Opinion: Amid pandemic, rural broadband is more important than ever
The coronavirus pandemic has introduced new challenges to our way of life. Social distancing guidelines put in place to help slow the spread of the coronavirus have caused millions to work from home and have closed schools nationwide. For many Americans, access to high-speed broadband internet means they can continue their education through distance learning, continue to access critical medical services remotely using telemedicine, or continue to run businesses, and keep staff employed, from their homes.
We have learned that access to high-speed broadband internet is not simply nice to have, it is a necessity in the 21st century. Investing in the expansion of rural broadband is as vital as the rural electric and telephone networks were decades ago.
The unfortunate truth is that millions of Americans working, going to school, and living in America’s heartland still don’t have access to high-speed broadband internet e-connectivity. In fact, of the 21 million Americans that lack high-speed broadband internet access, 80% are in rural areas and on tribal lands. The impact of this divide is so much more than an inconvenience — it is devastating to the quality of life and overall prosperity in America’s rural communities, and therefore America as a whole.
That is why under the leadership of President Donald Trump, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is not letting-up in our strong effort to close the digital divide. We are using every resource available to us to bring this vital connection to rural homes, businesses and essential facilities.
USDA’s total dollar investment in this critical infrastructure through our ReConnect Program so far is $752 million, which will bring high-speed broadband internet to 431,500 people, 1,400 farms, and 1,100 businesses across 34 states. But we are not anywhere close to being done.
USDA has nearly $1.1 billion available in new loans, grants and loan and grant combinations for the purpose of deploying this critical infrastructure. Of those funds, $100 million were appropriated in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act signed into law by Trump. The demand for these critical resources is tremendous. When we closed the second-round application window on April 15, we had 172 applications across 41 states and Puerto Rico totaling $1.57 billion.
USDA is implementing $25 million in Distance Learning and Telemedicine grants to expand quality health services to people who cannot or should not access them in person during this pandemic. This grant program helps rural schools, colleges, health care centers, and hospitals purchase the equipment needed to launch a distance learning or telemedicine operation. The application window for this funding is open until July 13, and I strongly encourage all rural organizations who can make these opportunities happen in their communities to apply for this funding.
In this national emergency, having access to high-speed internet means kids can go to school virtually. It means our parents and grandparents and at-risk neighbors, friends and family members can visit their doctors without entering a potentially dangerous environment. Having a high-speed internet connection means America’s employers — both big and small — can keep payrolls running, and American workers can continue to do their jobs from home. Rural America and the people who call it home should have these opportunities to continue with life’s obligations just as America’s urban and suburban communities do.
I am so proud of the work of our nation’s food supply chain, which has been providing sustainable food for our citizens. That supply chain begins with our rural communities. We need them more than ever during these trying times, and expanding access to this critical broadband infrastructure will help ensure rural America prospers for years to come. USDA will continue to work at the direction of Trump to ensure all Americans have access to broadband connectivity and are not left behind in the modern economy that depends on e-connectivity.
Sonny Perdue is U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.