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Party platforms lay out where the party faithful stand and tell us what path each party might chart to help more rural Americans gain affordable access to an open Internet.
This is no small deal. In an increasingly interconnected and digitally reliant society, the Internet serves as the bridge for how we communicate, participate in our democracy, share information and ideas, and gain access to the most basic essentials of everyday life.
The Rural Broadband Policy Group of the National Rural Assembly laid it out like this in their guiding principles:
Broadband is no longer a luxury but a vital service necessary to fully participate in the nation’s democracy, economy, culture, and society.
Rural areas generally have less access to all forms of media, not just broadband. Therefore, net neutrality, which establishes the principle of open and unfiltered access to information, is vitally important for rural communities. Democratic action, commercial innovation, and basic liberty demand no less.
Access alone does not guarantee that a rural community will thrive, but the lack of affordable high-speed Internet makes it unlikely. Tough times mean folks cut back, and the decline in broadband adoption rates across the countryside are very much tied to the high cost of relatively slow Internet connections. Rural communities are less likely to have competing providers and those providers too often don’t offer speeds that encourage business development.
The Schools, Health, and Libraries Broadband Coalition went digging in the party platforms to see how the parties would address issues of access and openness. There is a division between the two major parties on the issue of net neutrality. However, the fact that both parties mentioned the important of high-speed access is a hopeful sign.
As Tim Karr of Free Press points out, “[w]hen it comes to getting everyone connected and online, there are some signs of accord. But neither party goes far enough to address the real obstacles to getting more people online.”
The private sector does not have a stellar record of timely technology deployment in rural America. Those of us who get our electricity from the Tennessee Valley Authority or a rural electric cooperative know that public, quasi-public, and private partnerships are essential. That path made telephone service much more accessible. Neither technology is universally available, but it is clear that without the government lending a hand, much of rural America would be off all the grids. Private enterprise and the government need to work together to find a way to get more rural Americans online.
It will take innovative thinking, ruling out nothing, to get high speed internet to rural communities across the country. Let’s work to make sure that both parties remember that strong communities are connected communities, and that access to the economy requires access to the internet.
Marty Newell, coordinator of the National Rural Assembly’s Rural Broadband Policy Group, works for the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder.