Spanberger leads bipartisan push for extending rural broadband

CULPEPER STAR EXPONENT, CLINT SCHEMMER 

U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, and an Illinois Republican are leading a bipartisan push to build more internet broadband networks in rural America.

On Monday, Spanberger announced that she and Rep. Rodney Davis have received support from 71 other House members to request $900 million in appropriations for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Program and a Farm Bill program that both aim to reduce the connectivity gap between rural and urban communities.

More than 30 percent of rural Americans lack access to fixed, ground-based broadband at speeds of 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads, compared to only 2 percent of Americans in urban areas, the Federal Communications Commission says.

Eighteen Republicans have signed the leaders’ letter urging key House Appropriations Committee members to boost funding for rural broadband internet.

The bipartisan group of lawmakers stress the immediate need for the nation to expand high-speed internet access for rural homes, schools and businesses.

“Affordable broadband access is critical for the economic development of rural communities, enabling them to fully participate in the internet-based economy,” states the letter by the 73 signatories. “It enables farmers to use precision agriculture techniques, patients to access medical care remotely via telemedicine, children to conduct research for school projects, and business to engage with customers.”

In an interview Monday, Spanberger said better rural broadband and health care are the two issues her constituents most frequently ask her to pursue. Seven of the district’s 10 localities are rural.

“Broadband is important to ensure economic opportunity,” she said. “In rural communities such as Culpeper, Louisa and Amelia, rural internet connectivity is a challenge for many families and businesses.”

Spanberger said constituents have told her of their children having to go to McDonald’s restaurants to use the Wi-Fi to do homework, or of driving their students to a different locality to access the internet at a public library. Farm families have told her that poor internet access interferes with their ability to conduct commerce, keep in touch with buyers and suppliers, and to use more efficient, data-driven techniques in tending their fields and crops.

“This is a really substantial problem,” she said.

With better internet, more new businesses can be attracted to rural communities, she said.

“Being able to look up something on a minute’s notice, whether it is for homework or researching colleges or business, shouldn’t be an issue in the same congressional district, or the same country,” Spanberger said.

The Virginian chairs the House Agriculture Committee’s Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee.

The Spanberger-Davis letter calls for the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, FDA and Related Agencies to provide $550 million for the ReConnect Program, which strengthens broadband in rural and underserved areas. They also request $350 million, the sum authorized in the 2018 Farm Bill, for the rural broadband loan and grant program. The president’s new budget drastically cut funds for that effort.

“We believe that support for these programs is critical to address the ‘digital divide’ and ensure that our rural communities have equal access to opportunity,” the lawmakers said.

If broadband access remains poor, the problem will worsen the nation’s rural-urban divide, Spanberger said. She compared it with the nation’s successful effort in the 1930s to electrify rural communities and provide telephone service, under the Roosevelt administration.

Rural broadband is vital for economic development, raising house values, keeping local businesses connected, and attracting new businesses, said Christopher Ali, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. It is important, too, for the growing field of telehealth, Ali said via email from a broadband meeting in Texas.

“Rural America is older and sicker than urban America,” he said. “A high-speed connection would allow patients to speak with doctors and specialists, especially when doctors and specialists are migrating out of rural communities.”

Ali noted that up to 70 percent of students’ homework is done online.

“When rural students don’t have access to the same connectivity as their urban peers, they are at a substantial disadvantage,” he said.

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