Farmer using a mobile device

Reps. Joyce, Finkenauer renew commitment to expand broadband in rural America.

When was the last time you grabbed a letter and stamp to send a photo to a friend in the mail, instead of just using your phone?

That’s the question Reps. Abby Finkenauer (D-IA) and John Joyce (R-PA) used to grab readers’ attention in a column for the Gazette, a Cedar Rapids paper.

For millions of Americans, they said, it would not be surprising if the answer was “just last week.”

While nearly all of urban America has access to both fixed and mobile broadband, only two-thirds of rural citizens have that same access, the bipartisan duo explained. They called that disparity, which affects more than 24 million Americans, “unacceptable,” and said Congress “simply cannot allow rural communities to be left behind.”

Finkenauer and Joyce are members of the House Small Business Committee, which works to propel policy that strengthens small businesses, like programs that narrow the gap in broadband access. 

“Reliable access to technology is synonymous with success,” they said.

Finkenauer and Joyce wrote about a bipartisan field hearing they hosted in Gettysburg, Pa., to learn from those who “understand this need firsthand.”

Brock Wilderman, President of the Adams County Farm Bureau, was among those who shared his story. He explained that as farmers invest in more advanced equipment, they become more dependent on the ability to access specialized support for maintenance and repairs. That’s typically accomplished on smartphones, which farmers use to troubleshoot problems and check-in with suppliers before making a long drive for needed parts or tools. To compete in their evolving industry, farmers must have reliable broadband access, he said.

Overall, six in 10 farmers say they do not have enough internet connectivity to run their businesses, according to an October 2019 report commissioned by the United Soybean Board.

Students in rural communities without reliable internet are disadvantaged, too, Finkenauer and Joyce wrote.

As take-home school assignments increasingly move online, a digital divide is widening between students with and without reasonable broadband access. This inequity is sometimes called “the homework gap.”

“The internet should be reducing barriers to success, but the dearth of broadband access in rural areas creates additional obstacles for students and parents to overcome,” they wrote.

Finkenauer and Joyce said that when they returned to Congress this month, they’d do so with a renewed commitment “to this common-sense, bipartisan effort.”

While Congress has already enacted several efforts to expand internet in rural America, they said, many programs remain underutilized. 

“As technology continues to progress, our communities — in all parts of the country — must continue moving forward. Together, we are working to help Congress meet this challenge.”