Working to bridge digital divide

To me, it’s fairly simple. Better internet access means more economic and educational opportunities, and a higher quality of life.

There are currently several barriers to high-speed internet access in many parts of our Appalachian region. Many of you know this unfortunate fact all too well. I’ve heard stories from a countless number of you: children having to go to the local library or to a fast-food restaurant in a neighboring town just to complete their homework; not being able to run a business in today’s information centric world economy; not being able to get online to upload pictures of your grandchildren; dropped cell phone calls; or, simply just not having the internet access necessary in today’s world.

It’s not just families who are at a disadvantage because they don’t have internet access at home. I recently visited a business in Mahoning County — whose property literally backs into the Ohio Turnpike — that is having trouble getting a reliable, high-speed, internet connection they need to run and expand their business. It’s very difficult to run a manufacturing business if you can’t communicate with your customers and suppliers. High-speed connectivity is no longer a “pie in the sky” luxury – it is essential for everyday activities…both at home and at work.

As a member of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, I am leading the charge for a further rollout of broadband internet access in rural areas. Far too many rural communities, like ours, have been left behind — we must bridge this “digital divide.” I have spoken to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai, and we have agreed to work together on this issue. He knows how important it is.

I’ve recently held broadband roundtables across eastern and southeastern Ohio focused specifically on this issue, and it’s one I’ve been talking about for some time.

But now, there is a national conversation taking place on how to get broadband providers to go the last mile, and strike a balance with electric utilities to utilize their existing or planned infrastructure. And, private investment remains an essential component to any broadband buildout. The Energy and Commerce Committee, of which I am a member, is currently considering legislation to streamline federal permitting processes, create common contracts for siting wireless facilities on federal properties, and create an inventory of federal assets. One of the key roles of Congress is to facilitate policy and programs that help unserved or underserved communities. The infrastructure bill that will likely be debated later this year must include provisions for rural broadband deployment.

Another, related, critical component of improving America’s rural broadband infrastructure is the importance of robust broadband internet connectivity in providing Americans with greater access to telemedicine, or telehealth. Telehealth has proven to be a game-changer in parts of rural America, where people may have to drive long distances to see a medical professional. But, without a reliable internet connection, it’s not possible. We have to break down that barrier. Long drives sometimes deter rural residents from obtaining preventative care, ultimately increasing America’s healthcare costs.

As we prepare for the economy of the future, rural broadband must be an integral component. It’s time we work together – at the federal, state, and local levels – to ensure: our children have the technology and tools they need at home to further their education; businesses have the high-speed internet connectivity they need to effectively compete, succeed, create jobs, and provide opportunities for the hardworking people that like here; patients have access to telemedicine; and, we all have the ability to take advantage of “being connected.”

Many bureaucrats in Washington simply don’t understand the challenges we here in eastern and southeastern Ohio face. We will not be left behind anymore. There’s a lot of intellectual capital here in rural Appalachia … and, America needs to start tapping into it.

Sixth Congressional District — U.S. House of Representative Bill Johnson (R-Ohio): 1710 Longworth House Office Building, Washington, D.C., 20515; 202-225-5705; fax, 202-225-5907. Main district office is located in Marietta: 246 Front St., Marietta, Ohio, 45750; 740-376-0868; fax, 740-376-0886.