Submitted by the National Association of Counties
National Association of Counties (NACo) President Gary Moore announced the formation of a broadband task force on Oct. 21. The task force, comprised of nearly three dozen county government officials from across America, including San Juan County Council Member Rick Hughes, will study the lack of reliable broadband with a particular focus on the challenges facing underserved communities.
A report, titled Understanding the True State of Connectivity in America, released by NACo and partner organizations earlier this year, found that nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of counties in the United States experience the internet at speeds below minimum standards set by the Federal Communications Commission, with that number even higher in rural America, where 77 percent of counties operate below the FCC standard.
“With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting families and businesses, the need for reliable high-speed internet is more acute than ever,” said Task Force Co-Chair Craig Rice, a Montgomery County, Maryland council member. He noted that many people are attending school and working from home. Individuals and families are relying on the internet for remote health care and conducting transactions through e-commerce.
“Our new task force will examine the intersection of public and private sector efforts to deploy broadband networks and create a blueprint for local governments to help bridge the digital divide,” said Task Force Co-Chair J.D. Clark, the county judge in Wise County, Texas.
“San Juan County is one of the most remote counties in Washington state, but is in the process of building out up to a gig of speed, via fiber to the home and business with an ‘LTE Wireless Mesh Overlay.’ This creates access to affordable, high-speed broadband for almost every resident and allows San Juan County to be one of the most connected communities in the state,” Hughes said. “Due to partnerships with BPA, Orcas Power and Light Cooperative, Rock Island Communications, T-Mobile, San Juan County and our residents, locally owned and operated Rock Island has created a model that should be replicated around the country. I’m honored to be part of this NACO committee and hope that I may be able to share what I’ve learned with other rural communities across the country.”
Local governments often face state-imposed limitations to expanding access to broadband connectivity. In 22 states, local governments are restricted from making investments in broadband infrastructure networks. NACo is working to pass federal legislation that would remove those barriers and expand broadband access.
Lack of reliable broadband is a major barrier to socioeconomic opportunity, education, health and overall quality of life. Without access to high-speed internet, many rural communities — and even pockets in urban areas — are isolated and left behind. A 2018 study conducted by Microsoft concluded that 19 million rural Americans do not use broadband, largely due to a lack of access. For these small communities, broadband can serve as a lifeline, connecting students to online degrees and connecting sick patients to medical consultation that is locally unavailable.
High-speed internet is also consistently identified as a top challenge facing small businesses in rural America and stifles entrepreneurship by limiting the ability of individuals to take on independent work. In this economy, broadband is critical to building resilient and future-ready communities.