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Expanded broadband can help combat rural flight

FCC chairman Ajit Pai.
FCC chairman Ajit Pai.

“I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” is one of the most iconic lines in movie history. But for rural parts of the Sunflower State, like my hometown of Parsons, this quote has taken on a new, more ominous meaning.

In recent years, growing numbers of rural Kansans have been leaving home, and this trend appears to be accelerating. A Wichita State University study projects that over the next 50 years, 62 out of Kansas’ 105 counties will lose more than a quarter of their residents. The brain drain flowing out of the state’s rural communities is real, growing, and troubling.

I know the value of growing up in a rural community and want to ensure future generations will be able to have that same experience. That’s why, as Federal Communications Commission chairman, I’ve made it my No. 1 priority to close the digital divide — that is, the gap between those who have access to high-speed Internet, or “broadband,” and those who don’t. In my view, every American deserves digital opportunity.

Broadband’s power to conquer distance and overcome isolation holds special promise for rural America. It empowers small businesses to reach new customers and markets. It enables educational options through distance learning. It extends health care through telemedicine, which makes it possible to be treated remotely by a specialist even if you live hours from the nearest hospital. And it expands farm productivity through precision agriculture and the like

Expanding Internet access to all rural communities alone won’t reverse population losses. But broadband-enabled technologies can be a big equalizer for rural communities. It can raise the standard of living, opening doors of opportunity that were previously closed, and create a sense of hope about the future.

The hard truth is that rural America has a lot of catching up to do. In rural America, 28 percent of households lack access to high-speed, fixed service, compared to 2 percent in urban centers. In Kansas, more than 200,000 people in rural areas aren’t able to get high-speed home broadband.

Bridging the digital divide in rural America is challenging. That’s why the FCC is using every tool in our toolkit to close the gap.

Through our Mobility Fund, a successful public-private partnership, the FCC will invest $4.53 billion over the next decade to bring 4G LTE service to rural Americans who don’t have it today. Additionally, we’ve approved $2 billion through our Connect America Fund to boost fixed broadband in currently unserved locations.

The FCC has also started several initiatives to get rid of bureaucratic red tape and barriers to network investment. This will make it easier to install infrastructure needed for wired and wireless broadband.

And to expand access and competition, we’re getting creative. For example, the FCC approved a plan this June allowing a company to use hundreds of satellites in low-Earth orbit to provide high-speed broadband. This could be promising for those living in hard-to-serve areas.

Some say we can’t afford to bring high-speed connectivity to places like rural Kansas. I say we can’t afford not to. By closing the digital divide, I’m confident more Kansans will build their futures in the communities where they grew up. Perhaps future generations too will find that there’s no place like home.

Ajit Pai is chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

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