Close the digital divide in rural areas first

Jack Alexander
Friday, July 16, 2021

Montana sits in the center of a digital divide. One that hamstrings rural communities across the state and the nation.

In America, rural and low-income towns face coverage gaps while urban centers have world-class broadband access. Urban or rural, our lives depend on the internet., For rural America, it has never been more important for Congress to get its broadband priorities right as it takes on the Biden Administration’s American Jobs Plan.

Congress needs to prioritize unserved areas of the country. These include small-town Montana and other rural areas that most need major broadband investment. Americans need a modern, permanent, and sustainable solution to close the digital divide. Congress has the resources to do just that.

We were pleased that the American Jobs Plan committed $100 billion to get all Americans connected. However, we believe that the priorities for that investment fails to empower and connect vulnerable communities — communities that are most in need of major broadband investment. Prioritizing these communities is the only way to keep rural America serving as an important part of the American economy and feeding America and the world.

Currently 90 percent of Americans have access to broadband internet. However, a full 26 percent of rural Americans have no access to broadband infrastructure of any kind. This disparity is even more apparent in Montana, which a recent survey found to have the worst broadband in the nation. Rural states filled out the bottom tier of poor internet service. Congress needs to prioritize rural broadband before investing in to speed up urban access.

Due to spotty internet coverage, many industries in the state are taking a hit — industries like farming, ranching, manufacturing, and a myriad of small businesses which serve as the backbone of Montana’s economy. High-speed internet access is incredibly important for the agriculture community, most of which is located in rural Montana, to have access to high-speed internet; whether that be to communicate with customers, follow weather and commodity markets, and utilize state-of-the art agricultural practices,. Reliable, high-speed broadband is no longer a luxury, It is an essential business function.

Not only is broadband important for basic day-to-day tasks, it is also a crucial component of agribusiness development. As the climate continues to change, our agriculture system will inevitably change as well. The future of farming relies heavily on innovative solutions that can both address these changes and forge a new pathway for sustainable agricultural practices. This type of innovation can only happen in farming communities that have reliable access to the internet. At the end of the day, broadband paves agriculture’s path to the future. The fact of the matter: Rural farmers and ranchers need access to quality broadband infrastructure just as much as our urban counterparts to ensure the success of their businesses, to maintain the quality of their livelihoods, to educate their children, and to usher in a new era of agribusiness.

We have an historic opportunity to bring the internet to all Americans by expanding the existing broadband infrastructure to unserved areas of the country, closing the affordability gap, and increasing digital literacy. Rural Montana cannot be left behind in this increasingly digitized era. It’s our hope that Montana’s congressional delegation stands up for rural communities. It would be a darn shame if Congress were to send critical resources to America’s largest cities while the rural divide grows in places like Montana. Prioritize rural broadband.

(Jack Alexander serves as the president and chairman of the Rural & Agriculture Council of America – a consortium of mayors, county commissioners, ranchers, farmers, producers, main street business owners, and leaders in rural America. He has more than 30 years of experience in natural resource management. He lives in Belgrade.)

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