by John Rose, U.S. Representative – Tennessee’s Sixth Congressional District
Plateau Pediatrics in Crossville combines an information-filled website, digital tools such as electronic medical records, and traditional face-to-face visits to provide quality patient care. Donna Summerford, owner of Aunt Dee’s Soaps & Lotions, successfully used the internet to first establish an outlet and then to expand the business she built in her rural DeKalb County home. The renovated and recently renamed Macon Community Hospital in Lafayette uses high-speed internet to offer telehealth, allowing patients access to a greater range of physicians and services.
None of this would be possible without access to high-speed broadband internet. However, the harsh reality is that over half a million Tennesseans only have access to one internet service provider and 274,000 people still lack reliable internet access. Expanding digital access for folks who live in the Middle Tennessee counties I represent and for all Tennesseans is critical for economic growth, job creation, and improving our overall quality of life.
Reliable high-speed internet connectivity provides a means for us to communicate with our friends and families and to stream entertainment services. It connects businesses with customers from around the world, allows farmers to use the newest technologies to modernize their operation and equipment, provides unlimited educational resources to teachers and students, and with access to broadband, rural communities can utilize telehealth services to access quality care without having to make a long trip to see a physician in person.
I believe it is critical that we as a nation work to provide access to broadband for all Americans, and there has never been a more important time to act. Modernizing our nation’s infrastructure will have a positive impact for all Americans, and it will make us safer to foreign cybersecurity threats, improve our resiliency, and make our nation more financially independent. Additionally, it will lead to job growth, increase our nation’s overall productivity, safeguard our competitive position on the world stage, and ensure future economic success.
I joined the House Rural Broadband Caucus this Congress to expand on my work to create solutions that close the digital divide. We recently sent a bipartisan letter to President Biden requesting that he prioritize broadband expansion for rural Americans as part of the next infrastructure package. I will give credit where credit is due – President Biden’s American Jobs Plan does include funding for rural broadband expansion. However, the funding for broadband is less than 5% of the $2.3 trillion proposal and calls for expanding broadband through government-owned initiatives instead of public-private partnerships that are proven to work. The American Jobs plan would use a big-government plan to give communities who already have high-speed internet services superfast connections, diverting resources from rural communities who are truly unserved. My concern is that by overbuilding already existing networks and relying on government-owned systems, President Biden’s proposal will make the digital divide larger than ever before.
Moving forward, I believe we should focus on building networks that are sustainable over time for faster speeds, eliminate burdensome regulations, streamline the federal permitting processes, and utilize public-private partnership models. It is also time to modernize and reform the outdated Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Universal Service Fund (USF). Not only are USF monies now going more towards social programs, the current funding mechanism for the USF is unsustainable due to an increasing number of Americans giving up their land lines in favor of mobile only or digital only services. Reevaluating the funding mechanism used to supply universal service as well as the programs it supports would allow the FCC to provide a cost-effective way to expand physical access to high-speed broadband across the country.
Additionally, we must improve mapping so that we can accurately determine unserved areas. This includes ensuring strong coordination among federal agencies to prevent federal programs providing resources in the same areas and targeting the areas that need it most.
I am determined to bring more Tennesseans online. As Congress continues to debate the next infrastructure package, I will make sure that rural broadband for the Sixth Congressional District of Tennessee remains at the center of the conversation.