Feb. 12, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Boucher: Broadband Can Help Rural America Thrive

When I arrived in Congress in 1983, town meetings in my most rural counties were dominated by talk about television ó or the lack thereof.

At the time, depending on where you lived, mountains often blocked television reception in the valleys below. Some of my constituents could only receive one local station. Some received none. We worked through that challenge, and with the Satellite Home Viewer Act, the benefits of video connectivity were brought to thousands of Virginians, improving their lives.

Over the next quarter-century, my work centered on bringing the latest in communications capabilities to hard-to-reach rural populations. With each technological advance came a special challenge. Sometimes we succeeded by being first in a small but recognizable way. We placed the latest innovation in a rural community through an affordable demonstration project. By publicizing that novel success we showed other communities what, with local focus and commitment, they could achieve.

In that manner, the communities of Abingdon and Bristol in the 1990s became among the first in the nation to deploy fiber optics to the premises of homes and businesses, delivering voice, video and Internet content at blazing speeds. Others soon followed.

We led the way with economic development grants in deploying Internet backbones connecting one community to another. We pioneered the rural use of fiber-optics-based telemedicine and distance learning. More recently, the small Southwest Virginia town of Claudeville became the first in the nation to use television white spaces for wireless broadband delivery.

These advances brought a new level of medical care and educational access to a remote region. They also brought economic opportunity. A new fiber-optic backbone that connected the small town of Lebanon, Va., to larger communities enabled Northrop Grumman and software developer CGI to locate a large data center and a software engineering center there that together will create an estimated 700 jobs averaging $60,000 per job. While economic developers led the way in scoring these successes, the companies could not have come to Lebanon without the fiber-optic backbone, deployed in substantial part through economic development grants.

The Internet is transformative for rural economies, enabling virtually any business to be conducted from any location. With broadband, no longer is it necessary for a business to have physical urban proximity to its customers and suppliers. The virtual proximity of high-speed connectivity meets the same communications need, enabling businesses to take advantage of the lower costs and excellent quality of life rural communities offer. They can conduct their operations just as efficiently from remote regions as they can in or near cities. Thatís what broadband means for rural localities: a bridge that ties rural America to our nationís economic mainstream.

Itís that promise of far broader rural opportunity that leads me to support the proposed merger of AT&T and T-Mobile. Within six years of the merger, broadband access will arrive for more than 97 percent of all Americans, and with 4G LTE wireless service, it will arrive at data speeds rivaling the fastest wired connections today.

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