What They Are Saying: Diverse Panel of Leaders Call for All-of-the-Above Approach to Permanently Eliminate Digital Divide

Voices in Agriculture, Education, Health Care, Affordable Housing and Digital Equity Highlight Urgency to Maximize Positive Impact of Broadband Programs in Virtual Briefing

On Thursday, April 7, 2022, Connect Americans Now (CAN) hosted a virtual discussion, “A Historic Opportunity: Maximizing Federal Programs to Permanently Eliminate the Digital Divide,” with a tremendous panel of leading voices in health care, education, affordable housing, agriculture and digital equity.

The panel discussed the urgency to ensure every American community has access to an affordable, reliable broadband connection and the digital devices and skills necessary for success in the 21st century economy and classroom — and how lawmakers can help ensure federal programs follow an all-of-the-above approach to maximize the positive impact of resources targeted at eliminating the digital divide.

In case you missed it, you can view a recording of the full event HERE. Here is some of what panelists had to say about the urgency to bring affordable, reliable broadband to every American community as rapidly and cost-effectively as possible:

Emily Buckman, Director of Congressional Relations, American Farm Bureau Federation

“Expanding rural access to broadband has long been a priority for our organization, and certainly was exacerbated due to COVID. Broadband is essential to modern agriculture, the farmers and ranchers who grow our food and the quality of life for rural Americans. Our members depend on broadband, just as they do highways, rail, waterways to ship food, fuel and fiber across the country and around the world…

… According to the USDA nearly 30 percent of farms lack access to the internet, not to mention the millions of rural Americans that currently don’t have access, so given the huge task that’s been placed upon NTIA, it is critical that these dollars are deployed efficiently and effectively. We were talking about providers being able to take an all-of-the-above technology approach in deploying broadband, that is something that our organization fully supports. We are a technology neutral organization. We firmly believe that every community is different so not necessarily every technology is going to work best across the entire rural landscape. We also are very focused on transparency and ensuring that these dollars are not overlapping when it comes to other efforts that are already deployed … Something that’s been at the forefront of our membership is… this historic investment, $65 billion, it seems like a lot but obviously given the scope of the problem, it’s really just a drop in the bucket… we want to ensure that the investments are allocated to the areas that are most in need.”

Jennifer Stoll, Executive Vice President for External Affairs, OCHIN and California Telehealth Network

“Health care is one of the perfect use cases for broadband deployment across the country. Without high quality health care you cannot have thriving communities, and so telehealth helps bridge that gap for a lot of services … Telehealth is really one of the greatest opportunities to close the health care gaps … If we’re not extraordinarily thoughtful and intentional in how we approach the needs of a community in terms of accessing broadband we could unintendedly accelerate the digital divide and accelerate health disparities between those that have and those that don’t have and so it’s something we think a lot about at OCHIN …”

“We have two great challenges in rural America: as patients are getting care, and we can see this in the data, is around patients that are experiencing social isolation, or that have transportation needs to get the providers in their communities. It’s not unheard of for many of our patients to drive two to three hours just for a primary care visit … And so, we would absolutely encourage states to map hospitals, map where the health centers operate, and include them and prioritize those communities to make sure that there is reliable, quality broadband. Because you can’t run a health records system, you cannot operate data and reporting to respond to a pandemic, for instance, if you’re emailing spreadsheets back and forth because you don’t have access to high-quality broadband, and you can’t upload or download a mammogram as a woman’s waiting, on-edge, waiting to find out if she needs to have treatment.”

Vickie Robinson, General Manager, Microsoft Airband Initiative

“One of biggest learnings for us as we approach five years in this space is that there is no silver bullet for doing this work, that providers and communities are served best when they’re empowered to use technologies that are unique and account for different topologies, different population densities and different use cases, whether you’re talking about a farm or you’re talking about powering a business — that is the biggest thing that we’ve really experienced as we’ve been doing this work across the country, and really across the world, is that it’s really important that partners and providers, and communities, have all the tools in their toolbox, at their disposal when they’re tackling this problem.”

“It’s incredibly important that Congress ensure that the flexibility that’s provided in those underlying acts that infuse these historic billions of dollars… [to] make a significant down payment to close the digital divide… that flexibility remains and we do that by ensuring there’s transparency in the processes around how funding is working and by being clear minded around where you already have providers that are on the ground doing this important work, and who are poised to do it at scale. Through [lawmakers] oversight we can ensure this work is done to optimize for speed and cost effectiveness… it’s incumbent upon all of us to ensure that [these resources are] maximized, to reach as many people as possible.”

Sean Rickert, Executive Committee, National Rural Education Association; Executive Board Member, AASA: The School Superintendents Association

“How do we deal with the fact that some students have access and other students don’t have access? What are the obstacles, well there’s the infrastructure issue in rural communities where you don’t have adequate broadband in some places it’s not even a cost issue, there just isn’t anything available… I’ve often compared it to the rural electrification association and how 200 years ago in this country you had very much haves and have nots, you had some parts of the country that were electrified, that had access to refrigeration, that had access to lighting, and you had some parts of the country that were still very much open your window, light the lamp type of America. We don’t want to let things get that far again so that’s what we’re working on.”

Collen Fisher, Executive Director, Council for Affordable and Rural Housing

“Certainly, the last couple of years exacerbated the problem because of some of the students going to schools and — if you didn’t have internet in your complexes, where would you go so that you could take your class? Would that be the local McDonald’s? …sitting in a parking lot kind of thing — that’s a concern … Residents who live a $12,000-year income, when you start talking about the price of what internet service can be in areas all across the country, you know, it’s kind of mind-boggling when you think about the fact that — how much is that going to cut into someone’s budget?”

Learn more about how federal agencies can maximize the positive impact of infrastructure law broadband programs HERE.

Learn more about CAN and our mission HERE.


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