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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 — 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. That’s what broadband means for rural localities: a bridge that ties rural America to our nation’s economic mainstream.

It’s 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.

Rural America is remaining a region of the broadband have-nots. Thousands of the smallest communities and remote areas outside of the towns either lack broadband or have a single service that can be costly and offer relatively low speeds, inadequate for modern business demands. The combination of T-Mobile’s and AT&T’s wireless spectrum will fill that gap and bring to rural areas a truly robust service, spanning mountains that make wired infrastructures cost prohibitive.

President Barack Obama has set a national goal of 98 percent of all Americans having access to broadband within five years. The AT&T and T-Mobile merger standing alone will virtually achieve that goal.

I have a rural perspective. I devoted most of my Congressional career to the pursuit of rural opportunity through the use of the latest information technologies in remote regions. Today, we are poised to take the next transformative step, bringing broadband to the hardest to serve communities, enabling them at last to achieve their long-held quality-of-life goals, improving the lives of rural residents and bettering the entire nation, which will benefit through truly national connectivity.

Former Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) is honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance.

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