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Opinion

Duvall: Staying connected during a pandemic

Many of us have seen the news stories about high school kids having to go to town and sit in a McDonald’s parking lot to do their school assignments because of insufficient rural internet access. More of these stories are popping up amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as schooling goes from in-classroom to online.

We in agriculture have known about the lack of high-speed internet access in rural America for a long time. We’ve been sounding the alarm that the so-called digital divide between rural and urban areas was a serious problem that must be solved.

Now, the rubber is meeting the road, as they say, literally, as rural families go out in search of broadband — just when we’re being asked to stay home to beat coronavirus.

If there are any silver linings to the challenges we face right now, it may be the increased awareness of the need to increase broadband access in rural America. That attention is leading to solutions.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is providing millions of dollars through the ReConnect Pilot Program to deploy wireless broadband in rural areas.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced a $3.3 million investment in South Dakota, the first of many to come as the USDA reviews nearly 200 applications for funding. This won’t solve the problem overnight, but we’re making progress.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minnesota, and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, introduced Farm Bureau-supported legislation to increase a federal program’s ability to help with broadband buildout.

The Universal Broadband Act, H.R. 6723, would modernize the Federal Communications Commission’s Universal Service Fund so it can play a bigger role in closing the digital divide. We greatly appreciate the sponsors’ and cosponsors’ efforts in introducing and supporting this bill.

Another bill, the E-Bridge Act, introduced by Rep. Sam Graves, R-Missouri, would ensure that rural communities could use Economic Development Administration grants to help pay for expanding broadband access. The American Farm Bureau also supports this bill, H.R. 6491.

Finally, Farm Bureau is working to include funding for rural broadband in the next COVID-19 relief package now being crafted and debated in Congress.

The need for broadband connectivity has been both exacerbated and made more apparent due to efforts to adapt to the current health crisis. So, it makes sense for the next COVID-19 response and relief bill to make investments in rural broadband.

There have been several heart-warming stories about ways people are staying connected in a time of social distancing, from virtual proms and graduations to family Zoom calls.

And there are more critical needs such as telemedicine appointments that can replace some in-person medical care during this time, if patients can get online.

Broadband was already a necessity of modern life. Now, because of coronavirus, it’s more important than ever.

Zippy Duvall, a poultry, cattle and hay producer from Georgia, is the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

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