By Stephen V. Smith
Today, I am encouraged. I sat in on a conference call this morning wherein House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-SC, and Congressman Fred Upton, R-MI, discussed the Rural Broadband Acceleration Act, their legislation to speed up the flow of FCC funds to shovel-ready broadband projects.
This is encouraging for a couple of reasons. Foremost, seeing a bipartisan effort in this politically charged environment is a sign that perhaps we aren’t as divided as it sometimes appears. After all, the ability to connect to the internet isn’t a political issue — it’s an issue of access to a service that is truly essential.
This bill is also an indication that momentum is growing among our nation’s leaders to once and for all change the fact that millions of Americans still have no access to reliable broadband service.
Granted, we’ve seen a great deal of action in the past few years toward solving this problem. Creative partnerships, progressive construction projects, and loan/grant programs at the state and federal levels have delivered broadband connectivity to many unserved homes and businesses.
But it’s not enough. America, that shining city upon a hill, was ill-prepared for a pandemic that sent millions of people home to work and learn. The crisis highlighted just how disadvantaged a person is without adequate internet access. A lack of broadband is not merely an inconvenience — it’s detrimental to a person’s livelihood, their education, and even their health.
Also on this morning’s call was Brandon Presley. In addition to his role as a Mississippi Public Service Commissioner, Presley is president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. He has been a strong advocate for rural broadband in his home state and is now championing the cause on the national stage. By the end of the day, he announced that more than 4,500 signatures in support of the Rural Broadband Acceleration Act had been sent to President Trump and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-MS, who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
Such support points to a heightened sense of urgency to move more quickly toward creating an America where broadband is available to anyone who wants or needs to connect.
Many of the companies we are blessed to call our clients have been doing the hard work for a long time, building out fiber networks in regions that are terribly difficult to serve. Indeed, you will find some of the most robust fiber networks in some of the most distressed counties, thanks to cooperatively owned broadband providers that exist only to serve their member-owners.
I myself am proof that we’ve made a lot of progress. Because of the world-class broadband network built by my local telecommunications cooperative, I can sit in my home office in rural America and run a business with employees in five states serving clients from Texas to South Carolina, from Florida to Minnesota — all across a fiber network.
But millions of Americans are not so lucky. I believe that someday the connectivity I’ve personally experienced will be replicated and expanded until there is no rural broadband challenge to speak of. Until then, I applaud the work of the elected leaders on today’s call, as they make a big push toward connecting the unserved sooner versus later. Their efforts are, indeed, encouraging.