Thompson Hopes Bill Connects
U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, through a bill of which he is the primary sponsor, hopes to close the "digital divide" between rural and urban America.
He said the legislation - Broadband for Rural America - would close that divide by encouraging broadband development.
Specifically, the bipartisan bill, which Thompson said currently has 40 co-sponsors, "will focus on people who are the hardest to get connectivity to," and he is hoping to get more Democrats aboard with the idea.
According to Thompson, President Joe Biden's White House staff has provided positive feedback about the bill, which still is in committee, calling it the right type of bill for a critical need.
"Prior to the pandemic, we knew there was a digital divide in this country. That divide is more prominent in rural America," Thompson said during an interview at the newspaper's offices on Tuesday while on a stop in Venango County to speak with various elected officials.
"People trying to use tele-education, tele-health or people who work from home have had problems," he said. "If we truly want to grow rural America, we need to universally have access to reliable high-speed broadband."
Another reason for the need of an increase in broadband development, he said, is the number of people moving from urban to rural areas.
"I have noticed across my district people moving to the rural areas," he said. His barometer for that comment, he said, is real estate agents, as homes are rapidly selling. He urges county government to be proactive.
"You can't do a field of dreams," Thompson said. "We are trying to facilitate that with extra dollars."
He said money is available to develop broadband. As an example of success, Thompson cited mountainous Bradford County being "wired for sound" with high-speed broadband.
"They were able to tap into USDA funds available through the farm bill," Thompson said. "In Youngsville, Warren County, they used an Appalachian Regional Commission grant."
Thompson said he had spoken with county officials, business leaders and others.
"The need was present in every county," he said. "The priority was for the people who were the end-users, the people who would be the most expensive to serve if you were going to lay fiber."
Thompson, the minority leader on the House Agriculture Committee, said a hearing was recently held on connectivity.
Thompson said the bill contains a level for innovation.
"Fiber works for some people but, based on topography, it won't work for others. Broadband for Rural America will provide $7.4 billion two years in a row," he said.
That, Thompson said, would extend the funding until the next farm bill is adopted.
"As part of the farm bill process, we will evaluate how well we are doing in bridging this digital divide," he said.
The bill, Thompson said, "does all the work" through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and not the U.S. Department of Commerce.
"I think the Biden White House has confidence in the USDA," he said.
In the 1930s, Thompson said, rural America became electrified through the Rural Electrification Act.
"I believe Broadband for Rural America could do that," he said. "It brings additional dollars to the table."
Thompson said another provision of the bill would be to raise the standards. "We made it clear what was in the bill was the floor," he said. "We want to encourage future development.
"We recognize technology turns over. Somebody will build a better mousetrap, a new technology. We want to meet people's technology needs for the next 10 years."
Thompson said the bill could come out of committee as early as net week. "Those discussions are going on now," he said.