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Closing the digital divide is critical for the vitality of rural America

Smart phones, connected devices, online marketplaces, and social media have changed the way we interact with each other, buy goods and get around. As we look back on the first 20 years of this century, it’s incredible to think of the innovation and rapid acceleration of technology.

But while technology has made us more connected, it has also placed those who don’t have access to connectivity at a significant disadvantage as our world becomes more reliant on digital commerce and communication. The “digital divide,” means communities, businesses, schools and families in areas without reliable, high-speed Internet are unable to keep pace in the modern economy.

We can no longer wait to close this divide. In my role as the Republican leader on the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, addressing the “digital divide” has been one of my top priorities.

In order to address areas that have unreliable broadband, we need to accurately know where those locations are. The current maps used to allocate resources are woefully inaccurate and result in overbuilding in some areas while other areas remain unserved or underserved. I’ve helped lead legislative efforts with my colleagues to improve these maps so we can better ensure that building our broadband infrastructure is done in the most effective way.

As we aim to utilize spectrum more efficiently, leading to the repurposing and sale of valuable airwaves, we should be using at least some of this revenue to close the technology gap that exists between rural and urban areas.

We have seen the significant impacts technology has already made to better our communities. Technological advancement has spurred job creation, higher wages and increased economic activity in our rural areas. Last year, I visited New Vision Farms in Napoleon, Ohio, where they are using cutting-edge precision agriculture technology. Precision Agriculture is the use of connected devices – such as satellite imagery and the Internet of Things – to help farm in a more efficient, safer, and sustainable way.

Having high-tech operations and capabilities in our rural areas is worth the investment if they can access reliable broadband. If they don’t, farmers won’t invest in connected equipment and devices.

Last Congress, I authored the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act, which was signed into law by President Trump as part of the Farm Bill. This law created a task force bringing the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) together to help farmers access high-speed broadband and precision agriculture technology. I’m happy to report that a representative from New Vision Farms will serve on this task force.

While our farming community is one example of how important access to broadband is, it’s far from the only one.

Even hospitals have evolved and can harness the capabilities of connectivity to save lives remotely. I’ve visited hospitals in my district that are using telehealth to serve stroke victims who need immediate attention but live in remote areas. Quickly utilizing this technology can be the difference between life and death. Just two weeks ago, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and I saw first-hand the life-saving ability of this technology.

Once more communities have access to revolutionary technology, it also spurs growth and development in small towns and cities alike. When I speak with local mayors and county officials, they all mention economic development in the communities that they represent. These places have robust workforces, are great places to live, and have space for a business to grow. However, as soon as a business owner learns that they may not be able to rely on the Internet, the chances of bringing that company to town are greatly decreased.

There has been a lot of ink spilled on the need to bridge the gap between urban and rural America, especially between those who have reliable internet connectivity and those who don’t. It’s time to truly close the gap on America’s “digital divide” because leaving Americans behind as we sprint towards a more connected tomorrow isn’t an option.

Latta represents Ohio’s 5th District and is ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. He is co-chair of Congressional Rural Broadband Caucus.

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