The COVID imperative: Connect rural America now
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The COVID imperative: Connect rural America now

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Amid the national debate about reopening the economy, one powerful lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic is now self-evident to all: Broadband is essential infrastructure for every community — and America must prioritize ensuring all of its citizens are connected to this vital modern resource.

In my hometown of Missoula, Montana, Blackfoot Communications and its dedicated professionals are part of an essential workforce keeping the communities we call home connected. We are passionate about our jobs because we know our networks are literally holding communities together as residents learn, heal, socialize, work and worship — doing much of it from home.

Blackfoot began as a telephone cooperative in 1954, providing voice service to 5,000 square miles of western Montana. Today, we provide modern broadband connections to homes and businesses throughout Montana and eastern Idaho. Since 2010, our local company has invested more than $50 million in broadband infrastructure, delivering to our customers one of the most advanced data backbones in the region.

And, we know we have to go the extra mile right now.

Montana has the highest percentage of rural schools in the United States. During this emergency, Blackfoot is making available free Wi-Fi hotspots in key areas to help ensure all students are able to participate in remote learning, download course materials and stay on top of their classwork. We’re also providing free broadband service to school-aged children and teachers’ homes that do not have broadband connectivity through the end of the school year.

We also know that rural Americans tend to be older and live much further away from lifesaving care, making them more vulnerable to health threats. Because of this, Blackfoot stepped up and launched a tech accelerator in 2018 to bring health and other startups in our region together to advance smart, connected telehealth solutions.

Right now, legislators in Washington are mulling over how to best allocate relief amid the COVID-19 pandemic. From out here on the front lines in rural America, I could not urge them more strongly to take not only bold steps to respond to the immediate emergency, but also to ensure all Americans are better positioned for the next one.

Blackfoot was among the first to commit to maintaining connectivity during the pandemic, even when customers are faced with financial hardships. As the first few billing cycles since the outbreak of COVID-19 come to end, we are starting to see that doing the right thing (maintaining service, in some cases without payment) can come at a substantial cost. I am hopeful Congress will continue to look for ways to ensure customers can afford the broadband they need, and keep providers on sound financial footing as they continue to keep our communities connected.

We can start with immediate funding of the Broadband DATA Act, so our nation can — for the first time — have a precise map of where homes and businesses remain unserved. This is the only way to close the digital divide quickly, efficiently and with the most targeted federal funding possible.

Next, we need to take existing programs aimed at connecting all Americans and put them on steroids. The LIFT America Act, for example, would provide $40 billion to connect unserved areas and accelerate this important work. It’s a great start.

The pandemic has underscored a national imperative: 100% connectivity for all Americans. Congress needs to get to work funding programs we know yield dividends, the ones that have successfully helped deploy broadband connectivity to some of our nation’s hardest to reach areas. By embracing bold public and private investments, we can enable connectivity — our nation’s great equalizer.

Blackfoot was founded on the simple belief that when people connect, they can accomplish more together than they can on their own. The coronavirus has given us all a sobering reminder that we are all, indeed, connected. I can’t imagine a more empowering pushback from our nation than rallying together to finish the job of connecting every American to the world of opportunities, information and resources that broadband brings into our lives.

We don’t yet know what our state and country will look like when we are squarely on the other side of this crisis. It will be interesting to see what the ‘next normal’ will be as we return to our lives, reflect on the lessons of this unprecedented experience and reconcile these learnings with the country we want to be. At the top of that list — for all Americans — should be a single word: connected.

Jason Williams is the CEO of Montana-based Blackfoot Communications (www.blackfoot.com), a broadband provider of phone and internet services to residential customers and network, security, communications and carrier services to businesses across 16 states. Williams also serves as the chair of USTelecom’s Leadership Committee (www.ustelecom.org), comprised of executives from small-to-medium sized broadband innovators serving communities across the United States.

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