Recently, Germany auctioned off segments of the broadband spectrum for the testing of a 5G network, bringing with it the potential for rapid development and adoption of new technology—everything from hyper-fast downloads to self-driving cars. Imagine then the frustration for millions of rural Americans still stuck with broadband speeds a decade or more behind, or who lack the ability even to connect their homes and businesses to the internet.
Broadband connectivity in many rural parts of the United States, including my home district in Central Virginia, lags far behind their urban and suburban counterparts. It limits the ability of our farmers to see the full benefit of precision agriculture tools, it holds our students back from reaching their full potential, and it keeps our businesses from selling to customers around the world.
Our farmers and ranchers constantly evolve and adapt to the conditions surrounding them, and if provided better and faster connectivity, the development of new technologies on the farm will rival any other sector. Autonomous tractor technology is already on display at farm shows. Farmers are already integrating UAVs to increase their ability to detect and address pest, disease, drought stress and weather damage. And industry is exploring the ability of blockchain to advance traceability of food products throughout the supply chain so when a food safety outbreak occurs, it can be more rapidly and accurately traced back to its source.
Rural communities and our nation’s economy also stand to benefit from broadband expansion. Rural schools can expand the quantity and quality of educational programming. Rural communities can attract businesses and investment. Rural businesses can access valuable resources, including a younger workforce that expects connectivity where they live and work. Rural hospitals can enhance the quality of care offered to patients no matter where they live. And faster broadband can reliably connect people to good-paying remote jobs, which helps to keep them in rural communities, rather than continuing the flight to larger towns in search of employment.
The 2018 Farm Bill strengthens USDA’s authority on rural broadband to ensure access is improved for folks in rural America, and the Appropriations Committee provided nearly a billion dollars to help address the broadband gap, but there is still much to be done to modernize the system so opportunity isn’t limited to the cities and the suburbs. We need to keep the pressure on and do this right.
Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger represents the Seventh Congressional District of Virginia, and is Chairwoman of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry, as well as a member of the Subcommittee on Commodity Exchanges, Energy, and Credit, which has jurisdiction over rural broadband issues. A former officer with the Central Intelligence Agency, Spanberger also serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.