Senate Broadband Caucus Launches With Eye Toward Rural America

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A new Senate caucus wants to do for broadband what FDR did for electricity.

In the 1930s, just 10 percent of people living on U.S. farms or in other rural areas had electricity, even though it was common in cities. Enter President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose ambitious New Deal programs included those to electrify the countryside, raising the standard of living across rural America.

“We would not be able to function as a country without rural electrification,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who with Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and John Boozman (R-Ark.) founded the Senate Broadband Caucus, which kicked off July 12. “This is the exact same issue.”

Founded by senators from states with large swaths of rural land that’s unserved or underserved by broadband, the caucus is focused on closing America’s urban-rural broadband divide. The need is there, according to proponents like Capito, who co-chairs the caucus with King and whose state ranks 48th in broadband accessibility. Capito noted that 30 percent of West Virginians don’t have access to broadband at all.

So how to close the gap? So far, there are few specifics. Heitkamp said the group would be “one of the most active caucuses” on Capitol Hill. Capito stressed the need for “creative ideas” to expand broadband as the digital divide continues to grow. King was more detailed, calling for a “coordinated national strategy” to bring federal and state agencies, and stakeholders, together—much like Roosevelt did.

The caucus has supportive partners, including Next Century Cities, Engine, NTCA–the Rural Broadband Association, the Competitive Carriers Association, CTIA – The Wireless Association, INCOMPAS, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and USTelecom. That’s a start.

For rural senators, the worry is that large chunks of their home states will lag urban areas, not just economically but in health care and education as telemedicine, on-line learning and other such programs keep evolving. Ultimately, though, it’s a question of livability. For a younger generation that relies on the internet personally and professionally, living somewhere unconnected is unthinkable.