Op-Eds

Reps. Cunningham, Spanberger, Sherrill, Torres Small: Rural Americans need high-speed internet, too

Washington, May 21, 2019
FOX NEWS, REP. JOSEPH CUNNINGHAM, REP. ABIGAIL SPANBERGER, REP. MIKIE SHERRILL, REP. XOCHITL TORRES SMALL

It has been more than 10 years since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, which began a global financial crisis and an economic recession – a period of time that fundamentally changed the American economy. Although the data today shows that the country overall has seen economic improvement, the reality is that rural America hasn’t seen the same benefits as urban areas.

The success of the American economy depends on the success of rural communities, and if unequal economic recovery continues, the American economy won’t be able to reach its full potential.

In a speech during the 2018 Rural Housing Conference, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell acknowledged the problem and pointed to one major hindrance in rural and tribal communities: a lack of access to high-speed internet. “In an increasingly digital economy lack of access to high-speed internet and the knowledge of how to best make use of it limits the abilities of families and entire communities to reach their full potential,” he said.

In urban areas, where 98 percent of Americans have access to high-speed internet, we’ve seen how internet access can drive strong economic growth and innovation. But in the communities that have been left behind – where more than 30 percent of Americans in rural areas and 35 percent of Americans on tribal lands lack access to broadband internet service – we’ve seen that employment has not returned to pre-recession levels, families must drive hundreds of miles to see a doctor, businesses struggle to keep their doors open, and young people leave these communities behind to seek prosperity elsewhere.

It is clear in today’s digital and knowledge-based economy that the internet is as essential to attaining a good quality life as other utilities we use in our daily lives, such as telephones, electricity, roads, water, and sewer services. And we see the challenges Americans face when they don’t have access to high-speed broadband internet.

From New Mexico to New Jersey, to further south in Virginia and South Carolina, we represent a variety of communities, but our rural residents face similar challenges when their communities don’t have access to high-speed internet. It affects the ability of their businesses – including farms and ranches – to access domestic and international markets; it prevents families from receiving primary health care remotely through telehealth medicine, and it prevents students from attaining a more affordable education online. In other words, broadband access would be a major step to strengthen the rural economy, address the rural health care crisis, and empower rural workers all while strengthening the larger American economy.

Throughout our history, both Republicans and Democrats have recognized that innovation spurs the need to expand new infrastructure to rural America, which has allowed our country to remain at the cutting edge of international competition.

In the 1930s, when it became clear that electricity was becoming vital to economic growth, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Rural Electrification Administration to expand electricity to rural communities, transform life in rural America, and put those communities on the path to prosperity. In the 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized the value in expanding highways to all corners of the nation and signed the Federal Aid-Highway Act into law to build the national interstate highway system that connects our coasts today.

Our nation has reached another crossroad where innovation requires the expansion of a new form of infrastructure: high-speed broadband internet. History has shown us the roadmap to success at these moments. We’ve seen progress in the House of Representatives, where Majority Whip James E. Clyburn launched a new House Task Force on Rural Broadband to end the digital divide between rural and urban communities. And as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Donald Trump are scheduled to continue their negotiations on a bipartisan infrastructure package on Wednesday, we hope they can come together to create legislation that not only fixes our already existing, crumbling infrastructure, but one that also expands high-speed broadband internet to all corners of our nation.

Rural Americans are proud of their tight-knit communities, their hard work, and their way of life. They’re looking for a fair shot to climb up the ladder, strengthen their local economy, and participate in the country’s economic growth. They believe, as we do, that your prospects for success and attaining the American Dream should not depend on your ZIP code.

In a time that has been stained by hyper-partisanship, both parties should recognize the moment of opportunity that is in front of us to bring not only the rural economy but our entire economy into the 21st century through the bold vision of expanding high-speed broadband internet.