Opinion

Broadband for all – closing the digital divide

Jonathan Spalter
Jonathan Spalter

Broadband is the backbone of innovation and opportunity in our modern lives. As such, strong, reliable internet connectivity has the power to be a great and positive equalizer for thousands of North Carolinians searching for jobs, local economic growth and improved quality of life for themselves and their families.

Rural communities have the most to gain from this lifeblood of the information age—from using high-speed internet to start a business or find a job, to having access to quality, affordable health care and education close to home. Broadband is an essential onramp to opportunity, and it must connect all Americans, regardless of where we live.

While we all nod our heads to this sentiment, more action can and needs to be taken. As the rest of the country takes advantage of our nation’s world-leading internet, nearly 40 percent of the 60 million people who live scattered across rural America have been left behind, with no access to fast and reliable internet. This compares to just four percent of city dwellers.

Hundreds of U.S. broadband providers call rural America home. They are deeply committed to closing this digital divide. But public investment typically is needed to help cover uneconomical costs of connecting sparsely populated areas, particularly when you consider the price tag for installing optical fiber cable typically runs about $30,000 per mile and up.

Fortunately, elected leaders like Rep. G.K Butterfield understand the challenges their rural constituents face and the economic opportunities broadband presents to help overcome them. Congressman Butterfield is a frequent and vocal champion of broadband deployment and its value to North Carolina families, businesses and communities. As a senior member of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Butterfield has worked tirelessly to ensure high-speed broadband is available to rural communities in his district so residents are able to compete in the global marketplace.

North Carolina's own Research Triangle is a shining example of the potential. With rents 71% below California's Silicon Valley, a steady stream of well-trained workers and strong broadband infrastructure, the area has long demonstrated the potential of the so-called "Silicon Prairie." In a digital world that collapses geographic barriers, there is no reason more communities across North Carolina and rural America should not be full participants in the information economy.

High-speed internet can no longer be considered a luxury. It is a necessity. That is why it is essential that more policymakers follow Rep. Butterfield's lead in supporting efforts to connect unserved areas. Recent encouraging progress includes the announcement by the Federal Communications Commission that it will begin an auction in 2018 to provide nearly $2 billion over 10 years to expand high-speed internet access in rural areas that currently lack wired broadband.

Closing the digital divide is a national priority, and leaders like Congressman Butterfield are bringing this progress home to North Carolina. Lawmakers nationwide should take a page from his playbook by advocating for policies that ensure all Americans have the same access to the economic opportunities made possible by broadband. We still have a long journey, but the road ahead is looking a lot more connected.

Jonathan Spalter is the president and CEO of USTelecom.

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