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Opinion: Reliable broadband more important than ever

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The coronavirus pandemic has tested our nation by drastically changing almost every facet of our lives.

Access to robust and reliable broadband services is more important now than ever, and it will most certainly continue to be post-pandemic. With stay-at-home orders in place, we rely on these services for education, health care and business. The opportunities that access to broadband internet provides, especially in rural areas, cannot be overstated.

The Federal Communications Commission estimates 20 million households do not have access to broadband internet. With more than 50 million students now schooling at home, we must ensure there is no “homework gap” and provide students with expanded digital learning opportunities – especially in rural areas – that allow them to connect with teachers, classmates and learn online.

In this new environment, telehealth also plays a crucial role. It provides immediate access to care, earlier diagnoses and medical intervention while limiting person-to-person contact. Recently, the use of telehealth – through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act – was expanded to surge capacity and diagnose and treat patients in a safe and faster manner.

Recently, the FCC approved a $200 million telehealth program helping health care providers purchase telecommunications, broadband connectivity and devices necessary for providing these services. These recent actions have played a critical role in our response to combatting the coronavirus, ensuring health care providers have the resources needed to treat patients from home and freeing up valuable hospital beds while reducing the risk of exposure to the virus.

This new dependency on telehealth services also has brought the digital divide to the forefront as many seniors, veterans and Americans with pre-existing conditions in rural communities lack access to basic and reliable broadband services that would facilitate these digital doctor’s appointments.

President Donald Trump recently signed into law the Broadband DATA Act to update and improve broadband data mapping capabilities. This will help identify who has broadband internet access and who doesn’t, giving the FCC the ability to prioritize efforts in underserved areas.

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the Trump administration made commendable progress to expand broadband connectivity and has increased efforts in the wake of COVID-19. The FCC has voted to clear regulatory barriers to help tackle the digital divide and will begin to implement the first phase of a $20 billion investment in rural broadband deployments through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund later this year. Combined with existing broadband legislation passed by Congress, we are closer than ever to bridging the digital gap between rural and urban communities.

Between employees teleworking, students learning from home and doctors treating patients remotely, access to robust, reliable broadband service is critical.

U.S. Rep. Billy Long, R-Missouri, can be reached at (202) 909-3744. His Twitter handle is @USRepLong.

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