By Debra Davis
With schools and offices throughout the country closed to stem the COVID-19 pandemic, access to broadband is critical as students and employees transition to online classrooms and working from home.
Unfortunately for many rural Americans, including thousands in Alabama, an already troubling situation is being made worse by lack of the critical connections only high-speed internet can provide. Data compiled by the Federal Communications Commission show 26.4% of rural Americans lack access to broadband compared to 1% of urban Americans.
Alabama Farmers Federation President Jimmy Parnell said the state’s largest farm organization continues to seek solutions to bring connectivity to underserved areas. The organization has been a strong proponent of rural broadband access on the state and federal levels.
“Farmers and other rural Alabamians are at a significant disadvantage without high-speed internet access,” Parnell said. “This pandemic illustrates many of those problems, particularly those who need access to telehealth services, as well as employees and students who need to stay connected.”
Rural students without broadband access are going to be very limited in their ability to connect with teachers and peers and stay on top of their schoolwork, he said. In many cases, adults in rural households have off-farm jobs that may require them to work from home at this time.
U.S. Rep Robert Aderholt (AL-04) has been a leader in the fight to narrow the digital divide for rural residents who lack access to high-speed connectivity. Earlier this week, he sent a letter to President Donald Trump requesting emergency funds be directed to expand rural broadband access.
Aderholt’s letter said the inability of rural residents to utilize telehealth services, which are being recommended to limit the potential spread of coronavirus, is a serious issue.
“These new realities have left millions of rural Americans who have little or no access to broadband feeling abandoned and desperately in need of help,” Aderholt said in his letter. “As you negotiate with Congress on upcoming emergency legislation regarding COVID-19, I strongly urge you to prioritize the expeditious delivery of broadband to rural areas to ensure students have access to remote educational services and residents have full access to telehealth services.”
Aderholt is a senior member of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee and is considered a champion in Congress of expanding rural broadband access.
Ensuring reliable access to broadband throughout rural America is a priority for the American Farm Bureau Federation, of which the Alabama Farmers Federation is affiliated. The groups praised Congress’ recent passage of the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act, which requires broadband providers to report more specific data to create a significantly more accurate and granular National Broadband Map. With more precise data, federal agencies can target funding to areas that need it most.