There's an old saying about the weather that also applies, with minor parenthetical modifications, to rural broadband internet: Everybody (in Washington) talks about it but nobody (in Washington) does anything about it.
The digital gap remains wide, with only 63% of rural Americans having a home broadband connection, versus 75% of urban and 79% of suburban Americans. (https://www.pewresearch.org/…) In Washington, they've been talking for years about a big investment program to narrow that gap. Yet little has been done.
Now Washington is once again abuzz with rural-broadband talk. The Democrats' latest stimulus bill includes $5.5 billion for broadband infrastructure. (http://broadbandbreakfast.com/…) President Donald Trump is mulling a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, most of which would go to roads and bridges, with the rest for 5G and broadband internet. (https://markets.businessinsider.com/…)
Alas, we've been here before. We've heard this kind of buzz over proposed big infrastructure programs many times. Then, as now, both parties say they want to do something big. They just can't agree on how to pay for it. (https://www.dtnpf.com/…) (https://www.dtnpf.com/…) (https://www.dtnpf.com/…)
COVID-19 has underscored just how important broadband internet is to rural America. But the virus alone might not be enough to move Washington. If rural-broadband proponents want a better outcome this time, they should improve their salesmanship by humanizing their case.
That is, go light on the statistics and abstractions, focus instead on the deleterious impact lack of broadband has on the lives of real people. Find a poster boy, a real human being whose quandary epitomizes the problem.
I would like to nominate a candidate for poster boy.
His name is Kyle Quinn. He's the 15-year-old son of veteran DTN Reporter Russ Quinn and the star of a DTN photo that's one of the most telling in recent memory. You may recall it, as it illustrated one of Russ's recent columns. (https://www.dtnpf.com/…) It also appears here.
This photo of Kyle playing his tuba on a hill on the Quinn farm epitomizes the rural-broadband dilemma. COVID-19 having closed school, Kyle and his younger brother and sister had to send in their homework on the internet. But the Quinn family doesn't have broadband. They rely on a hotspot from their cellphone provider. Reception is iffy; their farmhouse is in a valley.
To give the kids the best shot at good connectivity, Russ chose to work at DTN's office 35 miles down the road in Omaha. Still, the school wasn't receiving Kyle's assignments. That turned out to be the fault of a weak signal.
The solution was to deliver homework from a nearby hill where reception was stronger. Hence the photo of Kyle playing his tuba from a tailgate on a hillside, his brother Burke holding the sheet music and his sister Ella looking on. It's what it took to get his playing to the school band teacher.
Please resist the temptation to say, "Well, at least they were able to find a solution." Why should they have to? Broadband internet is practically a necessity in today's world. Why should rural Americans be denied it? Why should they have to do back flips to compensate for not having it? Oh, and if school is closed again next winter, will playing tuba in the great outdoors really be a solution?
Proponents of broadband internet should make the tuba photo part of their case. Bordering as it does on the absurd, the photo is memorable; having seen it, the Washington poobahs won't forget it. They might even remember the name of the poster boy, Kyle Quinn.
They'll certainly remember the photo's message: Real people in rural America are struggling because they don't have broadband internet. Kids with homework to deliver. Farmers with data programs to run. Sick people in need of tele-medicine. Candidates for tele-commuting jobs.
Kyle's father Russ talked to people like these for another DTN story. (https://www.dtnpf.com/…) In addition to school children with homework problems, Russ described how a woman in Oklahoma had to take an online training course in dicamba spraying on the driveway outside her mother's house. She couldn't be in the house with her elderly mother because of COVID-19 but her own house a mile away doesn't have broadband.
In the wake of the virus, many jobs that once were done in an office will be done from home. Many of these telecommuting jobs could be done from the country. Russ ended his story with an anecdote about a family that wanted to move back to the country but couldn't because the husband's telecommuting job required strong connectivity.
Please, Washington, let Kyle play his tuba from home. Help telecommuters who want to live in the country. Don't make people take training courses in driveways.
For goodness sake, stop talking about rural broadband and do something about it.
Urban Lehner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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