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An “All of the Above” Approach to Rural Broadband

By Rep. John Shimkus

In August 2008, minutes after then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi shut the chamber’s lights out during a debate over what to do in response to high gas prices, I helped lead my Republican colleagues in a revolt on the House floor that turned “all of the above” into a household name for the kind of energy policy America needed.

Our message that summer was simple: Policies that encourage a greater, more diverse supply of resources will expand the availability of those resources and lower the costs to consumers. This premise was (and remains) as true for coal, oil and renewable fuels as it is for cable, fiber and wireless networks.

Guided by a light regulatory touch, an “all of the above” approach to broadband innovation and expansion can bridge the so-called digital divide. Unfortunately, the Federal Communications Commission’s antiquated approach to net neutrality stifles innovation and disincentivizes the build-out we need to grow our way out of looming bandwidth limitations.

One of my greatest frustrations in the net neutrality debate is that, for all the theoretical problems in need of government solutions imagined by supporters, those same advocates were unable or unwilling to see beyond their own short-term interests. Net neutrality supporters either ignored or rejected the idea that we can innovate and build our way out of the challenges they see coming down the pipe. As a result, a timely debate about the future of Internet access was instead sensationalized as an existential battle between freedom-loving creators and would-be corporate censors.

By polarizing the debate over net neutrality and pitting it as an “us versus them” question, the obvious solution to constrained bandwidth capacity has barely been part of the discussion. The reality is that every potential drawback of an unregulated or only lightly regulated Internet cited by net neutrality proponents — be it throttling, blocking or capacity-driven data discrimination in any form — could be remedied through more accessible and affordable bandwidth.

Such an “all of the above,” expansion-focused approach is especially important in and for the underserved communities I represent in southern Illinois. According to the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, as many as 18 percent of my constituents in deep southern Illinois do not have Internet access at home. Of those without access, the same report found that two-thirds have earned only their GED and a third say broadband is too expensive.

The solution to that growing inequality in rural America won’t be found in heavy handed regulation though. In fact, under net neutrality rules, two of the most important innovations the Internet has brought to constituents like mine — distance learning and telemedicine — could be undercut.

Running virtual classrooms and clinics requires abundant bandwidth and reliable connections. In rural America, where these opportunities are most in demand, there is often only one broadband service provider to be found. Imposing one-size-fits-all rules on how that provider must manage its network limits their ability to fully support data-hungry distance learning and telemedicine programs.

The real world implications of that are worth briefly exploring. While it may only mean a missed homework assignment if an ISP cannot meet the data demands of a distance-learning program, the consequences of that provider’s inability to prioritize telemedicine data on their network could be life or death. To those students and patients, an Internet fast lane isn’t about convenience, it’s all about opportunity.

Since coming to Congress, I’ve worked to bring a rural perspective on telecommunications issues to the Energy and Commerce Committee. I’ve seen incredible technological advances over that time, and while we’ve made great strides in many areas, I continue to view my role as being a staunch advocate for those left behind. It’s my hope to continue in that leadership role, working with Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., as we continue narrowing the digital divide.

Rep. John Shimkus is a Republican from Illinois.

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