What They Are Saying: Agriculture, Education, Health Care and Tech Leaders Highlight Urgency to Close Broadband Gap

Briefing Hosted by Connect Americans Now (CAN) Outlines Impact of the Digital Divide and How Congress Can Act

On Wednesday, August 4, 2021, Connect Americans Now (CAN) hosted a virtual discussion, “Permanently Closing the Broadband Gap: Vital to America’s Digital Future,” with a panel of leading voices in agriculture, education, health care and technology. The panel discussed the impact of the digital divide on American communities, both urban and rural, and what Congress can do to permanently close the broadband gap to ensure every American can participate in the full promise of the 21st century digital economy.

As lawmakers debate a bipartisan infrastructure package in the U.S. Senate, panelists highlighted the importance of solutions to permanently close the digital divide through broadband deployment, broadband adoption (including service and device affordability) and digital skills. Panelists also outlined key principles to maximize the positive impact of investments in broadband deployment and the importance of fixing the nation’s mapping of the digital divide.

Panelists included:

  • Allison Rivera Executive Director of Government Affairs, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
  • Christopher Lagoni, Ph.D. Executive Director, Indiana Small and Rural Schools Association on behalf of National Rural Education Association (NREA)
  • Heather Gate Vice President of Digital Inclusion, Connected Nation, and Vice Chair, Advisory Committee on Diversity and Digital Empowerment, Federal Communications Commission (2019-2021)
  • Kyle Zebley Director of Public Policy, American Telemedicine Association
  • Vickie S. Robinson General Manager, Microsoft Airband Initiative

Here is some of what panelists had to say on the ubiquitous impact of the digital divide, its implications for the future of agriculture, education, equity, health care and technology and how policymakers can act to permanently close the digital divide:

Kyle Zebley, Director of Public Policy, American Telemedicine Association

“If we do not have access to broadband, we know that some Americans will simply lack access to care… if we’re going to expand access to care – which all parties say they want – we need to make sure that virtual care is an option. And again, if folks don’t have access to broadband, they will lose access to all the various options available to them. And one of the things also that COVID-19 has exposed is that broadband is a necessity of living your life in the 21st century.”

“One of the prerequisites for most varieties of telehealth is reliable broadband access and the ability to have devices that can maintain access to telehealth. One of the really crucial pieces here, once we get these fundamentals taken care of, is doing the hard work of educating folks on how they can access it and what it requires for them to navigate the technology. We just can’t leave folks behind.”

Heather Gate, Vice President of Digital Inclusion, Connected Nation

“One of the things that we’ve found when dealing with issues of the digital divide is that lack of infrastructure is one thing, but adoption has also been a challenge… so has awareness as well as digital skills.

“The bigger picture here is who are these people that are not able to adopt broadband? Data has consistently shown us that it’s low-income households, that it’s communities of color, it’s those people that live in rural areas. So it’s critical not only that we keep that program [the Emergency Broadband Benefit Fund] beyond the emergency period, but knowing that the infrastructure bill does have some language in there that allows that program to persist as a low-income broadband benefit – is also critical.”

“When people don’t have this access – particularly the people that come from vulnerable communities – don’t have the ability to adopt broadband, they are literally missing opportunities to participate in this economy that we’re creating online and also missing opportunities to access resources that are being deployed – not only via government, but for e-commerce and opportunities for entrepreneurship. So that further exacerbates socio-economic challenges that have existed prior even to the internet.”

Vickie S. Robinson, General Manager, Microsoft Airband Initiative

“The reality is that the world’s becoming more and more digitized. The pandemic has only accelerated that rate of digitization as everything went online… school and learning went online, telehealth went online, people are working online. All of this requires access to a reliable broadband internet connection. And so if we don’t have this, you are essentially being left out and unable to access essential services to really participate in the 21st century.”

“We know that millions of people here in the United States – you can take the FCC’s conservative estimate that puts it at 14 million, and we have other data to suggest that it is multiples of that – are without broadband, not connected and are essentially being left behind. This issue is particularly acute for racial and ethnic minorities who are being left behind. We have to do more to ensure that everyone has access to, not only affordable broadband services, but also devices and skilling that are necessary to use those services in a meaningful way. This should be considered essential for 21st century infrastructure.”

“Policymakers need to be focused on what’s going to be cost effective to ensure everyone can get access and so I think that’s an important principle that should be applied. How do we use these monies to be targeted to areas that are truly unserved or underserved. How do we ensure they can get access quickly? There should be a prioritization placed on technologies that can be deployed quickly and then related to my first point, we should do it in a cost-effective way, recognizing that the money is not endless.”

Allison Rivera, Executive Director of Government Affairs, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association

“There is such a need in rural America – that’s where the members that I represent are working – they are small business owners. What I think we’ve learned throughout this pandemic is that these small business owners absolutely need connectivity; and not just connectivity, but strong connectivity, in order to run their businesses.”

“These are small business owners that need resources to be able to maintain that high level of sustainability and best practices that they have out on their farms and ranches. And in order to do that – in order to increase our technology – we absolutely have to have strong broadband.”

“Commerce is not going to wait just because a producer doesn’t have a strong connection that day.”

“I’m very pleased to see the $65 billion in [the bipartisan infrastructure package] for broadband funding… I have producers tell me all the time that they live ten miles from a major university and have terrible connectivity and when we talk about how we’re being asked to do so much more in the sustainability space, continuing to be the best stewards of the environment, precision agriculture continues to be something that is a huge part of our industry. And continuing to increase those best practices, well, we’re going to need connectivity to continue to do that.”

Christopher Lagoni, Ph.D., Executive Director, Indiana Small and Rural Schools Association

“The first problem [during the pandemic] was making sure teachers had connectivity… Schools were scrambling to figure out how we ramp up — our teachers who are going to be tasked with delivering instruction and making sure he or she has a strong enough connection that they can host a Teams meeting, Zoom meeting or whatever tool they were using to connect with students. The second issue, of course, was helping students connect – and that had all sorts of successes and failures across the nation.”

“Ultimately for academic growth to occur, students need feedback… The student can’t grow at the pace they need to grow unless that teacher is with them, connecting with them and providing rich feedback… We are decelerating the rate of student growth with less connectivity.”

“Impact aid has been something that federal government has provided to rural schools to help with their purchasing power… their ability to buy devices or purchase broadband connectivity; and that impact aid has been dropping for a lot of years. All the way back to 1965… Purdue University did a study and it found that for every $1 invested by our state there was a $4 return on investments in rural broadband. That’s a pretty high ROI.”


Connect Americans Now (CAN) is a broad-based coalition of more than 300 companies and organizations representing leading voices in agriculture, education, health care, veterans’ issues, technology and small business — committed to urgent action to completely eliminate the digital divide in every American community.

Learn more about Connect Americans Now and the coalition’s mission HERE.

Learn more about solutions to permanently bridge the digital divide HERE.

Join our fight to bring broadband to all rural Americans. Tell Washington to take action to bridge the digital divide now!