Guest Columnist

Finkenauer: Rural broadband is key to 21st century success

Rep. Abby Finkenauer speaks during the Finkenauer Fish Fry at the Hawkeye Downs Expo Center in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Rep. Abby Finkenauer speaks during the Finkenauer Fish Fry at the Hawkeye Downs Expo Center in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

When was the last time that you unfolded a map for directions before a road trip or required a postage stamp to send a photograph to a friend?

More likely than not, you have turned to a phone, tablet, or other device to complete these simple tasks. In the 21st century, the internet has become an integral part of Americans’ lives. Unfortunately, too many communities around the country lack access to this critical resource — including in the Congressional districts that we represent in Pennsylvania and Iowa, respectively.

In Pennsylvania, more than 800,000 people live without reliable access to broadband, and those of us in rural areas have substantially slower connectivity speeds than those in urban areas.

We’re not alone. While nearly all of urban America has access to both fixed and mobile broadband, only two-thirds of rural citizens have that same access. This disparity, which affects more than 24 million Americans, is unacceptable. Congress simply cannot allow rural communities to be left behind.

From our homes and schools to big industrial hubs, rural small businesses, and the smallest dairy or corn farms, reliable access to technology is synonymous with success.

As Members of Congress who represent large districts in primarily-rural states, we are committed to ensuring that our constituents and Americans across the country have the opportunity to thrive in our modern age.

Our goal is a bipartisan priority. On the House Small Business Committee, we work together to help propel policy that strengthens small businesses — in turn spurring local economies and bolstering our communities. Small businesses of all industries require access to both reliable and affordable broadband to compete in local, national, and international markets alike.

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As the leaders of the House Small Business Subcommittee on Rural Development, Agriculture, Trade, and Entrepreneurship, we hosted a bipartisan field hearing in Gettysburg to learn from those who understand this need firsthand. On October 22, we heard from witnesses representing small businesses, local farms, and even schools about the challenges they experience in accessing reliable broadband.

Brock Wilderman, the President of the Adams County Farm Bureau, emphasized the importance of reliable internet at local farms. As farmers invest in more efficient and advanced equipment, it becomes increasingly necessary for them to access specialized support for maintenance and repairs. In remote parts of the country, farmers rely on their mobile phones to troubleshoot problems and check in with suppliers before making a long drive for needed parts or tools. In this case, technology can help to streamline processes and allow small farms to compete in their evolving industry.

This issue also can hinder the development of our future workforce. It was heartbreaking to hear from New Oxford Middle School teacher Anthony Angelini that some Pennsylvania students — often those who could use extra help — are falling behind in their classes as school resources turn increasingly-digital. When teachers post work sheets or assignments online, students who live in areas without reliable internet often miss out on learning opportunities or are relegated to traveling to a public library or even a fast-food restaurant to gain access. The internet should be reducing barriers to success, but the dearth of broadband access in rural areas creates additional obstacles for students and parents to overcome.

October 22’s field hearing built on stories the committee has already heard from folks like Dan Stelpflug of Postville, Iowa. This summer, Stelpflug explained that inadequate access to high-speed broadband in rural Iowa is discouraging businesses investment and holding back local economies. Inaccurate federal maps of broadband coverage make it more difficult for communities to secure grants to improve their high-speed broadband coverage.

It’s time to narrow the gap in broadband access, and we know that solving this problem will require a team effort. Over the past several years, Congress has enacted several bipartisan efforts to increase the amount of resources available to these communities, but many programs remain underutilized. This week, we returned to Capitol Hill with a renewed commitment to this common-sense, bipartisan effort.

Our society has come a long way since the days of dial-up and desktops. Over the past decades, we have learned that the world is not going to become less-reliant on technology. As technology continues to progress, our communities — in all parts of the country — must continue moving forward. Together, we are working to help Congress meet this challenge.

U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer is a Democrat representing Iowa’s 1st District and chairs the Rural Development, Agriculture, Trade, and Entrepreneurship subcommittee. Rep. John Joyce is a Republican from Pennsylvania and is ranking member on the subcommittee.

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