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OP-ED: Parties must come together to invest in broadband for present, future

Betsy E. Huber

Betsy E. Huber

Homeowners know how important it is to maintain the essential equipment in their home. 

When a stove goes, you must replace it. As you start your search, you debate between a basic model or one with updated features. Either will get the job done, but sometimes you choose to invest a bit more in a better model, knowing that you will be able to cook now, but you may also see a return in your investment if you sell later. 

Investing in infrastructure – especially broadband infrastructure – is similar. 

Today, especially with so much of life being done from behind the computer screen, broadband is as essential as a stove. Yet we know millions of Americans lack the basic access – regardless of financial position – to this technology. 

As the COVID crisis has unfolded, we have seen Congress and companies take great strides to level the playing field, but we are in a critical period as students are set to return to the classroom and employers continue to adjust and expand into more permanent work-from-home assignments. Congress must invest now to ensure every American has access to high-speed internet – not just for today, but for our future as a nation. 

In the most recently proposed relief package set forth by the House, there is a full slate of investment into broadband – and while it may not eliminate the digital divide, it will take another big step forward in closing the gap. 

Of the $3.4 trillion package put forth by the House Democratic leadership, less than two-tenths of a percent of funds would be spent to ensure our students, health care providers and remote workers are able to continue forward in this new and challenging landscape. 

In that proposal, $4 billion has been earmarked for emergency broadband connectivity funding, as well as $1.5 billion for connectivity and devices for students and expansion of broadband connectivity subsidies for health care providers. It also includes obligations for telecom providers, such as restrictions on terminating service, late fees and data caps, and the creation of free Wi-Fi hotspots. 

An additional $24 million is included to develop more accurate mapping of broadband coverage, something the Grange has been calling for over the past several years. It is necessary because current maps were created based on sampling data for broadband service rather than a census of all serviced households and businesses. 

The proposal by the Senate Republican leadership includes no funding specifically earmarked for broadband, and that is short-sighted and far from fiscally responsible – because no matter the price tag, the economic fallout from the pandemic will be with us for generations. 

The Grange has as its motto Esto Perpetua – let it be perpetual. We believe this not just for our organization, but for our nation. 

Fiscal responsibility is a huge component to endurance, and we stand firmly on the side of it, but we realize responsible choices sometimes come with a price tag. 

Decisions to spend billions, let alone trillions, are tough. Knowing how we will pay back the money allocated today though, helps ground our reasoning. We must invest where we will see return today and far into the future, when generations not yet born will help heal an economy stressed by this virus. 

As such, we must invest in infrastructure and technology that will allow us to work, learn and live today and build a stable economy and educated, workforce-ready individuals for the future. Simply stated – broadband is essential. It must be part of the next package and the next until the digital divide is erased.

We call on both parties and the president to include in the current package broadband expansion and relief, or to quickly bring to the floor a package that will address the vital infrastructure and funding for broadband expansion. 

Betsy E. Huber is the president of the National Grange, America’s oldest rural and agricultural advocacy organization, and serves as a member of the FCC’s Precision Agriculture task force on the working group looking at broadband deployment.

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