In the late 1800s, when wagon trains were traveling westward in America, they had a saying: “You don’t move ahead by leaving some behind.”
That remains a valuable lesson. Fast- forward several decades and you see the same set of values in our telecommunications and education policies. America doesn’t move ahead by leaving some behind. That’s the reason we committed ourselves to the concept of free public libraries and “universal education.” It’s the reason we created a “universal service fund” in telecommunications. And it’s the reason we created the E-Rate program in 1997 — to make sure schools and libraries were not left behind in the new age of telecommunications.
Still, despite our good intentions, there are Americans who are being left behind in rural schools and libraries, where Internet speeds crawl and fail to position those students and communities for success.
Now we have an opportunity to take important steps toward fixing that problem. Recently, the Federal Communications Commission identified $2 billion as a “down payment” to rapidly improve high-capacity broadband networks in our nation’s schools and libraries. The FCC has asked for advice about how to invest that money.
Simply put, this is an opportunity to allocate a significant portion of that $2 billion to continue the deployment of scalable, affordable high-speed capacity Internet to libraries and schools in rural areas that are still lagging.
Eighteen years ago, when Congress rewrote the telecommunications law, I was a member of the Senate Commerce Committee and played a role in shaping that seminal legislation. At the time, technological changes were occurring at lightning speed and no one envisioned an Internet world connecting to smart phones, video streaming and so much more.
But Congress still did something that would pay big dividends for years to come. We created the E-Rate program, which supports access to affordable advanced telecommunications services for our core learning and knowledge institutions — schools and libraries — across the country. The policy was, and still is, to provide services for eligible schools and libraries, particularly those in rural and economically disadvantaged areas.
I was excited about the E-Rate program for a simple reason. I attended a small town school with 40 kids in all four high school grades. Our school library was so small that it was previously used as a coat closet. I know firsthand how important it is to connect kids in America’s small schools and town libraries.
If anything, our technological advancements have made the reliance on America’s libraries greater than ever as they afford education, employment and entrepreneurial opportunities that break down geographical boundaries, and foster individual empowerment and community engagement (the E’s of Libraries). Rural Mainers connect with volunteer lawyers by video conference through public libraries for advice on topics ranging from filing taxes to renter rights and responsibilities. The Chetopa City Library in Kansas provides the only free Wi-Fi in town. Students depend on the library to complete their homework on school-provided laptops. High-capacity broadband connections supported by the E-Rate program make these opportunities possible.
Decades later, the E-Rate program has successfully connected many schools and libraries. But fully 75 percent of our rural libraries, and many rural schools, are limping along with Internet speeds that leave far too many people on the wrong side of the digital divide.
The FCC is now proposing some changes in the E-Rate program to recognize the breathtaking changes in technology since 1996. That makes good sense. We must seize this opportunity to advance the goal of 1-gigabit connectivity for libraries and schools.
We can do this by making smart investments in scalable technologies and technical support where high-capacity broadband is not available or affordable and by ensuring internal and wireless networks are sufficient to support an explosion in mobile devices. The $2 billion “down payment” must do both to ensure people in rural areas will finally overcome the digital divide.
Those small schools and rural libraries are the seed beds of opportunity and knowledge for those in America who live in rural areas, and they deserve the same tools of knowledge and progress as everyone else in our country.
The FCC has an opportunity to move in the right direction and demonstrate belief in that old wagon train lesson as well. We really don’t move America ahead by leaving some behind.
Byron Dorgan is a former Democratic senator from North Dakota. He is currently a senior policy adviser at Arent Fox and serves as co-chairman of the firm’s government relations practice.