As technology becomes increasingly integrated into our businesses, health care, and education systems, it’s more important than ever to ensure that all Americans, especially those in rural areas, have access to a high-speed internet connection.
In visiting communities around our state, meeting with people on the ground, and listening to what they have to say, we’re reminded that there is a significant portion of residents who don’t have access to this critical technology.
We recently participated in a roundtable discussion in Colville to talk about solutions for expanding access to broadband in Eastern Washington and to hear from people in our communities about their challenges and concerns. Adults living in rural areas are less likely than their urban and suburban counterparts to have high-speed internet at home or to own a smartphone. And even though connectivity in rural areas has improved in recent years, access is still often slower.
Connectivity is not just an advantage for things like job searching and civic engagement, it’s a necessity. Telemedicine applications that facilitate patients connecting with their health care providers remotely allow medical conditions to be monitored from home. Home internet access allows children to complete homework assignments, and other online learning initiatives expand educational offerings beyond what is available locally, allowing students to take courses and receive tutoring remotely. Even agriculture is harnessing the power of the internet to maximize crop yield and access to markets worldwide.
One major obstacle to conquering the rural-urban digital divide is the lack of comprehensive broadband mapping. Not having accurate data means that we don’t know what we don’t know about the areas of greatest need for broadband investment and deployment in our communities.
To fix this, we’re leading on the bipartisan Broadband Data Improvement Act of 2019 to improve the broadband mapping process nationwide to accurately reflect coverage levels in rural areas.
There is funding available for investment in rural communities and having precise and up-to-date broadband maps will allow federal agencies, Congress, state governments and private broadband providers to work together to target incentives and investment to the areas, and people, that need them most.
There are transformative new technologies on the horizon that will help usher in an age of greater connectivity. The next generation of broadband networks, or 5G, will allow consumers to connect in so many more ways. As the world moves toward new opportunities in areas like smart and connected cities, public safety and even entertainment, we want to ensure those living in our rural communities are not left behind.
High-speed broadband networks are as important as any other type of infrastructure in the 21st century. We all recognize the logistical and financial constraints of bringing broadband networks to remote or sparsely populated areas. But this technology is critical to daily life, and rural residents deserve access to the same opportunities for education, health care and economic development as people living in larger cities like Spokane. It’s up to us to work together to make that happen.
Cathy McMorris Rodgers represents Washington state’s 5th Congressional District which includes the eastern portion of Washington state. She serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee which has jurisdiction over telecommunications and technology issues.
Tom Gurr is the Executive Director of the Pacific Technology Alliance, a local organization focused on educating citizens and policy-makers throughout Washington and Oregon about emerging technology issues and to promote policies that foster competition, innovation, increased choice, and access to technology.
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