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President Biden Can Help Rural America With Internet

Lawmakers and residents in rural America say one of the widest divisions is digital, and calls to fix slow or nonexistent Internet service there have almost universal support among elected officials.

by Jason Nark, The Philadelphia Inquirer / January 22, 2021
(Ron Adar/Shutterstock) Ron Adar/Shutterstock

(TNS) — In his inaugural speech Wednesday, President  Joe Biden  noted the various factions at odds with one another in America, including a rural and urban divide.

Lawmakers and residents in rural America know one of the widest divisions is digital, and calls to fix slow or nonexistent internet service there have almost universal support among elected officials.

"The pandemic has graphically exposed the shortcomings of high-speed internet in rural Pennsylvania," said State Sen.  Gene Yaw , chairman of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania. "The issue is not controversial, nonpartisan, and needed."

Pennsylvania State University researchers found certain areas of the state have internet speeds far below the Federal Communications Commission's 25 megabits-per-second benchmark for "high speed." Wyoming and Sullivan Counties are among the worst in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Romania has better connectivity than we do and they had no connectivity 20 years ago," said  Sascha Meinrath , the Palmer Chair in Telecommunications at Penn State.

Meinrath consulted with Biden's team about the issue, as he did for former Presidents  Barack Obama  and  Donald Trump .

"There's no honeymoon on this," he said. "We'll know in 30 to 60 days whether the Biden team will take action. The ideas are all there. They just need to be put into action."

Biden's plan for rural America, according to his election website, calls for bringing 5G wireless coverage to every American and investing $20 billion in "rural broadband infrastructure."

"Rural Americans are over 10 times more likely than urban residents to lack quality broadband access," Biden's site said.

Meinrath said the first step for the Biden administration should be an accurate assessment of internet speeds nationwide. He and others believe FCC estimations of speed are inaccurate and skew higher than they really are.

Gigi Sohn , a distinguished fellow at Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy, said the FCC has given out billions of dollars to service providers over the years that claim they will supply high-speed internet to rural areas. Those claims, Sohn said, often fall flat and she believes the government must require results.

"It's a problem that can be solved with money, yes, but it will also take coordination and oversight," Sohn said.

In some parts of the country, including central Pennsylvania, some residents have grown sick of waiting and built their own wireless network.

Nothing highlighted the need for broadband quite like the COVID-19 pandemic, which kept workers and students at home, and businesses shuttered.  Donna Iannone , a commissioner in Sullivan County, said many children there are unable to take part in virtual learning. The same goes for patients, she said, who have been urged to use telemedicine.

"The pandemic has finally shown that internet is infrastructure," Iannone said. "It's as important as electricity or telephones. We'll have to wait and see if they finally treat it that way."

(c)2021 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


 


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