- - Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Access to high-speed broadband is no longer a privilege in 21st century America — it’s a necessity. Americans should be able to find a good job, launch a new business, or take college classes regardless of where they live. But in the United States, nearly 40 percent of rural Americans lack access to high-speed broadband. That means a serious infrastructure plan for the 21st century is not complete without addressing the broadband connectivity issues facing our country.

I go to all 87 counties in Minnesota every year, and I’ve seen firsthand the benefits that broadband has delivered to communities across the state as well as the challenges faced by rural areas that don’t have the same access. I’ve talked to a student who had to hold his phone up to a window in his home to try to download the information he needed to do his homework. And I’ve met with farmers who aren’t able to utilize technology like precision agriculture to keep their businesses competitive. One even had to bring his computer to a McDonald’s parking lot just to find a reliable internet connection. That’s unacceptable in 2018.

The White House recently released its infrastructure plan, and while I’m glad to see this issue getting attention, I was disappointed that the proposal did not contain any dedicated, stand-alone funding for expanding rural broadband. To ensure broadband is available everywhere will not only require strong federal support, but it will also require policies that streamline the deployment process to ensure that broadband is built in rural areas that have been left behind.

The Federal Highway Administration estimates that 90 percent of the cost of deploying broadband consists of digging up and replacing the road. This means that it is 10 times more expensive to install broadband conduit alone instead of installing it along with road repairs. We can make broadband deployment easier by encouraging coordination between state departments of transportation and broadband providers during construction projects so they only have to “dig once.”

We can also simplify the often slow and redundant federal permitting process. I’ve worked with Sens. Steve Daines of Montana and Cory Gardner of Colorado on bipartisan legislation to develop a common form for applications and establish a clear point of contact within federal agencies.

I’ve also worked with Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska to provide incentives for wireless carriers to lease unused spectrum to rural or smaller carriers. Encouraging this type of collaboration between companies can help bridge service gaps in rural areas. Policies like these cut unnecessary red tape and speed up the deployment process to provide internet access to unserved and rural communities as quickly and efficiently as possible.

There is strong bipartisan support for including broadband funding in an infrastructure package. And it makes sense — in communities that do have access to broadband, we’ve seen life-changing results. Instead of spending hours traveling by car, people who need to see a doctor can now head to the local clinic and, with the click of a mouse, find themselves face-to-face with specialists from around the state — like a clinic in Virginia, Minnesota, which has begun connecting patients with health services through the internet.

As we consider legislation to improve our nation’s infrastructure, I will continue to push for stand-alone funding for broadband. I know we can work across the aisle to get something done because we’ve done it before. Just last month, we passed the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 that included an additional $20 billion for infrastructure improvements, and I will be working to direct some of this funding to rural broadband deployment. And in 2015, we passed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, a bipartisan bill that increased transportation funding and helped provide certainty to local governments planning critical projects across the country.

Dedicated, stand-alone funding for broadband needs to be in any infrastructure proposal to ensure telecommunications infrastructure is prioritized alongside needed upgrades to our roads, rail, waterways and bridges. Boosting current investments in broadband and streamlining the deployment process will create jobs, open new doors for the communities we connect, and improve the health and safety of all Americans.

In the 1930s, we worked to bring electricity and telephone service to every home in America. Today, expanding broadband access is the infrastructure challenge of our generation, and we cannot quit our push for affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband until it’s in every corner — and the middle — of our country.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat, is Ranking Member of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. She also serves on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee; Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee; and Senate Judiciary Committee.

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