(TNS) -- Internet access might seem like an assumed party of everyday life in 21st century America, but in many rural communities across the nation people still lack a reliable broadband connection.
The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) reports an estimated 15 million Americans, primarily in rural communities, don't have access to entry-level broadband in their homes and 41 percent of rural schools can't access a high-speed Internet connection.
Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-IA 2nd District, has made it a central mission of his work in Congress to correct service gaps in his state.
Loebsack, whose district spans across southeast Iowa, held a series of roundtable meetings Thursday to discuss the Small Business Broadband Deployment Act and how it could help local businesses navigate the complex and ever-changing federal telecommunications regulations.
"Broadband is a huge issue for rural America and there's not enough being done in D.C., I think, to help out when it comes to rural broadband," Loebsack said at the Southeast Iowa Regional Planning Commission.
The bill, co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon and passed unanimously in the House of Representatives, extends the FCC exemption from its enhanced transparency rules for small Internet service providers (ISPs) for five years. The goal of the short-term extension, Loebsack said, was to ease the regulatory burden on small businesses tasked with sifting through hundreds of pages of evolving telecommunications guidelines, while also running the day-to-day operations of their companies.
"This commonsense, bipartisan measure will give small internet service providers throughout the country flexibility to focus their resources on deploying broadband and serving our constituents," he said in a statement released Wednesday. "This bill will provide certainty to small ISPs, and help us achieve our ultimate goal of both expanding broadband access and enhancing consumer protections."
Tim Fencl, general manager and CEO of Danville Mutual Telephone Company, thanked the congressman for his attention to rural broadband access and said the extension would help companies like his apply the new regulations within a more reasonable time frame.
"One of the things that we as a small business — like all small businesses — suffer from, is when you have a staff of 10 people, you can't commit one person to try to manage all of the regulations," Fencl said.
Danville Telecom recently partnered with the Big River Resources ethanol plant and its administration offices to provide broadband service. Without the legislative support Loebsack has provided, Fencl said, his company would not have been able to expand its operations in new markets.
"Thank you for the work that you've done," he said. "It has allowed us to expand beyond our traditional boundaries and be able to provide services in the communities of West Burlington, Burlington, Fort Madison, Keokuk, Wever and Montrose.
"We've got a lot of fiber running out there and it gave us the opportunity to connect not only to the admin plant here for Big River Resources but also to their ethanol plant. A lot of companies anymore, they're not in one location, they're diversified. And a lot of times you'll find those companies' locations are in the rural environments, for a lot of different reasons. And having the ability to expand outside of a normal city territory gives us the opportunity to provide services. And then with each one of those customers, we have the opportunity to grow and get more customers that are in those rural environments."
Founded in 1900, the Danville Mutual Telephone Company has dramatically expanded from its modest beginnings to include 964 landlines, 604 internet users, 1,913 satellite televisions and 4,337 cellular customers.
Jim Leighting of Big River Resources said local agriculture has extended its reach to the point that optimal communications systems are crucial.
"Local agriculture has grown dramatically, and with that comes the need for communications," Leighting said. "Fiber is the way of today and the future. And with our ability to communicate with servers and with electronics and everything else, this type of service is very important to our business."
David Toyer, director of economic development for the Greater Burlington Partnership, said a robust telecommunications infrastructure is critical for the future of communities like Burlington who are trying to attract and retain young professionals and businesses in the area.
"It's growing in importance," Toyer said. "And having smaller, local companies like Danville that are able to provide that service - I look at it as being valuable to us.
"In the last 24 months we've had 14 projects — between expansions and new locations — happen here, representing over $200 million in new capital investment in Des Moines County and almost 700 jobs. We've got a lot of activity going on here and for us, having the infrastructure — whether it be the telecommunications infrastructure or water and sewer and natural gas — infrastructure drives decision-making."
Loebsack also spoke to the Burlington Kiwanis Club Thursday before hosting the roundtable discussions in West Burlington, Wever and Keokuk. He described the contentious presidential election as a "race to the bottom" that could seriously damage the future of the country's political system. In an election cycle that has devolved largely into name-calling, insults and political theater, he was skeptical about the nation's direction.
"It's not a good situation," Loebsack told the crowd during their monthly lunch. "I don't know if we can turn this around. If we can, you know, raise the level of discourse and civility and all of that. I've got to be honest, I don't know if we can do that."
©2016 The Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.