Ending the Urban-Rural Digital Divide
If an entire region of our country lacked passable roads, bridges, or tunnels, limiting people’s ability to get to work and companies’ transportation of goods, the American people would demand immediate action. Yet even as most of our country has come to expect reliable, high-speed connectivity at home and on the go, much of rural America is still missing out on the digital revolution. Since our economy is increasingly built around the “Internet of Things,” this lack of access must be addressed now, before the gap between rural and urban connectivity grows wider.
As Capitol Hill buzzes about the prospect of a trillion-dollar infrastructure investment package, there are relatively easy steps the federal government can take to address the digital divide.
Connectivity is essential to our economy and public safety. Accordingly, the National Grange and our members are excited to see that the new Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Ajit Pai, has established a Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee. The committee will provide advice and recommendations to the FCC on how to accelerate the deployment of high-speed Internet access, with a particular focus on removing regulatory barriers to digital infrastructure investment. We are proud to serve on this committee. The chairman’s comments since taking office reflect a desire to make progress on this critical issue.
Connectivity is essential to agriculture and rural America, in particular. Farming technologies are more innovative than ever, advancing business-to-business operations, growing and harvesting, food manufacturing, distribution to consumers, and much more. Sensors and the Internet of Things are informing farmers of the exact levels of pesticides and fertilizers needed for their crops; equipment with maintenance sensors are alerting operators before their machines break down; and drones are allowing farmers to gather data on the health of their crops and livestock. The Internet of Things also benefits families living in remote areas, providing access to remote health-care monitoring for those living hours from a hospital or doctor.
Yet 34 million Americans still lack access to high-speed connectivity. And 23 million of those Americans live in rural areas, according to a Federal Communications Commission report. Brookings Institution’s Jonathan Sallet explains further that 58 percent of rural Census blocks do not have “fixed” broadband service providing reliable speeds.
Given this limited connectivity, it’s not difficult to see how communities that rely on farming and agriculture are at risk being left behind. But policies that spur the deployment of digital infrastructure and enhance the availability of spectrum — the invisible airwaves that power smart phones and the Internet of Things — can help avert that outcome.
While enacting legislation can be a long process, there are regulatory steps that the FCC and other agencies can take immediately. For example, the FCC has a directive to encourage “the highest and best use of spectrum domestically and internationally.” This can be accomplished in a number of ways that are both efficient and effective. One pending proposal would modify an existing license to allow companies to create a nationwide network that combines satellite and terrestrial capabilities in a manner never before deployed in North America. This next-generation network would be nationwide, bringing industrial 5G speed and reliability to rural communities. By modifying certain licenses, the FCC could help eliminate “dead zones” and bring greater reliability and safety to critical industries, such as transportation and public safety.
In recent years, most Americans have seen staggering advances in connectivity that allow for more reliable and faster connections. But in rural areas, where Americans are increasingly reliant on wireless connectivity for agriculture and business operations, communications, and health care, there is still considerable work to be done. The FCC can get started today.
Betsy Huber is the president of National Grange (@NationalGrange), an organization that strives to provide opportunities for individuals and families to develop to their highest potential to build stronger communities and states as well as a stronger nation. She is also a member of the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee.