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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Jeff Beaulac: Closing the digital divide

By Jeff Beaulac

By Jeff Beaulac

Thanks to tech innovations like 5G internet, our country should be more connected than ever. Connectivity has been especially critical during the COVID-19 pandemic as many of us go to school, do our jobs, attend family gatherings, and even receive medical care fully online, creating an entirely new economy and way of life.

Many people in Washington state, however, have been left out of this new economy and for many of us in Eastern Washington, access to fast and reliable internet is still a struggle. The Federal Communications Commission found that in urban areas, 97% of Americans have access to high-speed fixed service. In rural areas, that number falls to 65%. Internet access should not be reserved for those living in big cities.

High-quality internet access is becoming more crucial to the society we are living in and we should be embracing new technologies that can benefit rural Americans. Telehealth ensures that rural patients have access to quality care and specialist doctors without having to travel long distances. We can connect with friends and relations around the world, staying in touch with those we cannot see every day. We can attend classes if we aren’t feeling well or if there is inclement weather. And more work can be done remotely as more and more companies allow work from home. Without reliable internet access, our communities miss out on an entire world of innovation.

It is a good step that leaders in Washington, D.C., are working to expand rural broadband infrastructure and increase funding so that all Washingtonians can benefit from these advancements. Sen. Maria Cantwell led the charge to include crucial telehealth and tribal broadband subsidies in the second COVID-19 relief bill, and she is fighting for more funding to expand rural broadband and middle mile infrastructure. Furthermore, in his infrastructure plan for rural America, President Biden is pushing for rural broadband funding as a key component to widespread internet access.

This kind of investment will not be cheap. There will need to be an investment of billions of dollars by our state in innovative solutions if we want to bring broadband to all our rural communities. But this kind of investment is necessary to create equity and to think ahead about the way our society engages with each other.

We will need many solutions to bring broadband to every rural Washingtonian, and we already have technology companies that are willing and able to help. Companies like Ligado are planning to use Open RAN technology to build a national 5G network with unused spectrum, disaggregating hardware and software so that hardware can work with software from any vendor and rural areas have more broadband options. SpaceX has been showing off its satellite program in dramatic fashion, but every launch is a reminder of innovation that we need.

We cannot wait much longer. We need an all-hands-on-deck approach, leveraging innovation from technology companies and working to secure more rural broadband subsidies in the public sector. If we are successful, we can bridge this digital divide once and for all and finally make connectivity equitable. All Washingtonians, whether living in Spokane or Colville, deserve reliable and high-quality internet access.

Jeff Beaulac grew up in Spokane Valley and graduated from The Evergreen State College in 2016. After returning home to Spokane in 2017, Jeff got involved in local politics. Jeff has worked on campaigns for city council, the state legislature and Congress. As someone who was formerly incarcerated, Jeff has made advocating for voting rights educational access a priority. Jeff is currently serving as the chair of the Spokane County Young Democrats.

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