The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about abrupt technological changes to our society. 2020 has been defined by students completing class assignments at home, adults performing day-to-day tasks from their kitchen tables, and the virtual meetings that have become common to many of us.
Unfortunately, the shift to a complete reliance on internet access in the age of Covid has accelerated the digital divide in America. Rural areas continue to lag other parts of the country when it comes to access to reliable internet connection. And while this shift has certainly become more recognizable in the age of teleworking and learning from home, it is nothing new.
This timely issue is one that myself and numerous other stakeholders recently addressed on a virtual roundtable convened by my office. I invited leaders from the agriculture, education, health care and telecommunications sectors to join me for a discussion on ways we can move forward with providing Kentuckians with the internet access needed to thrive in the modern economy.
As stakeholders from across the Commonwealth made clear, broadband access is today’s age is an absolute must. Without reliable internet, the companies of the future will pass by rural communities on their way to larger cities and towns. We cannot be competitive for new jobs in the 21st century without expanded broadband access.
To their credit, the Trump Administration has worked tirelessly to invest in broadband access in all corners, including rural parts of Kentucky. I have strongly supported the President’s efforts, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to invest in high-speed broadband projects in companies like Ballard Rural Telephone, Duo Broadband, and Gibson Electric, who are dedicated to deploying broadband capability. Likewise, I was proud to recently advocate for the federal funding to be invested in the West Kentucky and Tennessee Telecommunications Cooperative (WK&T), so that other areas of far West Kentucky can have a seat at the table in the 21st century economy.
The 2018 federal Farm Bill, a multi-year effort to support agriculture programs, also added funding for efforts to expand broadband access in America. As Kentucky’s former Commissioner of Agriculture and a member of Congress who is active on agricultural issues, I was proud to support this effort as a member of the committee responsible for negotiating the final agreement.
But there still is more work to do to make our vision of universal broadband access a reality. And, unfortunately, this effort has faced numerous setbacks over the years, including the flawed Kentucky Wired initiative put forward by the state. Originally sold as a path forward to statewide broadband access, this project has been largely defined by disappointing delays and excessive cost overruns.
Moving forward, the solution to wider-reaching internet access is a massive federal partnership with private companies. This effort should rival the successful initiative by the federal government in the 1950s to establish the interstate highway system — as broadband access is certainly the infrastructure challenge of our time.
We are certainly moving in the right direction, but cannot afford to slow down in the effort to close the digital divide. The lack of broadband is a national issue that is not purely confined to our state’s borders.
Thankfully, there are many well-intentioned Kentuckians working toward expanding broadband in hard-to-reach parts of Kentucky. For example, Kentucky Farm Bureau has cemented its status as a powerful voice for rural Kentucky through their efforts and advocacy to increase the accessibility of internet service.
Whether we like it or not, work, education, and even health care are rapidly moving online. Expanding broadband access — particularly in the rural areas I represent — is crucial for economic growth, job creation and quality of life, and is one of my top priorities. In the current environment, it is critical that we as a nation seize the opportunity to provide access to broadband for all.
Rep. James Comer is a United States Congressman for the 1st Congressional District, which spans from south central Kentucky to the river counties of far western Kentucky. He serves as the Republican Leader of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.