, economies in rural America are falling behind.

We read every day about entire industries setting up shop in budding metropolises like Omaha, Charlotte and Nashville; to many, those glowing articles make corporate America’s new hubs sound like remote outposts compared to the familiar crush of the Eastern seaboard. Businesses move inward because they see potential for growth with minimal risk — but there’s only so far they can go.

Rural communities don’t have much to offer in terms of operational support or a reliable customer base. Furthermore, many of these communities lack a crucial resource: the funding and infrastructure to back reliable broadband service.

Broadband networks rely on physical “Internet Exchange” (IX) points. Without these hubs, subscribers of different internet providers can’t communicate with one another.

While many businesses are certainly capable of fronting the costs associated with securing the property, permits and equipment necessary to build the actual exchange points and run connections to other hubs, there’s no incentive for them to gamble on an already stagnant economy.

So, they go elsewhere, and local businesses go nowhere, unable to expand into the global online marketplace.

And to think — a decade ago, we wasted an opportunity to bridge the digital divide.

In 2009, President Barack Obama signed an economic recovery package that included $7.2 billion to expand broadband services in underserved areas. Predictably, those dollars flowed to urban and suburban areas, leaving rural communities stranded on the far side of a gulf that Washington widened.

As they say, mistakes were made — but that doesn’t mean that rural residents should be the ones to suffer for it.

This year, I upped the ante on broadband accessibility by introducing the bipartisan Internet Exchange Act. When passed, the bill will offset the startup costs of establishing broadband connections via a series of grants reserved exclusively for unserved rural areas.

As with any program, infrastructure alone is no guarantee of success, but the presence of new and expanded IX facilities will create a stronger and more competitive web.

More hubs will enable faster data transmissions, allowing local businesses to expand and e-commerce to flourish. Farmers, manufacturers and miners will gain access to state of the art technologies that support safer and more productive operations. Medical practitioners will be able to care for neglected populations via telemedicine. Schools and libraries will have advanced educational tools at their fingertips. Local law enforcement will add an important tool to their “public safety toolbox.”

Businesses looking to lay down roots will notice that rural communities are investing in themselves and give the area a second, third and final look before bringing in jobs and business opportunities to local workers and entrepreneurs.

But perhaps most importantly, rural residents — and their guests — will be able to decide for themselves whether to connect, or unplug — and they’ll do it on their own terms.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee Republican, serves on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation; Senate Committee on the Judiciary, where she leads the Technology Task Force; Senate Committee on Armed Services; and Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

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