Senators link up across the aisle to lay digital foundation in rural America

Senators link up to offer rural areas a financial bridge to online opportunity. (Source: Gray DC)
Senators link up to offer rural areas a financial bridge to online opportunity. (Source: Gray DC)(GRAYDC)
Published: Jan. 31, 2020 at 11:58 AM EST
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Many rural communities are banking their future on technology, to bring big city opportunity to their small towns. But, those areas are also struggling to get the biggest companies to buy into their plans.

Nestled along the spine of the White Mountains – the small town of Bristol, N.H is making a big bet on its future. The 3,000-person town’s annual budget is about $700,000 a year, but leaders there are prepared to borrow several million to build-out high-speed cell and internet connections over the coming years.

"What we decided to do is take our fate into our own hands," explains Town Administrator Nic Coates.

Coates said they’re trying to get the Verizons and Comcasts of the world to invest. But, high-speed fiber is expensive, and without a lot of potential customers, so far, the numbers haven’t added up.

So, the town, is laying its own digital foundation. "Our hope is that that’s the starting point," said Coates. The town hopes laying the groundwork will make the project more appealing to a big company. And, they're looking to get buy-in from surrounding communities as well.

But, if they still can't find a company to finish the job, they're prepared to finish it themselves.

Two bills in the Senate may help with the dollars and cent, and be the small boost communities like Bristol need to finally connect with a company or afford to go it alone.

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) frequently link up across the aisle to work on rural broadband issues.

Their latest joint efforts propose:

· New tax credits for companies that invest in disconnected rural areas

· and new borrowing options for towns and cities teaming up with companies.

"This is about our rural economy, and the quality of life that rural Americans enjoy," said Hassan, "and it’s really increasingly obvious that everybody has to have access."

Projects will need to meet minimum speeds to cash in, but how that’s accomplished would be left up to the locals.

"I want reliable service, hardy service," said Capito while noting she doesn't care how that's achieved, "I am agnostic as to the technology."

Coates said even if these new options become available, it won’t be enough to finish the job, but would get them closer to remaining viable in the 21st century.

Lawmakers said the other big challenge for Washington is figuring out where the need for better connection is greatest. While the F.C.C. does have connection maps, they don’t always lineup with reality on the ground.

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