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FCC Chairman Discusses Rural Digital Opportunity Fund with Rural Business Owners, Community Advocates, Internet Service Providers

“This is the biggest step the FCC has ever taken to close the Digital Divide"

by Jessica Denson, Communications Director

Ajit Pai Roundtable In Marietta 300x179 Screenshot taking from live feed of the roundtable

Marietta, OH (January 23, 2020) – The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Ajit Pai, met yesterday with community advocates, business owners, educational leaders, internet service providers, and other local stakeholders in Ohio to discuss the importance of closing the Digital Divide in rural communities.

“There is a certain level of pessimism about the future in these areas,” said Pai. “People are not sure about where the jobs are going to come from, how they’re going to educate their kids, and how they’re going to get healthcare unless they drive several hours away. That’s, in part, because they don’t have access to these digital platforms that are so critical.”

Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH) serves the 6th District in Ohio. It’s an area running along the southeast side of the state, bordering Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania—and much of it is populated by rural communities that, he says, are being negatively impacted by the lack of broadband (high-speed internet) access.

“Technology is only going to expand and if we don’t solve this rural-urban divide, we’re not going to have a rural broadband problem to solve because no one is going to live there,” said. Johnson. “As people move out of the region to get a connection, they’re not going to come back. There are smart people in rural America with big ideas and we can’t harness that because they’re being left behind in the digital age.”

The Congressman, who sits on two House committees that handle telecommunications, invited Pai to talk about what the FCC is doing to connect families and businesses living and working in rural parts of the country.

Ajitpai 250x300 FCC Chairman Ajit Pai

“I want to make sure every American, regardless of where he or she lives, is able to get access to the internet and other advanced technologies,” Pai said. “The FCC will be voting on the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund next week which is a plan that allocates $20 billion over the next decade for rural broadband.  This is the biggest step the FCC has ever taken to close the Digital Divide.”

The Chairman calls the lack of broadband access a “lack of access to digital opportunity that we’re trying to correct.”  He says the investment from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will seek to “future proof” networks by prioritizing projects that will provide higher speed, lower latency services to rural America.

Phase one of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will allocate $16 billion—targeting part of the country that Pai said “we know does not have broadband.” Phase two of the fund will invest $4 billion in any areas that did not receive funds in phase one or that need higher speeds. This second phase will also focus on improved data collection. It is news the roundtable participants welcomed for a myriad of reasons.

“We have rural fire departments, EMS, police departments. So, for us this literally a life or death issue,” said Kevin Ritter, County Commissioner, Washington County. “If we don’t have that high-speed internet connection then sometimes lives are lost. It’s also an issue with records that we are required to keep, sharing those records with other government entities and with private individuals. If we don’t have that high-speed internet, then you’re relying on ‘snail mail’ and other things that are much less efficient.”

“We’ve been so underserved that even just subpar connections at this point feel like a blessing,” said Andy Kuhn, Executive Director, Southeastern Ohio Port Authority. “But at the same time, the nature of the business is changing so rapidly that businesses are becoming acutely aware of the gaps that exist. We need to be able to compete and need better internet access to do so.”

Pai emphasized that one part of the equation is focusing on improved data collection—to more accurately identify where there are gaps in broadband services. It’s something that State Program Director for Connected Nation Ohio, Tina Lyden, pointed out must not be overlooked.

“We work with all the stakeholders on engagement and improving access, adoption, and use of broadband not only across the state but in other rural areas across country,” she said. “We want to keep the mapping fresh and continue to improve that data so that here in Ohio, and really for every rural community in America, local, state, and federal leaders can make educated decisions on how and where to invest in expanding broadband.”

CN Ohio is the local subsidiary of the national nonprofit Connected Nation whose mission is to identify solutions for expanding broadband and its related technologies to all people.  Expanding access to every rural community is a goal Pai said he is also working toward.

“It’s not just about better, faster residential service,” he said. “We believe there are many other applications which require higher-speed internet. For instance, agriculture needs broadband. Where you may see cornfield, I see a bunch of data that needs to be uploaded so a farmer can analyze when to fertilize or harvest.  The same goes with things like telehealth. A doctor may need high resolution images of a patient to really give a good diagnosis.”

Pai added that it’s not something the FCC can do alone. They need to work with other organizations, community leaders, and local stakeholders to create positive change sooner than later. It’s a sentiment Rep. Johnson echoed.

"We understand that this rural Digital Divide is a problem that must be fixed NOW, and we must have a have a sense of urgency to do so.”

To learn more about the Fund and details on next week’s vote, head to the FCC website.  You can watch the entire roundtable discussion in the video below. Scroll to 49:00 to hear Chairman Ajit Pai’s break down of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.