By George Plaven
Members of Oregon’s congressional delegation are joining the call to close the so-called “digital divide,” extending high-speed internet access to citizens in rural parts of the U.S.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden joined 16 colleagues from across the country in sending a letter last week to President Donald Trump, requesting at least $40 billion in infrastructure spending for rural broadband development.
“In an increasingly interconnected world and global economy, we must include in our discussion of infrastructure not just roads, bridges and waterways, but also high-speed internet access,” the letter states.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, 39 percent of Americans who live in rural areas, or roughly 23 million people, lack high-speed internet access, versus just 4 percent of Americans in urban areas.
“While the vast majority of Americans have access to high-speed internet service, there is a stark disparity between urban and rural America,” the letter continues. “This digital divide puts many rural Americans at risk of being left out of critical technological advancements and economic gain.”
Oregon’s lone Republican congressman, Greg Walden, has also honed in on the digital divide, leading a hearing on broadband solutions last week in Washington, D.C.
Walden, who is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, represents most of rural eastern, central and southern Oregon. He stressed the need to reduce what he described as “unnecessary roadblocks” to siting new broadband in rural areas, saying the environmental review process to build on federal lands is especially burdensome.
“I run into this issue all the time on siting,” Walden said. “We’re trying to get broadband out there, and we’re trying to get three-phased power in some of our communities that have waited three years to get an (environmental impact statement) to get four power poles on BLM land. So I think there is an issue here with siting.”
Closing the digital divide has made headlines early in 2018 after Trump signed a pair of executive orders in January to cut red tape for rural broadband deployment. Both orders are intended to make it easier for private companies to build broadband infrastructure, such as radio towers, on federal property.
A coalition aimed at bridging the digital divide, called Connect Americans Now, also launched in January and is focusing on new technologies to deliver high-speed internet in rural America. Specifically, the group is pressuring the FCC to make TV “white spaces” available as part of the solution.
When asked about TV white spaces, Walden said he thinks they could be harnessed by internet providers, but he wants to make sure they do not interfere with existing users.
“You don’t want to create unintended consequences,” Walden said. Last year, the National Association of Broadcasters opposed TV white space technology under development by Microsoft, saying it would threaten millions of viewers with loss of TV programming.
Both the Oregon Farm Bureau and Oregon Cattlemen’s Association have joined the Connect Americans Now coalition, saying internet is crucial for farmers and ranchers to use precision farming tools and remain competitive in the market.