By Rick Boucher
Town meetings in my most rural counties centered on talk of television — or the lack thereof — when I arrived in Congress in 1983. For some, mountains blocked television reception in the valleys below. For others, only one local station was available.
With the Satellite Home Viewer Act, we worked through these challenges and brought the benefits of video connectivity to thousands of Americans, improving their lives.
Today, millions of Americans are taking advantage of the benefits of broadband, from real-time news to on-demand education and information to better health care options. The Internet advances daily life and transforms the way we’re able to interact with our world. But too many Americans have yet to take advantage of the opportunities it provides.
This promise of expansive rural opportunity leads me to support AT&T’s proposed merger with T-Mobile. The companies combining their strengths will bring 4G LTE wireless broadband access, with data speeds rivaling today’s fastest wired connections, to more than 97 percent of Americans. President Obama has set a goal for 98 percent of the population to have broadband access within five years; the combination of AT&T and T-Mobile very nearly achieves the president’s goal and does so with private capital, not taxpayer funds.
In Iowa, AT&T has acknowledged that its combination with T-Mobile would enable expansion of its LTE wireless broadband network to cover more than 78 percent of residents. That means 1.4 million more Iowans, many in small towns and rural areas, would get access to LTE wireless because of the merger.
My dedication to seeing high-speed Internet services made available to rural populations is strengthened from witnessing first hand the successes — with local focus and commitment — that can be achieved.
High-speed Internet access is a game changer for individuals, communities, states and our nation as a whole. Through economic development grants in deploying Internet backbones, our efforts helped connect one community to another. We pioneered the local use of fiber optics-based telemedicine and distance learning. For example, a new fiber-optic backbone connected the rural town of Lebanon, Va., to larger communities, which allowed Northrop Grumman and software developer CGI to locate large data and software engineering centers in the town, creating an estimated 700 jobs averaging $60,000 per position.
The Internet is a bridge that ties rural America to our nation’s and our world’s economic mainstream; it enables virtually any business to be conducted from any location. A physical urban proximity to customers and suppliers is no longer necessary.
Thousands of the smallest communities outside of urban areas either lack broadband service or have just one option that can be pricey for a relatively low connection speed, inadequate for modern business demands. The joining of AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s wireless spectrum will largely fill the gap and bring robust Internet connectivity to rural localities where wired infrastructure is cost prohibitive.
Rick Boucher, former U.S. House congressman, cofounded the Congressional Internet Caucus. He’s currently the honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance and heads the Government Strategies Practice at Washington, D.C., law firm Sidley Austin. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org