Closing the digital divide is a challenge for American society in the 21st century that must be met. Internet connectivity brings with it economic growth, educational opportunities, individual quality of life, and many other assets, but rural areas lag behind urban ones in access to reliable internet service. Making the American dream available to all citizens requires building out internet infrastructure from sea to shining sea.
Fortunately, great strides in this effort have been made by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under the leadership of outgoing Chairman Ajit Pai. The FCC has paid attention to the needs of rural communities such as those found throughout Virginia’s Ninth Congressional District, targeting funding and supporting creative initiatives that will help more Americans obtain reliable and fast internet access.
One of these initiatives in our region has captured significant attention recently.
Wise County Public Schools will be the beneficiary of a program that uses low-orbit satellites to provide high-speed broadband in rural and isolated areas. Forty-five families in the county will receive free internet access through this technology.
The FCC has approved applications from various companies planning to use satellites to provide broadband access and has also awarded money to help these providers serve rural areas.
The difficulties of connecting Southwest Virginia are representative of the problems satellite broadband connectivity aims to fix: the traditional method of laying fiber optic cables is expensive in isolated areas with difficult terrain. Satellites present an alternative for getting these areas online.
I have supported the FCC’s move in this area, and I am pleased that some residents in our area will benefit directly from them in the immediate future.
The FCC has not only advanced innovative ways to close the digital divide, but it has supported them with unprecedented levels of funding.
Last year, the FCC held its Phase I auction for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which will ultimately total a $20.4 billion effort. Phase I targets 10.4 million Americans in rural areas with no broadband access, and it prioritizes service at higher speeds.
In the jurisdictions of the Ninth District, 31,038 locations will be served and a total of $23,405,973.49 funded. These investments will make a substantial difference. Out of the 29 cities and counties making up the Ninth District, 22 of them received money, including $7,718,764.40 to Patrick County, $306,730.16 to Lee County, $256,562.20 to Montgomery County, and $33,632.30 to Craig County.
Phase II will focus on areas that are deemed partially served as well as any unserved areas left over from Phase I.
The FCC has also encouraged the use of telehealth, which has great potential to expand access and affordability in rural health care.
Since 2017, funding for the FCC’s Rural Health Care Program increased by 43 percent. The commission also allowed funding from previous years to carry forward, so the overall result was that funding for the program doubled from $400 million in 2017 to $802.7 million for the 2020 funding year.
The FCC also moved forward with the Connected Care Pilot Program, a step announced by FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr at the Tri-Area Community Health Center in Laurel Fork in 2019. The program is a $100 million initiative to support telehealth services to low-income Americans, including those in rural areas.
Quick action and flexibility provided by the FCC during the coronavirus pandemic has also been invaluable. In March, Chairman Pai launched the Keep Americans Connected Pledge asking providers not to cut broadband and telephone service during the pandemic. Over 800 companies made this commitment, including providers serving the Ninth District.
As hospital facilities turned their focus to responding to the coronavirus, the FCC launched a $200 million
Additional FCC actions during the pandemic included more funding and waiving regulations to assist schools and libraries with connectivity to continue providing services to students. As schools shifted to remote learning, these measures gave them a lifeline so students would not completely miss out on further education.
There is much to do still to close the digital divide. I know too many Ninth District residents lack the reliable broadband service they need. To get there, I hope the next FCC Chair adopts the same forward-thinking and innovative approach as Chairman Pai during his time leading the commission.