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Back to school, back to the problem of rural broadband parity

As students return to school, we are all reminded of the challenges created by gaps in broadband access in Maryland’s rural areas and beyond. The issue is not only important as we try to educate our students and future workforce but as we try to close the prosperity gap among our rural and urban communities.

According to the Education Superhighway, a nonprofit that supports proper online learning tools, 21 million students in America’s K-12 public schools are being left behind in the ability to receive digital learning content. Twenty-three percent of U.S. school districts do not have enough bandwidth to meet the current needs for digital learning, and it’s much worse for rural or low income areas.

As we strive to close that “last mile” connecting the end-user to nearby services, let’s not forget how important broadband truly is to a thriving community.

Today’s economy is based on information and services. If we want to encourage economic development, we will need to ensure the flow of commerce and services. It will be essential to continue to expand and maintain the utility infrastructure — including broadband.

Access to information is now dramatically making the difference between a growing economy and a retracting economy — a better quality of life and a poorer quality of life — an engaged society and a divided society.

Many of us take for granted the services and amenities that accompany living in the 21st century, in a developed country; services such as the distribution of power, fuel and water, but also increasingly, access to the Internet. The Internet has opened up opportunities for economic growth and will continue to do so in the future.

Internet access dramatically affects commerce. According to a recent Pew Research Center report, nearly eight out of every 10 Americans has made at least one recent online purchase, and online commerce is only continuing to increase. Across the U.S., broadband connectivity is a critical component to a number of services — most notably health care. Telemedicine, being able to connect rural patients to doctors, is particularly important in areas where few physicians or specialists exist and chronic disease prevalence is high.

Our cities and rural towns are still recovering from the loss of good-paying blue collar manufacturing jobs, but what should replace those lost jobs and how do we create new ones for the economy of tomorrow? Studies show the positive impact of broadband expansion on the economy. Workers can develop new skills, children can learn, and seniors can receive better medical care. Each of these will require an accessible and reliable internet.

In a recent presentation at the 2017 Regional Rural Broadband Forum, held in Annapolis, Robert Puckett of the New York Telecommunications Association spoke about expansion of their infrastructure, which also included very strong pricing structures. Increasingly, the higher cost of the higher speeds present a burden to startup businesses, to large producers, and to individual residences alike.

Unfortunately, many of our underserved communities are being left out of the 21st century. Internet providers are ready to build but can’t service households without a return on investment. Whether through government incentives or regulations, the state’s policy must address this market failure. Public-private partnerships, such those that have developed in Garrett and Kent counties, are good examples of positive approaches to this challenge, and a recently created state task force will be investigating this issue in the coming months.

As obviously important as connectivity is, it’s not easy to do without greater commitments, investments or partnerships. Let’s not leave our students, health care workers, small businesses, seniors and broader rural communities behind. Let’s work together to find solutions now and let’s close the prosperity gap.

The Rural Maryland Council looks forward to working together on collaborative solutions so that broadband access will be a part of all citizens being able to live in healthy, connected, and thriving communities.

Josh Hastings is chair of the Rural Maryland Council; his email is