When you hear the word infrastructure, what immediately comes to mind? Roads? Bridges? Dams?
What about internet and cell service?
Broadband connectivity, or the lack thereof, is an issue I’ve consistently and increasingly heard about when I meet with constituents.
The reality is that broadband is no longer a luxury, it’s an essential service. The COVID-19 pandemic has made that fact crystal clear.
Access to broadband is critical to allowing doctors’ visits to take place at home, providing businesses virtual economic opportunities, supplying students and teachers with a platform for education, facilitating agricultural efficiency for farmers, and more.
The COVID-19 pandemic also exposed the fact that far too many people live without access to high-speed internet.
While Ohio is ranked in the top 20 states for broadband connectivity, more than 300,000 Buckeye households lack access to high-speed internet. That’s roughly one million Ohioans who can’t access education or health care services during this pandemic.
If that’s not enough to convey how dire the situation is, a 2019 study across eight Ohio counties found that in rural areas with 20 or fewer households per square mile, 80% to 90% of households have no access to broadband whatsoever.
And, while three to four million students across the country have been provided at-home internet access since the pandemic started, studies indicate more than 12 million children in rural or low-income households still lack broadband access. That’s why, as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, I’ve made it one of my top priorities to provide the resources necessary to expand broadband access, lower costs, and make it easier for communities to install the physical infrastructure required to connect homes, schools, businesses, and medical facilities to the broadband they need. This past December, I was proud to vote to provide rural broadband initiatives with $732 million – the highest funding level in history – to support the ReConnect broadband pilot program as well as Distance Learning and Telemedicine grants.
I’m also encouraged by recent efforts at the Federal Communications Commission, like the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund which recently awarded $9.2 billion to 180 providers who will expand broadband to 5.2 million locations in 49 states over the next 10 years.
But it will take more than that not only to provide essential health and education services during the pandemic, but to also address the economic and employment impacts that are sure to arise in the near future.
The unfortunate reality is that as the labor market continues to shift to a post-pandemic world, millions of Americans will be limited in seeking job opportunities because the connectivity required to do so simply doesn’t exist where they live.
That’s why I wrote to President Biden, urging him to work with Congress to advance an infrastructure package that aggressively deploys broadband across the country and incentivizes internet providers to bridge the digital divide through public-private partnerships.
There’s no use in sugar coating it: the expense of building reliable broadband networks in areas that lack them will be extraordinary.
We just have to keep in mind that by investing in initiatives that increase access to broadband, we will not only be able to meet new work, health, and education needs created by the COVID-19 pandemic; we will also boost economic productivity, create good jobs, and generate significant savings for our local economies down the road.
Reaching full broadband coverage in Ohio is estimated to generate up to $6.6 billion in economic benefits over the next 15 years. Those benefits are a big deal for small businesses, as those with less than 20 employees that have websites have higher annual revenues and are more likely to have recently hired than businesses without websites.
That’s not to mention that the annual telehealth cost savings per facility averages a little over $27,000. Better yet, telemedicine applications are estimated to add $522,000 to rural economies, reduce hospitalizations of nursing home patients, and result in savings for Medicare.
This pandemic has made the need for expanded broadband connectivity painfully obvious, but the benefits associated with meeting that need are undeniable. Bridging the digital divide will be complicated, but I firmly believe we can do it if we reach across the aisle and work together with civility and mutual respect.
Congress has talked the talk for far too long when it comes to infrastructure. It’s past time for us to walk the walk and pass a bipartisan infrastructure package that expands broadband access. The lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans depend on it.
• U.S. Representative Dave Joyce, Ohio Republican, serves on the House Appropriations Committee and is the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies where he is a fierce advocate of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. He was the Geauga County Prosecutor prior to representing Ohio’s 14th congressional district in Washington, D.C.