LUTTRELL: Plugging in rural America

Telecom merger means equal digital opportunity for agricultural communities

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Recently, representatives from the nation’s oldest national agricultural organization were in Washington to meet with members of Congress and discuss issues that are impacting rural communities across the country. Of importance among these issues is the recently announced merger between AT&T and T-Mobile USA.

In addition to 10 other national rural organizations and governors representing 15 rural states from across the country who understand the profound impact that expanded mobile broadband access will have on the economy and jobs, the National Grange voiced support with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on the merger between AT&T and T-Mobile.

Given that access to both wired and mobile high-speed Internet has been a longstanding issue for our members and those communities we represent, a next-generation wireless network offered by a combined AT&T and T-Mobile to areas that have little or no choice for the latest wireless services is a positive move. The promise to deploy the fastest and most reliable wireless broadband technology available to more than 97 percent of the nation, enabled by the convergence of wireless assets from the two companies, will provide tremendous capabilities to residents in rural communities and across the nation that currently do not have access to the latest in mobile broadband service.

First, this is an economic issue. Access to the Internet can make agricultural businesses more efficient and give them access to a great number of customers. For businesses operating in remote areas, reliable Internet access is crucial to the growth and prosperity of the enterprise, which, ultimately, provides jobs within the community.

Second, from a societal perspective, as more services are becoming increasingly digital, people living in rural areas will be able to access the necessary day-to-day capabilities that many urbanites take for granted, such as paying bills, filing taxes, accessing health and educational information, applying for jobs and much more. As America continues transitioning to a more digitally-based society, critical services are being transferred online and many rural residents will be left behind if they do not have access to next-generation mobile broadband Internet.

When our members were in Washington last week, we spent time meeting with congressional members and staff, attending policy briefings, visiting Mount Vernon and marveling at the monuments celebrating our history on the Mall.

Amidst this backdrop, Grange members spent a lot of time thinking about the role of government and responsibility of our leaders formulating policy solutions for the good of the people. Various FCC studies consistently demonstrate that rural America still lags behind urban and suburban broadband connections. In his State of the Union speech, President Obama pledged to connect 98 percent of the nation to wireless broadband technologies in order to effectively promote economic growth, investment and job creation. While we believe the administration should be focused on this goal, in a time of budget deficits, government should not bear this burden. If a combined AT&T/T-Mobile wireless network truly would allow 97 percent of America’s population to be served, including those who struggle daily with inefficient Internet connections, it is difficult to understand reluctance from consumers and policymakers to accept such service offerings.

As evidenced by filings currently populating the FCC docket from diverse groups representing hundreds of thousands of residents in rural and agricultural communities, a merger between AT&T and T-Mobile would be a tremendous step forward for consumers and businesses alike looking for equal digital opportunity.

Ed Luttrell is president of the National Grange. AT&T has made grants to the organization accounting for less than 1/2 of 1 percent of its budget. T-Mobile offers discounted service to the National Grange’s members.

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